The Brookings Effect: 4

The rain pulses on the roof of the trailer in the post-midnight darkness. Occasionally the precipitation pauses, and I fall into a light sleep. Then the wind blows and the ample moisture that has gathered in the Sitka Spruce tree next to the camper falls all at once like a waterfall. I awaken—no deep sleep tonight, that’s for certain. My imagination rambles through memories rather than being adrift in dreams. I think of the times I camped with wife and children, and earlier, with my own brothers, mother, and father, before and after we migrated from Pennsylvania to California. The thought arises: now here I am in Oregon. The unforeseen events that led to a second migration of my own come to mind like scenes in a novel.

Paul at Arch Rock Viewpoint

I’m in a sequel to the preceding stages of my life. The structure of the story that’s being written by my actions, thoughts, and dreams is vague, but it’s there—I can sense it as the framework of my experience in the same way that I can analyze plots, themes, and symbols when reading literature. As an undergraduate I learned how to discern the hidden, organic bones of prose and poetry. Decades later I recognize the same infrastructure supporting my lifespan. Art reveals everything if one takes the time to remain patient and pay careful attention. I can see the losses and gains, the rise and fall, the slow sections and the rushing moments that force me to keep turning the pages. The book of my life is not physical. I can’t tell how many chapters remain before I reach the end.

I know that my conclusion will not be “and they lived happily ever after.” That was supposed to have been the finale of the previous volume, but it didn’t finish that way. This follow-on will take me to a place where I have never been before.

These half-awake musings fill up the anxious wolf-hours of night before dawn. As the rain rides the wind from the Pacific along this harsh, indifferent coastline, a voice arises in my head once more: be still and know—be still. There is no end. The wanderer has no fixed abode.

The dead trees no longer refreshed by the moisture in the understory. The soil destroyed by fire and washed away. What was that neologism I came across recently? Solastalgia— a ‘form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change.’ Is that what I’m feeling? I try to be calm while the sky refreshes in a tinge of grey, morning light. The slow drip of moisture on the rooftop fades away. I hear Paul stirring at the other end of the trailer. The secure scent of coffee arises. The wolf-time lapses, and the gift of another day begins.

More oatmeal. More coffee. Then I walk through the campground. The rain has freshened everything. Wet forest smells mingle with the scent of the sea. Cool air aids my process of awakening and I recall that I did have a crazy dream last night: a conversation with a trio of old women whose faces were altering and merging, all of them looking at me benevolently. The Three Fates, I assume, though there was no spinning wheel or scissors. I remember something I read by Martin Shaw in his book, A Branch from the Lightning Tree: “Myth is not much to do with the past, but a kind of magical present that can flood our lives when the conditions are just so. It is not just the neurosis of us humans trying to fathom our place on the earth, but sometimes the earth actually speaking back to us.”

Myth and story. Life and death. Wandering, learning, exploring. Moments of love I still bear for those who have passed out of my life to the other side. Aches that can’t be healed that turn to gratitude. Those are the lessons of the stillness. They surface in my dreams, anxieties, and daylight actions every day because I am more aware of how they all fit into a single epic, layering on top of one another like a series of palimpsests, some partially erased but still decipherable.

I reenter the trailer. “How about we explore Carpenterville Road this morning?” says Paul.

“Why not? It’s no longer raining. Let’s go.” There is mist drifting in the constant wind. The moisture calls us out to the road and fresh sights under somber skies. No sun, but a beautiful day.

Less than a mile north of Harris Beach we make a right turn. It’s a road to nowhere, a ghost road to a ghost town, the former route of Highway 101 back when it was known as the Roosevelt Highway, now Oregon Route 255. We twist and turn and climb. There’s no traffic. The mist deepens as we gain altitude and I engage the intermittent wipers. Tree branches hang sullenly over the road, the leaves opaque green, dripping with moisture that splatters the windshield. Here and there I see a house, a farm, or a lumber operation. The views of the ocean are obstructed by clouds. I’m reminded of Ireland—the time when I traveled there with my wife to Sligo and visited the grave of William Butler Yeats at Drumcliffe Cemetery. All that’s missing here are the Celtic crosses.  

