I took a vacation the last week of October. You know what I discovered? It can take quite a bit of effort to vacate the sphere of effort. Especially if vacation isn't something you've had much practice with.
At this moment in my life, time away from the work that generates my income is usually spent working on creative things that don't contribute to my income. In my twenties, time away from work was often achieved by quitting a job and seeing how long I could survive before I needed another one. Now thirty-two years old and formidably employed with in-demand skills, vacation is a new concept for me. So I set the bar low for practice: drive to the coast and stay for two nights.
I made reservations–something I'd never done before–at an affordable, unremarkable hotel in Manzanita, a town on the Oregon coast. It's about an hour and a half from my home in Portland.
The car is packed and ready. My dog Bird jumps in the trunk, I close the hatch, then check my phone involuntarily for no information in particular. In one of those, "Is big tech listening to me talk to myself out loud?" moments, this is waiting at the top of my Twitter feed:
Surprisingly, the drive passes without incident. It's not raining any more or less than usual here in the Pacific North Wet. I stop at a turn-out and step outside. Bird and I take turns on look-out while the other takes a leak. Then we're back on the road. West on HWY 26.
Turns out the hotel is not in Manzanita. It's in South Cannon Beach. You can walk to Cannon Beach's tourist stretch from the small park here–it's only 1.2 miles–but it would be ill-advised, what with the 30 foot waves and 20mph winds.
Bird and I stood behind a breakwater and watched the ocean churn, swivel, and smash against Haystack Rock like some version of itself I'd never met before.
Manzanita is as artificial a destination as any other and is fifteen miles south of the hotel where I checked in. Don't let its artificiality diminish the significance of my not ending up there. It was the setting for my vacation practice. Is a location not essential to a vacation? And here I didn't even make a reservation in the correct town.
There's still a few hours of light, so I snap a photo of the tsunami evacuation routes poster, ask Bird to do his best to remember them too, and then head south to Manzanita.
I grew up in California. The beach towns of my childhood sported similar tsunami-awareness road signs as the one I pass before entering Oswald West State Park, about halfway to Manzanita. But the risk of a tsunami is more palpable here on the Oregon coast.
Towering pine trees do that to my mind–make things ominous that don't otherwise deserve it. Or maybe it's the geography. Compared the smooth, weathered sandstone and vibrant yucca along the coast of Southern California, Oregon's jagged basalt, exposed ore, and brooding-forest-green are portentous. It is a landscape ripe for the catastrophic.
If you feel a rumble, head for higher ground.
Did it say that on the signs when I was a kid? If it did, I didn't care. I was more aware of my feet–feeling for rumblings–when I headed down a dirt trail in the state park.
Bird was relieved to run some and the trail followed a clear creek to the beach and the edge of Poseidon's salty, churning wrath. There's just something about following fresh water to the ocean. Like arriving at the end of long, significant journey no matter how far inland you started.
Back up at the road, we drove over Neahkahnie point and dropped down into Manzanita. I now know that Manzanita's population is just shy of 500 humans. When I arrived I couldn't help but think how vulnerable the tiny town was, that it would be engulfed by the coming storm.
The vision of a tsunami leaping out from the ambivalent gray horizon lingered in the corner of my imagination. I drove a few blocks down main street toward the water. Satisfied in fulfilling an essential vacation duty, I shortly turned around and headed for higher ground.
I was hungry by now and overzealously passed–for the speed at which my wiper blades were pushing rain sheets off my windshield–an annoying hatchback riding its brakes all the way down from Neahkahnie point. Almost immediately ahead a fallen tree lay across my lane.
I was moving much faster than I wanted. A car approached in the opposite lane. I slowed as un-abruptly as I could to avoid skidding and managed to swerve around the tree after the car passed in the opposite direction.
The wind whipped and screeched outside the hotel room. Bird kept his nose to the doorjamb, concerned and curious. I wondered if it would quiet but didn't put much stake in it.
I ate dinner at a restaurant across the highway. Just me, a bartender and one other patron. I never knew a reuben could be such a lonesome sandwich. It's shoulder season and there's a bomb cyclone making its way down the edge of North America, so what did I expect?
Back in my room, I poured myself a glass of the whiskey I'd bought the local outfitter and leaned back on the bed for some old-fashioned cable TV.
