Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Day 17: The Oregon Coast

Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents an excerpt from Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Bison are Giant and Other Observations from an American Road Trip. Enjoy!

I’m sitting in a crappy motel listening to crappy traffic and drinking crappy coffee that I had to get from the crappy office – and I’m loving it.”

So began Day 17.

Geographically we were at the halfway point, but in actuality it was a buffer zone. That day we were driving north. The next was when we’d begin the drive home, wherever that was. The immediate plan was to drive up PCH and find a camping spot somewhere in the northwestern corner of Oregon.

It was Friday morning and we’d awakened in Florence. Our crappy motel was the result of a random search that hadn’t worked out as well as our previous dart throws, but it had been a place to sleep and cost less than a dinner-and-a-movie night. After we checked in we passed a scraggly-bearded overall-donned man who was sitting in a woven lawn chair outside his room, nursing a stubby cigar. When we left to pick up some dinner we noticed he’d used an orange cone to guard his parking spot, and the next morning we found our motel neighbor had parked perilously close to Jeannie the Jeep. It would have been easy to make assumptions since we didn’t get a chance to talk to the man. If we had, you know what? I bet he would have been as kind as a volunteer ranger. There were no scratches on Jeannie, so we chalked the bearded one up as an “interesting” character and turned out of the crappy parking lot.

Driving the Pacific Coast Highway and not stopping at every single town and overlook just about killed me. I gazed with longing at each shack advertising fresh salmon and two-story hotels with weathered siding and this-and-that historic whatever. Every few miles Jim asked if I wanted to pull over, and I’d sob “no, no, we’ll see it another time,” in a truly pathetic whine.

If you’ve read Volume 1, then you already know this, but since I’m not sure I’ve mentioned it yet in this book: Jim is a saint.

Our first designated stop was only about twelve miles from our crappy motel. Heceta Head Lighthouse has been guiding sailors since 1894. Its first-order Fresnel lens, the largest of its type, beams light 21 miles into the sea. It’s the brightest lighthouse on the Oregon coast, and one of the most picturesque in the country.

Before visiting the actual lighthouse we stopped at an overlook and watched sea lions sunning on the basalt. Ravens flew around us, their blue-black flapping wings distracting from the rotating beacon across the bay. We drove down to the parking lot, which abutted the beach, and walked uphill. We passed the former lighthouse keeper’s home, which was now a Forest Service-run bed and breakfast. I would have loved to have stayed there instead of the crappy motel, but the rate for one night was about half of what we spent on gas for the entire trip.

We climbed towards the lighthouse and came across a lady named Toni reading one of the wayside markers. She told us to keep hiking up the trail and we’d find the absolute best view of the lighthouse. Since she wore a vest blazoned with Volunteer, we followed her advice.

At the top of the trail we came eye to eye with that powerful Fresnel lens and acknowledged that Toni was right (always listen to park service volunteers). Like our spot at the rim of Crater Lake, there was room for only one person at a time. I snuck in while Jim struck up a conversation with the volunteer stationed at that point. He found out that Joseph was from Spokane, and we were going to be in that Washington town in just a few days because we had family there.

I switched places with Jim so he could see the view. “What brings you out here?” Joseph asked me.

“I’m a travel writer,” I said.

“YOU! You travel writers!” he said. “You’ve got to stop telling everybody our secret places! There’s a reason they’re secret!” And then he proceeded to tell us his secret places. Toni had joined us by this time and we learned she and Joseph were married. She told us she was a California girl and the couple volunteered one month at a time, working three days on, three days off. We spent more time talking with them than we did looking at the view or learning about the lighthouse. It was an excellent decision. (And no, I’m not sharing their secret places. I promised.)

Heceta Head Lighthouse

Would you like to read Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2 without ads? It’s available on Kindle and Paperback. (Paperback books purchased through the link below will be autographed.)

Volunteer at Heceta Head Lighthouse
first-order Fresnel lens at Heceta Head

As we left we passed under the Cape Creek Bridge, a double-tiered structure reminiscent of a Roman aqueduct. When we drove over Alsea Bay I began to notice a similarity in the bridges along the coast. Turns out they were designed by the same man, Conde McCullough. The designs are distinctive, with arched steel painted green and art deco concrete columns. Built between 1921 and 1936, they bring a sense of unity to the drive, making 101 through Oregon not just a means of getting from one place to another, but also a destination itself.

We drove through the towns along the way, but I couldn’t resist the siren call of the ocean, so we pulled over at Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, Seal Rock, the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse, and Cape Foulweather.

