Another essay on inspirations, this one from 1993. How is this dated? Only in personal ways. I no longer go to Rockaway Beach with other writers. The writer house changed management and it’s not possible to do. Not that I went the last few years anyway. I moved from the mountains to the coast in 1995, so no longer needed to vacation there. But the ocean still inspires me. Actually, the area I live makes me think of a New England fishing village, unless the sun hits it just right. Then it seems like an English village. The fog makes a local motel look like a castle. It’s quite pretty, and very inspiring. Just like it used to be.
Oh. And the power goes out here too. Regularly.
Every winter, I travel with ten other writers to Rockaway Beach on the Oregon Coast. We each write a short story in a weekend, which sounds like a lot of work — and it is — but it also gives us time to walk on the beach, bake cookies, and have great conversations around the fire.
Rockaway Beach in January is difficult to get to, and not very populated. The tourists go to other beachfront cities, like Seaside or Canon Beach. In the mornings, I would wander to the beach alone, and as I jogged in the sand, the only footprints in front of me would be the tiny three-pronged stick footprints that belonged to gulls. If I turned my back on the beach-front houses, all I saw was the ocean, frothing and moving with its own life. Each morning was sunny, and the ocean was blue and white, unusual this far north. The constant rumble of the waves was a soothing counterpoint to the silence of the town.
I felt as if I had reached the edge of the world.
And yet —
If I turned around, houses faced me. Some were closed against the morning, abandoned by the summer people who come for only one season. In another, a woman sat in a rocking chair, doing a crossword puzzle. In yet another, an elderly man held a steaming coffee mug and stared at the sea.
I was not alone, and I really didn’t want to be.
That end-of-the-world alone feeling intensified when the power went out on Saturday night. In an unfamiliar house, with no phone, and only thin walls protecting us from the frosty night air, the veneer of civilization seemed thin. Dean Wesley Smith and I went into a nearby town for candles and firewood, and I was relieved to see the lights of the Safeway casting a glow across the parking lot.
I am not a pioneer. I prefer to walk ancient roads worn by many feet. I like the convenience of electric power and the ability to buy meat prepackaged at a grocery store. Yet, living in the American West, I am faced with pioneer memories all the time. Stories told by friends who can remember when the only north-south road in Idaho would be closed during bad weather, friends whose grandparents snowshoed across country. Houses litter the Cascade Range near the roads, but just off the highway lies open country as far as the eye can see. Markers record the stops on the Oregon Trail. If I half close my eyes, I can imagine what that would have looked like to travelers — hills and valleys and treacherous climbs that seemed to go on forever.
Last year, traveling in a sudden snowstorm in Nevada’s high mountain desert, our headlights caught a sign marking that empty countryside as part of the short-lived Pony Express Route. There, just for a second, shimmering outside my car window, was the terror a Pony Express rider felt when a sudden snowstorm caught him alone in that wide open country.
Sometimes, too, when I sit in my house in Oregon’s Coastal Mountain Range, I wonder if a Native American stood in this spot, overlooking the valley, as the whites encroached. This house stands on an old logging road, played out so long ago that the gravel road exists beneath a two-inch layer of dirt. But below that is the dirt that supported Native American camps, and gave them protection from life in the marshy Willamette Valley, the place they called the Valley of Sickness.
Ancient roads. History layered with geology, stories written on top of stories. Yet when I stared at the ocean in Rockaway Beach, I felt as if the ocean had a life of its own, as if it were the end of roads and the beginning of a frontier. Stanislaw Lem wrote about the ocean as a sentient being in Solaris, a book I read long before I sat on an Oregon beachfront. I think of that novel each time I stand on the beach, each time I hear the shush-shush of the waves. I wonder what stories the ocean has, and what secrets it hides, and what its quiet voice is trying to tell us.
Sometimes I think it odd that science fiction stories come to mind when I stare at the ocean. But then I realize it is no more odd than the pieces of history I choose to see when I stand on a patch of ground. Each time, it is a way of affirming to myself that I am not alone. Others have stood before the ocean and wondered at its majesty. People have crossed snow-covered high mountain deserts and survived. Despite any sudden darkness I may find myself in, whether in Rockaway or in life, I find reassurance in stories — be they history or fiction — that somewhere down the road a store is open, a well-lit store with candles and firewood, where someone else has already gone to escape the gloom.