Day 33: Oregon
I’ve taken over 1 million steps on my trek so far.
The other day, I used the highway markers to pace out how many steps I take in a mile. Using my fingers to tick off the hundreds, I found the final total to be 1,970 steps. Walking all the way to Port Angeles, where my kayak waits, will be about 1,000 miles — enough, when you count all the extra wandering, to add up to about 2 million steps total. And crossing the Oregon border a few days ago (Woo-Hoo!) was about the half-way point of my walk — hence, over 1 millions steps so far.
The immense California coastline stretches out like a horizon — as though the earth ends first. It took me 28 days to walk less than half of it, about 500 of its 1200 miles. And I was walking with every advantage! Half the time I was on a flat paved surface with all the obstacles cleared away, the other half on forgiving trails and beaches — always knowing where I could find the next food and shelter if I needed it. And with my guidebook, I almost never encountered something unexpected — a cliff, say, forcing me to retreat inland and make my way around. Walking the same stretch before this coast was (at least superficially) tamed by Europeans, 28 days could have turned into months, and reaching the border at all would have been no sure thing.
With such a long, rough coastline, it’s no wonder that San Francisco Bay, perhaps the greatest natural harbor in the world, lay “undiscovered” for nearly 200 years of European exploration up and down the coast, starting with the famous English pirate Sir Francis Drake’s 1579 visit to what is now the Northern California Coast during his world circumnavigation. Shrouded in fog, un-heralded by the gleaming Golden Gate Bridge (which wouldn’t be built for another three and a half centuries), its 1-mile wide entrance would have been easy to miss. The coast must have seemed like one unbroken rocky bluff, a coast to warily stay back from with all of its uncharted rocks. San Francisco Bay, life-blood of the Ohlone and Miwok peoples, would only finally be found over land by the Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola in 1769.
But for all the prodigious length of the California coast, I finally made it to Oregon! I should say, made it back to Oregon, because I actually attended high school here. My home town of Gustavus, Alaska, is so small that it hardly has a high school — at most a couple of students graduate each year. Others are ready, as I was, to get out and see the world during their high school years. For my part, I was determined to play on a real basketball team, one where we weren’t scrounging to get 5 players to fill the positions (we sometimes played with 4), and didn’t have to fly a Cessna 185 through snowstorms to our games in the nearby communities. So when the time came, my mom and I got on a plane to Portland, bought a car, and started driving south until we found a place we liked — Ashland, a wonderful Southern Oregon college town of Shakespearean fame, was the place.
I’ve missed Oregon, and my first few days back in the state have been eventful. Although the border is a completely arbitrary human convention, there has nevertheless been one big tangible change since crossing that line: I no longer have a guidebook. I ripped the last few pages out of my fine, detailed copy of Hiking the California Coastal Trail, and now I’m on my own, with just some printed internet maps to get me through Oregon. And that’s how it happened that yesterday turned into the biggest day yet — a 30-mile walk (it’s hard to tell distances on my printed maps…) with a little adventure in the middle.
I’d hiked up and over Cape Blanco, with its glittering white lighthouse, and after dropping back down to the beach, waving hello to a family lounging in the sand and fishing surfperch, I came to the Elk River. Hmm, I thought… bigger than I expected. The tide was in, at +4 feet, flooding the river mouth with surging waves. Dropping my pack and walking down to the breakers, then back up to the forest, I could see there was no way across. I couldn’t swim the river without soaking my pack. So I’d have to wait hours for the tide to drop. Or perhaps… hmm… Deciding on a bolder strategy, I looked over my shoulder at the family I’d passed — still in sight, but far enough away. I stripped off all my clothes and stuffed them in my backpack (noting what an egregious farmers tan I’ve developed), then fished out my sleeping pad. It’s a good thing, I thought, that the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir blows up so thick, almost like a floating mat you could lay out on in the pool. And if a person could lay on it, why not a backpack? I blew the pad up awkwardly, as it flopped around, the wind tugging at it like a sail, thinking, next time I’ll get naked AFTER the pad is ready. Then I lay the pack down on top and lashed it to the pad using some stray cord. Pulling the makeshift raft over the sand, I backed myself into the chilly water, the river mixing with ocean. I smiled to see my pack ride high over the water on its blow-up raft — It works! Only 40 feet across, 30, 20 — guiding the raft through the waves, kicking and gasping (we Alaskans aren’t born swimmers) — I finally hauled myself and my pack up on the North bank of the Elk. Loosing the cord, I saw that there were just a few splashes on the pack — no harm done! I dressed and strapped it back on, and kept walking north along the endless beach.
And I’ve already met some good people here in Oregon. Waiting for the public library to open in Brookings, I overheard a couple of homeless guys: You got a good place to sleep around here? Naw, not really, I pretty much just sleep in the bushes. It’s alright. Long as it’s not raining. I can’t explain the natural camaraderie that exists among transient folks, but as soon as they saw my backpack they asked me where I was headed, and we got to talking for some time. As it turns out, one of them spent the summer of 1989 working at a lodge in my tiny home town of Gustavus! I was surprised by the coincidence, because Gustavus isn’t really one of those places you just end up — you have to want to get there. ’89, huh? I asked, that’s before they paved the roads. He responded, Oh yeah, there wasn’t shit. We had fun though.
And later that day, I stopped into a cafe for a strawberry milkshake. A waitress, hearing my story, told me I’d just missed a Canadian who passed through a couple days before, walking the whole length of Highway 101 pushing his belongings in a stroller. “Maybe you’ll catch up to him!” she said cheerily. Hmm, I thought, walking north pushing a stroller? Some people out there sure do some crazy things.
Take care everyone! I’m sending out lots of love from the southern Oregon coastline, dreaming of Inian Islands Institute. Until my next post, keep the Alaskan Wilderness alive in your heart!