Off to Astoria

16 August 2010, from Writings

It’s the long end of a day spent journeying to Astoria, cutting northwest from Silverton through the Yamhill valley. Classy vineyards and tasting rooms grow like fireweed out of the bones of decayed farms. The small roads zig and zag around fields, through towns, across freeways I see only momentarily before I’m again humming along a country road. Here in these dry valleys that angle up to the coast range, the heat hangs like moss in the hazy air.

It’s one of the Willamette Valley’s increasingly common intense summer heat waves. I wilt, completely, in these bursts of heat, and have sworn to myself that I will do my best to escape. After all, I have my housetruck, my shell – and so this overheated turtle can split the scene. Silverton’s forecasted to be nearly 100 again, but I notice that Astoria is predicted to hold steady at 80 – hence my quick departure.

Near the coast, the temperature drops suddenly, and it’s almost cool. The speed of traffic drops, too, and we’re in a gridlock for the three miles we have to go before reaching Highway 101. It’s a surreal traffic jam, with no good reason except that it’s summer and it’s hot in the valley and cool on the coast.

That, and the town of Seaside. I’d forgotten that I’d pass through this small but popular town. Like all Oregon coastal settlements, Seaside straddles both sides of 101, clogging itself with the detritus and ephemera of summer beach culture: saltwater taffy, pizza joints, bike rentals, seafood restaurants, boardwalks, factory outlet malls, vacation condos. These towns are nearly one-dimensional: there is no way through town but down the main drag, and this is what everyone is doing, on summer afternoon in the middle of August.

Finally, I am out, passing quickly through the suburb of Gearhart, and up the coast to my destination of Fort Stevens State Park, where I hope to stay tonight. But alas, the campground is full – all 600-odd spots – as are the neighboring campgrounds. It’s foggy now, getting cold, and I’m tired and frustrated. I consider just turning back and retreating to the Willamette Valley; it certainly must be starting to cool off now. Or perhaps eastward along Highway 30, following the Columbia. Somewhat randomly, I give another campground a call. ‘Well, sure, we have a spot open,’ the manager responds, slowly and calmly. ‘And yeah, there are some trees, and some flowers my wife’s planted.’ Good enough. I leave Fort Stevens and its hordes of campers behind, and immediately feel better.

As I drive east, the coastal fog lifts, and gorgeous ridges come into view, bathed in a not-so-hot sun. This is the old Oregon, not of vineyards and traffic but of small roadside stalls selling Indian jerky, old mechanics shops now mostly weeds, little houses kneeling at the bottom of verdant valleys. Even the most decrepit buildings look as if they own the place. I’m reminded of the wonderful Back Roads books by Earl Hollander, who captured a disappearing America as it zoomed into the future in the 1970s. Apparently progress missed a spot, which I’ve happily found.

Finally, after a dozen twisty miles, a cheery sign for the Klaskanine River RV Park. It is a little glade, just an opening in the forest alongside a small river, with perhaps twenty simple tent & RV sites. Jerry, apparently the manager I’d spoken to earlier, comes out to greet me, and smiles, the smile that often happens when people see the housetruck.

There is something absolutely lovable about these small family-run campgrounds. From the road they might look sketchy, but if I brave my doubt and enter, almost always they are the most pleasant little communities. The residents – whether temporary like me or a bit more long-term – are quiet and kind; there are flowers planted along the pathways; the infrastructure is decent; the bathrooms are clean; the prices are low. And the owners are genuine. These are authentic places, away from the hordes and the bureaucracy and the corporatism of many other American campgrounds. I am glad, after all, that Fort Stevens was full.