Thursday, July 30, 2009

Escaping the heat.

Yesterday was one of those days that made me wish that I was a better writer, a better poet. In the middle of a freakishly abnormal heat wave, I decided to drive over to the coast rather than melt and whine at home. It's only about 90 miles to the ocean. So close that I wonder why I don't go more often. I took off early in the morning with no plan other than to drive west until I saw the Pacific.

Not far past the outskirts of the metro area, one starts climbing the hills that lead into the Coastal Range. The range is small, as mountain ranges go. The summit is only about 1600 feet. But it is beautiful. With a few gaping exceptions. Sailing past the farmland that lies just below them, I felt my spirit lift as the trees began to close in behind and over the car. Frequently when driving in the hills here, it resembles nothing so much as entering a leafy green tunnel with the branches joining over the road allowing only random patches of sunlight to land directly on the road. I don't know that it was actually cooler there, but it certainly gives the mental impression of feeling cooler. Whether it is the unrelenting green or the sense of being sheltered by all of those trees, I do not know, but it never fails to improve my outlook.

What never fails to dampen my elevated mood are the clear cut areas. Driving through forests here always carries the possibility of coming across those areas leased to lumber companies, which have stripped entire mountainsides of everything taller than two feet in height. The devastation is sickening with stumps and branches strewn every which way and, all too frequently, no seedlings planted to replace what has been taken. The feeling is one of witnessing violence and there are no words adequate to describe it. Sometimes the companies leave a thin line of trees near the road in a futile attempt to mask what has happened beyond them. I know all of the 'rational' arguments about jobs and the need for lumber, but it leaves such scars. I don't get physically ill at the sight as I used to, but it still mutes the shine of an otherwise perfect day.

About an hour out from the city, deep into the mountains, there is a restaurant that we always stop at. Discovered it when the kids were little. It isn't a great gourmet place, it is a funky place modeled on a logging camp motif. (I know, ironic after the last paragraph.) The food is good and the feeders outside of the windows provide a variety of birds to watch while you wait. It's hard to imagine driving this way to the beach without stopping there. It's just part of the package.

Finally, I come out of the mountains and almost immediately there is the Pacific. Or rather, there should have been the Pacific. There were low-lying clouds covering the entire coastline. With no particular destination in mind, beyond not going to the usual places, I turned left to see what would present itself. Only occasionally did the sun power through to reveal blue ocean below. And I noticed that it is quite unnerving to drive down the coast highway, on the edge of cliffs that should be overlooking the ocean, and only see thick clouds below. On curves especially, it felt as though one wrong move and I could fall off the edge of the world entirely. There are many 'Scenic Outlook' sites along the coast and every one of them yielded a wide vista of clouds and nothing else. So I kept driving south.

I sped past all of the beaches and towns that I had stopped at before, still not sure where I was going to end up. The tiny little harbor towns seem much more appealing driving through them than they probably are to live in, but my fantasy of having a place by the ocean was running rampant. Little places like Garibaldi and Hebo which basically have one street, one grocery, one theater, etc. let one imagine a simpler and, perhaps, more real type of existence. Never mind the certainty that the reality might drive one quite mad.

When I had had just about enough driving for one sitting, I saw a sign that read "Nestucca Beach, next right." So right I went and drove the 3 or 4 miles to the beach. While there were occasional splashes of sunlight peeking through the clouds on the highway, down by the ocean there were none. The fog was so thick that the sun was nothing more than a hazy little ball overhead.

I walked about a mile up the beach and did a little people watching. Since it was 65 degrees on a weekday, there weren't too many people to watch which is why the ones who were there caught my attention. I wondered about the two teenage girls lying on towels in swimsuits attempting to get a tan. They must have been freezing. I watched a couple of chocolate Labs dashing into the water chasing a stick, which they then proceeded to carry together down the beach. I don't believe I've ever seen two dogs carrying opposite ends of a stick before, but it seemed like usual behavior for those two. There were a few intrepid souls in wet suits with boogie boards braving the frigid water. My favorite was a grandmother with a toddler. The toddler was running for all he was worth, collecting rocks and passing them on to his grandmother. Then, when she had enough, he would take them one at a time and attempt to throw them into the water. More often than not, he missed the ocean.

The beach itself was littered with the remains of the gulls' breakfast. Crab had been on the menu and I had to watch my step for a ways so that I didn't step on shells and pincers. There were also tire tracks despite the fact that I was far past the sign that said motor vehicles were not allowed on the beach. All the usual beach debris could be found, partial shells, bits of seaweed and the odd cigarette butt.

As I walked, I noticed that the tide was coming in, so I picked a spot and planted myself, waiting for it to come to me. I gazed out watching the variations of the waves tumbling in for the better part of an hour before the ocean caught me. The water was slate gray with only the white bubbles at the top of the waves relieving the color. I watched the near approach of the water for awhile until my focus shifted to the furthest waves I could see coming in. They couldn't have been more than a thousand yards away, the visibility was so short. Those tunnels of water collapsing in on themselves gave the barest glint of green near their crests before resolving back to gray. I continued to look outward, waiting for the water to reach me, with a fairly blank mind. Just watching. Just noticing. Once or twice, my mind skipped back to other times, other beaches, other companions, but for the most part it was just me, the ocean and nothing more. Or rather, nothing less.

At long last, the water reached out and slapped me. Nothing quite prepares one for the first touch of the cold water. It came up and captured my feet up to my ankles before it pulled back. It must have been undecided about wanting to play because it took another 10 minutes before another wave was brave enough to reach me again. I shifted my focus to the place where the water was striking and wondered with each new wave if this one would be the one that really got me. Childish musings perhaps, almost as if I was daring it to tag me. As the water became more consistent in its approach, I planted my feet more firmly, braced for the big one. No truly big ones arrived, at least not while I stood there. But I did enjoy standing in the low surf, comparing and contrasting the sensations.

After awhile, the grandmother and child came back up the beach. Their adventure apparently over because now the child was being carried. Too much excitement for one day, most likely. A woman bounced past, walking her collie. And one of the guys in the wetsuits had had enough and made his way past me and away. I walked back down the beach, more slowly than I had walked up it and made the climb over the dune that would lead back to my car.

I half thought that I'd go in search of another place, but I found that I was done for the day. I got all of the sand off my feet and pointed the car back towards the highway. I always tell myself when I go to the beach that I'm going to stop and get some saltwater taffy. And, as usual, this time I didn't do it either. I apparently like the idea of taffy more than I actually like taffy. So I brought no physical souvenirs from the excursion, unless I can count a sunburnt nose and aching calf muscles from the climb up the dune. Yet, somehow, it feels as though this particular day will be with me for quite some time.


Kelly said...

Beautiful imagery! Thank you for sharing the refreshment of your day to and at the beach - it reminds me of past jaunts of my own to the coast.

Knitman said...

Oh dear! I am only 10 or so miles form the coast....and i can't recall the last time I visited the beach.