It seems a long time since the storms of Missouri at the outset of this journey, but I haven’t had any rain since then. With countless wash-outs, mudslides, road closures and down trees, I’ve seen evidence of rain, but no actual rain. That ended today and, by the looks of it, it’s going to be wet for a while.
I started out today in Lake County Oregon which is aptly named for a near constant chain of lakes just inland of the coast that turn the 101 into something of a penninsula for several miles. To the west is the Pacific and a continuous row of towering dunes, the east, a broken range of mountains fronted by a chain of flat, clear lakes. Again, the forces that build, take away. All the sand shuttled to the edge of the sea by the area rivers, you’ll recall, rises up on the North American Plate and forms the dunes; these, in turn, grow and seal off the rivers that gave them birth enough to create lakes on the inland side. Like so many beaver dams biting the hand the feeds them. While it’s mildly reminiscent of the bayous and Gulf of Mexico arrangement I found on the edge in Louisiana, the steep mountains and fir forests make it somehow more European, if that makes sense. As usual, we are the only thing that spoils (in my opinion) this tableau. The dunes are a commercial success for this area of Oregon because people like to recreate on them. Specifically, people like to ride motorcycles and four-wheelers and dune buggies on them. I think Oregon does a good job managing this, and there is no evidence of destruction that I could see, however, the marketplace is a demanding thing and marketing is prolific for all manner of rental services and guided tours. It all turns into a little too much of a roadside carnival in many places.
Once across the Suislaw River, the 101 returns hard to the edge and to an ever grayer sea. There is a storm at sea and it’s rolling inland. My weather radio crackles on about a stalled cold front, and low pressure systems building along it, and swell heights and intervals, and small craft warnings, and all sorts of dire sounding things. The throbbing ocean invites an unwilling shoreline to share its misery around every bend in a series of froth-framed views worthy of a J.M.W. Turner painting. Combined with place names like “Devil’s Elbow,” “Seal Rock,” and “Cape Perpetua” the world takes on a more ancient feel.
The storm begins to make landfall at Cape Perpetua in a foggy, sheeting rain that will stay with me for the remainder of the day (and from the looks of the forecast, forever). It reduces visibility enough to render the views basically meaningless, and my attention is drawn to the more immediate. This is not all bad. For instance, I have the remarkable and nostalgic experience of a FULL SERVICE GAS STATION when I stop for fuel. Seriously. Shuffling around in the seat to gather some trash before the exercise of manning the pump, I realize there is someone hovering by the window. When I open the door, he says “morning, what can I do for you?” Turns out Oregon is a full service gasoline state (at least this is what he tells me) and I spend a few happy moments chatting about the area and discussing national parks (he was intrigued by all my stickers) with him while he does the dirty work. I like full service gas stations.
I also like how ubiquitous town pride seems to be. The road here plies its way through small town after small town and every one is proud. Of what represents a great variety, but each is very proud. For instance, one is “world’s smallest harbor.” Another “world’s shortest river.” Not to be outdone, another is simply “world famous.” And each one sports a tiny, drive-through coffee shop of some local variety that has the absolute best coffee, according to them. Amidst the heavy rain and fog and cold, I don’t see anyone in these towns who seems angry. Everywhere people are happily going about their daily routines, drinking coffee and showing off their “world’s whatever” gifts. Without umbrellas. In the lower 48 states, this area has the most rain of anywhere — over 100 inches a year. As a business person, one would think this would be a hotbed for umbrella sales. But no one carries them. In six hours of driving through and around the area, I saw one, and it was being carried by a woman from California. The locals seem to have decided they are very likely to be wet at any given point and hauling around extra gear that isn’t going to stop that from happening while simulaneuously poking all the other folks in the eye when they shuffle up for coffee just isn’t worth it. So they walk and stand around with their hoods up, chatting and shopping in the driving rain as if everything is normal. Which, for them, it is.
The 101 generally cuts off the points and capes along the edge, but most of them are some sort of state park and generally have access roads. Which I happily take. On one such diversion out to Cape Lookout I find myself deep in a fir and birch forest, shrouded in fog and surrounded by man-sized ferns. For three or four winding miles it feels like Jurassic Park. It is oddly calming. Despite the fact that, once at Cape Lookout, there isn’t much looking out to do owing to the weather, I am glad I made the effort. The edge is the edge, 24/7 no matter the weather.
Tonight I am in Astoria. It, too, is a proud town, oddly choosing to highlight things like being the location for the movie “Goonies” ahead of things like, well, like being the first U.S. City on the west coast. Or being home to the terminus of Lewis and Clark’s famous transect. It mentions those of course, but the t-shirts are focused elsewhere. In 1811, John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company anchored up here at the mouth of the mighty Columbia River and claimed the place. Just two months later, the first man to come down the entire length of the Columbia, British explorer David Thompson, arrived from the other side to do the same, but alas, he was too late. Astoria was American and would soon have the first post office west of the Rockies to prove it. There was a good deal of fur business back and forth, and treatying associated with the war of 1812 that muddled up who actually owned what, but it was all settled by 1849 and the town grew into some prominence. Once the fur business dwindled, the fishing and timber business took over and, until fairly recently, your Bumble Bee tuna was canned here. The whole place is wet. Originally built almost entirely on pilings sunk in the silt of the Columbia River, and almost entirely of wood, the whole town has burned to the ground twice. Construction materials have changed since then, but wet remains the prevailing nature of the place.
I’m headed inland tomorrow. For some deep-seated, only explainable on a couch reason, I have three distinct memories of national tragedies (or what struck me at the time as national tragedies) growing up. I remember Eisenhower’s funeral in 1969, which I watched sitting on the shag carpeted floor of 55 Woodhaven Drive on a grainy television screen; I remember Mt. St. Helens erupting in 1980; and I remember the Challenger explosion in 1986. This is not to say I don’t remember any other national events, Reagan getting shot, Ford getting shot at, Vietnam footage from the trenches, etc. Just that these three events stand out as national tragedies in my memory for some reason. I don’t know why and God knows I don’t have the stomach to figure it out, but I do have the ability to confront one of them. I’m doing that tomorrow by driving up to Mt. St. Helens. Site of the most destructive and deadly volcanic explosion in US history. And an odd memory fragment of mine. The volcano has been quiet since 2008 and I’m counting on it taking a day off tomorrow as well. So I will climb to about 8,000 feet, see the elephant, so to speak, and no doubt learn a great deal more about all the plates and shifting and grinding of the land we call home. Then I will return to the edge to ride out the gathering storm.