In 1921 the town of Carpenterville was founded at the high point of the road. Before the highway was realigned and the town was cut off from 101, it contained a post office, public school, a lodge and restaurant. 35 people lived there in 1940. Today there is nothing I can see that marks that a town ever existed, presumably at the highest point of the road—Burnt Hill Summit. We pass a sign for Windsong Ranch and cross over Whalehead Creek. The road is paved but I have to be careful to avoid occasional potholes filled with rainwater.

It’s a forlorn place. The specters of my wolf-hours are still hanging around like voiceless loiterers. There’s no sense of menace or anxiety, only loneliness, even though Highway 101 is not far away. It’s down below us someplace, invisible. I wonder if I could hear traffic if I pulled over and opened a window. The road turns northwest and drops in altitude. The clouds lift and then we see the ocean, slate-grey and impassive. I feel as if I am enfolded between dreamscape and landscape.

Eventually we find the highway when we reach the Pistol River Loop Road. The sky is still sealed by banks of somber clouds but the view up 101 is clear. I tell Paul I want to drive all the way up to Humbug Mountain and check out the campground in the state park. He agrees—it’s always useful to scout out likely camping areas ahead of time. It’s not a long drive, through Gold Beach across the Rogue River, then Nesika and Ophir.

Humbug Mountain appears to be a suitable place for a couple of quiet nights later in the summer. There are a few campers sheltered under the trees, partially protected from the moist weather. They wave at us, smiling. We turn south again. I pull over at the same turnout as last Wednesday and get out of the car.

This time the handout of vision strikes me full in the face. I live here now. This is my geography. Rugged like the country my ancestors left behind when the potato crops failed. It’s been three years since I left California. I’ve been cooped up for months. We all have. That’s what these days are telling me.

Yet the world does not seem right. All this beauty in front of my eyes is endangered. There is something I need to do. I still don’t know what it is, but I can hear it calling. Its voice is muffled under the earth. I’m going to have to dig for it.

Those thoughts occur in an instant. I return to the car, fully awake. Back to the road. Back to camp. On the way we stop at Windy Point to see the view of Arch Rock. People are milling around in the light rain but by the time Paul and I reach the viewpoint at the end of a short trail everyone has departed. We are standing at the edge of a cliff overlooking a few rocky islands flecked with seafoam, one topped with a grove of Sitka Spruce trees. They will be there after I die, protected from fire and tree cutters—solitary sentinels protecting the edge of the continent.

My brother and I stand peacefully, gazing out at the sea once more. My parents are my ancestors now, I think to myself. My memories of them bringing us to California half a century ago are old enough to be my own legend—a story of decisions made by people who died long ago that brought me to this spot, on this day, at this time. It’s time for me to tell that story.

That Saturday night it rains hard. When I awaken I pack up my gear and start for home. Paul needs his own space. He’ll stay at Harris Beach for another week. The weather in Portland is dry, and I miss my own bed and kitchen.

The rain continues as I drive north, but it diminishes at Port Orford. By the time I reach Bandon the sky is clear and the sun is out. I drive by the Bandon Baking Company hoping that I can pick up some of those luscious cheese croissants, but the shop is closed again. I’ll try in May when we camp at Bullards Beach. I gas up Dark Star and then stop north of Coos Bay at William M. Tugman State Park and eat a cold bagel with cream cheese. I recall the time I walked Finn there as we traveled to Portland in 2018 to start a fresh life. It’s been 16 months since he passed unexpectedly. I have one of those unanticipated moments when grief surfaces and turns to grace as I think about all those I have lost.

East of Reedsport there is heavy rain on OR-38. The Umpqua River is wide there, and glows through the downpour, reflecting the muted light of the sky. I have the road to myself until the squalls descend. I stay in the right lane through the passing zones and let all the idiots go by. I generally drive right at the limit, but the conditions are not right for that now—thus tailgaters, all of whom deserve their own circle in Dante’s Hell.

I stop at the Cottage Grove rest area with the intention of taking a nap, but it’s crowded and there are folks that look untrustworthy hanging around, so I continue on without stopping. Traffic is heavy as usual between Eugene and Salem. That part of the drive is like I-5 in California. It seems to me that Oregon drivers are as unhinged as their northern neighbors in Washington these days—perhaps as a result of being quarantined for so long. I arrive home about 4:50 pm. Total trip mileage 881.5. Avg mpg just a shade over 30.

