The Heceta Head Lighthouse near Yachats, Ore., stands on a seaside slope as spectacular as anything in California’s Big Sur, and there’s a bed-and-breakfast in the lightkeeper’s home next door.
Be nice and the innkeepers might 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.
I slept in a new bed each night and 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.
I started 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 Spectra.)
I wound up driving more miles per day this trip, because, especially in Washington, you often have to leave U.S. Highway 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, Ariz., had just finished crabbing and was headed to his tent. I got back in my car and pushed up to my Gold Beach hotel.
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.
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.
I struggled to remain standing while the gusts ripped at the sea grass and peeled feathery spray from the waves. Yet in the middle of this, a single sea gull glided, scarcely moving a feather, as if governed by the physics of some other planet.
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 but caught 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 shirt read: “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 clear that Barrett had enough tales to last well into next year, but I was due to hear a few others across town.
The Sylvia Beach Hotel, a retro-Bohemian, semi-Luddite, slightly shabby retreat in Newport’s artsy Nye Beach area, names its rooms after famous authors and outfits them accordingly.
It urges guests to stay for dinner and play “two truths and a lie” with one another. It’s a 10-course dinner, which, counting lunch, put me at 18 courses for the day.
I enjoyed good salmon and even better falsehoods. Amanda, a young Oregonian, flummoxed us by lying about everything, from brothers and husband to Japanese and Korean language skills. Conversely, Martha of Georgia accidentally told the truth and was disqualified.
Not one soul bought my account of bungee-jumping in Zimbabwe, despite lavish details about Victoria Falls and fruit-hurling monkeys. I retired to my room, the Edgar Allan Poe, to nod off beneath the dull blade of a big metal knife, suspended from the ceiling over my pillow.
Cheesy? Perhaps. But things were about to get cheesier.
The next day I hit Tillamook, where about a million travelers a year stop for the cheese factory tour.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea. But it was free. And it was a self-guided tour, allowing easy escape.
Then there was the restaurant-retail area – an ungodly amount of dairy products, including 38 flavors of ice cream. Resistance was futile.
Now I had many miles to cover quickly, which meant dissing three substantial cities. I prowled Cannon Beach for a few hours. I slowly cruised through Seaside (a Coney Island of the Northwest). Then I blasted past Astoria.
Ah, but the Astoria-Megler Bridge. It’s a green monster, a truss structure almost four miles long, built in 1966.
It begins by soaring high over the south side of the Columbia River, then it drops until you can almost feel the Columbia lapping at your ankles. You can’t walk on it, but with that descent it’s twice as much fun to drive on as the Golden Gate Bridge.
A man feels proud crossing such a bridge and pleased to reach the midpoint of his journey.
And then that man remembers that he’s approaching the biggest gamble on his itinerary, the Historic Sou’Wester Lodge in Seaview, Wash., whose proprietor, Len Atkins, said this when taking the reservation: “I hesitate to describe anything here as comfortable, but it’s good for the soul.”
She was a faded beauty, 35 feet long, and Atkins led me to her at dusk.
“Spartan Royal Manor,” read the letters on her side. She dated to about 1954, which put her among the most senior trailers on the grassy three-acre field near Cape Disappointment, Wash.
But she was fully functional, with a kitchen, a bathroom and a bedroom with cool, curvy corners.
Every guest, Atkins told me, is invited into the farmhouse great room, where he and his wife, Miriam, hold court amid hundreds of books and works of art.
The Atkinses, both 80 and raised in South Africa, came to this rustic clubhouse nearly 30 years ago after stints in Israel and Chicago, and they’ve made it a haven for world-class conversation or deep reflection, not creature comforts. It’s better if you’re not in a hurry.
“You know,” Len said pleasantly, as I was leaving, “what you’re doing is just about the exact opposite of what we’re trying to do here.”
All I could do was shrug and hit the accelerator.
At Cape Disappointment, I checked out the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. (In 1805, it was here at the mouth of the Columbia that their expedition reached the Pacific.)
At Cosmopolis, I bought gas. At the Kalaloch Lodge, I combed the beach amid enough driftwood to build a town of soggy, silvery log cabins.
At Ruby Beach, I found thousands of surf-tumbled stones, stacked by human hands to make a cairn wonderland.
And then in Forks, things got weird.
The Chamber of Commerce parking lot was jammed. Dozens of tourists, many of them teenage girls, thronged a tour bus. The Forks Motel marquee read “Welcome to Forks Home of Twilight Heated Pool.”
Forks, population 3,175, is the setting of novelist Stephenie Meyer’s vampire series “Twilight.” She found this little lumber town, which neighbors the Hoh rain forest, searching on Google for some place dark, wet and American.
Thanks to the release of four “Twilight” books since 2005 and a movie in late 2008, local tourism has been rising faster than a zombie hand from clammy cemetery dirt.
The number of visitors has increased nearly tenfold in three years, the Chamber of Commerce says, and I saw dozens of travelers like Malia Suzui, 21, and Lani Kiefel, 37, who drove from Walla Walla.
“We had dinner at Bella Italia, where Edward and Bella had their first date,” Kiefel said, speaking of the protagonists as if they were our great mutual friends.
“And we’ve re-enacted things,” said Suzui. “I even asked somebody to mug me in Port Angeles. Pretend-mug.”
(I’m told there’s a near-mugging in one of the books. Not having read it, I just nodded.)
“And we have teeth,” said Kiefel, which sent them both diving into their bags for fake fangs.
About six hours later, I reached Port Townsend, checked into the affordable Waterstreet Hotel and discovered that Jack Acid, a Grateful Dead cover band, was about to crank it up in the bar just below my room.
No matter how whipped I was, sleep was not going to happen soon. So I went downstairs, nursed a beer through “Alabama Getaway” and several other old favorites, and crashed when the music was done, around 1:30 a.m.
Then I caught the morning ferry, scooted over the 180-foot-high Deception Pass Bridge and sprinted up to Blaine, the last city before Canada.
Blaine’s Peace Arch State Park is a perfect grassy meadow, open to pedestrians from both sides of the border.
There’s a sculpture garden, a big arch and all sorts of ornamental horticulture, including flowers arranged to resemble stars, stripes and a maple leaf. The Pacific was just across the street and down the hill.
Life at the border was sweet. But this still didn’t feel like the end of the road.
What had looked and felt like the end of the road was Cape Flattery, the day before. Because the Olympic Peninsula juts farther west than does the rest of Washington’s coast, this cape is the northwesternmost point in the continental U.S.
I almost had bypassed it for fear it would be smothered in fog. But as I neared the coast north of Forks, the sky cleared.
Past the signs for Beaver and Sappho, past Clallam Bay and Sekiu, the roads led onto Makah Reservation land and grew more narrow and rugged. After Neah Bay and miles of wriggling along the water’s edge, the road cut inland to a modest trail head.
The trail was just half a mile long, a tantalizing forest path, blue sky, turquoise sea. There I was, at land’s end. Gulls crying. Waves slapping at sandstone caves below.
Ahead lay tiny Tatoosh Island, topped, of course, by a white lighthouse from 1857. To my right, to the north, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, lay a foreign country.
I forget the name, but it’s supposed to have pretty good health care.
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