The Heceta Head Lighthouse near Yachats, Ore., stands on a seaside slope as spectacular as anything in Big Sur, and there’s a bed-and-breakfast in the lightkeeper’s home next-door. Be nice, and the innkeepers will let you stand beneath the lighthouse tower after dark.
From here you can follow the beam as it scans the western horizon, cutting through the misty air for miles. Coming ashore, the beam crawls across the cliff face on the other side of the inlet, then flashes through the nearby evergreens like a spotlight on the heels of a fleeing thief. Then to sea again.
Every time another revolution begins, you think, “I am wearing the mother of all headlamps.” And then: “This trip was a very good idea.”
I’ve just spent seven days driving the coast of Oregon and Washington, covering 1,149 miles. In my prelaunch dreams, this trip did not begin with Horizon Airlines misplacing my luggage and did not continue with me at the wheel of a Kia Spectra.
And I never imagined that on a night when I really needed sleep, a Grateful Dead tribute band would take over the brew pub beneath my hotel room.
But the point of a road trip is to surprise oneself, right?
The idea was to complete what I had started in January, when I drove the whole coast of California. So now I’ve seen just about the entire West Coast of the continental U.S. As I did on the 10-day, 1,136-mile California leg of the journey, I slept in a new bed each night, and I made sure each lodging was at the water’s edge. I met a fisherman with a divinity degree and a vampire fangirl comedy duo. I didn’t see one raindrop. I downed a seven-course breakfast, then chased it with a 10-course dinner. In Washington, I confronted Disappointment, Flattery and Deception on consecutive days. And, no, that didn’t make me homesick for Los Angeles.
I started where my California drive ended, at the big green “Welcome to Oregon” sign south of Brookings. I would spend about $135 per night on lodging (before taxes) and just $134.82 on gas. (Thank you, Kia.) I wound up driving more miles per day this trip, because, especially in Washington, you often have to leave U.S. 101 to see the sea.
“It’s very easy to drive and drive and drive the coast and never see anything,” Ed Kirkby warned me on the first night. “So you just have to park it, camp and hang out.”
We were standing at water’s edge in Harris Beach State Park, north of Brookings, while the sun dipped behind a set of ragged black sea stacks. Kirkby, on a two-month road trip of his own from Tucson, had just finished crabbing and was headed to his tent.
I got back in my car and pushed up to my Gold Beach hotel, where my suitcase finally caught up with me the next day.
For mile upon mile, the beaches of Oregon give you dramatic sea stacks and tide pools, and even in summer, the beachfront hotels, motels and inns are cheaper than California’s in winter.
Instead of the California missions, I measured my progress in lighthouses and bridges, many of which date to the ‘30s, when workers were still building the Roosevelt Military Highway that we now call U.S. 101.
By the time I reached Heceta Head on the second night, I had covered 329 miles, lunched on tremendous fish at the Crazy Norwegian’s restaurant in Port Orford and risked burial alive on the wind-lashed sand dunes near Florence. Like the young couple next to me, I struggled to remain standing while the gusts ripped at the seagrass and peeled feathery spray from the tops of the waves. Yet in the middle of this, a single sea gull glided toward us, straight into the wind, scarcely moving a feather, as if governed by the physics of some other planet.
“That wind -- in winter it turns semis over,” another diner had said at Crazy Norwegian’s.
Now the young woman gaped at the wind-defying gull.
“That,” she said, “is absolutely unbelievable.”
On the third day, after a seven-course breakfast at the Heceta Head Lighthouse B&B;, I paused for pasta at Yachats (pronounced YAH-hots), a gem of a town tucked between green hills, and I crossed the Yaquina Bay Bridge into Newport.
I missed the big aquarium here -- just ran out of time -- but I did catch fisherman Joshua Barrett, 29, selling tuna, halibut and crabs from the docked Chelsea Rose.
He told me how crabs’ eyes allow them 360-degree vision, how he drains blood from tuna, and how, in the battle to keep fish grime at bay, he trashes about 10 T-shirts every month. (That day’s T-shirt said, “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of how awesome I am.”)
Barrett told me he had served in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, worked as a graphic artist and earned a master’s degree in divinity. He seemed to have a pretty good handle on particle physics as well.
“We caught a wolf eel the other day,” Barrett said. “About 7 1/2 feet long. . . . “
It was becoming clear that Barrett had enough tales to last well into next year, but I was due to hear a few others across town.
The Sylvia Beach Hotel, a retro-Bohemian, semi-Luddite, slightly shabby retreat in Newport’s artsy Nye Beach area, names its rooms after famous authors, outfits them accordingly, and urges guests to stay for dinner and play “two truths and a lie” with one another. It’s a 10-course dinner, which, counting lunch, put me at 18 courses for the day. (Is this a great job or what?)
