Skamokawa (“Smoke Over the Water”)

When we experience our own desire for transformation, we are feeling the universe evolving through us.

Barbara Marx Hubbard

April 18, 2021 

After a night of restless sleep, I made some sandwiches and packed up chips, water, granola bars, and chocolate—also added a few books to my writing backpack and made sure the Nikon D810 had freshly charged batteries and was secure in its bag. Then I arranged everything in the car. I never did read or take pictures during the entire day trip, but bringing books, writing tools and cameras is part of the ritual of getting on the road.

I left the house at 10:30 am, north on I-205 to I-5. Light traffic. My black 2021 Subaru Outback Onyx XT, named Dark Star, is a comfortable touring car fitted with 21st Century technology. Safe. Quiet. Reliable. I was ready for a protracted drive to places in the Pacific Northwest I had not yet seen.

The Grateful Dead channel on Sirius XM played a show from Baltimore May 26, 1977. I tuned in for the last three numbers: Not Fade Away, Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad, Around and Around. I wasn’t feeling dispirited, but the music was appropriate. Left I-5 at WA-432 through Longview (where I went last week in the other direction) to WA-4. Longview is a depressing pit of a port—the smell of sawdust in the air mingled with diesel exhaust. The stink of extractive, unsustainable commerce. The trees are cut into lumber there and sent up and down the river to who-knows where.

The smell reminded me that I need to read Richard Hugo (I started to do that months ago and never made a dent). WA-4 is a two-lane 55 mph road. There was light traffic through Stella, Oak Point, Eagle Cliff, and Waterford. Stunning views of the spacious Columbia River. Lots of haze—not good light for photos so I took it all in with my eyes and memory. Cathlamet is the big town on the route. There’s a bridge there that crosses the river to an island where there is a ferry crossing on the south shore to Westport, Oregon. I’ll explore that at another time.

My goal was Altoona, not so much because it was a real destination for views and photos but because it has the same name as the town in Pennsylvania, where I was born in 1953. That’s a pointless reason for a road trip but it got me going on an impulsive morning.

WA-4 turns north and west away from the river at Skamokawa—a Chinook word for “smoke over the water.” I love those Native American names.  Except for Cathlamet, these towns are easy to miss. In some of them the speed limit isn’t even reduced. Somewhere near Gray’s River I came up on a cowboy in a pickup pulling a trailer. There was a restomodded, lavender Harley motorcycle haphazardly strapped to the trailer and the cowboy was going 30 mph and weaving back and forth in the lane. This idiot was oblivious, and the terrible driving went on for about ten minutes until a big Ford F150 pickup appeared in my rear-view mirror. Not wanting to be hemmed in between the two trucks I gave Dark Star the beans and blew around the cowboy when the road was clear. The F150 passed at the same time and started to creep up on me. I kept my foot down and left him behind. The tailgating here has become worse since the pandemic started and I’ve had enough of it. It was the first two lane passing job I’d done in the Outback XT and took me by satisfying surprise, very little turbo lag (far less than my 2015 Forester XT) and immense amounts of torque.

(Click on map to scroll and zoom)

At Rosburg (population 317) I took the side road to Altoona (population 39)—Altoona-Pillar Rock Road. Six miles of farms and out of the way homes. After three miles the Columbia appeared again, wide, patient, calm. There’s nothing in Altoona except a few upscale houses (comparatively upscale for the Pacific Northwest—not McMansions) and plenty of “No Trespassing” and “No Parking” signs. Not an inch of public land except for a pullover where there are two informational plaques about Lewis and Clark and their adventures on the other side of the Columbia. The plaques were dirty and forgotten. I ate my lunch and listened to the silence. No traffic. Just me on the side of the road. So much for Altoona. Like my birthplace it’s a place where no one goes.

Before the Second World War Altoona was one of six fish canneries in the Gray’s Bay area of the Columbia River, but after 1940 the salmon fishing industry declined and the cannery in Altoona closed in 1947. The building remained derelict for decades and collapsed in heavy weather sometime in the late 1990’s.  There is nothing left of the old town except for hundreds of vertical pier-support poles rotting along the shore. A woman mowed the lawn in front of her decorative home as I passed, and a man in a golf cart waved at me after I turned around where the road dead ends. There’s a one lane private track that continues past the end of the two-lane, but I wanted to move on, and frankly I didn’t have any business exploring it.

