026. ROADTRIP: HECETA BEACH TO ASTORIA / by Cara Hines

When the romance of waking up to my overnight beachfront property wore off, I realized how tired and hungry I was. Torrential sheets of rain and strong winds taunted my car most of the night, and I must have awakened a dozen or more times from the howling and rocking they caused. I stopped at the Drift Inn in Yachats for some breakfast and sat next to a frail older man at the counter. Nick told me he’s a retired mail carrier who has diabetes and suffers from depression. He used to be an avid skier and outdoorsman, but his failing health has rendered him unable to enjoy the activities he once did and wondering what he’ll fill the rest of his days doing. He said he’s asking again, even this late in life, what he’s going to be when he grows up. And I’m beginning to wonder if that question ever really leaves any of us. Nick appeared to be a kind, quiet, observant man, and showed deep interest in my journey in memory of my brother. He oozed with compassion for my loss of John, and understood the significance of celebrating him with my roadtrip. He beamed when I shared stories of John and his effect on people who benefited from the way he did ordinary things in extraordinary ways. At one point in the conversation, there was a dramatic pause as he looked squarely at me with great resolve and said, “There are many people whose lives are better because of him. He did what he came to do. And people noticed.” It was as if he were giving me a message directly from some unseen source. I smiled. “Thank you,” was the only response I felt was called for.

Just after crossing the Yaquina Bay Bridge, one of the many beautiful bridges along Oregon’s coast (learn more about these amazing structures), I pulled over at Yaquina Bay Lighthouse park on the south end of the town of Newport. I parked in front of a small open-air chapel that, upon exploration, I discovered was dedicated to the memory of local fishermen lost at sea since 1900. It was a touching find, and I spent time studying the living, evolving shrine inside the chapel (WATCH VIDEO). Men. All of them men. Each one once a father, brother, husband, lover, son, friend now represented by pieces of paper, images, letters, poems and keepsakes from loved ones. Do men live life more fully alive, with less fear while they’re here among us? Do they take bigger risks? Are they more willing to take on life at all costs, at the greatest cost? Are they more alive because of it? I wondered.

There were two guys roughly my age there in the chapel who are fishermen. They had worked with just about every one of the men whose pictures adorned the altar. When they asked if I was there for one of them, I told them about my brother. I answered that he’d not been a fisherman but was a biker with a similar adventurous spirit who died doing something he loved. One of them introduced himself as Jared, and he and I ended up talking for a while. He said he doesn’t love fishing, but he loves having done it. “It’s usually bitter cold and you’re stuck out on a boat with grubby men who often aren’t kind and an ocean that never is.” He referred to it as “an impersonal existence”. He said when you do that sort of work, you realize how fleeting and easily exterminable a human life is, including your own, and you can become humbled to the point of seeing no purpose to the whole thing. The ocean is a great equalizer, a churning and howling spiritual teacher. No one is special. No one is immortal. He seemed to have such a direct understanding of the universal law of impermanence I could not possibly doubt what he said. But he also had a twinkle in his blue eyes that told me he has moved through the eddy of meaninglessness. He confirmed my suspicion when he began talking about music. He loves music; listening to it, of course, but especially playing it. He plays the guitar, trumpet, and other instruments I don’t recall. He loves jazz and lit up when I told him my favorite album is Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Music is his passion. It’s the story he wants to live and share. The fishing is just something he does to make money, and it’s taught him some things about the true nature of life. But the music makes him come alive. If I hadn’t been so tired and a little sad this day, I would have stuck around to hear him when he went to play with friends in a local café that evening. Unfortunately, I was spent. I finished paying my respects and said farewell.

I took enough time to go through the old lighthouse and then checked out the Nye Beach neighborhood of Newport. There were several blocks of funky, brightly painted cafes, restaurants and shops. I spent a few minutes in Café Mondo to organize photos and post to my blog while it rained sheets outside. Once the weather broke, I continued on my way. Newport is a town I could definitely have hung out in longer. And I still wonder about Jared. He had plenty more stories to share. Something tells me I’ll run in to him again someday, though. Hopefully that time I’ll be ready to hear some music and listen to a little more seafaring wisdom.