That evening while I am winding down for a deep sleep in my own bedroom I read a brochure issued by the Oregon State Parks administration advertising the Samuel H. Boardman Scenic Corridor. In a sidebar I read that the Arch Rock landmark was the root of a legend regarding Coyote for the Tolowa tribe:

“Coyote—a frequent character who teaches ingenuity and explains the inexplicable—was left to starve on Arch Rock after playing a prank on the other animals and people. Undeterred, he cleverly made his way back to land by gathering a basket of mussels and throwing them into the water. Each mussel magically grew into a small island, allowing Coyote to use them as stepping stones to shore.”

He’s a smart fellow, that Coyote. I’ll follow his lead and see where it goes.

“Something I heard an archeologist say in Oslo about deep time returns to me: Time isn’t deep, it is already all around us. The past ghosts us, lies all about us less as layers, more as drift. Here that seems right, I think. We ghost the past, we are its eerie.”

Robert Macfarlane, Underland, pg. 273

Arch Rock – April 2021

Photos by Richard Gylgayton

The Brookings Effect: 3

Friday morning. I’m eating oatmeal for breakfast and reading my morning email. Richard Rohr again, this time a meditation containing a quote from Stephan Harding, Head of Holistic Science at Schumacher College in the UK. “The Work That Reconnects is conceptualized as a spiral that maps the journey to Gaian consciousness [or deep connection with the living Earth] in four stages.”

I know that phrase, The Work That Reconnects. A couple of months back I read a book by Joanna Macy: Active Hope. The subtitle attracted me:  How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. That’s where I came across Business As Usual, The Great Unraveling, and The Great Turning. Since finishing that book I’ve been meaning to dive more deeply into the content of those axioms.

Though I’m currently sitting comfortably in Paul’s trailer, working my way through a bowl of Quaker Oats, I’m reminded of what is going on outside—climate change, mass extinctions, economic disruption, all topped off with a pandemic and three and a half million deaths due to the virus worldwide. It’s all right there in the Harding quote about the four stages:

The first is gratitude, in which we experience our love for life. Next is honoring our pain, in which we learn how to suffer the pain of the world with others and with the world itself. Then, in seeing with new eyes, we experience our connection with life in all its forms through all the ages. Finally, in the last stage we go forth into action in the world as open human beings, aware of our mutual belonging in the web of life, learning through feedback in our social and ecological domains.

“Are you ready to head out?” Paul interrupts my musing. “There’s rain coming.” I nod, wash out my breakfast bowl, and drink the last of my morning coffee.

We head south on 101 again—not as far as yesterday. Before crossing over the Chetco River we turn left. These roads east of town all have multiple names: the North Bank Chetco River Road is also County Road 784 and becomes a National Forest road—NF-1376. We pass by Azalea Park, several RV resorts, a rock quarry, a small grocery store, and several neighborhoods of unobtrusive homes similar to those we observed the previous morning. We cross to the river’s south bank a quarter mile past Alfred A. Loeb State Park—closed to camping because of Covid-19. I make a mental note to check it out another time as it looks like a pleasant place to stay for a couple of nights alongside the Chetco.

At Miller Campground the road becomes another dirt track—the national forest road. We haven’t started climbing—we are still in the shade of trees on the wayside. I assume that the drive will be much like yesterday, but as we continue the forest thins out. The landscape changes as the elevation increases, and I realize that a forest fire has swept through here.

I have observed devastation like this but here there is a difference—no new growth. Not a single green sapling emerges from beneath the thousands of scorched dead trees. A ghost forest that no longer breathes, stretches to the horizon, north, south, and east.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” I say out loud. The road keeps rising and the full impact of the waste land becomes numbing.

This is dead ground. Black and grey. The former understory of the forest is a somber ochre brown tinged with pitch-black streaks marking the fire’s route. Dust wafts in the wind. Nothing—nothing at all is alive under a silent grey sky obscured by heavy overcast.