Cape Foulweather?

It was a perfect sunny day when we visited, but on March 7, 1778, it wasn’t so balmy. That’s when Captain James Cook got his first sight of the Oregon coast. The weather was so bad he couldn’t get closer than three leagues, or about ten nautical miles. Cook and his crew had left the Hawaiian Islands (which he’d named the Sandwich Islands) more than a month before, and then they finally saw land and couldn’t get near it. Cape Foulweather, indeed.

Cape Perpetua Scenic Area

US-101 turned inland and we drove through a valley, past a flea market in a red barn, past an air museum, and finally arrived at Tillamook County Creamery Association at quarter after five. We browsed their dairy farming museum before joining the line to sample the cheese.

Ah, cheese. If I were a poet, I would write odes to cheese.

Tillamook Creamery is a co-op of local farmers that began in 1909. The cheddar recipe is even older, dating back to 1894. We bought a two-pound block of the extra sharp white, and while I knew I could probably get it at any major grocery store, when in Tillamook… I figured by buying the cheddar from the source, they’d get all the money instead of having to share it with distributors and retailers.

Jim was more excited about the ice cream. Relatively speaking, that recipe was just a young’un, since it was developed in 1947. My father-in-law grew up in eastern Washington and he darn near insisted that we visit Tillamook for their ice cream. I ordered salted caramel in a cup and Jim ordered huckleberry in a waffle cone. This was to be my introduction to not only Tillamook, but also to the call of frosty treats and the near obsession with huckleberry in the west.

I’ve had ice cream before. I’ve even had huckleberries before. Put the two together, at a creamery that controls every step from the cow to the cone, and we were in huckleberry ice cream heaven. I had a slight bit of cone-envy, but that salted caramel was a close runner-up, and it was the saltiest creamiest carameliest I’ve ever had. I know I can get Tillamook’s ice cream at the grocery store, but I don’t want to dilute that fantastic culinary memory. We’ll just have to go back.

It was nearly six by the time we left Tillamook and we still didn’t know where we would be sleeping that night. The original plan had been to camp, but since it was getting late I looked into booking another crappy motel. Unfortunately, the cheapest accommodations I could find were in Portland, ninety miles away, at $200 a night. Camping it would be. (Hopefully.)

We drove through a shaded canyon of old-growth forest and I put our sleeping dilemma out of my mind. I knew it would work out. It had to.

We parked in the Cannon Beach public lot. Sunset was near. We didn’t see any signs, so we walked towards the ocean and as soon as our feet hit the sand we could see Haystack Rock. The tide was out, and the thin film of water covering the beach mirrored the distinctive basalt outcropping. Here and there we’d skirt a beached jellyfish. Murres, black and white birds with big bodies and tiny wings, cavorted above us like kids at recess. A family rode recumbent bikes with fat tires. A man with shoulder-length curly blonde hair tested pose after pose in front of his tripod. At the base of the monolith, bright green seaweed crowned rocks like discarded Halloween wigs. Starfish and anemones, closed and open, clung to the rocks, and seagulls clomped from one bald spot to the next. Gradually, the tide came in as the sun moved closer to the horizon. We had to get going if we wanted to have any chance of finding a place to sleep, but before we could leave I had to stick my toes in the water. We walked to the incoming waves and took our shoes off. I screeched as the cold fingers bathed my toes, but I had done it. I’d walked on sand and felt the water of the Pacific Ocean.

Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach
Anemones in the tidal pools at Cannon Beach
Tidal pools at Cannon Beach

We passed a park. Campground Full, the sign said. Then another sign, and another. We reached Fort Stevens State Park, the northernmost park along the coast. Campground Full. It was now past dusk. We saw a sign for an RV park. Full. We circled a park where trailers went to die. The KOA looked promising, and we got in line behind kids buying ice cream and men buying beer. Nope. Full. With what I can only imagine was a look of complete desperation, I asked the young cashier if he had any suggestions. He told us about another RV park that wasn’t too far.

Tired, hopeful, we pulled into Kampers West. It was a parking lot of motorhomes. We could tell some of the rigs were transient, but others had sheds and porches. At the end of the rows we found a strip of grass reserved for tents, and there was a single solitary spot. On one side, a family with chairs for him, her, and their toddler finished arranging their campsite. On the other, a couple sat by their fire. We had just enough light to set up our tent.

I knew it would work out.

Would you like to read Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2 without ads? It’s available on Kindle and Paperback. (Paperback books purchased through the link below will be autographed.)