SPOILER ALERT: This blog deals with the film My Own Private Idaho. If you haven’t seen it, please be aware there are spoilers here. If you're interested in finding the movie locations mentioned in this blog, I've provided links to the Google maps / GPS coordinates for every site possible in the text below.
After leaving Portland I headed southeast through the Mount Hood Wilderness Area in search of a short stretch of road any and every My Own Private Idaho. fan will know. This road bookends the film, introducing us to Mike Rivers (River Phoenix) and then later providing the backdrop for his somewhat ominous end.
Though the road’s said to be in Idaho, it’s actually OR 216 or the Sheraras Bridge Highway in central Oregon. Other websites describe it as being outside Maupin, Oregon, but this is a little misleading as it’s actually a twenty mile drive to the northeast of that town and according to Google maps has a Grass Valley address. As I did with the Portland movie locations in my previous blog, I’ve created a map to the site along with landmarks and GPS coordinates. Presumably the road we see at the end of the film is also OR 216, but clearly not the same stretch and I wasn’t able to identify its exact location.
Van Sant surely chose OR 216 because it’s quite featureless, more-or-less a 30-mile straight line through farmland with a snowcapped Mount Hood rising in the distance. In this regard, the highway’s symbolic of Mike’s journey as it doesn’t seem to have a particular starting point nor a discernible end. Yet the road’s clearly familiar to him and when he says he’s been on it a thousand times before, you have to wonder if he actually means it.
“I'm a connoisseur of roads,” Mike tells us. “I've been tasting roads my whole life. This road will never end. It probably goes all around the world.”
You can see the road in the opening sequence from the film below, and then my photographs and video of the same area taken in early 2014 below that. Unfortunately the opening sequence presented here doesn't have the credits overlaid by the Eddie Arnold song "Cattle Call," a surprisingly haunting music choice as it turns out.
Symbolically, OR 216 may be the corridor through which Mike ferries himself back and forth between his rural childhood home (which we catch glimpses of in flashback later in the movie), and the inner-city labyrinth where most of the film takes place. It’s a conduit which connects the simplicity of his formative years to the hopelessness of his adult life.
This is also where Mike delivers one of the film’s best and most memorable line: “There's not another road anywhere that looks like this road, I mean exactly like this road. It's one kind of place, one of a kind. Like someone's face. Like a fucked-up face.”
At the film’s conclusion, Mike’s alone on this road once again. But since he’s standing on the other side, we must assume he’s heading back to wherever he came from in the first place with nothing to show for his journey. His quest to find his long-missing mother has failed. Bob Pigeon (William Richert) is dead and buried in a pauper’s grave. Scott (Keanu Reeves) has abandoned him and his childish four-year “crusade” to punish his father living on the streets and has returned to his former life of privilege. As with the first scene, Mike has a narcoleptic fit and passes out in the middle of the road. After a moment, a truck drives up. You hold your breath as two men approach Mike and proceed to loot his twitching body of everything, including his shoes. Shortly thereafter, another vehicle appears. Since this last scene is shot from a crane far overhead, we’re never able to identify who the driver is as he loads Mike into his car and they disappear down the highway. This ambiguous and unnerving conclusion is perfect for a film which glories in its own cynicism, but like many fans I’ve been haunted for years by what actually happened to Mike on that lonely Oregon road.
Major Spoiler Ahead!
If you watch the Criterion Collection DVD of Idaho, there’s an alternate ending which reveals the mysterious driver to be Mike’s brother/father, Richard (James Russo). After two decades of wondering what happened to Mike, seeing that deleted scene made me feel a little better. At least Mike was rescued by someone who really cared about him. In some ways, it gave Mike’s story a little happiness and finally provided him with a destination on that never-ending road.
Some people take your heart, others take your shoes, and still others take you home.
Finding Mike's Road
GPS: 45.260887, -120.978227
Heading west on OR 216, Mike’s stretch of road is the last really straight segment of highway before you get to the twists and turns that lead up to Shearar Falls. The markings on the road change at this point from eastbound no passing zone to a broken a passing zone. If you look down the road, you will see Mount Hood in the distance. Closer, there are two trees on a slight rise which form the eyes in Mike’s “fucked up face” but they’ve died and fallen over since the film was originally shot in the early 1990s. The dead wood is still there if you look for it.