Wednesday, September 15, 2010

We're Back from Our Tour

Mrs Elliott and I returned yesterday afternoon from our trip to Oregon's coast and points northwest in Mellow Yellow, our 1984 VW Westfalia camper van.

We had a very very nice time. This is the story.

On Thursday we drove from Bend, Ore., down to Newport, along back roads, and landed at South Beach State Park, where we camped overnight. This campground, like California state parks, has sites jammed right next to each other in sardine fashion. They had available sites on Thursday only. The weekend was booked.

(Since the state campgrounds were fully-booked after Labor Day weekend, Jack can only conclude that a lot of people apparently like to camp mashed next to others, with manicured lawns on which  to walk their little yappy dogs, and neighbors right outside the windows of their 52-foot motor lodges.)

We reserved the most secluded camp site we could find in that Hooverville and trundled back into town to the Fred Meyers for dinner foods and a bottle of wine, a nice Chianti Classico -- Freddie's always has a pretty good selection.

Back in camp, we popped the top on our little 1984 VW camper van, Mellow Yellow, and set up for overnighting. A can of veggie chili for me, soup for the missus.
Plump banana slug. "Eew," said Mrs Elliott.

In the morning, we set our sights on walking out to the beach, but got distracted by a hillock near our camp with winding trails and rainforest foliage. And banana slugs. I've not seen a banana slug since I lived in San Francisco in the very early '70s. We never made it to the shoreline.

We puttered around Newport. I tried to find an wireless access point downtown to check my emails. The first place we went into, a twee coffee shop, was unsuitable, having not one, but two, squalling infants inside. Unsuitable.

But down the street we found a restaurant with access and I parked myself outside with my little computer while Mrs Elliott visited some of the little tickety-boo gift shops and children's clothing stores.

Newport's historic waterfront area is very kitschy -- I believe the salt water taffy shops outnumbered the tourists.

I noticed that the air felt -- gritty. Beachfront towns look bleached-out, pale -- the sun is diffused through that thick layer of salty, dusty marine air. My skin felt grimy.

After lunch, I began to agitate to move on, up the coast, and Mrs Elliott assented though I'm certain she could have spent all that day shopping and exploring.

Central Oregon's coastline is beautiful, the weather was beautiful, even the orchestra was beautiful. [citation?]

But as we drove along, this being a Friday afternoon, we noticed that all campgrounds, such as Cape Lookout State Park, as well as all the motels and inns had NO VACANCY signs posted. BTW, Cape Lookout, which had been recommended to Jack as a nice place to stay, was like South Bay: sites jammed next to each other, no seclusion, your view is the slab-sided RV in the site next door.

I began to worry we'd not find a place to overnight.

We pulled into Pacific City, a very beachy town which lacks some of the rugged charm of its neighbors to the south and north, but makes up for it by possessing a beautiful sandy beach, giving it a SoCal beach feeling. An uncrowded SoCal beach. Not that such exist any more.

There we happened across the Inn at Cape Kiwanda, which looked bland and corporate but proved to be friendly, charming, and comfortable. Being the only lodging in town other than a charmless private RV "camping" facility, it would not be easy to overlook.

Everyone in town was friendly. Everyone directed our attention to a group of time-share condos nearby. Everyone, even the inn's maintenance guy who was putting epoxy and copper caps atop the wood bollards in front of the inn, thought we should give some consideration to plunking down nearly $50,000 on a timeshare that we could use for three weeks a year, forever. I wondered aloud to Mrs Elliott whether the citizens bought the timeshares out of bankruptcy and now the whole town was on the hook for them.

Across the street was the Pelican Pub and Brewery (note that their website promotes the timeshares!) where we had dinner, and the light from the sun setting over the ocean filled the restaurant with brightness and warmth.
View of Haystack Rock from room
at Pacific City

After dinner, we watched the sun set into the ocean from the deck outside our room, hoping for a green flash, but the atmospheric conditions were not right. In the dusk, Haystack Rock, a sliver of a setting crescent moon, and the planet Venus lined up perfectly, pointing to the spot where the sun had set.

