Sea Ranch to Ft. Stevens State Park South (actual date Thursday 6/12/14)
When I woke up this morning, my first thought was of the guy who checked me in at the Soul Vacation resort Hotel near Alsea Bay Bridge on day 12. After he asked me what I was doing with a backpack on he shook his head until I said, “What, man?” He responded, “Oh, I don’t know, don’t you ever get bored?” I said, “Of course. But don’t you?”
I wake up to misting rain. But more than just a heavy fog. Around 7:00am I drop some artwork and am on the road. I follow the 5th Street entrance into Ecola State Park. The paved road eventually gives way to the OCT which roller-coasters on rain-forested trails en route to Crescent Beach and then onto Ecola Point. During the long fire-road climb to Indian Point, two park rangers stop to chat from their vehicle. They both express at least a one-time interest in doing the Coast Trail, staring into the distance as they say so. One is a freelance photographer and hands me a few of his postcards. We meet again at the Hiker Camp cabins at the top of the hill and then again at the Tillamook Head trail overlook. The sheer cliff is magnetic and I fantasize about jumping, about the feel of cool wind on my body as I free fall, about my impact on the water, hard as concrete from this height. The three of us look down on the Tillamook Rock Light, the only Oregon lighthouse built on an island. “Terrible Tilly,” says a ranger, “1881.” The other ranger tells the story of its construction as the rolling fog quickly envelops our views.
I take the Seaside trailhead through an other-worldly section of trail. Clouds hang low around giant trees, leaves as big as my chest hold handfuls of water. Old-growth Sitka spruce stumps serve as rich foundations for new-growth saplings. This trail is apparently one taken by Lewis and Clark after they heard of a beached whale being sectioned by locals for its blubber. The name for this point, “Ecola” is named after the Kilamox word for whale, “ecolaii.” In one of their travel journals (I don’t recall which), either Lewis or Clark wrote something like, “this is the most difficult terrain we’ve had to navigate yet.” Even on a well-groomed trail more than 200-years later, I concur.
The Seaside trail lands me to familiar territory. In January I spent two weeks in Seaside for my 2nd MFA residency. Back then I was in training for a race and attempted to run this trail on a similar wet morning. No dice. It was too steep to run and my shoes kept slipping, causing me to fall. This morning is not much different except I don’t have the option of turning back. Taking it slow made all the difference (doesn’t it always?).
Seaside is a historical beach town that still probably attracts thousands of visitors. I’d guess they come for the wide beaches, the old-fashioned (and sort of creepy) swing sets on the sand, the indoor carousel, and the overall flair of nostalgia that permeates the town. In January I could hear crickets. Today it is a bustling beach town and I have to look both ways when crossing the street. I stop in a parking garage for a break from the rain. It’s pouring, and for the first time I have to bust out my pack cover and rain gear. I bury my camera and phone then head back out in it. I love being out in the elements like this. The temperature drops and I know I better keep moving.
I take lunch under the awning of a vacant building in Gearhart city center as the storm gains strength and puddles grow deeper. From here it’s 16 miles of beach hiking before hitting the south end of Ft. Stevens. 16 miles on road is easy, but sand is slow-going and usually against a wicked headwind. And here’s the kicker – once I commit to the mileage I can’t stop. It’s illegal. This final section of beach is a military base (Camp Rilea) and closed for camping. I look at my watch – it’s 2:00. My body is sore but feels OK. I can totally do this. What the hell else would I do in Gearhart (and why)? I head to the beach. I’m outta here.
As I near the sand I wave to an elderly couple braving the rain in matching orange outfits. They stop to watch me walk by. We don’t exchange words, but we exchange smiles in silence.
When I reach the beach everything shifts. The sand is not soft – in fact, it’s quite hard from the rain. I’m able to move fast right out of the gate. But there’s something else too. Something that takes a moment to register. It’s the wind. I don’t feel sand pelting my face. I don’t have to lean a third of my body weight into each step. The wind today is blowing from the south and literally pushes me towards the finish, some 16 miles away. I accept this unprecedented turn of weather as a gift while I glide, effortlessly northbound, in the torrential rain. With my mouth in the shape of howling.
In perfect conditions, 16 miles on the beach is at least 5 hours on foot. I buckle in. Long beach hikes are usually wrought with landmarks that gave me a sense of forward momentum. Things to walk past like lighthouses, basalt points, rocky crags in the breakers, jetties, giant logs, bluffs and the like. But this stretch is naked. Just a wide beach and an ear-pounding stormy swell. At first I’m on a drivable beach and the occasional passing fisherman in a truck breaks up the monotony. One moves at about 15 mph as its dog runs behind it. I ration my water to one sip every 30 minutes to help pass the time. It’s amazing how well this trick works on me. Pellets of rain indent millions of blinking pools in the sand. The sky is nearly black.
Far ahead I see circling aircraft that look like wasps. Even the sound is similar from this distance. Signage signals no cars from this point north and I’m entering government land and I should beware of military equipment on the beach and I should stay away from the bluffs. I seem to take hours to make any headway towards the action, but when I do it’s so goddamn worth it.
Two Blackhawk choppers fly in giant circles, stop to attach a load to their bellies, take off again and swing the suspended load high above the beach and against gale-force winds before dropping it elsewhere. This is repeated countless times as I near until it seems I am directly beneath the action. Turns out I am. The two helicopters fly directly towards me, lowering all the while, and I feel as if I am in their flight line. As they pass less than 100 feet overhead, the soldiers within wave crazily at me. They look like insects with their bulbous helmets. The fanning of the roters is intense. I reach for my camera – this shit doesn’t happen every day. But I forgot that I’d packed it away to keep it dry. Shit! This was a fantastic thing to see and feel. It may sound silly but to me it was the perfect juxtaposition of power and love. An amazingly destructive machine filled with incredibly happy people. They certainly made this hiker’s day!
Three more times they buzz me – we wave at each other with gusto. It continues to pour and the temperature drops considerably. I try and run to stay warm but can’t keep up the pace and pounding with the pack on. My pants are soaked and I am chilled to the point of shivering. Ahead I see something big in the sand. An hour later I stand before the hundred and eight year-old wreck of the Peter Iredale, a four-masted sailing vessel that ran aground after trying to enter the Columbia River. I ask a man with a camera around his neck if I’ve made it to Ft. Stevens and he says yes. And though I’m not officially done with the hike, I’ve made it to Oregon’s northernmost state park. Tomorrow I will dip my toe in the Columbia River and mark the completion of my coastal journey. But for now I’ll revel in the day’s adventures and get some shut eye at the hiker biker camp, still two miles east. I desperately need to get out of these wet clothes.