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Pacific Northwest Coast

West Coast road trip

California already conquered, he finishes off the country's West Coast, one beach scene at a time.

August 09, 2009|Christopher Reynolds

THE OREGON AND WASHINGTON COASTS — The Heceta Head Lighthouse near Yachats, Ore., stands on a seaside slope as spectacular as anything in Big Sur, and there's a bed-and-breakfast in the lightkeeper's home next-door. Be nice, and the innkeepers will let you stand beneath the lighthouse tower after dark.

From here you can follow the beam as it scans the western horizon, cutting through the misty air for miles. Coming ashore, the beam crawls across the cliff face on the other side of the inlet, then flashes through the nearby evergreens like a spotlight on the heels of a fleeing thief. Then to sea again.

Every time another revolution begins, you think, "I am wearing the mother of all headlamps." And then: "This trip was a very good idea."

I've just spent seven days driving the coast of Oregon and Washington, covering 1,149 miles. In my prelaunch dreams, this trip did not begin with Horizon Airlines misplacing my luggage and did not continue with me at the wheel of a Kia Spectra.

And I never imagined that on a night when I really needed sleep, a Grateful Dead tribute band would take over the brew pub beneath my hotel room.

But the point of a road trip is to surprise oneself, right?

The idea was to complete what I had started in January, when I drove the whole coast of California. So now I've seen just about the entire West Coast of the continental U.S. As I did on the 10-day, 1,136-mile California leg of the journey, I slept in a new bed each night, and I made sure each lodging was at the water's edge. I met a fisherman with a divinity degree and a vampire fangirl comedy duo. I didn't see one raindrop. I downed a seven-course breakfast, then chased it with a 10-course dinner. In Washington, I confronted Disappointment, Flattery and Deception on consecutive days. And, no, that didn't make me homesick for Los Angeles.

The beginning

I started where my California drive ended, at the big green "Welcome to Oregon" sign south of Brookings. I would spend about $135 per night on lodging (before taxes) and just $134.82 on gas. (Thank you, Kia.) I wound up driving more miles per day this trip, because, especially in Washington, you often have to leave U.S. 101 to see the sea.

"It's very easy to drive and drive and drive the coast and never see anything," Ed Kirkby warned me on the first night. "So you just have to park it, camp and hang out."

We were standing at water's edge in Harris Beach State Park, north of Brookings, while the sun dipped behind a set of ragged black sea stacks. Kirkby, on a two-month road trip of his own from Tucson, had just finished crabbing and was headed to his tent.

I got back in my car and pushed up to my Gold Beach hotel, where my suitcase finally caught up with me the next day.

For mile upon mile, the beaches of Oregon give you dramatic sea stacks and tide pools, and even in summer, the beachfront hotels, motels and inns are cheaper than California's in winter.

Instead of the California missions, I measured my progress in lighthouses and bridges, many of which date to the '30s, when workers were still building the Roosevelt Military Highway that we now call U.S. 101.

By the time I reached Heceta Head on the second night, I had covered 329 miles, lunched on tremendous fish at the Crazy Norwegian's restaurant in Port Orford and risked burial alive on the wind-lashed sand dunes near Florence. Like the young couple next to me, I struggled to remain standing while the gusts ripped at the seagrass and peeled feathery spray from the tops of the waves. Yet in the middle of this, a single sea gull glided toward us, straight into the wind, scarcely moving a feather, as if governed by the physics of some other planet.

"That wind -- in winter it turns semis over," another diner had said at Crazy Norwegian's.

Now the young woman gaped at the wind-defying gull.

"That," she said, "is absolutely unbelievable."

On the third day, after a seven-course breakfast at the Heceta Head Lighthouse B&B, I paused for pasta at Yachats (pronounced YAH-hots), a gem of a town tucked between green hills, and I crossed the Yaquina Bay Bridge into Newport.

I missed the big aquarium here -- just ran out of time -- but I did catch fisherman Joshua Barrett, 29, selling tuna, halibut and crabs from the docked Chelsea Rose.

He told me how crabs' eyes allow them 360-degree vision, how he drains blood from tuna, and how, in the battle to keep fish grime at bay, he trashes about 10 T-shirts every month. (That day's T-shirt said, "I'm sorry, I can't hear you over the sound of how awesome I am.")

Barrett told me he had served in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, worked as a graphic artist and earned a master's degree in divinity. He seemed to have a pretty good handle on particle physics as well.

"We caught a wolf eel the other day," Barrett said. "About 7 1/2 feet long. . . . "

It was becoming clear that Barrett had enough tales to last well into next year, but I was due to hear a few others across town.

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