Into the deep blue yonder of past and present

You know that feeling when you return to a place that hugs your heart? For some of us it might be the return to a favorite childhood place, maybe the home you grew up in, a special spot you traveled to, or where you first fell in love. These days when I pass through the Oregon towns of Westport and Astoria, it is almost as though I too have lived there. But no, not I. Rather, my sentimentality stems from my crafting of characters who did. I carry those fictional memories as if they are my own, today in indelible ink on the pages of my books.

Last week I headed out alone to grab a few needed down days on the Long Beach Peninsula, planning to meet up with my buddy-from-forever: the two of us craving solitude to write and beach walk. I chose to drive both directions via U.S. Route 30 rather than the sometimes faster Highway 26, the Sunset; these days I understand why it was my parents’ favorite route to the beach. My crafted stories teased my brain. I got excited as I always do now as I passed the town of Claskanie, just as I might when revisiting a childhood spot from my own history. (After all, the letter Ernest mailed to Annie in Beyond the Ripples was postmarked in this town!) I didn’t need coffee to provide the caffeine-like rush rising in me as I turned east on Ferry Road. Yes, I was certain I could spot the house Ernest once lived in, and see him shuffling his way along Ferry Road to the nearest bank of the Columbia. I Imagined it to be the day he would finally retrieve the bottle from its winter debris after spying it months before. Yes, and I knew that sometime soon his daughter Amelia would make a visit to the local mini-mart: all of it unfolded for me again on this newest visit. I peered out toward the ferry and river channel and marveled at this place.

Columbia River, Ferry Road, Westport OR

Solo traveling does have its benefits: full control over where you stop and how long you stay. Delaying my journey by a few minutes, I stopped off to visit the Berry Patch Restaurant after the tip I received from someone at the ferry landing about its walls of historical photos. After all, Ernest ate there occasionally. (He often took home the leftovers.) Next time I’ll get a piece of berry pie.

Have you stopped for a piece of pie at the Berry Patch before and admired the historical photos?

I traveled onward to Astoria, parked downtown and dodged into Godfather’s Bookstore before strolling along the Astoria Riverwalk. When I published Beyond the Ripples in 2019, I did not have any plan to next write a book set in Astoria: I’m a one-book-at-a-time writer. However, in Ripples, Frank finds himself obsessing over an old news clipping he uncovered about treasure buried near the Astoria Column. (See Coxcomb Hill Cache.) Naturally, this was the town he decides to relocate to, mid-book, when he and Annie’s Mom divorce. Once I crafted the plot for my next book, Humanity’s Grace, Astoria made the natural setting. Like as in Westport, my spirit felt it had been the one living those Astoria scenes I crafted for my characters in Humanity’s Grace. I felt emotional as I hesitated on the Riverwalk – not only because Dad so loved it here with its historical reminders of river pilots and ferries – but because it was where Frank spent his final minutes. I listened to the sounds of the river, gulls and far away ships as I peered out, just like Frank had.

Astoria Riverwalk on the Columbia.

After several wonderful days of rest, beach walks and writing in Ocean Park, I headed home. I was surprised after a few days of clouds and mist to find my final coastal morning saturated with blue sky and sun. I was grateful to have time to take a beach walk before needing to be home for an afternoon meeting, still with time to dawdle in case the urge set in.

Long Beach Peninsula near Ocean Park

It was in the middle of the four-mile Astoria-Megler Bridge span that I identified one more essential stopover. This bridge always feels so much a part of my life you’d think I had been involved in the making of it! Perhaps it is because my earliest memories of family beach trips included ferry trips before its construction. Or is it the memories of all those years searching for $1.50 to pay the toll required for crossing? Construction of this bridge began the year after I was born in 1962, although it wasn’t completed and ready for travel until 1966.

Astoria-Megler ferry crossing in ~1965, from Megler Washington to Astoria Oregon with bridge construction in view.

Returning to present day, as I continued across the bridge, southbound traffic slowed up as I neared its steep ascent into Oregon. Then it came to a halt. Bridge work. I floated back 45 years. I’m 15 and learning to drive our manual transmission VW Rabbit. I’m not sure why it was only Mom and me in the car, we must have been either the first or last to leave the house after this Labor or Memorial Day weekend. The toll booth on the Oregon side collided with weekend visitors making it into one of my toughest driver education memories that I remember today. Stop, go, engine die. Stop, go, roll back, engine die. The flowing Columbia River not far below us. Clearly embedded in my memory of that day is Mom protectively putting her arm over the back of my seat, surely silently offering her support as I continued to kill the engine, inch forward and backward. I’m certain I barked at her: I was fifteen, claiming full independence, and didn’t need her to hover over me! Merely minutes later, though, after more rolling backward and restarting the car, I placed it in park, silently set the brake and opened my door. Mom knew not to say anything. I remember today as if it were yesterday being embarrassed and humiliated as I skulked into the passenger seat.

But on this day, an experienced driver with automatic transmission, I daydreamed as I awaited the road crew ‘s signal that would allow me to continue my journey onto Oregon’s shore. It was then with the brilliance of the sky and sun shining in all its glory, that the Astoria Column caught my eye. Ah yes, memories and stories, memories and more stories: a final necessary pitstop.

“Later in the afternoon, the steamer would pass Astoria: the place where fur trapping began in the West after John Jacob Astor formed Astoria. The place made famous and romanticized by Washington Irving and his book Astoria, written as early as 1835. Today, the Astoria Column juts 125 feet into the sky, built by the Astor family in 1935 to pay tribute to the town’s early history. Visitors climb the spiral stairs and peer out toward the expanse of river and ocean, imagining the travels of two centuries ago.”

My Music Man, Chapter 11: Pirates

The last time I climbed the Astoria Column was when I joined my then elementary school-aged daughter on an overnight trip with her Cedaroak class. We visited Fort Clatsop and slept on the floor of a local school gymnasium. A highlight for most of us was when we climbed the stairs to the top of the column. While our family traveled through Astoria hundreds of times when I was a kid, I suspect we only visited the column once or twice. I’m not sure if our infrequent visits were because our dad had a serious fear of heights or if we all too eager to arrive at the beach house and trying to fit in as many minutes on the Peninsula as possible once there. Twice recently I have intended to climb to the top, but both times the marine air was socked in with little visibility.

The column requires a climb of 164 steps to reach its top.

This time I had a marvelous stopover. It was a quiet day and the only other people at the top was a family whose three kids were launching gliders, a tradition among families (watch glider flight on YouTube). While I usually crave solitude at spots like this, I felt fortunate to be a spectator to the flights of three gliders as they soared in the breeze, gracefully circling air currents before disappearing from view.

I continued to peer out north past the bridge beyond the clouds to where I know both North Head and Cape Disappointment perch on the southern edge of the Peninsula. I stared out westward beyond Young’s Bay toward Warrenton, Fort Stevens and the Peter Iredale shipwreck. And then finally, I looked eastward beyond ships and barges, up the mighty Columbia. I stared out beyond: toward the Pacific Ocean, peninsula, bay and river as so many others have for generations. Just like Frank.

The mighty Columbia River

Want to know more about Beyond the Ripples? I really did love making this video even if it may not have helped my book become a bookseller! The funny thing is how then, even though I include an image of the Megler-Astoria bridge: I had no idea my next book would be based there.

Other related blogs:

From Deep River to Westport
Old times at Ocean Park and other stories
The Chief Factor returns
A road to the coast

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