Starting Out

My rite-of-passage pilgrimage began with a bus ride to Astoria from Portland, a journey of two and a half hours for an amazing $20. I hadn’t slept well the night before, and snuggled against my backpack, I fell asleep before we were out of the Portland metro area. When I woke, the air in the bus was moist and cool, the windows were streaked. Oh yes, I thought. Fall has begun. In the Coastal Range it rains. At the coast it rains, though the foreseeable reports had predicted sunny days.

Unloading at the Astoria bus station I wandered around looking for a place to eat lunch and chose the Wet Dog Brewery and Pub for its name. I fortified myself for the coming walk with fish and chips and cider. I was self-conscious about my pack, which seemed gigantic and attention-grabbing on my back, but too heavy to carry any other way. I stood it on a bench by the entrance while I kept an eye on if from the bar (I also hadn’t yet figured out that no one else would want to pick it up, either.) 

The taxi driver who took me to Fort Stevens State Park wanted to visit, and when I told her my story, confessed that she had never gotten over the death, five years ago, of her daughter’s father. She felt responsible, because she had kicked him out. “He was always drunk or at the bars. I got tired of it. But maybe if I’d just helped him get help . . .”

I assured her he’d had plenty of chances to get help, he’d made his own decisions and she needed to forgive herself. Talking about my hike reminded her that she has wanted to hike Saddle Mountain in the spring, when the wild flowers are in bloom. Maybe this year she would do that, she said. Maybe it would help her start over. As I paid her and said good-bye, I wondered how many other people I would meet whose full names I wouldn’t find out, whose story’s ending I wouldn’t hear.

American service men inspect a shell crater after the Japanese attack on Fort Stevens.

American service men inspect a shell crater after the Japanese attack on Fort Stevens.

She had dropped me off at Battery Russell, and I wandered around getting my bearings and reading the historical brochures and placards.  This was the only spot on the continental United States to be fired on by a foreign power since the war of 1812–in June of 1942, a Japanese submarine ten miles out to sea slipped beneath a fishing fleet and fired 5.5 inch deck guns in about a fifteen minute attack. There were no injuries or casualties; one shell created a crater in the local baseball field and others fell in the forest and on the beach.  After the war, Japanese Captain Maeji Tagami admitted he thought he might be firing on a submarine attack station and would not have dared if he’d known the fire-power the battery had. Fortunately for him, the guns at Battery Russell stayed silent, because they didn’t know how sustained an attack it was, and didn’t want to give away their position. After that, civilian guard squads began patrolling the Oregon coast.

After I read this surprising local history, I walked some miles to the hiker-biker section of Fort Stevens State Park campground (bikers in this case are not the Harley guys but people on bicycles, riding the popular bike route down Highway 101 and along scenic side-roads). Oregon State Park hiker-biker campgrounds are small, with no vehicle access, but with picnic tables, fire pits and usually a near-by port-a-potty. In Fort Stevens I learned that one quiet mission of a good picnic table is to deliver packs directly onto hikers’ backs. Hoisting my pack from the ground to shoulder height was not easy nor pretty—it was much harder to handle its 35 pound weight with my arms alone, than to carry it on my hips and legs, resting against my back, anchored snuggly against my shoulders.

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It wasn’t long before the second sole joined the first. The duct tape needed replacing once, when I wore through it on the bottoms, but otherwise held for the whole trip! Now to find some Shoe Goo . . . Mark fixed more than one pair of my shoes with Shoe Goo.