Good salmon, better falsehoods. Amanda, a young Oregonian, flummoxed us by lying about everything, from brothers and husband to Japanese and Korean language skills. Conversely, Martha of Georgia accidentally told the truth and was disqualified.
And not one soul bought my account of bungee-jumping in Zimbabwe, despite lavish details about Victoria Falls and fruit-hurling monkeys. I retired to my room, the Edgar Allan Poe, to nod off beneath the dull blade of a big metal knife, suspended from the ceiling over my pillow.
Cheesy? Perhaps. But things were about to get cheesier.
Bridge to somewhere
The next day I hit Tillamook, where about a million travelers a year stop for the cheese factory tour.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea. But it was free. And it was a self-guided tour, allowing easy escape. And then there was the restaurant-retail area -- an ungodly amount of dairy products, including 38 flavors of ice cream. Resistance was futile. Excellent root beer float.
Now I had many miles to cover quickly, which meant dissing three substantial cities. I prowled Cannon Beach (Oregon’s answer to Laguna Beach and Del Mar) for a few hours. I slowly cruised through Seaside (a Coney Island of the Northwest). Then I blasted past gritty, Victorian Astoria.
Ah, but the Astoria-Megler Bridge. It’s a green monster, a truss structure almost four miles long, built in 1966. It begins by soaring high over the south side of the Columbia River. But then it drops until you can almost feel the Columbia lapping at your ankles. You can’t walk on it, but with that descent it’s twice as much fun to drive as the Golden Gate Bridge.
A man feels proud crossing such a bridge and pleased to reach the midpoint of his journey. And then that man remembers that he’s now approaching the biggest gamble on his itinerary, the Historic Sou’Wester Lodge in Seaview, Wash., whose proprietor, Len Atkins, said this when taking the reservation:
“I hesitate to describe anything here as comfortable, but it’s good for the soul.”
She was a faded beauty, 35 feet long, and Atkins led me to her at dusk.
Spartan Royal Manor, said the letters on her side. She dated to about 1954, which put her among the most senior trailers on the grassy 3-acre field near Cape Disappointment, Wash. But she was fully functional. Atkins, who could pass for the late cartoonist Al Hirschfeld in a dim gallery, showed me my trailer’s kitchen, bathroom and a bedroom with cool, curvy corners.
Every guest, he added, is invited into the farmhouse great room, where he and his wife, Miriam, hold court amid hundreds of books and artworks.
The Atkinses, both 80 and raised in South Africa, came to this rustic clubhouse nearly 30 years ago after stints in Israel and Chicago, and they’ve made it a haven for world-class conversation or deep reflection, not creature comforts. It’s better if you’re not in a hurry.
“You know,” Len said pleasantly, as I was leaving, “what you’re doing is just about the exact opposite of what we’re trying to do here.”
All I could do was shrug and hit the accelerator.
At Cape Disappointment, I checked out the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. (It was here in 1805, at the mouth of the Columbia, that their expedition finally reached the Pacific.) At Cosmopolis, I got gas. At the Kalaloch Lodge, I combed the beach amid enough driftwood to build a whole town of soggy, silvery log cabins.
At Ruby Beach, I found thousands of surf-tumbled stones, stacked by human hands to make a cairn wonderland.
And then in Forks, things got weird.
The Chamber of Commerce parking lot was jammed. Dozens of tourists, many of them teenage girls, thronged a tour bus. The Forks Motel marquee read “Welcome to Forks Home of Twilight Heated Pool.”
Forks, population 3,175, is the setting of novelist Stephenie Meyer’s vampire series “Twilight.” She found this gritty little lumber town, which neighbors the Hoh rain forest, searching on Google for some place dark, wet and American.
Thanks to the release of four “Twilight” books since 2005 and a movie in late 2008, local tourism has been rising faster than a zombie hand from clammy cemetery dirt. Visitors have increased nearly tenfold in three years, the Chamber of Commerce says, and I saw dozens of travelers like Malia Suzui, 21, and Lani Kiefel, 37, who drove from Walla Walla, Wash.
“We had dinner at Bella Italia, where Edward and Bella had their first date,” Kiefel said, speaking of the protagonists as if they were our great mutual friends.
“And we’ve reenacted things,” said Suzui. “I even asked somebody to mug me in Port Angeles. Pretend-mug.” (I’m told there’s a near-mugging in the book. Not having read the book or seen the movie, I just nodded.)
“And we have teeth,” said Kiefel, which sent them both diving into their bags for fake fangs.
About six hours later, I reached Port Townsend, checked into the affordable Waterstreet Hotel, and discovered that Jack Acid, a Grateful Dead cover band, was about to crank it up in the bar just below my room.
No matter how whipped I was, sleep was not going to happen soon. So I went downstairs, nursed a beer through “Alabama Getaway” and several other old favorites, and crashed when the music was done, around 1:30 a.m.
