One of the biggest perks of working at a school (besides the joy of cafeteria food, never becoming a real adult, and always having opportunities to learn, of course) is the miracle of school breaks. Most of the time, we teachers really need the break, but unlike some of my colleagues, I am never one to stay put if I have ten straight non-work days in front of me. Last year for Spring Break, I took to the rails, constructing a train journey from Chicago to Portland, contemplating the landscape along the way. This year, a chose a Southernly route, driving from Portland to San Francisco along the Hwy 101 and Hwy 1 coastal highways.
Whether road or rail, we can’t help but philosophize along the way. There are only so many mix CDs from my high school days that I can stand over a three-day period. But thinking and talking, while the diverse coastal landscapes of Oregon and California pass by? Much more interesting. Over the course of our 733 mile journey, we admired rambling farmland of the Willamette Valley; the lushness of the forest in Oregon’s Coast Range; miles of sand formed into white hills and valleys in the Oregon Dunes; the staggering cliffs and rugged coastline of the Southern Oregon; ancient Redwood forests, quiet and hushed; the marshes and wetlands of Arcata; farm and sea married in seaside sheep farms not unlike Ireland; and the salty beaches with their insistent windswept rocks that united it all. It all caught our breath and made us wonder. Question. Observe. Reflect. And thank Goodness for Spring Break.
Are the Oregon Dunes a portal to the Sahara Desert? And are we in danger of being sucked in?
We take our first stop at the Oregon Dunes Natural Area, wandering the countless miles of sand. In the early ’80s, my parents backpacked here. I kept remembering their story as we walked amidst flowing grains of sand in solitude. They had wandered the same endless ups and downs, twists and turns of the same landscape, monotonous in its similarity but still stunning. I remember them telling me that when they finally found a scrap of humanity tacked on a post, compass proudly in hand, they were shocked to find that it it was a notice of warning from the State Police that a convict had escaped in the Dunes and to leave immediately. Oh lordy. We didn’t dare stray too far from the path- only to run straight up a 45 degree sand grade, to feel the tug of leg muscles slogging through porous hillside and the fire in our chests as we reached the top. We almost fell flat on our faces on the descent. Would it have been just like a soft bed to land on, only grittier? The ocean glittered far off to our left, the sun warmed our hair, we felt sand beneath our toes for the first time, and finally smelled salty air. We had begun.
What would have happened if our gas station attendant hadn’t warned us about what was ahead?
Everyone gives Oregon flac for employing people to pump gas for its citizens and visitors. The truth is, gas station attendants are incredibly useful. We met a pretty clairvoyant one near Port Orford, OR. she told us what to look for in California when changing highways, warned us that the State Police was on their guard for speeding more than usual, and told us what sights to see as we made our way South. After waving goodbye, we were all feeling pretty good. I think this contributed to my impulsive twist of the wheel, veering the car suddenly onto a side road. I had spotted the words “Ocean View” painted in large, white, block letters on the steep slope of a road up ahead. When we crested the hill, we were not disappointed. Curving off as far as we could see was a golden, rugged coastline, glistening with early evening sunlight and glowing with the self worth that only the first ocean sighting of the trip can do. We tipped our hats to the gas station attendant, who had somehow led us here, and let the wind whip our hair wildly.
How long does it take water to carve out rock? Where did this driftwood once set down roots? And how long did it travel?
For thousands of years, the ocean has inspired poets and philosophers alike. There is something about clambering about on rocks while the world’s oldest rhythm section takes its solo right in your ear, never ending. The crashing of waves is old. It is ancient. It tells a story. On our first night camping, we came to a beautiful campground near the Oregon-California border. Harris Beach State Park elegantly curves around the coastline Northwest of Brookings, OR. The campground perches on a cliff overlooking the grand expanse ocean. A narrow path leads down to the sandy beach which is interspersed with numerous large, egg-shaped rocks. These precarious structures reveal themselves near the beach where the water is shallow and the substrate is rocky. They are remnants of an eons-long love story between water and Earth. We spend the remaining time before sunset strolling along the beach, contemplating the resilience of rock and marveled at the fact that some plants are crazy enough to grow on them. Some people are like this too- they refuse to change their ways. Their mode serves them well enough, they’ve adapted to it well, but they don’t see that everyone around them can’t believe they live the way they do. We walked and climbed and balanced and sang and looked closely at anemones.
Who was the giant who turned the land on its end? Who was the painter who colored these shells red and silver?
Our second night, we set down our tent in the quiet campground of Van Damme State Park, just South of Mendecino, CA. This was after a full day in the car, eyes and minds reeling from a steady stream of beautiful sights. The morning and much of the afternoon was spent driving under the cool shade of ancient redwood trees, holding mysteries we could only begin to question. We admired the wetlands of the Arcata area from the car and then took a quiet, twisty journey along Hwy 1 when it began near Leggett, CA. Everyone else fell asleep and I was alone at the wheel, with Chris Thile to accompany me on his mandolin. The road twisted back and forth, up and down, side to side, a constant game of steering wheel and car brake until I made the final descent to the ocean once again and everyone woke up to see the sun setting on the water. We glided along wooden fenced highway these last few miles South to our nightly resting place. Once here, we took another evening walk on rocks and sand, this time on California beaches. Geology was our teacher once again, showing us the power of the Earth turning in its sleep. She tossed and turned, causing the waters to rise and fall and crash on the world’s smallest pebbles, until her shoulder stuck itself above all else. Earth lay on her side, hopefully content for another 10,000 years. We each found a piece of abalone shell and tried to put them together into one, but the edges had worn too smooth to become puzzle pieces.
When does the Earth throw up her hands and decide that enough is enough?
We said goodbye to the mighty ocean from atop a cliff. On the morning of our departure inland, we rose early and cooked breakfast over a propane fire. Our jackets still smelled of campfire. And then we walked through the Little River Cemetery, into a small park behind it. Little River Blowhole Trail. A short, circular trail surrounding a mysterious but menacing sinkhole of the Earth, 60-feet down. The ocean, making her advance as she does, had carved a cave to meet this sinkhole, spitting foamy water into its sandy bottom every few minutes. The land sloped down sharply, dramatically, suddenly, to meet the Earth. We gingerly walked around its perimeter, wondering when She had thrown up her hands and caved inward. Ferns and other hardy plants had taken root all along the interior walls, showing some age. Its creation was a mystery to us, but one that I would rather leave unsolved.