Next to me at the camp ground was a man who was biking from Vancouver, BC to San Francisco. We shared bemused frustrations that our “guides” in blogs and books were in their 20s, and that we no longer had their stamina. That night, his Thermarest mattress developed a slow leak. Meanwhile, I had been too careful to heed the operating warnings to screw the valve of my new Primus stove onto the fuel canister gently. Between eating my reconstituted lasagna and heating up dishwashing water, all my fuel had leaked out. In the morning, I did not find more fuel in the little KOA store nearby, and walking the mile back to my camp, the sole of my camp sandal decided to part ways from the footbed. I hadn’t even started walking yet. How quickly misadventure could find me. How much my neighbor and I were going to be affected by our simple problems: sleeping, eating. It doesn’t take much to be very uncomfortable once we leave home. As I carefully repaired my sandal with duct tape, I imagined Mark watching over my shoulder. He was chuckling.

Planning my trip, I’d been stymied by the lack of a town or campsite within twenty miles of Fort Stevens State Park on the northern tip of Oregon’s coast. Both my blogger and the official OCT site were suspiciously silent about camping in unofficial spots, but both said don’t camp on the beach, and warned that patrols will run campers off the beaches near towns and state parks. The last thing I wanted was trouble with the law. That, I thought, would completely destroy the spirit of my pilgrimage.  I imagined the incredible inconvenience of packing up in the sandy darkness and wandering on . . . to where? I didn’t realize, until I’d been on the beach longer, the dangers. By the end of three weeks, I was watching the ocean over my shoulder with some trepidation—after seeing memorials to strong young men drowned within three minutes of being swept off rocks by sneaker waves, the tsunami warning signs and escape route maps at every state park, the signs warning against napping on the beach or standing on logs, which weigh thousands of pounds and could be lifted by the surf, or could roll.

But there was no other option, I was going to have to camp on the beach halfway between Fort Stevens and the town of Seaside on my first real night out.

Low tide at mid-morning gave me a wide, packed beach to walk on. As I came out of the forested campground area to the beach, I felt my spirit lift in response to the ocean that faded away miles from me; the call of the waves, one replacing another constantly, never pausing; the bright sunlight on the sand and water. How could the beach not be a healing place for me to be?   

The rusting bones of the Peter Iredale.

The rusting bones of the Peter Iredale.

I headed out, south of the wreck of the Peter Iredale, the most accessible wreck of the “Graveyard of the Pacific”, a treacherous band of coast from Tillamook, Oregon to Vancouver, BC. The Peter Iredale, with her royal sails above double top and topgallant sails (I don’t know what these are, but they sound wonderful) had set out from Liverpool, England to Portland, Oregon in 1906 with 1000 pounds of ballast, 25 crew members and two stowaways. Approaching the Columbia bar (which has accounted for 2000 wrecks) the Peter Iredale ran into mist, rain and wind and was blown to shore. In the weeks of waiting for weather to clear so they could tow the ship back out to sea, she listed to the side and become embedded in the sand. Captain Lawrence abandoned her with a toast: “May God bless you, and may your bones bleach in the sands.” Being iron, those bones have rusted instead.

In the misty morning air, I saw what I thought at first were jeeps carved out of sand. When I got closer I saw that they were military trucks, exactly the color of the sand. They had hauled trailers to the beach, and men were swarming around, launching rubber rafts into the surf. I wondered if a search was going on. The surf was too calm for surfingI, something done in wet suits on our beaches. Fishing boats were white dots far beyond the helicopter that whipped over and circled out from shore. Children may splash in the foam, but no one really swims in the Pacific Ocean on the Oregon coast.

An hour later, the jeeps roared by, followed by an emergency vehicle which sank into the sand and got stuck. When I came abreast I felt confident enough that there hadn’t been a real emergency to joke with the young man dashing from one tire to another, pulling at the sand.

“I hope you don’t have someone dying in there!”

He laughed. “It was just a training. Now we’re just trying to get off the beach before the tide comes in.” 

I walked on, the tortoise to their hare, picturing their truck lifted off its wheels by the tide and washing out to sea.

Around noon I reached Sunset Beach State Park, a day-use site about six miles along. I walked up from the beach and ate my lunch perched on a big rock. My plan was to go just a little further before I camped, but I had the whole afternoon, the sun was hot, and I wanted shade. I looked around for something more in keeping with the spirit of a pilgrimage, but the only shade I found was a band along the east side of the outhouse (vault toilet is the new term) there at the wayside. I leaned myself and my pack against the wall and took out my journal to write.