Right across the highway, between us and the shore, was the brewpub's parking lot. A flat, sandy parking lot, an extension of the beach. When we went to bed I noted a couple cars and a VW camper van parked in the lot.

As Saturday morning dawned with clear skies, I looked out our room window. The sun was behind the inn, bathing the beach and Haystack Rock out in the sea with pink light. It looked like a classic beach scene.

And the camper van and cars were still there. We could have camped on the beach, for free.

Next time.

We motored up the coast without hurry, stopping along the way to view the sights. The weather was perfect.
Yaquina Head lighthouse?
Mrs Elliott has a new camera.
She likes to take funny pictures.

We stopped in Manzanita, a town with not a few tickety-boo shops. We bought a rain chain to hang from the end of the rain gutter above our deck. It should look nice.

I had it in my head that the Oregon/Tennessee game was starting at 1, but the fellows in Manzanita's only sports bar assured us that the game wasn't starting until 4. Eastern time vs Pacific time, I reckon.

It relaxed me considerably to know that I had three more hours before I needed to find a sports bar.
A more traditional pose. 

Mrs Elliott begged to visit the Tillamook cheese factory. Which we did.
Jack holds round of cheese Mrs Elliott purchased
from Tillamook cheese factory tour.
Note the enthusiasm. 

In Cannon Beach I saw the full realization of beach-town yuppie tickety-boo shopping. There are more twee shops selling twee stuff to white women than I've ever seen in one place. Even Carmel, winner six years running of California's Most Yuppified Tourist Trap has nothing on Cannon Beach in the Mostest Cutest Shops Ever! category (2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009).

The drive up the coast was, on the whole, spectacular, and the weather was flawless. As we neared the northern end of Oregon's coast, the scenery became less postcard-pretty, the towns more utilitarian.

We arrived at Fort Stevens State Park, near Astoria on Saturday afternoon and found CAMPGROUND FULL with sites crammed even closer together than down south. We had been intending to scout the place to identify a site to reserve for a future trip up into Washington, but saw nothing tolerable in that place.

(I challenge anyone to find higher population density anywhere outside a tenement or Hong Kong than found in an Oregon state park campground in summer.)

So we drove into Astoria. It was game time and I needed to find a friendly pub, and we needed to find a room. I had a hard time finding a sports bar or pub with the game on. One large place was dark, with some kind of gambling machines set up. Such places are never cheerful -- gambling addicts are never in a good frame of mind.

But with the help of a young man who was waiting for friends to give him a lift back to his town of Gearhart, we were directed to the Wet Dog Saloon, aptly-named, I am told, because Astoria averages about 66 inches of rain annually and all dogs, presumably, are wet. I found a table near the TV -- the game was on delay due to lightning -- ordered a sampler of the beers, and Mrs Elliott found a soft chair near the window in the sunlight and began Googling and phoning around to find a room.

She looked pretty with the sunlight lighting her hair from behind.

The town was very close to full. Even the Holiday and Shilo Inns were full. But Mrs Elliott was able to land a small room -- very small, it turned out -- in a bed and breakfast on Exchange and 11th. How small was the room? The queen size bed about filled it, with just enough gap around to slide by. The bathroom was in the hall.

I don't usually care for bed and breakfasts. It can can fun, sometimes, but I always feel like I'm in someone else's house -- Grandma's, judging by the decor -- and don't feel at home.

The bed was lumpy, with the head lower than the foot, and the room smelled sour.

We did manage to drowse a bit in the morning, and, being late risers, were seated at a table separate from the rest of the guests.

Mrs Elliott is under doctor's orders to not eat anything made from wheat, so she was served a rather tasty-looking eggs and potatoes skillet breakfast. I was served what everyone else was eating: some kind of fluffy french toast confection with frosting and berries. It was really really sweet. Diabetes on a plate. My fillings ache just thinking about it. I don't normally order cake for breakfast, but in a B&B, you take what they serve, and take it cheerfully, for to do otherwise at a table of strangers is just dickish.

