“I pulled into the Cactus Tree Motel, to shower off the dust / and I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust” – Joni Mitchell (Amelia)
I wish I could write about experiencing true isolation and self-reliance in the face of a real, honest-to-goodness wilderness adventure. There is something to be said for fantasizing about surviving in the mountains with only a shoelace and a vague memory of child-rhymes to help identify poisonous snakes (Red on black, you’re okay, Jack!). This is probably because I would not survive, and like the dangling carrot, woodsy self reliance is unattainable. I like my creature comforts, and will unabashedly grasp for them despite my ability to chop firewood and bathe with only cold water and a kerchief-sized towel with the best of them. Our campsite choices thus far, mostly in state parks, would be considered by some to be the dude ranches of the inexperienced outdoorsmen. Flush toilets and warm showers? Oh, please. Why not say I was staying at a Hyatt? Never mind that one shower housed creatures resembling the black ooze-worms of X-Files fame. Never mind that after one particularly difficult night with lots of rain and no sleep, the hot water in the showers was completely gone by the time I arose, blinking wearily into the morning fog. One night was so cold that my breath froze along the part of my scarf that was wrapped beneath my chin. Two hours into a fitful sleep, something icy crept across my bottom lip and I sat up in gasping horror, awaiting my fate at the hands of the Nazgul. When I realized it was just my frozen-breath scarf, I sat in utter annoyance staring at the side of the tent that faced the snow-topped mountains across the lake from us. Those towering, icy Jell-O molds: they were to blame, and I hated them.
We have been following the lighthouses up the coast. Each one, wavering like a specter on an ancient horizon, has had a story to tell. Volunteers took us on tours and told us of the parts each lighthouse played in guarding the coast and bringing home wayward sailors, until its inevitable retirement. Some are still in use, despite sophisticated and more accessible navigational equipment. I asked one guide why this was so; why would it be worth it to keep each one of those hand-cut crystals polished and sparkling though they could only partially keep up with their digital brethren? “The fishermen,” replied the guide. “To them it means ‘home’.” Home. I couldn’t believe I had not considered this already, when some piece of my heart is always searching out that beacon.
We will occasionally dig into our wallets to pay for a cheap motel, eating up their wifi and heaters like they were the wheel and fire. We scour tourist pamphlets and local bar banter for places to adventure to. On our hunt for Heceta Lighthouse, we found a tiny turn out with a tinier sign that pointed across 101 to a trail. Needing a break from driving, we ran across the highway like crazies, discovering yet another sign that read “Hobbit Beach Trail.” We could not have been more pleased, and off we went. Short, twisted trees draped in bright green moss bent over a narrow path, leading down to the most pristine, gloriously empty, broadly stretching beach I had seen in years.
Fit for a Hobbit, for sure, especially if Hobbits lived by the Pacific Northwest. It had tiny paths leading off of the main, which of course we surmised had only room enough for magic bunnies or baby dragons or something equally mystical in nature. The beach was flanked on the north side by moss and tree-lined cliffs stretching as far as the eye could sea, and on the south by a looming, seaward facing rock formation, whose lower walls sported whorls of neon green sea moss, reflected in deep, bejeweled tidepools. Modeled into the the cliff were broad, ogling faces, liked trapped spirits.
But it is unfair to so completely describe one small aspect of Oregon’s breathtaking coast. One campsite, tucked between farmland and sea, sported the dark, harsh foliage I had come to know and love in Bodega Bay and further north, near Jenner. Dark brown-red bushes and bleached, bone-white brush scraped at a steely gray sky, stark but comforting to witness. Other stretches featured turquoise lagoons and hidden coves full of shells and starfish. One small lighthouse, now defunct, sat squarely upon giant rocks at the mouth of a river where it met the sea, a stark and lonely landscape for the lightkeeper’s watch.
I have decided there is nothing more noble in government than state park volunteers. No one cares more for the land they oversee than they do. Without them these wondrous places would have long ago been overrun by industry and greed. They are the lightkeepers of the land. And everywhere, everywhere: we have been met with good wishes and stories and memories. I’ve learned more about the kindness of strangers since we left home than I have in my entire adult life. Our trek along the coast was met with so much enthusiasm I sometimes felt bad for griping, publicly or to myself. I try to keep myself in check, except on the particularly bad days when I’ve been kept up all night by mile-long trains running 40 feet from our campsite, or when I’ve broken out in poison oak along my limbs. (Impossible, it seems, considering I wear 15 layers of long clothing every day and night.)
But there is that darned rain. And the feeling of never quite getting dry during brief spells of sunshine. So after near-constant precipitation and a forecast only for more, we arrived in Portland on the evening of the 18th. Hallelujah.
Portland, the oft overlooked but much cleverer sister of fancy Jane Bennett cities like San Francisco and Seattle, is a confluence of adorable awkwardness and delightful ease. We arrived at a friend’s house on the edge of the city, casting our car-ful of belongings into our basement room before heading out to see what fruits of livelihood awaited us on the city streets. We found it in the overwhelming menu of Dionysian social goods and services, venues left and right, restaurants and bars and weird, weird nooks and crannies that permeated every turn. A bar that contained another, secret bar; a museum of vacuums; an alien-themed gift shop that offered marriage certificates. That elusive no-sales-tax mystery sat like a laughing God of Libertarianism on the shelves of every shop in town. I could not argue with this because, A) I am on a budget most extreme, and B) who would be stupid enough to argue with that, anyhow? A burger, a shot, and a beer back for $5 would probably can a business in a week where we hailed from. I soaked in the novelty of affordable entertainment and waited for the other shoe to drop. It did not. For three days we explored Portland and made friends. From the garden of a mansion perched above the city we drank in our last day, relishing the odd comfort of concrete, steel, and the bustle of lives being lived everywhere.
For a time I was able to set aside a growing sense of anxiety about heading deeper into unknown territory and just walk around like a normal person in a great city. There was more to come– towering waterfalls, acres of tulips, a President-worthy greasy spoon, and more. But it’s nearly midnight on our last night in a warm room. I think I will go savor the hot water before I forget what it’s like.