Upside-down on a Northwest Beach
One bitter February morning the first year I lived in Washington State, I drove north along the ocean. I was looking for a particular location I couldn’t find, even when the odometer said I should. Still half-asleep, emptying a quart Thermos of black coffee, I stubbornly kept going.
Ahead beneath a grim gray overcast, a vast high green lattice-work structure came into view. I viewed it blearily, not comprehending. A road-sign came up with an arrow directing me to the Astoria Bridge.
Astoria! The jolt was considerable.
I’d never seen the giant bridge across the wide Columbia River from Washington to Oregon. And should not have been seeing it that day. Oregon is of course south of Washington. It took a perceptible time for my sleep-deprived brain to comprehend, and then I felt like an idiot.
I grew up in Florida two doors from the ocean. There were three points on the compass — and the ocean.
The Atlantic Ocean.
My subconscious was hard-wired: if you face the ocean, then your left arm is north toward Georgia. Your right arm is south toward Miami. So I left the motel that morning, drove to the coast road and turned left. But the world had turned upside-down. Ever after, my internal gyroscope seemed…off…at beaches on the Pacific.
For instance, a typical gray chill July, dense cloud cover, brisk wind whipping salt spray and sand particles that stung. (All too often, February and July are indistinguishable out here.) On that July day I parked in a tourist turnout and took Harry the Dog for a walk. The ocean was restless and heavy and noisy. Breakers boomed in, and it was just like being home on Neptune Beach with a winter Northeaster rolling in. I had to remind myself this was a Southwest wind, blowing in at an angle from the left.
Harry didn’t care. His nose had him in a fury of curiosity as the wind filled it with unimaginable snatches of news from down the dunes. He coursed upwind. I trudged behind, shivering. It had not been cold enough all day for a jacket but the wind and impending night, sinking in from inland, changed that. Just another reminder this was way north of Florida, and the directions were upside down. The cold didn’t bother Harry the Labrador any more than being upside down geographically. But I cut our ramble short and put my back to the wind.
There were two other cars in the turnout. In one, a couple must have been running a mutual fever. Their windows clouded over from inside; the position and activity of the blurred forms suggested soixante-neuf on the wide American bench seat. The other car was a fully restored Hudson painted that “Hudson green” from the late 1930s or early ’40s. There were still a lot of them around in the ’50s when I began to notice cars. It looked showroom-fresh despite the spin-drift, a collectible being exposed to salt corrosion. The Hudson man was methodically collecting chunks of driftwood and storing them in his trunk.
Romance and beach-combing: the world might be upside-down by my internal sextant, but everything else was familiar.
Including the final brief vignette after the Hudson was gone with its load and the lovers’ windows were utterly opaque, their car rocking on its shocks. (It could have been the wind.) A third car pulled between theirs and my pickup. An American Motors Gremlin — a model I was pretty sure would not be around to be cherished forty years down the road like the Hudson.The driver was a good-looking blonde woman, alone.
She kept her parking lights on against encroaching dark. Fanciful me, I did not believe she was there for a rendezvous. Rather, to exorcise some private ghost. This from one glimpse as I opened my door to let Harry in.
My interior light splashed her profile. She turned her head away. And sat that way, motionless, as Harry and I headed back (north — had to pause to remember which ocean this was) to campground and family.