Our camping township Ilwaco is somewhat incomprehensible. Part working class coast ghost town yet sprouting tourist boutiques and cafes with “OPEN” signs that suddenly wink enticingly between shoddy canneries and trailer parks that look as if the swampy earth heaved them up. The sparkling morning air reveals the irrepressible and distinct busyness of a successful fishing town; that is to say, honest activity, vital weathered men bounding up dock ramps and stomping through town looking to satisfy huge appetites, rumbling diesel vehicles with saltwater damage and crab pots and winches and other massive-looking work-seasoned equipment. The daytime Ilwaco feels open to possibilty and full of vigor. Yet in the dusk, with the town’s one four-way stoplight inexplicably disabled and darkness swallowing the place up, there is a distinctly sinister air. It feels like the town has vacated or hid, all home with family and warm beds and leaving the outdoors to the wind and pounding surf that threatens here at the mouth of the Columbia.
This town and indeed many on the peninsula have the carnie atmosphere I associate with northern Oregon’s toursit destination of Seaside, but smaller and with fewer out-and-out lusty tourist enterprises. As you head north on the Long Beach peninsula the burgs of Seaview, Long Beach, Breakers, Oceanside, Klipsan Beach, and Ocean Park give way to one another along Pacific Highway in an indistinguishable ebb and flow of businesses, groceries, kite shops, sandwich eateries, antique malls, and that odd video / tanning / internet enterprise we’re seeing in so many small towns.
Only locals can tell Ralph and I when we are in “Long Beach proper”; it seems one large strip of township. Retirement money pops up in the form of expansive manors erected and lording over a view of the long-rolling coastline and foggy hills; a stone throw from one such home and in plain, bald sight crouches the absolutely most run-down yet functioning laundromat I have ever seen. There are very few chain stores or eateries in these towns. Instead there are dubious or friendly-yet-modest looking businesses rising and falling with past promises of cozy eateries or current hawking of kitchy treasuers; perhaps a promising homestyle pizzeria truncated by an abrupt “CLOSED” sign stapled to the front marquee, left to rot how ever many years ago. The businesses are all along the strip: funeral homes, realtors camped in ex-sports bars, lawyer offices sandwiched in strip malls between coin-ops and a TBA opening eBay store.
While drying a load of laundry in one of the ten percent of operational washers in aformentioned laundromat Ralph and I took the bikes out and instinctively headed to the coastline. We immediately fell upon a well-paved and wide path that wound up and down the coast. It was a unique biking experience for me as the trail incessantly headed up and back down small hills and wound around countless dunes whispering with pampas grass. It was pedal pedal cost. Soon you wanted to keep rolling on the trail, working then floating, rising and falling in the mist-kissed sun, talking about nothing in particular and hoping you ended up back in town near a taco cart. The trail winded us to who-knows how far down the coastline before we turned back.
On the trail, in town, at the yurt at night. Here the waves pound the shore with a ferocity that creates a dull roar remarked upon over two hundred years ago by the Lewis and Clark expedition. Perhaps due to the local efforts to keep connection with the exploring pair and display the history in a number of exhibitions and museums, to experience this place invokes the spirit of exploration, newness, and savagery. Despite the resort motels and moped rentals and fly-by-night nature of some of the aspiring businesses there is still a deep and profound connection to the natural, beautiful, and ferocious state of the place.