Sadness and hints of despair were creeping in, and I was tired. I hadn’t slept well in my car (hello, McFly!) despite having thoroughly enjoyed awakening to the ocean outside my window. I knew I needed a good night of sleep—and a comfortable, private place to cry a few tears for missing John’s physical presence. I’ve done a lot of smiling and laughing on this trip with funny messages and happenstances making it apparent John is never far away, but certainly tears come now and then…some of them mixed with the laughter and gratitude of many fond memories…some of them pierced with the slowly diminishing anger at the sick joke life seems to be playing on all of us who knew and loved him. The tears this day were of the second sort. Jared’s message of universal and indiscriminate temporality wasn’t putting me at ease.

I stopped in Lincoln City at the Ester Lee Motel for a cheap room with a killer view that rendered their 1980’s décor absolutely inconsequential. Their tagline, "AHH... What you can see from the Ester Lee!!!" ain’t kiddin’. I relaxed by the little gas fireplace with the meal I cooked, listening to the wind and waves coalescing on the beach below my window. I meditated. I cried. I let the reality of “life as it is” sink in a little deeper. And finally, I slept.

The next morning I awoke rested and refreshed. I got on the road. I drove. I stopped. I walked around. I took in the scenery and the salt air. I marveled. I drove some more. I listened to John’s music playlist. I head-banged, and I laughed at myself. I looked forward to revisiting the tiny village of Netarts, in the middle of which is a veritable diamond in the rough. The little shop, Lex’s Cool Stuff, is a small shack bursting with treasures, the most valuable and inimitable of which is Lex herself. I’d been there before, more than two years ago when I visited Portland and made a quick dash out to see my first short stretch of the Oregon coast before I headed back to Colorado. Lex struck me then with her charm, depth, wisdom, uncommon zest for life, and unforgettable smile. Oh, and her amazing homemade brownies! In this small town, she has manifested a burgeoning business, taking people’s discarded whatnots and converting them to treasure for others of us. In the process, she shares her beautiful energy. I dare you to leave there without a bigger smile than you went in with! She’s the epitome of doing common things in uncommon ways and spreading big waves of positivity as she does them. Her “cool stuff” is a great reason to stop by, but she’s the reason I returned for a second visit. We had a penetrating conversation on the meaning and relevance of life and death. I came away with a repurposed necklace, a couple of brownies for the road, and an ample helping of happy juju. Besides, I knew she and John would hit if off in a big way. And I think they did.

After a couple more stops in such tourist towns as Cannon Beach (tucked in, quaint and inviting) and Seaside (think discount family-style buffets and large hotel chains), I arrived in Astoria.  Astoria sits on the south side of the mouth of the Columbia River as it meets the Pacific Ocean and Youngs Bay. This is a town I’d heard described by various people as enchanting, bohemian, and the latest up-and-coming place to move. However, when I arrived I was met with a slight sense of gloom and foreboding. It could simply have been the especially dreary weather, or perhaps the vacant buildings and empty storefronts downtown had something to do with it. Still, I did find it to be somewhat mysterious with great coffee shops, an impressive art gallery, and I wouldn’t turn down a chance to explore it further someday.

I was set to stay with my couchsurfing host Giles and his adorable Irish Terrier puppy, Zeiss, in the guest room of their huge old home. Soon after I arrived, Giles and I went to the Fort George Brewery and Public House for a bite to eat, beer, and conversation. I immediately found him to be a kind and intelligent person. He told me he recently transplanted from Ohio and has an online camera business (www.illumiquestcamera.com) that allows him to work from anywhere. He’s feeling things out in Astoria, but like me and others I’ve met on this trip, he’s not really sure where he wants to settle down or even exactly what he wants to do “when he grows up”. He loves the freedom and the travel to new places his business affords him, but he’s hoping to find a way not to be tied to the phone and Internet quite so much.

Giles’ background is fascinating. He grew up in a large family and a religious commune, a Christian cult, which he left when he was a teenager. I was enthralled! He described the structured, sheltered life he experienced there and said it was a great place to be a kid. However, as he evolved into his teenage years (and we all know what comes with that), it became very difficult, and he was compelled to leave his family and the only life he’d known behind. I’m inspired by his bravery and self-reliance. He seems to have made the transition nicely, though he described a learning curve that’s perhaps steeper than some. He’s highly intelligent and great to talk to. I enjoy conversation with people who ask as many questions as they do offer information, and he asked great questions. He’s driven, seems hard working but balanced with a good sense of adventure and inquiry. I found him to be a generous host and someone I’d like to keep as a friend to cross paths with someday. As for Zeiss, he almost fit into my duffle bag while Giles wasn’t looking, but I figured I wouldn’t get far. 

View more photos in the Roadtrip: Heceta Beach to Astoria gallery