My camera bag is in the car, as it always is, but I haven’t the heart to pull it out and record what I am seeing.

We could continue but there is no point. We’ve reached the high road on the ridge. Mount Emily is behind us. It’s scarred as well. I can see a forest road cutting a conspicuous line on the mountain’s flank. The road in front of us drops back down to the Chetco. I imagine the beauty of the view that has been erased, that I will never see. The river winds east-northeast, a silver trail of reflected light making its way to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

“Let’s go back,” says Paul. “I’ve seen this kind of thing before. I don’t want to see it again.” He has traveled and camped extensively in the Western United States, Alaska, and the Southwest throughout his life. It’s difficult to accept the fact that this disaster is some kind of normal. I find a place to turn around and we return the way we came. Once again the mountains fade westwards towards Brookings, but this high ground is naked and fatally wounded.

We don’t talk much on the drive back to town. We stop at the Fred Meyer and pick up some ground beef, hamburger buns, and beer. The grocery store is filled with people meandering up and down the narrow aisles. Too many people on the planet, I think. And I’m one of them. As I stand in the checkout line I find a special edition Life magazine about all the Godzilla movies. The sight of it cheers me up and I add it to the grocery basket. My lifelong interest in a make-believe monster that destroys whole cities is sardonic.

I’m thinking that the fire that killed that forest must have come close to ravaging Brookings. I recall from my pre-travel research that a tsunami wrecked the town’s harbor in 2011—a tidal wave caused by an earthquake 50 miles East of Japan’s Oshika Peninsula. I pay for the food, beer, and the glossy biography of a cinematic kaiju, and we return to camp, subdued.

Paul spends time with his iPad researching the fire ands sends me a link to the pertinent Wikipedia article:

The Chetco Bar Fire was a wildfire in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, Oregon, United States. The fire, which was caused by a lightning strike and first reported on July 12, 2017, burned 191,125 acres (773 km2) as of November 4, when it was declared 100% contained. The Chetco Bar Fire area is subject to warm, dry winds known as the Brookings effect (also known as Chetco Effect), driven by high pressure over the Great Basin.

There it is—the Brookings Effect. The katabatic wind. It plucked the embers from the lightning strike and expanded it to 300 acres by July 20—2907 by August 2—22042 by the 19th. Then the evacuations started, “3 miles up the North Bank Chetco River Road from Social Security Bar to the wilderness retreat area”—exactly where Paul and I had stood. Through the rest of August and all of September and October the fire raged so hot that the fungi and organisms in the soil that nurture the trees were obliterated.

The intended destruction of the Lookout Bombing Raids in 1942 was held in check by the quick-acting observers on Mount Emily. 75 years later random lightning from the sky did the deed, impacting the actual site of the bombing on Wheeler Ridge. The irony here is unsettling, and in the aftermath the Forest Service was criticized for its perceived lack of aggressive response in the initial days of the fire. The official United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) Report to Congressional Requesters states:

Some national forest officials and many stakeholders we interviewed said that the Forest Service was not aggressive enough in fighting the Chetco Bar Fire before the Chetco Effect winds arrived in mid-August. Several of these stakeholders said if the Forest Service had used more aggressive firefighting strategies and tactics, the agency could have prevented the fire from getting as large as it did and threatening homes.

As I read the report back at Harris Beach I wonder why this is a surprise to me. Certainly, a fire of this magnitude is something I would have heard about? I think back to August of 2017 and I remember that I was still living in California—the fire season had started in April and wreaked havoc throughout the state. By October the Atlas, Tubbs, Nuns, and Redwood Valley Complex fires in Napa, Sonoma, Solano, and Mendocino counties had destroyed thousands of structures, including a big section of the city of Santa Rosa, where over 5000 homes were burned out. 44 people died. All of that must have blotted out any reports of the Chetco Fire on the local TV coverage in California. 

While the conflagration at the edge of Brookings was being fought and contained, I was witnessing what was happening closer to my Bay Area home. This is from my journal in mid-October:

By the time I got back down to Napa the sun had gone down and the wind had shifted. I stood alongside the Napa River on the western side just a little bit north of the Imola bridge. The hills were burning to the east at the same time as men were fishing from the shore in the safe confines of town. I could hear sirens amidst the sounds of traffic. When I drove through downtown there were people heading out of restaurants and getting on with life. I felt a great sense of loss, a feeling that is becoming familiar to me. So much of what we take for granted is so easily mislaid in a moment.

