Big thanks to Oregon Coast Magazine for publishing my 3-part essay on my 2014 thru-hike of the Oregon Coast Trail. The article isn’t available online, and the only place I know it can be purchased is Powell’s City of Books in Portland — so I’m positing it here. Read Part I below, and stay tuned for Parts II & III. Thanks for giving it a look. -tg
Do Over: Attempting the Oregon Coast Trail…Again (Part 1)
I expanded the telescopic trekking poles, gripped their cork handles, checked my watch, and took my first steps on the grassy single-track. For the first few minutes I adjusted the straps of my backpack, dispersing weight until my body approved. The ocean hummed as the path curved into a tunnel of Sitka spruce, songbirds in the branches. I followed the blue and black trail markers for an hour and found myself exactly where I had started. My shirt was wet with sweat earned in vain. I shook my head and stared at the beach while considering the alternative—walk on the highway and bypass this wormhole. This was all so familiar. The trail hadn’t changed much in 18 years away.
Back in June 1996, after just four days, I aborted an attempt to thru-hike the Oregon Coast Trail (OCT). Though I was fresh out of the Army and still feeling indestructible, I wasn’t prepared. Not physically, not mentally. My pack was stuffed with extra shoes, a couple beers, a Walkman, and some mixed tapes. It didn’t take long for the strenuous miles to shoot searing cramps into unsuspecting muscles. For the first time ever, I quit something. I boarded a Greyhound bus and traveled home. My head knocked against the cold window and I made a silent promise to return.
This time around, I spent months studying maps and carrying a full pack around town to get my body ready for the load. I flew to Northern California the week before Memorial Day and my grandma and aunt drove me to Crissey Field State Park, the site of the OCT’s southernmost trailhead. They bid me farewell, gave me a thousand hugs, then drove away snapping photos. Just like that, I was alone. I unzipped the legs from my convertible pants, doused my skin with SPF-50, and set out.
Oregon State Parks began developing the OCT in 1971, and by 1988, the trail was deemed “hikable,” though still a work-in-progress. These days, most of the 382-mile trail is on public beaches, but there are also forested sections, headland crossings and long highway slogs. When the trail required me to tap into orienteering skills, I figured as long as I kept the ocean on my left, I was good to go.
As I walked the shoulder of Highway 101, I kept my head down to avoid blasts of dusty air exhaled by logging trucks and giant RVs. The roadside was a treasure trove of inexplicable discoveries including mysterious roadkill, incriminating Polaroids, and countless bottles of yellow liquid. Other finds piqued my imagination—a business card for a barbershop that specialized in “tapers” and “fohawks,” a lime-green glass marble, corroded coins, and a red Lego. I also found a Bob Boone baseball card from 1990—Boone’s first season as catcher with the Royals and the same year a Quintana pop-fly busted his right index-finger, forcing him into early retirement. He was 42. Same as me.
When I reached Brookings, I exited the highway and followed patriotic banners to the harbor where folks were setting up for a car show. An iridescent purple hot rod with an exposed chrome engine crawled down the main drag; its driver gave me a thumb’s up. A hitchhiker who wore a black Kangol hat held a cardboard sign that said, “north.” I wished him luck getting a ride. He said, “Yeah man, thanks. Patience is a virtue.”
On day two, after rushing past multiple opportunities to fill my Camelbak, I staggered into the Pistol River State Park and searched for a spigot. I’d been out of water for hours and was light-headed and clammy. As I leaned on a concrete wall, a woman drove up in a white Miata convertible and said, “Are you OK?” She wiped the red lipstick off the threads of her Evian bottle and handed it to me. “Take better care of yourself, now,” she said before driving away. I felt like a rookie.
As for the public’s reaction to this backpacking trip, folks either wanted to come along or thought I was out of my mind. At a Safeway in Port Orford, I lifted my pack into a shopping cart like a giant toddler, then searched for refried beans, tortillas, apples and Clif Bars. A man followed me into the store and asked how far I was going. When I said, “To the Columbia River,” he high-fived me and said, “Righteous, dude! Got room for me in that thing?” But when I told a grocery clerk the same thing, she looked over her glasses and said, “Hmmm…Have a nice day.”
It didn’t take long for me to realize that the OCT was always ready to make my day more challenging. All Oregon beach-goers have seen the signs that warn of sneaker waves: “Never turn your back on the ocean.” The same goes for the OCT. Even though I considered myself a strong, seasoned hiker, the trail’s thick overgrowth and lack of consistent markings were sometimes enough to find me sprawled out on a rotten log, crying like a baby.
Once I understood these unwritten basics, all I had to do was wake up and walk. The daily mileage wasn’t a problem, but the long hours by myself reminded me of the 1996 debacle. My only thoughts were of finishing. To get through the day, I sped through interactions with curious people and missed scenic viewpoints. I questioned my motivation for this second attempt. What was I trying to prove? And to whom?
After almost a week on the trail, I hit the Sixes River at high-tide. Although only 20 feet across, it rivaled class-five rapids. I couldn’t ford until the water receded, so for six hours I sketched shells in my journal and watched crows dive-bomb seagulls then battle for scraps of crabmeat. I stripped down to my boxers and took a nap. When I awoke, the river glowed dusky orange, and I waded across.
As daylight waned, I raced to the sea stacks standing guard over Blacklock Point where a rhododendron grove swallowed the trail. Using a trekking pole as a dull machete, I hacked at thick vegetation that obscured the canopied byway. I beat my chest and sliced at stinging nettle while screaming the chorus of David Bowie’s Major Tom. When the trail spit me out on a secluded beach, I saw a telltale big-fish “footprint” just off the water line.
Three grey whales were tumbling in the surf. Occasionally one would breach and I’d jump up and down waving, certain they could see me. After the hour-long show, I gazed at the ocean as pelicans flew in formation, skimming the tips of their wings on breakers. I had planned to walk another two hours, but decided to make camp where I stood. Later, outside the tent with my head on a pillow of driftwood, I fell asleep while watching a satellite blur in and out of focus as it inched across the summer sky.