As I moved on I kept thinking of climate change and wondering what will happen to that shoreline in fifty years. I can’t help but have doom-thoughts now and then, and I thought about that fact as I drove back up to WA-4.

A few miles past Naselle I turned south, and there was US-101 again—that “hard road to travel.” All through my West Coast life from 1966 on, I’ve rambled and meandered on sections of that prolonged road. I had not been on the Oceanview—Cape Disappointment section of the route since 1977 and I had no visual memories at all about the views of Willapa Bay or the Wildlife Refuge there. As this was a daytime scouting trip I didn’t stop.

The coast at Bandon, Oregon (photo by Richard Gylgayton)

Mist hung over the bay, and bloated, grey clouds obscured the sun—coastal weather that soothes my soul. I pondered living on the coast of Oregon when I made my plans to move from California in 2018, but they were half-baked considerations. I knew I had to be near my daughter in Portland, as well as an airport and hospitals. The Pacific Coast remains home ground for me, whether it’s Sea Ranch and Mendocino in California or Bandon and Coos Bay in Oregon. In a couple of days I’ll be joining Paul in Brookings. Later in the year I’ll return to northbound 101 back to the Hoh Rain Forest and a long meditative sit at La Push. The memories made there in 1977 have called to me for years like a far-off voice from my youth that floats above the surface of my consciousness reminding me of unfinished business. I’m not sure what that business is—not now. But I have no doubt that someday it will reveal itself.

A quick stop at Chinook County Park for some coffee from the thermos I brought with me. Chinook (population 457) is another former salmon harvest town. I sat on a stump with my coffee where the Columbia flows into Baker Bay and again watched the mist-smoke float above calm water. There was no one there but me. These parts of the Pacific Northwest present an impression of vintage decline and frailty—as if no one is really living there. It makes me think that the planet is patiently waiting to see what humanity will do at the crossroads we occupy—the point where Business As Usual is an obvious fantasy. What next? Some say it will be the Great Turning. I have no idea, and despite my natural optimism I’m not sure we are up for that challenge. But the bay was beautiful, and the hovering fog calmed my negative reflection. The coffee was still hot from the morning—the miracle of the thermos—and I sat for many minutes watching the water lap against the shore and the saturated driftwood, scattered there by tides and currents.

Astoria -Megler Bridge (photo by Richard Gylgayton)

Then I crossed over the Astoria-Megler bridge. It’s the longest truss bridge in America. I had not traversed it since 1977, coming south from the Olympic Peninsula with my amigo JS, though I’ve been in Astoria a few times since relocating to Portland. It’s not an elegant bridge by any means, but its sheer practicality is in itself a statement of engineering fortitude. I’m sure Lewis and Clark would never have imagined such a thing—which makes me wonder what things will be built—or removed—on Planet Earth long after I travel over the metaphysical bridge that we all eventually cross.

I considered continuing on 101 south and then returning to Portland on OR-26, but the GPS warned me that there had been a major accident there, so I took OR-30 east instead and left the hard road that was not so hard behind me for the day. Jethro Tull was my accompaniment back to the Longview Bridge and I-5 South. Home at 5:15. Total mileage was 280. 31 miles to the gallon. Not bad, despite the CO2 I left behind me—my own Business As Usual.

It was good to get out on the road. I’ve been feeling stale because of all the shut-in languishing I’ve gone through for the last year. The new memoir project is temporarily stalled. I’ve done some rewriting of material for this new blog but I did little sustained reading last week. It’s a neutral phase of creativity—I need to break out of it. A camping trip will help. Brookings awaits. These last few weeks I’ve increased my range of travel east and west and I’m returning to a section of Oregon I know well. Paul’s done some research on back roads in the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest and I need some Ocean Time and negative ions.

After dinner I watched a YouTube video titled “20 Greatest Rock Guitar Riffs” (coincidentally Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” was one of them) and afterwards I thought about the fact that I am at a turning point, like all of us. The last year was unexpected and uncertain. Now is the beginning of a new beginning and as the Sage says, new beginnings are problematic. Yet when one considers the limitations objectively, hopeful change is possible.

Always mist, fog, smoke—skamokawa. I’ll remember that word and all the memories and hopes floating above the water. I have time for considering them now at length. Maybe it’s my own personal Great Turning at the start of new changes. If so, I’m ready for those adjustments to chase away my doom-thoughts and reopen my stale mind to gratitude and transformation once more.

Difficulty at the beginning works supreme success / Furthering through perseverance.

— I Ching

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