Long Beach, Washington
Amber and I were running late. We’d wanted to be in Long Beach by four, but we were only just leaving Tacoma at around 4:30 and we stilled need to drop off a hard drive at her work in Olympia.
She was frustrated, and I think she thought I was mad at her. Her job had been delaying us all day and I would have blamed her for it if I hadn’t been reading accounts of other voyages having much worse delays. (In The Collector, Jack Nesbit writes about David Douglas’s many reasons why he couldn’t do all the traveling that he’d wanted to: a rusty nail scrape making him infirm, disputes between the native tribes on the Columbia . . . in Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, the steam ship, Quaker City, was delayed some days in the port of Brooklyn because the Atlantic Ocean was more than a little choppy and the captaincy felt that they should wait for calm waters since this was the first time some of their passengers had been on a ship). I like to think I’ve acquired perspective by reading about other people’s adventures. My only real concern was that we wouldn’t get to Long Beach until after most of the dinner restaurants closed. So, when we stopped in Olympia to drop off Amber’s hard drive to her boss, I also had us stop at a food truck nearby and bought something like an early dinner of Assyrian food with the understanding that, if we could find an open place in Long Beach once we got there, we could eat a later dinner that evening.
Then, as we were driving through the southwestern parts of Washington, we began to talk about driving to a place versus flying to a place. Maybe it was because we were running late, or because Amber’s car was making its characteristic creaking noises and shaking whenever I put pressure on the brakes, but I think we both were fantasizing a little bit about the idea of flying. For my part of this fantasy, I blame T.H. White. Ever since reading about him learning how to fly airplanes, I’ve been obsessed learning to fly myself (I’m horribly impressionable, I suppose), but now, I’m glad we ended up driving. Flying in an airplane is probably just as stressful as driving in a car, probably more, and there is also a way that planes make people think about the world.
Based purely on the economics of air travel, airplanes tend to only fly from two or three diverse types of places.
First, there are the isolated places that have no roads that lead to them. Some places in Alaska are like this. A friend of mine taught middle school in Ambler, Alaska and when he came home in the summers and returned for the falls, he was flown by a small biplane that made the journey weekly to supply the town.
Second, there are private airstrips and places like those where people either own their own planes or learn to fly planes – basically the non-commercial airports. There’s one of these out near Purdy, on the Kitsap Peninsula. When we drive by it, I imagine taking flying lessons there and don’t trouble myself by imagining how much it costs.
Finally, there are commercial airports, the places most folks think of when they think of airports. These third airports, I think, can be slightly insidious.
Let me give an example. There is an airport between Tacoma and Seattle called SeaTac. All around this airport, for miles, the entire geography, the entire biome is basically just city. There are small forests or creeks or parks that stand in for open fields and of course, there are the lakes and inlets of Puget Sound, but all the land that is readily accessible around this airport is either industrial, urban, suburban, commercial, or road. Even outside of SeaTac, the city which contains the airport, there are just more, interconnected cities. There is no un-city gap between Federal Way and Tacoma, between Mukilteo and Everett, between Bothell, Kirkland, Redmond, and Bellevue. Even SeaTac itself is named as a place where Seattle and Tacoma overlap! It’s all just one big cityscape that contains semi-independent cities with abstract distinctions that can help city dwellers think they are traveling to a new place when they are just going across a 500-foot bridge that connects Fremont to Queen Anne. SeaTac airport is in the center of this city. Forests can be seen across the large bodies of water or when a traveler in an airplane begins their descent, but between even these and the city there are sailboats, barges, ferries, yachts, fishing boats, and tugs to make a viewer – even subconsciously – populate those far-off, wild places with cities and city-people.
I’ve been to many airports and, for the most part, they are built in locations like SeaTac. Around O’Hare, there is no distinction between Chicago, Arlington Heights, and Evanston. Around LAX, there is no distinction between Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and Torrance. Around even the relatively small MacArthur Airport on Long Island in New York, there is no distinction between Islip, Islandia, and Ronkonkoma. The problem this causes urban folk, like me, is it makes us start to think that there aren’t places or people that exist outside this city biome. These airports connect cities to cities, making it so a traveler doesn’t need to navigate un-city places, doesn’t need to encounter un-city people and, because of these missed encounters and un-thought-through navigations, city-folk . . . well they don’t exactly begin to stop believing in things that exist outside of the city, but their conceptions of those things become more theoretical than actual. I realized, driving down the 101, a highway that goes past people’s farms and through sloughs (which, I learned, are salt water marshes) and over narrow bridges, that, even though I consider myself a well-traveled person, my conception of un-city things had begun to take on a more theoretical than actual shape. I’ve begun thinking about the world as a city, as a place where the population of people I can name approximately off the top of my head, but can’t for the life of me guess how many square miles of space exist on earth. I don’t even know if I would feel dwarfed by that latter number or if I would feel contained.
