REDWOOD HIGHWAY, Ore. & Calif. – We spent the night in Grants Pass, Ore., because it bills itself as the Gateway to the Redwoods.
Technically it is, I suppose, but it was still quite a drive to the big trees. There was a forest fire raging 15 miles away and the town, as filled with smoke as it was with firefighters getting a few hours sleep between shifts in motels that proclaimed their thanks on every No Vacancy sign, was as far as I could go that night.
Scanning the news before bed, we were given advice on where to avoid the smoke: Newport Beach, near Yaquina Head, or Portland. There were more wildfires farther south, but on a road trip there is no going back.
The luck of travellers and vagabonds was on our side: We spent the day between and upwind of the fires, watching with anticipation as we entered the Redwood Highway and the forest grew thicker and tree trunks wider.
“We’re not even at the Avenue of the Giants yet,” Melani grinned.
Highway 101 runs through hundreds of kilometres of virgin, protected redwood forests, vaguely parallel to the interstate. These trees are hundreds, some thousands of years old, and ridiculously tall – the tallest tree in the world is here, six storeys taller than the Statue of Liberty. But this drive wasn’t about statistics – it wasn’t even about fandom, since the Endor scenes from Return of the Jedi were filmed here – it was about unparalleled beauty and a special kind of awe.
It was about seeing something so much bigger than us, we didn’t have any words. And when we don’t have any words … something spectacular has truly happened.
YAQUINA HEAD, Ore. – We were road drunk, so when Trevor said he thought the sign said “Vagina Head,” I nearly wet myself giggling.
Melani’s had this national conservation area staked out for five years, so it’s a shame we couldn’t spend time walking its trails, but what we did see was exquisite.
Cobble Beach is at the base of dark cliffs where Brandt’s comorants nest and crabs, giant starfish, mussels and bright green anenome cling to black rocks in the sea. The beach is made up of oval basalt rocks the size of hands and feet that knock together as waves whip through and around the tide pools. White, smooth driftwood is scattered everywhere.
Yaquina Head’s star attraction is the 1873, 93-foot-tall lighthouse. I think of lighthouses as an east-coast thing. We’ve visted them in Cape Breton, Prince Edward Island, Maine and Quebec, so it seemed strange to me to find this here on the alien west coast. My eastern expectations would steer me wrong in the days to come, as well.
This lighthouse is as beautiful as any on the other coast, perched as it is on the edge of a cliff shrouded in a damp, icy mist that muffles the sound of the Pacific and the 50,000 common murres, which look a little like penguins, on Colony Rock below.
We give Yaquina Head Natural Area three stroller wheels (out of a possible five). It is breathtaking, and people more interested than us in sea life or birding could spend days there and keep coming back for more. But essentially it’s just a funky beach and a gorgeous lighthouse surrounded by half-mile trails.
Entrance is $7 per vehicle (less for motorcycles), or buy the $80 annual pass that gets you access to all American national parks. The park closes half an hour after sunset.
PORTLAND, Ore. – Tattoos and food snobs. Architecture and homelessness. Portland’s one of the most bipolar cities I’ve ever visited.
Officially, Portland was our vacation destination. We chose it because of Voodoo Doughnuts, because we’d heard so many great things about the town over the years and because one of our favourite TV shows, Leverage, was filmed there until it was canned this year.
Our Leverage pilgrimage led us to some really neat places, notably BridgePort Brewpub and Oaks Park, and onto avenues packed with hipsters the likes of which Montreal only wishes it had.
The brewpub is a warehouse-style historical building, half of which is devoted to brewing, the rest a spacious two-storey restaurant with classy bars lining the edges, home to possibly the best burger I’ve ever eaten (with beer-braised onions, pickles, bacon jam and roasted jalapeno beer cheese sauce on a house bun) and a damn fine pale ale.
Oaks Park is a tiny amusement park with all the things you’d expect to find and one thing you might not: a roller rink with a Wurlitzer.
The 1926 organ moved to the rink from its home in a theatre in the 1950s. It’s suspended over the large roller-skating rink with disco balls on either side, but at a respectful distance. The rink itself is much older, built in 1905. When it flooded in 1948, the floor was redesigned and rebuilt to float in case the water rose again. It’s happened twice since ’48, in 1964 and 1996, and both times the magical rink floated on its 55-gallon drums and the floor was saved.
And there is the other side of Portland, the face I wasn’t expecting to see.
There are at least 4,000 homeless people in this city of nearly 600,000. While the mentally ill and down-on-their-luck are represented (the county has a high unemployment and low vacancy rate, and hundreds of families with children are categorized as homeless), what struck me was the number of older teens and 20-somethings on the street (a recent study touched on the seasonal migration of youth).
Their dramas played out as we walked a small portion of the city – one woman threw a canned drink at another, narrowly missing Jilly in her stroller. Several people pooled their money for some sort of all-night, open-door party in the sketch motel where we spent the night. A young woman near Voodoo Doughnuts was hugely pregnant, her swollen, sun-browned feet squished into leather sandals.
There is community, and there is music, but there are also drugs and crime. Homelessness is a global issue – I’m not (exactly) singling out Portland, except that appears (backed up by a recent study that touched on seasonal migration) to be a destination spot for youth at loose ends.
But let me finish by saying I fell in love with Portland. Its insane curving roads take confused visitors on entertaining tours of residential districts on the mountainside, theatre and warehouse districts topped with quirky water towers and a serpentine trail of bridges and overpasses. Mount Hood and St. Helens loom in the distance.
It would take weeks to become familiar with Portland. We spent a day and a half and felt (mostly) fulfilled.