As I rested by the Sunset Beach outhouse, a group of ecologists from the Willamette Valley, on the other side of the Coast Range, drove up. They clustered at the trailhead a few feet away for a mini-lecture by a local park ranger. I sidled over to listen. Early settlers had stabilized the dunes by planting European dune grass and what they thought were coastal pines, she said. But the species of pine they planted grew tall and straight, more like the lodgepole than the coastal pine. “They fell like matchsticks in the storm of 2007.” In the Great Coastal Gale of 2007, winds of 129-137 mph had whipped the coast of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, and given us Oregon’s only technically defined hurricane.

Scotch Broom is beautiful in the spring. Unfortunately, it's growth habits and aggressiveness make it an ugly invader.

Scotch Broom is beautiful in the spring. Unfortunately, it’s growth habits and aggressiveness make it an ugly invader.

In the aftermath, local residents worried about the fire hazard of all that felled wood so the park district cleared it, but then Scotch broom, a European import, moved in. Scotch Broom  grows aggressively. It produces thousands of seeds every year, and the seeds stay viable for years. It spreads into monoculture stands that crowd out native plants and habitat.  It’s a noxious weed in India, New Zealand and South America as well as Oregon. The ranger talked about observing what a site “wants to be” and recreating preferred eco systems. She spoke with regret—this site wants to be a coastal prairie, but because of the Scotch Broom they’ve had to replant pines. If the still immature coastal pines win the battle for dominance, she hopes that they will eventually shade out the encroaching invader.

The ecologists drove on, and I spent several more hours of refuge  by the outhouse until, when the sun began to drop toward the sea, I set off down the beach to set up camp. It wouldn’t hurt to shorten my walk into Seaside the following day, I decided, so I walked for about an hour. Tillamook Head appeared ahead of me, the point that separates Seaside from Cannon Beach.

Gulls lined up between the edge of the sand  and the dune watched me as I trudged by.

Gulls lined up between the edge of the sand and the dune watched me as I trudged by.

I began to suspect that camping on the beach sounds more romantic than it is. I knew enough to worry about high tide—I could see where the last tide had reached, but might a sneaker wave rise up in the middle of the night to sweep me off to sea, tangled in my bivouac tent? There was no picnic table to lift me or my pack out of the sand, so sand would get into everything. Since I don’t  a sleep with a gale-force fan, the ocean was going to disturb me with loud talking all night long. And there was the matter of no water or facilities. Since I had no choice, I walked clear up to the low dune that parallels the ocean on that stretch of the coast, found a level spot on the sand and pitched my tent.

All the vehicles and day visitors disappeared before the sun set. I experimented (moving slowly so I didn’t kick sand up into my food) and found out that freeze dried food will indeed reconstitute in cold water, and that cold water will not enhance its taste. A chilly mist rose up and sent me to bed early. As I crawled into the bivouac tent, again, I moved slowly and carefully so that I would take as little sand as possible into my sleeping bag with me.

I got up once in the night. To the south—it looked so very close—I saw the lights of Seaside sparkling red and white under the high full moon. I smiled. For the first time I felt as though I really was on a pilgrimage, the dots really would connect, one step would lead to another, one day would lead to the next, and my way would lead to one new place after another. Actually, and metaphorically.

In the morning I woke early. The colors of the sea and beach were as light as a watercolor. The wind had stilled. The air felt warm. The beach was mine, as if it was the first morning of creation and I was the first woman. I walked down to the tide line, shed my clothes and waded up to my knees into the ocean. I splashed water on my body and laughed at the cascade of goose bumps. I probably said out loud what Mark and I had called to each other in Lake Longano, Ethiopia, when we went for our morning swim: “Re-freshing!”

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