Of Coastal Hikes and Buoyed Hopes By Tim Buckley
I awoke at 6:30 and went for a walk before breakfast. The narrow path from the beach house was still spongy from the night’s squall. You could hear the surf from inside the house; outside it was loud enough to hide the howl of a jet engine.
The path led through a copse of storm-bent cedars, then opened onto a rugged promontory no more than 100 yards from the ocean and not much more than 30 feet above it. First sunlight caught the breakers roaring in from the northwest. The color on the face of each wave reminded me of those wondrous green eyes of red-haired Irish girls. And then the image would disappear in a thunder-ous explosion of bleached-white spray and the squawk of guillemots and gulls.
The tumult was unfathomable, tidepools one moment and a frenzied sea of egg-white froth the next. A couple of man-sized timbers were slowly drowning between surf and shore. When I considered how few moments a human might live in such violence, I averted my gaze and inhaled deeply. How could the sensations of exhilaration and extinction live so closely together? It was so disorienting that I had to move on.
The radio said we had 30 footers coming ashore all day. Not being a man of the sea, it seemed odd that the sky wouldn’t mirror the surf in its tempera-ment. Instead, lazy scattered stratus, gray on white, imbued a sense of silver against a fresh blue. It also struck me as curious why the steady gusts would not blow in from the same quarter as the surf.
An anomaly about Oregon, relative to other states: its coastline is held entirely in trust as a public right-of-way. Every schoolchild learns that Gov. Oswald West set aside the 350 mile beach, in 1912, to be used as a highway. Tom McCall, holding that same office 60 years later, would safeguard the coast from private ownership, all the way to the high water mark, making it the only border-to-border, uninterrupted, publicly-owned shoreline in the nation.
During the Great Depression, a string of bridges began to appear along the coast, spanning the twenty-odd rivers coming out of the mountains just to the east. A woman I know in Salem grew up in those years along the coast. Her father was in bridge construction—a skilled “high climber”— and the family spent years moving from one shoreline tent camp to the next, the muscle to shape each new span. While the men fastened cable and hauled cement, the women tended camp and the youngsters fished or skimmed rocks, the smell of wet Alder wood fires and strong coffee clinging to them like morning fog. Those indigent years created some mighty swimmers and resourceful investors she told me with a knowing smile.
I followed a thin trail through bent grass and along the exposed cliff face, formed by pyroclastic basalt that erupted millennia ago in eastern Oregon. Stunning to think of the heat and power necessary to propel the molten mass hundreds of miles cross-country before hardening to stone at the cool Pacific. I wondered if the anemone, starfish and mussels that cling in pitted colonies below could read in the chemistry under their feet anything about the desert from which that rock had flown.
At the head of a magnificent cove, I stood at the rim looking into a churning hole the length and depth of a football stadium. As each wave entered the cove, the frothy contents ahead of it would withdraw, almost as if sucking in its gut to brace for assault. When the wave hit, velocity cast it straight up the cliff wall, tens of feet over my head, where wind and sunlight turned the massive liquid shaft into a feathery curtain of spray. Arching backwards, drawn by gravity back into the cove, the cascade took on fireworks quality. And then, as one rebounding wave buckled away from the cliff face, it collided with another incoming. Boom! A secondary crescendo and a second pulse of awe, much the same as you’d expect from a breeching gray whale or the sudden liftoff of a spaceship.
Ahead of me, the lip of the trail was quickly disappearing. The heavy footprint of saltwater waves and punishing winter rains were slowly taking the earth back to sea. As I hurried around the head of the cove—timing the passage to avoid a dousing—I caught a boot in a foot-deep crevasse that marked erosion’s progress, and a block of gray clay sod fell off, becoming meal in the grinding maw below.
I scrambled away from the edge as the slope steepened. At the next inlet, black monoliths of rock, called haystacks, rose from the ocean at the entrance to a smaller cove. From this perspective, I could hear chorus strains of a sea lion colony, barely audible in the mix of wind and wave action. These slippery creatures are distant descendants of the Sirens that sung ancient mariners to their final sleep.
Water driving stone against stone, the mortar and pestle of basic elements, had carved out a cave deep into the foot of another cliff. High to the left of it, a gentle waterfall spilled down through 100 feet of thin air and became mist at the mouth of the cave. The largest of waves would completely engulf the opening, compressing the air inside into unimaginable density, whereupon the turgid mix would explode outwards with a monstrous belch of spraywater, as if just barely saved from drowning. As I threaded up around the waterfall and into the steep, soft woods, I began to realize that my emotions, too, were being shaped by the elements here.
Fresh sea air had replaced the office pall in my lungs and brain. I was feeling alive, self-important and aware. But at the same time, memories of friends lost to accidents in unforgiving terrain continued to nag at me like a stubborn dog.
In adventurers, perhaps in each of us, a path of caution frequently swerves towards recklessness. I’m convinced that “pushing the envelope” is an attempt to refute life’s gradual erosion towards a vast unknown sea. Even the timid tempt fate from time to time, wanting to look over the edge but fearing loss of footing and fearful, too, that with enough desperation and bravery, we might succumb to that urge to jump forth.