Then I caught the morning ferry, scooted over the 180-foot-high Deception Pass Bridge (another Depression monument, dating to 1935) and sprinted up to Blaine, the last city before Canada.
You could consider Blaine’s Peace Arch State Park a sort of twin to Border Field State Park, way down south between San Diego and Tijuana.
You could -- except that the park in Blaine is a perfect grassy meadow, open to pedestrians from both sides of the border. There’s a sculpture garden, a big arch and all sorts of ornamental horticulture, including flowers arranged to resemble stars, stripes and a maple leaf. The Pacific was just across the street and down the hill.
Life at the border was sweet. But this still didn’t feel like the end of the road.
What had looked and felt like the end of the road was Cape Flattery, the day before. Because the Olympic Peninsula juts farther west than does the rest of Washington’s coast, this cape is the northwesternmost point in the continental U.S.
I’d almost bypassed it for fear it would be smothered in fog. But as I neared the coast north of Forks, the sky cleared. Past the signs for Beaver and Sappho, past Clallam Bay and Sekiu, the roads led onto the Makah Reservation land, growing more narrow and rugged. After Neah Bay and miles of wriggling along the water’s edge, the road cut inland to a modest trailhead.
The trail was just half a mile long, a tantalizing forest path, blue sky, turquoise sea. The land narrowed, the trees thinned out, and there I was, at land’s end. Gulls crying. Waves slapping at the sandstone caves below.
Ahead lay tiny Tatoosh Island, topped, of course, by a white lighthouse from 1857. To my right, to the north, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, lay a foreign country. I forget the name, but it’s supposed to have pretty good healthcare.
There was no place left for me to take another step -- and if you’re a compulsive West Coast traveler, realizing that is bound to make you giddy and sad, all at once. The West Coast should be infinite, shouldn’t it?
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Where to eat
These aren’t the five best restaurants in the Pacific Northwest, but they did serve the five best meals I found in seven days of road-tripping.
Crazy Norwegian’s Fish & Chips, 259 6th St. (a.k.a. U.S. Highway 101), Port Orford, Ore.; (541) 332-8601. 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Dinner entrees usually $5.75 to $14.35.
Heidi’s Homemade Food & Italian Specialties, 84 Beach Road, Yachats, Ore.; (541) 547-4409. A modest lunch spot with pastel hues, bay views and local ingredients. Open daily except Tuesdays. Lunches top out at $11.50.
Otis Cafe, 1259 Salmon River Highway, Otis, Ore; (541) 994-2813. The classic and tiny roadside eatery, known for homemade breads and pies, sits on the route from Portland to the beach, 5 miles east of Lincoln City, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner all day, every day. In summer, open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Dinner entrees usually $10.25 to $15.95.
The Depot Restaurant, 1208 38th & L, Seaview, Wash.; (360) 642-7880; www.depotrestaurantdining.com. A rehabbed old railroad building with a checkerboard floor, long bar, local seafood and sophisticated menu. Dinner entrees usually $18 to $33.
Skylark’s Hidden Cafe & Wine Parlour, 1308 11th St., Fairhaven Historic District, Bellingham, Wash; (360) 715-3642, www.skylarkshiddencafe.com. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner until midnight daily. Irish folk music on Sunday nights. Dinner entrees usually $8.25 to $25.95.
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Where to stay
GOLD BEACH, ORE.
Pacific Reef Resort, 29362 Ellensburg Ave., Highway 101, Gold Beach; (800) 808-7263 or (541) 247-6658, www.pacificreefresort .com. Summer rates usually $89 to $175.
Heceta Head Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast, 92072 Highway 101 South, Yachats; (866) 547-3696, www.hecetalighthouse.com. Six rooms in former lightkeeper’s home. Summer rates $209 to $315.
Sylvia Beach Hotel, 267 N.W. Cliff St.; Newport; (888) 795-8422 or (541) 265-5428, www.sylviabeachhotel .com. Set in a 1913 building. Summer rates usually $100 to $193.
Historic Sou’Wester Lodge, Beach Access Road, 38th Place, Seaview; (360) 642-2542, www.souwester lodge.com. A rustic, Bohemian spot. I paid $93 for a roomy trailer.
OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, WASH.
Kalaloch Lodge, 157151 Highway 101; Forks; (360) 962-2271, www.visitka laloch.com. Bluff-top lodge. Summer rates usually $170 to $311.
PORT TOWNSEND, WASH.
The Waterstreet Hotel, 635 Water St. at Quincy, Port Townsend; (800) 735-9810 or (360) 385-5467, www .waterstreethotelporttownsend.com Summer rates usually $60 to $160.
The Hotel Bellwether, 1 Bellwether Way, Bellingham; (877) 411-1200 or (360) 392-3100, www.hotelbellwether.com. Summer rates usually $156 to $710.