So, by spending our travel time in these thoughts of anthropocentrism, we managed to ignore all the wilderness and rural places we passed and, at roughly 8 pm, we arrived in the city of Long Beach.
Our Airbnb was just off the main road and north of the center of town. We’d chosen the place because it advertised that, from our ground floor balcony, we could see the dunes of the beach, which was only about a five minute walk away. When we arrived, we were greeted by some wild deer that our host had told us we could feed apples. We did this while we unpacked and, as the sun was getting ready to set (this is speculation, the city was overcast for the duration of our trip), we set off toward the beach.
I wasn’t impressed by the beach. Sure, it was very long. The name was a good one, but in general, beaches don’t really have a lot going on. They’re very flat places to look out over a very flat ocean and, while we stood on Long Beach, the sky around us darkening, I could kind of empathize with the mood that Lewis and Clark felt when they’d named the area south of here Cape Disappointment.
Amber got a little mad at me when I expressed these feelings. She likes beaches and, since I think I’m in the minority here, I shall take her word for it and say that it must be a very nice, very long beach. Just don’t expect me to say anything interesting about it.
I preferred the boardwalk to the beach because at regular junctures along it there were broad signs that described the anatomy and distinctive features of the coastal waterfowl and flora. I spent a good amount of time looking over the rails of the boardwalk and smiling at the wild, coastal strawberries and other plants that Douglas wrote about seeing growing in the tall grass of the dunes. Amber spent this time admiring the ocean. At the end of the boardwalk, there was a late-night restaurant (open until 11!) called the Pickled Fish, situated on the top of an ocean-view hotel. We ate that light, late dinner we’d promised ourselves (wood-fire smoked oysters from the bay on the other side of the Long Beach Peninsula and a salad with nuts, beets, goat cheese, and pickled cranberries) and enjoyed some after dinner aperitifs (cranberry margaritas, and some botanical gin drink with orange vest and coffee vermouth) before walking back across the now lit boardwalk to our Airbnb and a good night’s rest.
We were up at 8:30 the next day, a little later than we’d wanted, but we got ready quickly and walked into town. We bought coffees and some light pastries for breakfast at The Cottage Bakery then drove south to Cape Disappointment State Park and stopped to eat our breakfast at a viewpoint where we watched two eagles hunt.
We hiked three short hikes that day before lunch.
Our first hike was out to see the North Head Lighthouse and was a very gentle hike. The path led us through a small forest of coastal spruces and western hemlocks and came out on a large cliff overlooking the ocean and the breakers that held in the estuary where the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean mixed. On an informational sign, I read that the breakers construction had actually caused land to be added to the cape. Confused, I read on. It said that the Long Beach Peninsula that ranged from the mouth of the Columbia and had its northern tip sectioning off the Willapa Bay from the Pacific Ocean, was something called a spit. This spit, I learned, was caused in part by deposits that ran into the ocean from the Columbia and was pushed back by the Pacific’s tides toward the shore where the deposits settled. What this meant was that when a breaker was built along the northern coast of the Columbia, more sediment built up behind the breaker and Long Beach was artificially made longer. At least, I think that’s how it worked. In all honesty, as fascinated as I was by it about halfway through reading this informative plaque, I got distracted by the sight of a harrier. An alternative description of this trip might be “Getting Sidetracked by Birds and Plants.”
For our second hike, we hiked to Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. This was a slightly longer hike, but we were more awake now. Our coffee had been digested. From the parking lot, it took us first up onto a hill of deciduous trees (which I haven’t started learning how to identify yet) and then the path wove down into a valley of salmon berries and salal and some wild raspberries and sword ferns. I kept pointing out every plant I recognized from The Collector out to Amber, as when reading that travelogue, I constantly would walk to my computer and google what camas flowers and bog orchids look like. I think she found it attractive, although she may have just been humoring me as I explained how to tell if it’s a salmonberry or a raspberry without tasting it. I couldn’t help but take tons of pictures of the lupines and dogwood flowers that I’d begun to love so much.
