It all begins as things in Portland often begin–with an indifferent rainfall making the streets reflective and the day colored with dampness. Candy and I didn’t get away until a little past two. As we drove down Stark I calculated how much daylight we had remaining: Two hours–enough to get us to the coast. Portland had become home to me but I had grown tired of the rain and the gray and the general absence of sunlight. I found my thoughts being drawn more and more to a vast place that goes by many names but is commonly known as the Desert.
Geese were crossing Naito Parkway on our way out of town. Portland drivers, being polite to the point of absurdity, waited patiently for the mother and her goslings to reach the other side. I found myself squirming in the passenger seat; I wanted to get on the freeway and starting heading south, leave the rain far behind–no more mossy roofs and lush forests; not for a couple of weeks, at least.
The plan for the day was to drive through Lincoln City and take US 101 south to Motel 6 in Coos Bay. I had stayed there many years earlier and remembered the town as being washed free of color and possessing little charm despite being close to the sea. I remember tasting the salt in the air and wondering if the locals ever stopped tasting it.
Candy got off Interstate 5 at Tigard and turned onto Oregon 99W heading south. The plan was to thread our way through small towns like Tigard, Sherwood, and Dundee on the way to the ocean. Before the 1960s when they put in Interstate 5, US 99 was the main highway through the Valley. At Salem it split into US99W and US99E all the way up to Portland. Sometimes I wish I had been born a generation earlier so I could have known this country before all the interstates with their excess of asphalt and monstrous cloverleafs. A time before all the family motels and restaurants were killed off by the chains. I remember that time, it was just beginning to fade when I was a child, but I wish I could have experienced it as an adult.
The rain was undecided. The wipers were on and then off and then on again. Tigard was a dull series of fast food and tire shops–the old main drag US 99W had followed through town. Gas stations and motels and used car lots. We passed a strip mall where I saw the first of several Tan Republics. Seeing the sign I imagined a proud, orange people standing next to a flag made out of beach towels.
South of Tigard the strip malls and hotels fell away and we found ourselves driving through open land ornamented with the odd farmhouse or mobile home. Barns and metal sheds observed prankish goats and the steely rush of the traffic. The land was beautiful and wild and reminded me of California’s Central Valley. Sherwood was full of modern brown and beige condominiums. Candy pointed out the Muchas Gracias restaurant with a picture of hands shaking on the sign. Past the city limits there are more pastures and farms with old trucks, buses, and farm equipment rusting within sight of the highway. Every piece of machinery had been new once, a focal point of pride and an implement of a dream; every time I see an old truck or bus I imagine all the stories they have. I want to run my hands over their rusting fenders, close my eyes, and imagine I can read the stubborn paint flakes like tea leaves.
Half a mile past Knight’s Tackle Box we stopped at a cafe to buy coffee and a cherry pie. I found a secure place for the box on top of all the stuff covering the back seat and we continued west on State 22 towards the sea. The highway passed blackberry bushes the size of houses as the bars got rougher and the signs on the churches sterner. More farms, another Indian casino, and the wipers went off and on and then off again.
In the days when the world was made by hand fishermen used colorful glass globes to mark their fishing lines. Today those globes are curios to be hidden on the beach for treasure hunters willing to face the icy cut of the winds along the Oregon coast. Candy had heard about a treasure hunt in Lincoln City so we pulled off US 101 and weaved through the narrow, residential streets to the ocean. We parked at an Indian casino. Getting out of the car the wind was brutal, blowing sand and savagely cold air inland. Normally you can stay warm in Oregon by wearing layers but this was not a normal wind. I thought of those fishermen, long dead, laying those colorful, glass globes on the water. Skin chapped and crusted with salt. Cold, always cold.
The two of us walked up the beach for maybe ten minutes. The Indian casino seemed impossibly large as it loomed over our right shoulders: Blocky and no nonsense like the finest Soviet architecture, daring the ghosts of the fishermen to rise up out of the sea to try their hand at blackjack or take a place in line for the buffet. The wind got to be too much so we walked up the steps and under the shelter of the hotel. A housekeeper was struggling to push a poorly loaded cart and I thought of my own time working in a hotel. Candy nudged me and we went into a lounge for a snack and maybe a drink. Four people were sitting around a small, circular fireplace talking and laughing easily. The view was beautiful but the menu was far overpriced so we nodded to the bartender and made our way back out into the weather.
(C) 2014 Izaak Diggs