Saturday, October 10, 2009

A rather sad story in yesterday’s LA Times concerning the world’s “dead zones” -- “oxygen-depleted” coastal areas where, through a combination of run-off pollution and shifting wind patterns, marine life is low and in danger of extinction. One of the larger “dead zones” includes the Oregon coast.

I have always been fond of this coastline. As a child my family would drive Highway 101 at least once a year to visit my grandmother in Los Angeles. It was because of these trips that I came to know places like Astoria and Lincoln City, revisiting them years later, on trips of my own.

One of my most memorable trips was a weekend spent in Yachats, Oregon, in the spring of 1982. I had taken the bus from Vancouver to Seattle, then the train from Seattle to Portland, where I hitchhiked to Astoria, then south. I was somewhere between Depoe Beach and Otter Rock when I was picked up by a guy my age on his way home to Reedsport after a failed relationship in Renton.

“Mark” drove a suped-up AMC Gremlin that had belonged to his oldest brother, a U.S. army corporal who was among the last American soldiers to die in Vietnam. Mark didn’t have much going for him, and as our time together “progressed”, I didn't have much going for me either.

The more Mark gassed on about his relationship, the more I wondered how I might escape his car. Unfortunately I had told him too soon that I was going to LA, and that I was hoping to take my time. (If I have learned one thing from hitchhiking, it is set your destination no further than thirty miles. It’s easier to confess your lies to sane people than those who have come undone.)

We were just south of Waldport when Mark announced we were taking a detour through Yachats. “You remind me of this woman I know,” he said. “I want you to meet her.” Before I could respond, Mark had turned off the highway and began climbing a long gravel road, stopping at a cluster of trailers overlooking the ocean.

There was no name for this place, nor was there anything to indicate that it was part of the larger world. Most of these trailers were rusted or blanketed in morning glory, with two of them standing on what seemed like uninhabitable angles. Children ran barefoot, in ragged clothes. Outside every door was a hog.

Turns out that this woman, who could have been my mother's age, was in fact a lot like me. She liked to play guitar, talk politics, and she knew enough about these things that I knew I would be safe in her company. When Mark excused himself (to “take a leak”) she leaned over and assured me that everything was going to be okay, that if I stayed a couple days it would do Mark good, help him readjust. “He left with nothing you, you know. At least he has you to show for it.”

About ten years ago, while driving to San Francisco, I went looking for this place and found the trailers gone, only to be replaced with expensive grey condos and imported shrubs. Apart from the half-full parking lot, there was nothing to say that people lived here. I got out of my car and headed towards the ocean. Up ahead, a security guard stepped from a van and asked me my business. “The view,” I said, to which he recommended an “official lookout” down the road – “on public property.” I got the hint. Life, as I knew it, was dead.

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