That journal entry reminds me of what I have forgotten.

The words I read as I ate my oatmeal return to consciousness: “Next is honoring our pain, in which we learn how to suffer the pain of the world with others and with the world itself.”

There is personal pain that arises from the unanticipated events of our own life. There is also the pain of the world, which we try to dismiss, but that is always present. While mulling those truths over in my mind in the fading light of early evening, I walk and return to the view of Bird Island. I stand on the high ground that overlooks the Pacific and the wind blows cold and hard directly into my face, as if to say: wake up, wake up…so much of what we take for granted is so easily mislaid in a moment. The wind uses my own words to remind me that there is something I must do. I don’t know what it is. Some immeasurable certainty is pulsing in the sound of the waves rushing onto the shore, yet this time I am not comforted. By the time I get back to the trailer tiny drops of rain are falling. The weather is changing.

In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours: They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Notes on the text:

The Brookings Effect: 2

After a rough night of fitful sleep my conscious mind awakens to the sound of the sea and the penetrating aroma of fresh coffee. I open the trailer door, take a few deep breaths, and walk around the campground. No one is out and about, though there is a recreational vehicle parked at almost every site. Years ago, when I camped with my wife and daughters, there were always more people in tents than trailers. Perhaps people are looking out of windows to assure themselves that the world is operating in the usual way before going outside. I can’t blame them for being cautious. What we consider as normal changed to something else one year ago when the Covid-19 pandemic started. I think of Paul’s rule: “that’s not camping, not if you’re going to hide indoors all the time.”

My brother and I have other plans for these next few days—an exploration of the Rogue River & Siskiyou National Forest. We will attempt to discover a pure view of this southwest corner of Oregon. Today I’m looking forward to a slow drive on a poorly maintained path, which, for a brief moment, surfaces in my awareness as a metaphor.

Lookout Air Raid Map – Public Domain, Wikimedia.

Brookings was founded as a lumber town in 1906. Today it’s a a community of 6500 people, most of them retirees from California. In 1942 it was the site of a Japanese aerial incendiary bomb attack, one of the Lookout Air Raids. A substantial forest fire was the intention, but observers on Mount Emily spotted the smoke and suppressed it before a larger crew arrived and extinguished the threat. Twenty years later the pilot returned, invited by the citizens of Brookings in friendship. He honored the town with the gift of his family’s ancient Samurai sword—which flew in the cockpit with him on the day of the bombing. Today it is displayed in the Chetco Community Public Library.

We drive through town and note that in addition to fast food, gas stations, and an enormous two-story Fred Meyer grocery store, there are at least five marijuana dispensaries. For some reason that strikes us as hilarious, and we crack jokes about stoned and spaced-out California Baby Boomers moving to Oregon to avoid sales tax. We fit into that category, though we are sober as we make a left onto Winchuck River Road several miles south of town.

County route 896 parallels the graceful meander of the river as the sun burns away the ocean overcast. The unincorporated communities outside of Brookings boost the population total up to about 13000 citizens, and many of them live in well-maintained, understated homes along the county roads that become logging thoroughfares in the national forest. We transition from smooth pavement to irregular dirt on forest road NF-1107 and climb into the mountains.  A plume of dust floats behind the car and clings stubbornly to the rearview window. Paul navigates with the Avenza Maps app on his phone. We’re searching for a viewpoint where we can stare at the forested landscape and listen to the silence.

As I drive I contemplate what I read while having breakfast in the trailer—a daily meditation email from Richard Rohr, whose words often sync with my own musings:

The world is one unified system. It cannot be separated into fragmented, saleable parts. The Eurocentric view of property ownership requires us to see the land as being disconnected from us. This view separates us from the source of life. The Indigenous view recognizes the land as kin [as did my spiritual father, St. Francis], as part of the lineage of life that we are all connected to. Thus, we have an obligation to care for the land in the same way that we would care for our human relatives.

