Portland, OR :: I spent a few days last week camping with my friends Dave and Andrew in southwest Washington, just across the Columbia River from Astoria, Oregon, and 100 yards from the Pacific Ocean. We made regular trips into the little harbor town of Ilwaco, where we discovered the region’s best clam chowder at Harbor Lights Motel, Restaurant, and Lounge, and the world’s best waitress, Sweet Ann, who moonlights as a stand-up comic.
I hung out on the beach with Dave for a couple hours on Thursday afternoon. Sitting in camping chairs, trying to read but frequently distracted by the magnificence of our surroundings, I decided I wanted to get wet – but not too wet. I rolled up the legs of my jeans and waded out into the water. I hopped over the first few waves, which were higher than I thought, but then I got pummeled. Soon I was completely soaked. I looked back to Dave, warm and dry on the sand. Those days camping were some of the last I’ll be able to spend with Dave before leaving Portland in October. I will be glad to carry that memory with me of my best friend doing exactly what he is supposed to do – reading a book, writing longhand on a legal pad, and laughing at me.
I returned to shore, stopping just beyond the reach of the waves, and I turned southeast. It was a symbolic, if predictable, moment. With nearly the whole country spread out before me, I was reminded of how very far from home my family will be traveling in the next year.
I also realized that since moving to the West Coast in 2001, and especially since we moved from California to Oregon in 2005, I am constantly taking my bearings relative to the Pacific Ocean. I may not be able to calculate precise distance, but I am always aware when I am getting closer, farther away from, or running parallel to it. Most often this is a subconscious awareness, but it is always there: my desk faces south; the ocean is to my right.
This internal GPS is useless for physical navigation, but my realization seemed significant. What does the Pacific Ocean represent for me – hope? home? the end of the line? I can’t say for sure, though it’s worthy of further reflection. What I know with certainty is that for five months, from October through February, the narrow roads my family will travel will run mostly north to south. But in late winter we begin to explore unknown longitudes. Americans instinctively range west. To turn east is to head into the past. Maybe that is where our country – and my family – are meant to go.
I’m reminded of the notation medieval cartographers used to fill in blank spots on their maps: “Here Be Dragons.” The United States is moving out of adolescence and into adulthood. Kate and I are parents now, thinking a lot about legacy and the world Molly will inherit. And so we look back. Our history is the next frontier. Who knows what we’ll find out there.