"What am I going to do here for another day and night?" I thought to myself, half-watching Selena argue with her father about marrying the band's guitar player, half-watching the ice in my plastic cup, waiting for the cubes to rattle, thinking occasionally about evacuation routes.
Then my TV screen was overtaken by an emergency alert.
Apparently these alerts are just for boats out on the water during the storm, but they play them on the television just in case, ergo, there's people watching television while on a boat which I didn't know was a thing.
The power went out sometime while I was asleep. I didn't know until I tried turning on the light when I was packing my things. It was still spitting and blowing like mad when I took Bird out in the morning. After five minutes outside I was soaked to my boxer shorts. I decided to check-out, drive up the coast and find somewhere else to stay a second night. I wasn't throwing in the towel yet on my vacation practice.
An oatmeal raisin cookie is arguably a more breakfast-appropriate baked-good than a chocolate chip cookie. They were out of chocolate chip anyway (what heathens are eating chocolate for breakfast?!) which made it all an easier operation for me. I also got a coffee at the only open cafe I could find, predictably packed with soaked folks just like me.
We went out on the beach when the tide was down and the rain was off. There was nobody else nearby. While the wind was busy picking sea-foam up off the sand for Bird to bark and chase and bite at, the bomber cyclone prepared another barrage. Buckets of water forced us back to the car too soon, where I watched the ocean shapeshift and crash and ate some of my cookie and tried not to think too much about tsunamis.
Then I got back on the highway. I planned to stop in Seaside for a proper breakfast and a chance for the dog to run again but the town came and went. I settled into the driver's seat and kept on driving.
When I reached Astoria I noticed a lighthouse graphic painted in the middle of an intersection, so I drove in the direction it pointed and discovered a series of them. The hills were San Francisco-steep and the lighthouses led me to the top of the town and the Astoria column.
The hilltop where the column sits is as big as a football field and covered in grass. I let Bird run, then went back to my car for my phone to take some photos, but it was dead. The power at the hotel must have gone out earlier than I thought. To charge my phone, I let my car idle in the parking lot while I sat inside. I hate doing this and it made me hyper aware of how slow it was taking my phone to power on.
Fifteen minutes later, my iPhone still dead, I accepted that I'd have to come back for a photo of the view. I changed into some dry clothes in the front seat and stepped outside for one more look.
In the distance, the Astoria-Megler bridge spanned the epic breadth of the Columbia River. "What's on the other side of there?" I thought to myself.
"Washington, ya' dummy!" I answered out loud. By this point I'd already driven in silence for an hour and a half. This is when I started to calculate how many different sections of HWY 101 I'd traveled. Not just traveled, driven; and not in any car. In my '07 Honda CRV, Pamela Landy.
When traveling across the great expanse that is the state of California, taking HWY 101 generally means choosing the slowest way to get somewhere. This is why driving its entire length might be considered an accomplishment.
It represents time spent in pursuit of a nice drive. Because the other thing to note when traveling across the great expanse that is the state of California is that HWY 5 is horrifically boring and for some stretches just smells like sh*t.
I'm pretty sure I've driven every mile of HWY 101 from Los Angeles through Oregon, but I have never crossed into Washington. Could I put the last miles beneath Pamela's tires today? Invent a new achievement for myself? The great cantilever bridge called my name.
I headed back down the hill. I'd stop for a car charger, cross the bridge, and re-assess with the assistance of my iPhone.
But the gas station didn't have any car chargers and I didn't want to go looking around for another one. All I wanted was to get back on the road. I settled for a bottle of water and a full tank of gas. I figured I'd see how far north I got before boredom or the weather scared me off.
Vacation practice: Go to the coast and drive the length of HWY 101 through Washington.
I can say, "Bird would never jump out of the window of my car," a hundred times over without feeling like a liar, but the minute Pamela and I started climbing the Astoria-end of that enormous cantilever bridge I rolled up the windows and turned on the child-lock.
I knew roughly that the 101 wrapped around the Olympic peninsula. In my mind, it ended in Port, Angeles. This was convenient as I'm a Raymond Carver fan, and paying homage to a literary great by staying a night in their town seemed like a nice addition to my vacation practice.
I had no real concept of the distance between me and the top of the Olympic Peninsula. I didn't even have a paper map in my glovebox anymore.