And then I reached the famous landslide area that turned this part of the coast highway, called Ottercrest loop, into Ottercrest point. It was 1996, the year the flood waters in the western third of Oregon reached 100 year highs. Some cedars and firs had accomplished maturity here on these cliffs, despite annual winter blasts. They were as many years old as they were hundreds of feet tall. Majestic; who knew but the timber cruisers how many homes could be built with one of these beauties. But when the sodden earth turned to jelly that winter, the vast matte of gnarled roots that in other years created security for the soil began to slip away with little complaint. The mountain sloughed a shoulder high above Highway 101, and a half-mile of pavement was swept away in a sickening instant, taking with it the few cars and hapless drivers who believed until then that they were safe from the weather. One minute, headed home from the bar or a birthday party, the next struggling for their last breath as the swollen sea swallowed the whole mountainside in one gulp.
For most of the summer that followed, the slope was under construction. Bright yellow machines with orange lights and brutish metal tracks pushed and prodded the deep gash into a manageable pitch. From a safe distance, the powerful earth movers and excavators looked pitifully inept and vulnerable against the wound in the mountainside, their diesel engines silenced by the surf. But the engineers and operators managed to fashion a few millions of dollars worth of material into a living slope. French drains collect and funnel runoff to several points of exit along the steep face. As I looked up, four white PVC culverts were spouting small streams of fresh water from the mountain above. Holding them in place is a massive field of riprap—massive boulders of basalt quarried nearby—added for stability and erosion control.
I could see occasional cars and pickups in the southbound lane on 101 above as I began my labored ascent to the highway. In the lower half of the field, enough windborne soil had been deposited to satisfy the bare needs of new life among the riprap. Sedges and blackberry brambles had begun to cover the scar in spots. Small wrens picked furtively among the vines for remaining seeds from last year’s crop. Large chunks of old asphalt roadbed lay scattered and exposed, along with sheared sections of guardrail and thick cable. It tumbled my stomach to stare at twin yellow lines of paint on broken pavement halfway to the sea, jutting straight up—as if the highway to hell started here.
From the expanse of new road above, big metal signs warned people away from the dangerous edge. The project was, after all, only a Band Aid and the sign merely confirmed that. Even the best of human engineering is temporary.
It was a short hike on good pavement from there to a small gift shop, inhabiting the cottage beside a decommissioned Coast Guard lighthouse. A strobe still sits atop the white tower, more to warn passing tankers and freighters headed to Portland than the local fishing fleet. The shop felt very secure, holding onto a cup of warm coffee and peering out to sea through double-glazed panes. But this is Cape Foulweather, the proprietor reminded me, and then said with almost a boast that he expected another shot of 100 mile-an-hour gusts before the week was out.
As I slowly walked along the road back to the house, time, temperature and tide faded into wallpaper as I tried to intellectualize my conflicted feelings of hope and hopelessness. A brilliant scene from the movie Schindler’s List flickered through my head, a scene in which a handful of ragged Jews huddle around a sooty flame from an old oil drum, the swirling snow nearly obscuring their Dachau surroundings. They had lost nearly everything: family, social status, personal property, life savings, health and dignity. “And yet,” said one inmate to his friends, “aren’t we fortunate to still have each other.” The words were said without an ounce of irony or malice. Humans are remarkable among creation, if for nothing else than our ability to cobble together a “what could be” from a heap of “what is.”
Unselfconscious life forms, mollusks and minnows and such, probably don’t know enough about hope to ask for it. But hope for humanity, by humanity, calls for a big scoop of bravery—and maybe even a sprinkle of denial. While admitting to the hopelessness that human willpower might outwit the power of nature (and occasionally our own treacherous capabilities) isn’t it curious that we still have hope for ourselves and our kind? Perhaps living by the sea accelerates appreciation for simple comforts, amid daily reminders of our cheek-by-jowl relationship with death. You can exhibit happy faith in being an eternal “part of it all” while simultaneously enjoying interim hopes of joy and purpose. Hopeful, too, that as the seasons turn and the waves crash ashore, you’ll be allowed to eek out your existence next to the sea for some days or years, clinging to your life and your gods like a barnacle to the rocks.
Dozing off to sleep that night, comfortable with the sound of surf and a wind-driven rain, I wondered if, years from now, as the Pacific slowly acquires the real estate under where I lay my head, if the joy and wonder of my visit might somehow infuse the experience of the next generation coming here—standing at the lip of a slightly bigger cove to become unburdened from their temporary sorrows and buoyed by the idea of being infinite at the same time.
Tim Buckley is a freelance writer, editor and public relations consultant. Most of his work, via Buckley Communications, is for book publishers, magazine editors and corporate clients. Tim has lived in Salem since 1989 and has been involved in a range of non-profit organizations. He is a board of trustees member of Unity of Salem Church and a member of the Siletz Indian Tribe’s Charitable Donations Advisory Board. Among the topics for which he feels the most affinity: fitness, nutrition, entrepreneurial drive and spiritual development.