I’ve also been thinking about my father and mother these last few weeks. Those reflections are evolving as a memoir of my early encounters with the immanence of divinity in the natural world. My father captured the landscapes of those memories in photographs that he displayed with his slide projector after dinner, before my brothers and I were shooed off to bed:

As I watch, I remember standing at Glacier Point in Yosemite, the valley spread out before me like a sacred map. My imagination recalls what I beheld: clarity in all four directions, all the colors of the world spreading through my perception, through cold air above the granite mountains in a pale blue sky embossed by dramatic clouds cruising inexorably across the horizon. I recall an indefinable sensation—I did not possess the vocabulary to describe it then—a divine presence, but not personal or judgmental. A sense of gratitude and wonder arose within me at that moment, and later—whenever my mind and soul opened to the natural world.

My camera bag is in the back of my car, but we don’t find a suitable vista for photography. The road is bordered by trees on both sides that obstruct the view, so there is no opportunity for panorama shots. At times I find it beneficial to gaze at the landscape without holding a camera—it reminds me that the present moment is a perpetual constant—stretching from the past that is always in my mind into a future that I can only anticipate. Making photos is one approach to the practice of art, but every so often I have to set composition aside and remember that gently seeing and breathing is in itself a creative act.

Richard and Dark Star – photo by Paul Gill

We find a spot to pull over, get out of the car, and stretch. Paul takes a picture of me standing next to Dark Star. I breathe for a few minutes, silently, out, in, out, in, out. We’ve twisted, turned, climbed, and I’ve lost track of time. We can see green forests for miles, patient under clearing skies. The woods fade from sight in a diffuse curtain of fog near Brookings on the western horizon. There are no bald spots that reveal areas that have been logged and abandoned. I’m content in knowing that this part of the forest that crests the Winchuck River is untouched—for now.

I have no idea what time it is. The slow road has brought us to a serene, liminal space. My reveries are interrupted when I realize that I’m hungry. Time to return to the campsite and eat lunch. We roll back down NF-1107 , and the road seems familiar—no longer an unknown track. The dust obstructing the rear window blows away as I turn back onto US-101 north and reach the speed limit. The sky has cleared. The sun is dazzling. There is a chill in the air. A slight sea breeze buffets the car.

In this southwest part of Oregon the wind can streak down the slopes of the mountains at furious speeds, a katabatic airstream that is cited as the Brookings Effect. The word katabatic stems from the same Greek root as katabasis, which expresses several definitions inferring some type of descent—into the darkened underworld, depression, or a journey from the interior of a country to its coast. The latter meaning reminds me that there is often a delicate fringe of myth vibrating at the edge of my awareness, as if I am in a deep-time tale of my own.

After lunch I sit in the sun and read Stephany’s thriller—a page turner with many breathless twists and turns, frantic action, nasty villains, and two well-drawn, sympathetic protagonists whose fates combine in an epic plunge through treacherous territory. I rarely read that type of fiction, but her story compels me as a welcome break from my own quest as I sit next to the Pacific. The waves spill onto Harris Beach and the wind hastens through the trees. There is no peril in this landscape—only a deepening calm at the edge of the continent. I close the book and sink into a nap—until the temperature drops as the sun is occluded by clouds.

During a discussion after dinner, Paul and I decide to repeat our search the next morning, this time along the Chetco River, which divides the town north and south along the shoreline and debouches into the Pacific at the Port of Brookings. I’ll be looking for another unspoiled view of the Siskiyou Mountains. As I examine the verdant forest displayed on the satellite map I have no idea that the view from the ground will not be what I expect.

Myth is not much to do with the past, but a kind of magical present that can flood our lives when the conditions are just so. It is not just the neurosis of us humans trying to fathom our place on the earth, but sometimes the earth actually speaking back to us.

Martin Shaw, A Branch from the Lightning Tree

Notes on the text:

The Brookings Effect: 1

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.

Umpqua Lighthouse State Park – Highway 101 – Photo by Richard Gylgayton

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.

Port Orford, Oregon – Photo by Richard Gylgayton

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.

Home Away from Home – Photo by Richard Gylgayton

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.