“Where you from?” inquired an old-timer who pulled up beside us in a pickup. We were parked outside a laundromat. I pulled my head out of the little red trailer where I was putting fresh sheets on the bed. “Denver,” I told him. My new interlocutor friend said he used to live there too, and proceeded to fill me in on the details: brother-in-law in Lakewood, summers in Estes Park. “What brought you to California?” I asked, getting into the Steinbeck-and-Charlie, get-to-know-America smalltalk mode. He cocked his head, looking at me quizzically. “We’re not in California. We’re in Oregon.” Oh yeah, California was yesterday.
We had crossed the border the previous evening after 1000 magnetic miles of gigantic California, a state bigger than Britain. Every corner had something new and wonderful to see, but it was time. Thank you California, thank you for the dreamin’, now the rugged coasts and lush forests of Oregon and Washington called us northward.
We fell in love with Oregon right away. The gas prices dropped by 40 cents a gallon, the population density decreased dramatically, and the coastline immediately gave way to a string of state park beaches, one right after another, free and open to enjoy and wander. Several had a lighthouse that was open to explore, none had more than a small handful of people, and all were windswept with white-capped waves, with blue water giving way to green vegetation. As the week moved on and we enjoyed fantastic yet inexpensive state park campsites, dog-friendly harbor towns, picturesque national monuments, and cheerful, welcoming, so-happy-you’re-here locals wherever we went, our love for the Beaver State grew and grew. There seemed to be a sort of easygoing, of-the-people, proletariat quality about the state which appealed to us on every level.
1967 Oregon Beach Bill …all “wet sand” within sixteen vertical feet of the low tide line belongs to the state of Oregon… public easements up to the line of vegetation… the public has free and uninterrupted use of the beaches…
Oregon’s sense of welcome was pervasive. Evidently the state is known for that, but we did not know, and as such, we got to experience it as a fresh and unexpected pleasure. Strangers talked to us with interest. Towns had clearly designated parking for RV’s and trailers with signs that skewed toward “Come this way!” instead of “Don’t park here!” Other signage followed suit, with phrases like “Courtesy Guide” instead of park rules, and regular
use of a positive, educational spin on everything from tide warnings to wildlife viewing regulations. One harbor town’s summer police patrol doubled as portable tourist information stations, bike-mounted and in cheery yellow t-shirts that read “ask me!” (When I asked about this model, they said that having official faces all over town kept trouble away, but why not make them helpful and approachable so everyone felt welcome? What a concept.)
Byways and Bicycles
The Oregon tourism board puts out two complimentary, ad-free, glossy booklets – one on state parks and the other on scenic byways. These quickly became our primary guides as we mapped a circuitous route from the rocky coast, east to the inland painted hills, then north and back west again to Portland along the Columbia River.
Along the way we pulled our bikes out often; nearly all of the state parks here allowed dogs, and Oregon had thoughtfully considered the wheeled, footed, and pawed ambler by creating wide, comfortable paved paths that reopened historic roadways and wound past cascading waterfalls. These we cycled with Katie running alongside on the gentle ups, trotting while we huffed and puffed the steep sections, and riding behind me as we zoomed downhill through green costal and riverfront forests. We relished every revolution of our knobby tires.
State Park Paradise
We stayed in several of Oregon’s state parks, and found them to be top notch. Not only were they plentiful and free, the campgrounds were the best and most well designed we’d seen. Potable water, special sink drains, and free hot showers were standard, and their pricing was around $17-$22 a night. What a deal.
Amongst them, Cape Blanco State Park was the very best. If ever we were to design a state park from scratch with all the perfect qualities, Cape Blanco would be the result. At the campgrounds, each campsite was chosen and manicured to be a small, private oasis, and a short walk brought us to the cliff’s edge with a million dollar view. That night we gave our little fridge a treat by plugging into mains power, and even watched a DVD on our laptop, the first since leaving Denver.
First of only two movies watched during the entire sabbatical: Overboard… Yacht-owning glam-girl Goldie Hawn gets stuck in the backwashed town of Elk Cove, Oregon, meets an overalls-wearing, working-class carpenter (who just happens to be Kurt Russell) and wackiness ensues. Plus, a banjo soundtrack, a gorgeous boat, and an ocean sunset at the end. What’s not to love?
(The other movie was The Pursuit of Happyness, starring Will Smith and his son, Jayden. I leave this choice to reader’s interpretation.)
In the morning, the camp hosts encouraged us to leave the trailer (“Oh, don’t worry about checkout time! We’re not busy.” How very Oregon…) so we could explore the area, and we took our bikes along the cliff edge path to visit the Cape Blanco Lighthouse. It was right out of lighthouse central casting, out near the point, with its proud light sweeping the rocky water and the rugged just of land.
There was a cute gift shop to explore (lighthouses make for iconic sweatshirts and whatnots), and then volunteer docents (hired like camp hosts, but with different assigments) told us all about the lighthouse. While one of us went inside to tour the lighthouse, the other stayed with Katie (who was sprawled asleep on the grass) and swapped stories and rig descriptions (RV, camper, trailer) with the docents outside. They recalled seeing our little red trailer earlier while in town having dinner with the other hosts, and we were apparently now the talk of the town. It was fun to be a little famous.
It was baby marine animal season, so we biked up the steep coastal road in Cape Arago State Park to see what we could see. Pulling into the overlook at Simpson Reef, a US Fish and Wildlife Service volunteer had set up telescopes and binoculars for public use, and talked us through what we were seeing – California sea lions, harbor seals, and elephant seals – describing to us the nuances of brown and grey and size and shape as we squinted, working hard to read the details of what were seeing. Coolio.
Up the coast another day, we stopped at the town of Benton. Lighthouses and cheese shops being high on our priority list, Benton was a perfect choice. In the morning we visited Coquille River Lighthouse and walked the jetty out past crashing waves until we dared go no further, then turned back for Face Rock Creamery. There, we were defeated by dairy for the first time ever after a cheddar cheese tasting, cheese soup, melted cheese sandwiches, and ice cream. What a way to go down.