I’m wandering again, southbound on I-5 through Salem and Eugene to exit 162—Oregon State Highway 99. Then west along the Umpqua River to Reedsport and south along the coast to meet up with Paul in Brookings, a few miles north of the California border.
Those roads have become habitual the last few years, like the journeys I made for decades along the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts of California. They are routes like old books waiting to be read again, packed with stories that reveal their subtexts willingly—as long as I pay attention to the details of weather and light that encourage the ordinary to display more earnest roots. Clear sight with fresh eyes and a sense of freedom are required, not in the sense of a choice between commodities, but in an ability to move quietly without being disturbed by the distraction of Business As Usual, and thus, composed and tranquil, improving my chances of finding a clue that may foreshadow the Great Turning.
It’s a lovely, sunny April day. The coffee in my thermos is bold and there’s nothing but possibilities ahead of me. What more could I ask for? Only impossible things and there’s no point inquiring about those. I’ll instead be grateful for what comes my way.
OR-99 winds its way westbound under overcast skies, though there are glints of light on the river west of Drain—another one of those pragmatically named Oregon towns—though in fact there is no drain in Drain that disperses the water falling from the sky. As I turn south onto US-101 at Reedsport the car’s tires thrum again on this spinal road of the Pacific littoral, the El Camino Real, though there are no Spanish missions here in the unsaintly pagan Northwest. The route runs from Tumwater, Washington south to an ignominious end at the East Los Angeles Interchange, which seems sadly appropriate to me—the grandeur of John Fahey’s “Hard Road to Travel” swallowed in concrete and mad traffic. Over my life I have driven much of this Royal Road, even the historic sections that remain in San Diego County, and my memories of those trips are lucid.
US-101 remains constant through the years, but I am not the same man that traveled the Oregon section southbound in 1977, returning from my first trip to Portland and the Olympic peninsula in a Fiat 128 with a leaking radiator. All my layers of memory are like geologic strata, compressed and ready for archaeological digging. I take them for granted too often. Not this time.
(Click on map to scroll and zoom)
As I turn south at Coos Bay and see the immense pile of sawdust at the Oregon Chip Terminal, my reveries are smashed. The four-story mound of former trees seems like a dormant volcano trapped between the Coos River and the highway, a prominent indicator of resource extraction—necessary, but practiced in an unenlightened and short-sighted manner. I think of trees torn up and processed into lumber and stumps left behind like amputated limbs sticking out of the earth.
We are told that the forests are managed, but I wonder what that really means whenever I see a fully loaded logging truck tailgating me like an impatient beast in the throes of a time-is-money seizure-spasm. I suspect that the phrase forest management is a euphemism for the less trustworthy profits for shareholders, and it disturbs me. Yet the new wooden deck constructed in my backyard last year reminds me that I am as ensnared in late-stage capitalism as anyone else.
I pass through town and experience a rare moment of depression. I want to sit in the sun for the next couple of days and read Stephany’s book, but the weather seems to be turning to something else altogether. Why am I bothering to make my way to the coast? Further south near Bandon I stop at Bullards Beach State Park for a break. Even the satisfaction of arriving in Bandon, a town I know well, where there is a bakery that makes the finest cheese croissants I’ve ever tasted, is underwhelming. The pleasure of the journey is momentarily lost, and the bakery is closed as I drive through Bandon Old Town. I think of the warm and sunny weather I left back in Portland, but I keep moving in the hopes that I can leave my abrupt dejection behind me.
It’s late afternoon and the road between Bandon and Port Orford is hectic. School buses impede the flow of traffic. I don’t mind—it’s proof that the kids are back in school—that the pandemic may be reaching a new phase of healthier times. The road widens at Langlois. The traffic ebbs at the Sixes River north of Port Orford, and as I pass the Crazy Norwegian’s Fish and Chips restaurant, my muddled thoughts disperse like fog evaporated by the sun.
Everything changes dramatically all at once as the rugged coast appears. Back in 2018 when Finn and I came north through Brookings the weather was hot, the air conditioning in Turbo Woody was flaky and it had been a long day’s drive—up from Mendocino all the way to Bandon for the first time as I moved to my new life in the Pacific Northwest. I saw the coastline then, but I was preoccupied, tired, and distracted. This time the panorama astonishes me, and the older memory from 44 years ago comes back to me unbidden—the day in 1977 when I first drove 101 from Portland to my Bay Area home during one epic day-trip. I have not been on this section of the highway southbound since then, and once more it’s exposed as both beautiful and threatening.
The road turns easterly for a few miles at Humbug Mountain and becomes a narrow track hidden from the titanic spectacle of the Pacific. When it returns to the ocean on the south side of the mountain I stop at a vista point. Mist and sunlight dapple the water, and the wind is blowing so hard that I lean against the car for support, my hands inside my jacket pockets, my mouth agape, my lungs filling with the cold vigor of crisp sea air.
Here it is again—the unmistakable beauty of creation stretching to a horizon hidden by glowering clouds. Cliffs so steep that there is no access to the beach. Rock formations that are the scattered bones of the continent’s edge, eroded by patient wind and the endless lapping of waves and storms. Here I am— witnessing it like a mendicant looking for a handout of mystical vision or a shred of blessing from an invisible divinity that can only be vaguely realized by my spiritual eyesight, still imprecise after a lifetime of itinerant practice. Be still and know the experience says to me, and so I wait and gaze through a moment that goes back to a past that I have survived and a future that is a continual revelation.
The rest of the drive is a quiet passage through Gold Beach, Pistol River, and the spectacular S.H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, a coastline comparable to California’s Point Lobos but more lethal. It demands respect. I’m no sailor, surfer, or beachcomber. I only want to marvel—and to not take the sight for granted.
At Harris Beach State Park in Brookings, Paul’s trailer is tucked into Loop A, Site 35. I unload my belongings as he cooks one of his famous one-pot camping meals and serves it with salad. I drink a bottle of Deschutes Obsidian Stout and afterwards we walk to the edge of the park and watch the sunset over Bird Island. The sun is a translucent orb sinking into the sea as the wind blows the day into twilight. I remember that my daily experience is impermanent, but I also know the sun will rise again tomorrow morning, with or without me to witness it. The movement of planets and stars is assured, and as the last light fades the immensity of that truth comforts me—though I don’t know why.
“I’m part of a pulse. That pulse is neither benign nor malign. Not “love.” A force not a force, nor anything that’s a thing. The Formless maker of forms, whatever it may be.”
Reg Saner, “Glacier Gorge,” in The Four Cornered Falcon pg.18
Photo: Sunset at Harris Beach, Brookings Oregon, by Richard Gylgayton
Notes on the text:
- “The Great Turning is a name for the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the Industrial Growth Society to a life-sustaining civilization.” Joanna Macy. More information is available in her book Active Hope – How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy.
- A Question of Fate is a novel by my friend Stephany Houghton-Cavalier. Further information at this link and more detail about the book in my next post.
- Paul is my brother.
- Finn was my dog, a handsome greyhound, and a great companion. He passed in February of 2020. Turbo Woody is my 2015 Subaru Forester XT, now owned by my daughter. I name all my Subarus, admittedly an odd habit, but they are such faithful cars I feel it’s a necessity.