Washington is wet. Sloughs and creeks. Water and fog on all sides. "Salt water to my left, fresh water to my right," I said over and over again, keeping track of where the ocean was so I'd know from which side my fate would emerge. The tsunami of all tsunamis. Wipe me and Bird and Pamela and Washington clean off the map.
Turns out after crossing the Astoria-Megler bridge, HWY 101 runs along Baker Bay, which is home to Sand Island. The island was barely perceptible through the fog and rain, but just enough to trick me into wondering if I was somehow looking back across the Columbia River to Oregon.
I'd successfully rationed my oatmeal-raisin breakfast cookie over a three or four hour period. It had been gone for an hour or so when the driving started to grind.
In South Bend I saw a cop car head out of town as I headed in. The gas station had chargers and I bought one, excited to find out where I was and how far I had to go. When I headed out of town, a cop car was following me. I must have been inland enough for my imagination to replace tsunami's with general unwarranted suspicion, though the cop did make a u-turn and head back to town after seeing me off.
Naturally, the charger I bought didn't work. And I was so worked up about getting the charger I forgot to get something to eat. Some time later I drove through a town with the funniest name–Cosmopolis. The first thing I saw was the town's namesake, the Cosmo Specialty Fabrics factory. This town was like the inverse of those towns on the outer-stretches of the Mojave desert. One's hot and dry, the other's wet and cold, but they both feel like they're barely holding on.
At long last I reached Aberdeen. Must have been about 2 p.m. I'd been driving for five hours and it had rained the entire time. I was desperate to know if I should throw in the towel or push on to Port Angeles. By this point, I concluded there was something wrong my car's cigarette-thing that was preventing the three chargers I had scattered around the front seat from charging my phone. I went looking for a paper map.
To my surprise, not only did the 7-11 not sell paper maps, nobody asked me where I was trying to go.
Isn't "Where are you headed?" the de facto follow up question to "Do you have a map?"
The gas station didn't sell maps either! But at least the clerk was courteous enough to ask where I was trying to go. "Port Angeles," I told him. "Or back to Portland," I added. "I guess I'm not sure yet."
"That's a long haul to Port Angeles," he said. His tone suggested I'd be regretful.
At that point, on an empty stomach with five hours of driving behind me and nothing but a hair-brained idea about a highway backing it all up, I threw in the towel.
"Fair enough," I said. "What's the best way back to Portland?"
The clerk enlisted a co-worker to help answer this question, but they didn't have anything useful to provide in the way of directions.
"Drive down to Astoria," said the clerk.
Well FML. Drive all the way back to Astoria? That didn't make sense. Surely there was another route east that will get me home faster than the winding, self-imposed detour I just drove up.
A couple hours earlier I'd passed an intersection with signs for Olympia. I tried to visualize the intersection in my head. While the clerk had given me some direction, I still hadn't seen a map of anywhere I'd driven.
I was vigilant, driving through Gray's Harbor, looking for an escape from an experience of my own making. I spied a sign for a HWY 12. It said Olympia. If I got to Olympia, I could get to HWY 5–the hulk of a vein that pushed the 101 into the periphery of modern day transit–and bolt south, back home to Portland.
I stopped at a rest area shortly after leaving the 101 behind. Here in the humble American road-side respite is where I finally found a map.
Near the bathrooms and vending machines was a small display with a print out of the whole Washington coast. I pored over it for a few minutes, filling in the dark spots in my mind's map like one of those territory expansion games.
In some sense, I'd covered quite a bit of ground. In another sense, I really hadn't made it far at all. And I was completely over it. Driven out. All I wanted to do was get home.
And thank god for the rest stop map. If I followed my instincts, I'd have needlessly driven to Olympia. Looking at the map I discovered I could cut southeast through Centralia, WA and connect to HWY 5 an hour closer to Portland.
I won't spoil this tale by talk of driving along HWY 5. It was perilously boring.
When I finally got back to the city, I picked up a burrito from Taqueria Portland. Once the car was unloaded, I sat on the couch with Bird, poured myself a glass of vacation whiskey and ate the first thing since my breakfast cookie. The rain poured and poured outside, as indifferent as it had been all day.
I sat and wondered how I was going to spend my time now that I was all done practicing. It was only Monday and I still had the rest of the week off.