A Pilgrimage to the Ocean


When I was working so hard in September, I promised myself an autumn getaway. The fantasy of renting a yurt at one of Oregon’s coastal state parks was an image that nourished my imagination when daily life felt like a forced march. Time to rest, loaf, nap, read, walk on the beach…

Planning for road trips and packing up are not easy activities for me. Once I make the break from home and wheels are turning on the pavement, I commit to traveling and the anxiety is replaced with anticipation. I headed south and west through the Columbia Gorge, fascinated as always by the shift from rain shadow to rain. I got sucked into and spat out of evening traffic through Vancouver and Portland, and made my way over the Coast Range in the dark. Finally found my yurt at Nehalem Bay State Park.


My intention was to give myself a writer’s retreat, with freedom from phone, internet, wristwatch, the distractions of home. The yurt was perfect: 16′ in diameter not including porch and deck; three windows and a large skylight that illuminated the space even on overcast days; one electrical outlet along with heat and lights; minimal but adequate furnishings. The toilet and shower building was a short walk away. I cooked on the porch with a camp stove I’d brought, and there was an outdoor water faucet. The yurts were separated from each other by stubby shore pines. I wanted to live close to the elements, but in more comfort than the nylon tent I use in summer. The yurt was sturdy and tight and warm enough. Inside, I could hear the wind, waves and rain. At night, the chittering trills of raccoons. Groups of flickers and juncos foraged in the lawns, and on the first morning I startled black tail deer. During the middle of the week, I was the only yurt resident.

I wrote in long binges. When I’d had enough, or felt stuck, it was less than ten minutes’ walk over the dunes to the beach.


Although I am not really a maritime creature, I love beach walking. The first thing to decide is north or south, and I don’t use rational criteria to decide. I just choose and go, keeping the surf to one side or the other. Always curious about what may have washed up since my last walk, I found the beaches swept nearly clean. A poster asks visitors to watch for tsunami debris from Japan, but nearly everything I found had once been alive on this side of the Pacific. I imagined the story of this battered log which had perhaps toppled into the river during a flood and washed out to sea where it tumbled back and forth through the breakers. There were bits of shell and sand dollars, fragments of kelp and sitka spruce branches, rounded cobblestones. Gull feathers and once a dead salmon. My eyes cast ahead, alert for the next interesting thing.


On Thanksgiving, my kin and I walked to the Columbia River from my sister’s house. It’s become a tradition to get out of the house after the feast. My sister lives in the desert, with sagebrush out her kitchen window. So it was fun to go to the river and search through the rocks for skipping stones and practice our technique. I have become a connoisseur of skipping stones, always on the lookout for round flat ones that will fly over the water, bouncing as many times as possible. Proper form is crucial to success, which I will not go into here. On one beach walk, I sidearmed rocks across the shallow water in front of the oncoming waves until I was satisfied.


When it was time to return north, I followed the coast highway on a stormy day. Another reason to go to the beach in winter is to test your raingear, and I’m happy to report that mine performed well. I hiked down to this tiny cobbled beach near the sea stacks at Cannon Beach. The tide was high, clawing up onto the steep shore and hissing back out through the black rounded stones. I watched waves crash into cliffs and each other, sending spray and foam into the air. Rain came sideways into my face, the only part of me not covered. Turbulence and drama–something in human nature wants to slide up close and feel the raw power in the wind and sea. In the nineteenth century, writers would have rattled on about the sublime, the dwarfing of man by the elements of nature. That language doesn’t work in 2012, at least not for me. I feel the sublime, the awe and wonder but don’t have the language that feels relevant to our time and experience. It has something to do with evading the nearness of death, swathing ourselves in layers of technology so that we don’t have to acknowledge our mortality. We have tamed nature and put it to our use, fooling ourselves that we are in control. What the big waves and wind tell me is that they are dispassionate. It’s nothing personal–waves and wind will endure long past my time, and will never be truly tamed. Feeling grateful for that fact and for the warm spark of life inside of me, I clambered back over the rain-slick driftwood logs to the path up the hill.


Yesterday I closed the circle by coming home, back over the mountains to my place among the ponderosa pines. The circle of this year is closing too, a time to reflect on what was discovered and experienced, and also consider the next leg of the journey. There are the thousands of words I wrote to sift through and see if maybe there are a hundred worth keeping. A cold rain falls today. If I go outside and open my senses, I may be able to sniff the ocean moisture in the air.

On the Road

Living as I do along a well-beaten path, I sometimes need to be reminded how much I love the side trails in the Pacific Northwest. There are still places where the roads are only two lanes wide, where generic corporate slickness has not penetrated, and the traffic is comparatively light.

My fire call came at the end of last week, at the end of a hot work day. I spent half the night packing, unsure of what to expect. The next morning I pointed south, and by mid-afternoon found myself in Crescent, Oregon. There’s not much in Crescent: a Forest Service ranger station, a Shell station and mini mart, a couple restaurants, a motel, some boarded-up businesses. For the moment, there was also a fire camp popping up like mushrooms after a rain. Except that it was hot and dry.

I worked with a team of guys whose expertise is analyzing fire behavior and projecting what this particular fire might do until fire season ends in October. My contribution was field recon, observing and bringing back specific information on forest types, fuels, topography, fuel breaks, unique features that could be affected by fire. My job was go out and look for stuff. I was happy to do it. Learned some plants that were new to me, such as shasta red fir and chinquapin. Learned a little bit about predictive models. Enjoyed the company of my colleagues.

The geology of central Oregon is volcanic. The Washington Cascade volcanoes are large, glacier-carved, and not as numerous. In Oregon, you can travel easily from lava flow to crater, and timbered cinder cones are clumped in groups. The forest soils consist of pumice and some conifer needle litter. It all seems as if it was shaped recently. I was intrigued by Mt. Thielsen (the jaggedy peak on the right), which looks to me like the core of some long-ago volcano, weathered and stripped down to bare bones. Even though the Cascade crest is not knife-edged here, the elevations rise higher that 7000 feet above sea level.

I stepped onto the Pacific Crest Trail at Windigo Butte, and also followed the North Fork of the Umpqua River for a mile or so. Lodgepole pine stands go on for miles, hinting that this country has known stand-replacing fires in the past. No time to explore in depth, no time to settle into an intimate belonging to this landscape. The work was about covering ground and distance, not about letting the place slowly reveal itself. And that was all right. It was familiar enough and different enough.

Cinnamon Butte is a well-kept lookout on a 41-foot tower. The road is smooth and graveled all the way to the top. It is staffed by a paid employee, who was happy to visit. It did my heart good to know that this part of the Forest Service lives on, at least for now. An experienced pair of eyes on a mountaintop, a steady voice on the radio, plenty of time to tell a smoke from a puff of dust.

The job was over sooner than I wanted–I always want to stay out in the woods. Yesterday I made my way back northward, and looked for the things that make this part of the world unique–the bears and lumberjacks and Sasquatches. The smoke in the air, the dryland wheatfields, whitecaps on the Columbia River, wild horses on the Yakama Reservation, a rattlesnake poking around the garbage cans at a rest stop. Trees and volcanoes and sagebrush. And finally topping Manastash Ridge to drop down into the Kittitas Valley, smoke haze flattening the silhouette of Mt. Stuart against the sky.

Home. Back on the beaten path, appreciating the perspective that travel always brings.