Against the wind

Depending on your tolerance for rain and clouds, the Pacific Northwest is either one of the most lush and vibrant places in the country or one of the most depressing. I’ve always held the more positive opinion, having known for years that I wanted to move northward from California. I’m captivated by the ocean and I feel embraced by the wet, shady woods. I love the way forested hills look at twilight when porch lights from isolated homes begin twinkling out from between the treetops. I love the freshness of seaside air and the audible power of roiling ocean waves.

Yet I think I’ve never been to such a desolate place as the southwestern tip of Washington on a winter’s day. I drove across the Oregon-Washington border on Saturday in search of attractions, feeling hopeful after a good breakfast. I first pulled off the road at Ft. Columbia, an old military outpost overlooking the river mouth. The hillside had been fortified with concrete and metal to house artillery equipment. After lowering myself down a skeletal ladder, I weaved through the abandoned underground rooms where every surface was damp, graffitied, and either rusted or slicked with moss. A handful of other tourists walked along the thick, shell-proof structure and photographed each other next to big metal guns pointing at the water.

A small group of buildings stood uphill from the battery: they were historically barracks, a hospital, and other accommodations for soldiers of the early twentieth century. Their matching exteriors of pale yellow paint stood out, strangely, from the forests behind. Each of them seemed brightly restored; one is now an interpretive center, and others are private vacation rentals. But they were all lifeless on this off-season day. Like me, the other visitors simply took the loop road up and then down again, stopping for a look at the cannons and concrete before hitting the highway again.

I pushed farther westward to look for an ocean view. I found myself at a dead end in the town of Long Beach, where police had blocked off the road with their flashing lights and yellow tape. Having lost the chance to find out whether Long Beach had an actual beach of the same name, I turned around and followed a small “coastal access” sign to Seaview Beach. There was a pothole-filled road about a quarter-mile long that merged into wet sand. A series of warning signs drew attention to the dangerous surf ahead.

A few maintenance workers, dressed in fisherman’s overalls, tended to the repair of a roadside supply shed. Wide-nosed pickup trucks and other four-wheel-drive vehicles cruised along the beach. The nasty weather excluded most other visitors, but at least it wasn’t raining. I set out for a walk upon an asphalt path that had been laid through a field of American beachgrass—a field that probably was once a naturally formed dunescape. Now, it was shapeless and densely covered with a plant that looked like dried-out straw.

Although I lived on the Northern California coast for years, I’d never had such an acute feeling of being at the continent’s edge. It was unbelievably desolate out there: the world seemed void of anything beyond tiny fishing villages, remote mountains, and a monotonous fogged-in coastline. Rather than being at peace, I felt painfully exposed. I was being pummeled by a wind that could have swept me off the edge of civilization like a piece of garbage.

Seaview Beach

Seaview Beach

Up until this time I’d been congratulating myself on standing proudly alone and resisting melancholia. I had been living moment-by-moment, content to wander and observe, even at the dismal military fortress. I’ve always led a pretty solitary life, having few close friendships and a comparable number of romances. The fact of it stung me as I stood out there watching the colorless ocean. I was tired of being lonesome; I wanted a partner and a family, to liven up wintry beaches and disappointing days.

I felt cold and needed to leave.

The car radio was playing Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind” when I started up the engine. I admit to not knowing most of the lyrics, but that song affects me every time with its sweeping, restless tone and mournful acknowledgement of everything in this life that may be searched for but never found. My heart ached with regret. I cried through the song’s ending and over the next few miles down the road. I couldn’t wait to get back to town.

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