Perhaps it was Lewis’s and Clark’s and Douglas’s journals and Nisbet’s framing of Douglas’s writing that had me looking off the trails rather than on it, or perhaps it was the impression those two books gave me of there being very few people in this place that I now occupied. Perhaps it was only that I was traveling to a place in May that most traveled to in July or August. But for whatever reason, I noticed very few people. Of course there were those who lived in Long Beach, the waitress and bartender at the Pickled Fish and the bakers at Cottage Bakery, but the other travelers felt almost non-existent.
Travelers are, at their best, ethereal beings. They are here one moment and gone the next and it takes an extrovert of medium talent to make and maintain connections with them. While traveling I’ve made, I think, three lasting connections outside of my family in the Midwest. I made a friend in New York. I made a friend in Paris. And I made a friend in Vancouver, BC (although, this only counts because my sister started dating this person – without that impetus I doubt we would have become friends). I have made more connections with people traveling here, I’d say, and perhaps that makes me a better medium than a ghost . . .
The point is, I feel like I saw very few tourists in the town that does not hide the fact that it was originally designed as a resort. This loneliness, combined with the overcast sky and the strange quiet allowed us to hear the churn of the ocean. The vast sea waited behind the trees standing like sentinels on the ridge to the west of us, giving our hikes through Cape Disappointment a sense of foreboding. Like how people sometimes say it’s too quiet.
We hiked past Dead Man’s Cove which was closed due to construction on the northern breaker. There were warning signs that said “Government Property No Trespassing” we walked past these to get some pictures, but then became nervous and went back to officially sanctioned trails. After that it was a hike up another hill to the lighthouse, and our first view of the Columbia. Here there were some tourists and some Coast Guard workers and I began to think that the unease about the abandoned nature of this place was wrong and that it wasn’t such a lonely place after all.
Then we went on our final hike of the morning, the coastal forest loop, and saw no mammals, only snails and frogs and flies and trees and trees and trees. We were on the bayside of the cape too, so even the droning of the ocean was almost inaudible. It was so damn quiet that sometimes we began talking just to have something to hear.
After the hikes we drove back into town to eat more oysters at a little fish shack called Castaways Seafood Grille. We also ordered some clam chowder (it had bacon in it. We are very bad at being pescatarians), and one of these things didn’t agree with me. It was a minor disagreement, but it made our adventures for the rest of the day a little less ambitious.
First, we explored the town. Meaning we did a little antiquing and went to Marsh’s Free Museum, a warehouse that was chocked full of penny fortune tellers and wind-up, adult clip shows. I tried one of the fortune tellers and was told to “Seek Help.” We also visited the world’s largest frying pan, which was kind of exciting. There were no throngs of crowds standing in awe around it, just me and Amber, but, I feel it did deserve a little more. It was massive, big enough to fry both me and Amber and probably a small car and some barrels of onions. I remember thinking, well, this place has the world’s longest beach and the world’s largest frying pan, if they took the pan to the beach (I imagined it transported on one of those trucks that move modular houses or rocket ship parts), they could build the world’s biggest cooking fire and fry more than enough food to feed the entire town.
After the exploration of town, we drove out to Oysterville, which was recommended to us by some friends. Imagine a place that is as quiet as a field at midnight, then make it broad daylight, overlooking the stillest bay you can imagine and populate it with Victorian style mansions and then you will begin to understand the uneasiness this place creates. Once, Oysterville was the county seat for Clallam county. There was a jail here, and you can still see the courthouse. Some of the roads are just long strips of lawns between houses with street signs being the only indicator that they are actually roads and some even have signs that say something like “Please, no driving on the road.” It is a strange place and, if anyone lives there (besides ghosts), I did not see them. Just strangely unpopulated yet well maintained houses that I couldn’t even fill in my mind, and birds (swifts, I think) gathering in a murmuration over a bayside beach of sand-less, manicured, dune-grass lawns. Honestly, it was quite a beautiful place, that grew on me more the longer I stayed, but, writing that out now only makes it seem more eerie.
