I’m posting the second installment of my 3-part essay published by Oregon Coast Magazine. Unless you live in Oregon, or are visiting Powell’s Books anytime soon, the article might be hard to find. Still, I encourage you to seek it out – the folks at the mag have been wonderful to work with and I’d love to continue supporting them, even if from afar.
In Part II they’ve published another 14 photos alongside my essay, which goes as follows:
Do Over: Attempting the Oregon Coast Trail…Again
The nylon walls of my tent rippled and popped as evening gusts threatened to launch it like a kite. I brushed sand off my sweaty backpack and removed a pouch of small paint tubes from the top compartment. Leaning against a beached log with my eyes fixed on the sparkling horizon, I imagined a stranded freighter taking on water after striking a craggy haystack. I scooped up a wedge of weathered wood near my feet, dabbed the tip of my bristle brush into a dollop of orange acrylic, and painted a sky speckled with flaming clouds. The next morning I left my miniature masterpiece hanging on a telephone pole for another traveler to find. The prospect of someone discovering my artwork was more thrilling than a secluded campsite after another long day on the Oregon Coast Trail.
After only a week afoot I had settled into a daily routine: wake to the first birdsong, scarf down two peanut butter tortillas, look at my maps, then hike for ten hours before making camp again. My movements were methodical. Each day I strategized little else besides food, water, and a safe place to sleep. The first week on the trail I desperately clawed towards what seemed to be an impossible finish; a regimented second week only limited my ability to enjoy details along the way. As I sat on a picnic table outside the visitor’s center at Cape Blanco and watched tourists disappear into the lighthouse on the point, an old man with leather skin from South Texas told me that nobody at the mercy of nature is ever in control. “She’s always ready to remind you how small you are.”
I reached the New River at exactly high tide. Though no more than 150 feet across, its dark, snaking belly looked deep and I questioned the possibly of crossing without swimming. But I wasn’t about to wait another five hours for low tide as I had been forced to do at the Sixes, so I stripped down to nothing, balanced my pack on my head, and forded the frigid rapids at the worst possible time. Harbor seals circled as the muscling current nearly toppled me headlong into the rushing swell. Icy water reached my lips and the weight of my pack was the only thing keeping me from becoming buoyant. “You got this, you got this,” I said like a mantra, inching my toes over slippery cobbles. Each short stride made the next easier and water gradually warmed in the shallows. Soon the tide’s grip weakened. With an upward lurch I dumped myself onto the opposite bank. I spiked my pack into the sand and did a naked touchdown dance. My exhilaration quickly gave way to regret when I realized how close I’d come to being swept out to sea. Why didn’t I wait it out? Why didn’t I look for an alternate way around? I was still rushing, still trying to control my OCT experience. I needed to stop trying so hard.
Along the beach, unrelenting headwinds from the north sprayed me with blinding sand and seasalt, and I prayed for an old pair of ski goggles or welding mask to appear in the flotsam. Instead, just litter from the Japanese tsunami: glass bottles wrapped in mussels, mossy floats, and more than a dozen giant red light bulbs that had made it across the Pacific without shattering. At the southern end of the Oregon Dunes I was sick of the sandblasting, so I detoured onto the 101.
Roadside debris made highway sections interesting. At the end of one of my longest days, a thirty-eight miler, I was encouraged by a Deschutes bottle cap that said, “Bravely Done.” On a morning when my plantar fasciitis nearly decommissioned me, a discarded Thriller album distracted me from misery and inspired me to belt “Beat It” for hours. I cracked up when I found a Chinese cookie fortune weaved into a patch of pine needle scree. It said, “A new pair of shoes will do you a world of good.” Gifts from the road were ever-present when I was paying attention.
I also found human connection when I needed it. Near Reedsport I sat on a guardrail and shared a Clif bar with a musician who had cycled from Anchorage. He pulled a bamboo flute from his canvas pannier and played the Kung Fu theme song. A few days later, on a beach just north of Florence, a shirtless man wearing blue jeans and aviator glasses rolled up on a mountain bike and asked where I was going.
“Last dude I met out here didn’t want to get his feet wet,” he said. “Tried to skirt the creek ahead and got lost in the dunes.” He dismounted his bike and walked alongside me until we reached the stream.
“Looks like you can cross pretty easy. Even leave your shoes on.” He pointed at what I thought was a submerged rock and said, “See that white thing? It’s the last remaining vertebrae of a humpback whale that washed up a few months ago.” Gulls stood in a wobbling line waiting for a chance to scrape a final bit of flesh from the enormous bone.
After 12 days on the trail, my legs and back were cramped and rickety and my feet looked like raw hamburger. I lumbered into Waldport, dizzy with exhaustion, and there wasn’t a campground in sight. An old woman with a groomed white poodle on a pink leash pointed to a hotel across Alsea Bay. After a painful hour of plodding, I leaned on the hotel reception desk as if it was the only thing holding me up and listened as the hotel clerk explained how to trick the Coke machine to dispense quarters for the washer. He handed me my key and recommended I use shampoo for laundry detergent. “Save you some money,” he said.
In the shower I lathered my sunburnt arms with the tiny bar of soap as the steamy air infused with the smell of flowers. Layers of murky grime swirled down the drain, followed by what was left of my strength. By 7 o’clock my clothes were cleaned and folded and I slid beneath the bed’s starched sheets listening to the hum of silence. I felt like a cheater and fell asleep wishing I could hear the ocean.
The next morning my body was listless, my momentum sapped and halted. I rolled out of bed, staggered around the room, and peered at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. My sunken face looked defeated, as if I had traded all my energy for a night of comfort. “Come on Griffen, you’re doing this,” I said out loud.
I cinched up my tattered shoes and heaved my backpack onto my sore shoulders. I adjusted the waist belt, grabbed my trekking poles, and let the door slam behind me. I walked past the dining area where guests robotically forked scrambled eggs and rubbery sausage into their mouths. At check out, the clerk from the previous day asked if I ever get bored. “Sure,” I said. “But don’t you?”
Outside, my visible breath was smoke in a crystal ball. I marched across the parking lot, up a misty road and away from the bay. Crows cawed and swooped from telephone wires, slicing the dew-heavy air as I neared. The crunch of gravel marked the rhythm of my short strides, the distant roar of the 101 guiding me back on course.