Do Over: Attempting the Oregon Coast Trail…Again (Part III)
After two weeks on the trail, I no longer worried about finishing. Hiking 20 miles before noon was no big deal. I had given myself a month to walk all 382 miles of the OCT and at my current pace I’d be done a week sooner than planned. I tried to savor every remaining step but could already feel the melancholic twinge that would accompany my journey’s end.
I strolled into Lincoln City, scored a picnic table at Siletz Bay Park, and pulled an unopened can of refried beans from my pack. The P-38 can opener saved from my Army days reminded me of eating MREs during field exercises and emptying tiny bottles of Tabasco onto hockey pucks of dehydrated beef. Flavor was a luxury, and calories were far more important. These days I knew exactly what I needed to keep from bonking; the only thing different on my grocery store receipts was the date.
With a full belly I stared out over the minus tide. A beat-up conversion van with a bubble window pulled into the parking lot and spilled out a large extended family. Kids ran amok while adults covered a table with plastic containers filled with food. Everyone grouped up, armed themselves with tube shovels, deep buckets, and clam guns, then scattered across the muddy beach.
That afternoon, I tunneled through overgrowth to the summit of Cascade Head. Ferns grabbed each stab of my trekking poles as I climbed the relentless goat trail. I imagined there were dinosaurs in the dense foliage or maybe a lost civilization. Deep in the forest, I found a $5 gambling chip from Chinook Winds and took it as a sign of good luck. The next day I missed the OCT near Winema Beach and reached the impassable Nestucca River instead. It buzzed with a frenzy of drift boats looking for perfect spots to hook spring chinook. Over wind-blown chop I shouted to a solo fisherman, “Twenty bucks for a ride!” He turned his boat in my direction.
“Get in,” he said, “the fish aren’t bitin’ anyhow.” On the opposite bank, I handed him a bill but he shook his head and refused to take it. “Keep it, man.” I threw my pack to the sand and thanked him. “I’ve always wanted to go on an adventure,” he said. “Any adventure.”
By midday I hit Sandlake Grocery, one of the last places for folks to fuel up their sand rails and nab a six-pack before spending a day in the dunes. Two old men yukked it up on the stoop while patrons swaggered through the front entrance like cowboys. As I sat in the shade against the side of the store, stuffing my face with Oreos and cheese danishes, a woman lugging a bag of trash to the dumpster stopped to look me over. “Wow, you’re really roughin’ it,” she said. “You can sit on the porch, ya know.”
“Yeah, but I’m afraid someone’ll catch a whiff of me.”
“Oh please,” she said. “People ‘round here don’t care how you smell. Go on now sweetie, you fit right in.”
In Downie’s Cafe in Bay City, between scoops of steaming oatmeal and bites of toast swathed in grape jelly, I called Jetty Fisheries to ask about their ferry across Nehalem Bay. The guy on the phone gave me directions: pass the big smokestack in Garibaldi, go straight through Rockaway, walk a few more miles, then take a left at the yellow van. When I arrived, a man greeted me with a slap on the side of my pack. “Hey, you found us! Did ya meet the other dude on the trail heading south?”
“No. I didn’t see anyone.”
“Ha! Good thing. He was gonna knock you out and steal your food.” I paid the $10 fare and he said, “Alright, just go see the ugly guy in the skiff and give him the password.”
“Yep. Tell him, Who let the dogs out. That should do it—Oh, also tell him you know a doc who’ll give him a free vasectomy.” Less than 10 minutes later I stood on the other side of the bay, waving as the driver revved the outboard. A half-mile up the beach, I found a comfortable drift log and took a nap. I could still hear echoes of the ferryman’s banter.
During an extended break in Oswald West on my 18th day on the trail, a father and son asked about my gear. I stumbled through simple conversation, chatting more than I had in weeks. They walked away with their arms draped across each other’s shoulders. The son looked back and shouted, “Someday I’m going to do this!” I gave him a thumbs up. That night, I pitched my tent at Sea Ranch in Cannon Beach, having covered close to 80 miles in three days.
After a rest day, my fresh legs carried me into Seaside. When the sky grew dark and heavy, I took refuge near Carousel Mall to dig out my poncho for the first time of the whole trip. Back on the beach in Gearhart, the storm-hardened sand felt like blacktop and the wind pushed from the south. Driving pellets of rain made puddles look like they were boiling.
The prospect of making it to the northernmost state park kept me moving, but still I looked at my watch every five minutes. Sideways rain pummeled the churning surf and I worried about sneaker waves more than I had at any time before. The irony of getting swept away so close to the end had me on high alert. To make matters worse, I couldn’t stop singing a line from the 80s hit song, “Opposites Attract.” One step forward, two steps back. I belted it like a mantra, ignoring the strangeness of my sudden association to Paula Abdul.
Near Camp Rilea, I got the boost I needed. Two Blackhawk helicopters appeared out of nowhere and landed on the beach close enough for me to feel their rotor wash. They attached slingloads and relaunched into the gale-force winds. For a moment they hovered overhead and I returned enthusiastic peace signs to drenched soldiers leaning out the side doors.
I didn’t break stride as I ate my last Clif Bar with gusto, my ears ringing with the white noise of the sea. When a dark speck appeared on the horizon I thought it was my imagination, but within the hour I stood before the rusting wreck of the Peter Iredale, a four-masted sailing vessel that ran aground in 1906. I had made it to Ft. Stevens and would complete the OCT tomorrow.
I knew from experience as an endurance runner that long-awaited finishes were anticlimactic. Still, when I reached the trail’s terminus, I dipped my toe in the Columbia River and took a selfie at the main trailhead. When the camera’s shutter closed, its body clicked and deployed a couple useless flashes, then it turned off and wouldn’t turn back on. Yeah, me too, I thought.
I lounged on a boulder and sketched the south jetty lookout tower while it quaked above pounding swell. Though a nearby sign said, “WARNING: Structure Not Designed For Public Use,” tourists gripped its wooden rails as each exploding wave covered them with salty spray.
That night at the Norblad Hostel in Astoria, the stench of my worn-out shoes filled the small room. I had knocked the monkey off my back, but already I was planning another next time. I drifted off to the muffled sound of traffic that crept in the cracked window. I dreamed of whale footprints, mocking seals, and that eerie calm that fills the world when the ocean swallows the sun’s orange rays.