Driving back to our condo we saw what looked like quarries with piles of gravel, but, upon further inspection, found the piles were piles of oyster shells. We passed cranberry bogs as well, which was very exciting to me, but perhaps for the first time on the trip, the sight of plants growing was more exciting to Amber. Then we were back at the condo, and we called my sister so that we could plan the trip we are taking this summer to Kenosha, Wisconsin, Chicago, Illinois, and Saugatuck, Michigan. Somehow, while we were planning this trip, we added Niagara Falls and Toronto, Ontario to our list of destinations. Finally, tired and hungry, Amber and I returned to the Pickled Fish and both ordered the Squid Ink and Crab Linguine. It was divine.
Our final day away from home we breakfasted again at the Cottage Bakery, walked again out on the beach and then left, driving south down the 101 towards sunny Astoria, Oregon. The bridge across the Columbia was out due to an accident there, but the wait was only about a half an hour, even though we overheard a local man say it had been out for two hours and may be out for two more.
Astoria was a lovely place that we spent a little time walking around in. There was a trolley that took people along the coast of the Columbia, several book and antique stores and the devil-may-care attitude typical of most Oregonians. We had a second breakfast there. I ordered a “Chef’s Mercy” which is a meal where the chef just makes you whatever they damn-well please and was pleasantly surprised to be given a beautiful dish of pesto, brown rice, eggs, jalapenos, asparagus tips, green peppers, and tomatoes. Amber, who had somehow not yet grown tired of seafood, ordered a smoked salmon hash.
After Astoria, we began our long trek back to Tacoma, put in an audio drama of Treasure Island to listen to while we traveled, and thought about our roles as travelers. Strictly speaking, the purpose of a tourist is basically to transport money from one city to another. Places like Long Beach and Astoria which have smaller populations have a reliance on tourists to bring money into their towns and so market themselves as getaways where one can see the beautiful landscapes or ocean views that just aren’t as celebrated in the cities where people are too focused on working, making rent, or continuing to foster their ideas that the entire world is one massive city.
But, I wondered as we crossed the Columbia a second time that day, over the high-bridge at Longview, what separates a traveler from a tourist? I think it is a traveler’s duty not only to move money from larger cities to smaller, more picturesque ones, but also to work within all the places they enter. Historically, travelers were looking for places they could exist, people who traveled were traders and salesmen, taking wares from place to place and working in those places to make themselves a profit. I think, and I mean nothing against tourists when I say this, that tourists have taken on the duty of a trader, in a more casual way. Tourists are now essential to economically maintaining other places and help to dismantle the idea that the whole world is a city. What separates a present-day tourist from the travelers one sees in history is that the traveler didn’t relax, didn’t pay to relax, and was often doing anything in their power to live economically. They were more preoccupied with thinking critically about places, learning about what things these places valued and what things these places thought of as mundane or common. Modern travelers, I think, practice this same absorption of information about places, this same accrual of a distinct variety of experiences from places that they can then “peddle” to other places. Travelers are interested in keeping things from places: notes, pictures, memorabilia, tchotchkes, and learning from places and not using them as an escape, but instead as a mine or as some other place where work happens, where material is processed and refined.
I think travelers might see the world as inescapable. I don’t think travelers are able to see the physical boundaries between this place and a different one. (I imagine all borders to them are either economical or commercial.) I think they can notice the gradual shift from the city into the forest, liminal spaces, organic gradients that exist, not between biomes but within two places at once and bind them, inseparably together. I think that travelers, (and maybe this is just me being impressionable again by Douglas this time and not T.H. White), see the city, the forest, the slough, the spit, the cape, the quarry, the dunes, and around the bay by noticing how the strawberries grow in each place with only slight distinctions. They must feel a sort of kinship then, with strawberries, because the fruit follows them everywhere and they must build their own cultures around those and other adaptable and invasive species they can see themselves in. They must know that there’s no profit in the moving of strawberries from one place to another, but maybe they see them as beyond value for that very reason.
Tomm McCarthy is a filmmaker, musician, and writer living and writing about the Pacific Northwest. He holds an MFA from the University of Washington in Creative Writing & Poetics and is interested in the study of legendary, haunted, and imaginary places.