The day was overcast, gloomy. "Marine layer," said the hostess. "It will burn off later today."

We only intended to spend the one night in the B&B. It was pricey and not that comfortable. Being a Sunday, we reckoned that we'd have better luck finding a more comfortable and affordable room in town. Leaving our luggage in the van, we strolled east, through the Saturday outdoor market, then to the Maritime and Heritage Museums. I wanted to visit the former, Mrs Elliott, the latter.

The Columbia River's maritime history is one of hundreds of ships and lives lost. The displays of the terrible coast and treacherous sandbars at the mouth of the river, and the tales of the ships dashed against the rocks or torn apart by the seas when stuck in the sand was moving to me.

We drove across the Astoria-Megler bridge to Cape Dissapointment State Park in Washington. It was all kind of drizzly and wet, and the park didn't provide views of anything special -- just shrubbery and other campers. We had been hoping it would make for a nice place to overnight on next year's trip up the Olympic Peninsula, but I wasn't too impressed.

Mrs Elliott, as I have previously written, likes to tell that the movie The Goonies was filmed in Astoria. When she learned that she could view "the Goonies house," well, she just needed to do that.

What a dope.
All told, though, Mrs Elliott was unimpressed by Astoria. She'd been hoping for some kind of touristy town, a la California's Victorian village of Ferndale, but Astoria ain't like that. I liked its lack of cutesyness, its reassuring workingman's solidity. But the weather wasn't breaking, the marine layer was persisting, and we decided that we'd give the place just one more night before working our way back home.

Rather than spend another $150 for a room too small to swing a cat in, even a small cat, without dashing the poor creatures brains out on a wall or porcelain knick-knack, we grabbed a $90 room at the Crest Motel, just outside town, and after a final dinner on Astoria's waterfront, retired for the night.

Early on Monday morning we were driving east on Highway 30, detouring to explore back roads areas that Eric Tollander described and sketched in his Backroads of Oregon.
Portland & Western Railroad tracks and
view of Columbia River near Clifton, Ore.
"PNWR's tracks lie entirely within Oregon,
extending from Astoria to Portland along the
Columbia River, from Portland to Eugene
 through the Willamette Valley, and along
several spurs through the Northern Oregon
Coast Range." (wikipedia)

Over an indifferent breakfast in a Clatskapie cafe (Mrs Elliott requested eggs over medium, they were very runny; I requested that my potatoes be well done ["burn 'em," I said], but they were barely cooked), I proposed that we go as far east as we could to get out of the marine layer for our last night. I suggested that we drive east on I-84 to The Dalles, then hook a right to Maupin, and camp along the mighty Deschutes.

So that's what we decided to do.

Continuing our back roads way to Portland, we found a sandy beach along a levee fronting the Columbia, where overnighting is legal and free. We also toured Souvie Island, and heard there was free camping on its popular beaches, as well.

So I think we have next year's Olympic Peninsula overnighting options figured out.

In Portland, we stopped at the Bullseye Glass Company. Mrs Elliott does fused glass and this is the local supply mecca for glass artists.

While she was inside I sat in the open side door of  Mellow Yellow reading Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum. I enjoy tales of exploration when camping.

I was approached by a woman who asked about our camper. She was also waiting for her husband to finish his shopping for glass in the same place. She pointed out their '85 VW "Weekender" camper van a few feet away.

She said they've always loved VW campers, having had a '64 for many, many years and only recently sold it to get the Vanagon version. It felt, she said, very modern compared with the early "splittie" version, what with having some real brakes and other amenities.

After leaving Portland, we hurried along I-84, and at 5:30 pm, we reached The Dalles, where I sighed in relief that we were off the interstate and back on rural roads.

Camping along the Deschutes. Photo taken in the
morning just before departure. 
This far east, it had turned out to be a very warm afternoon; we drove south on highway 197 through golden wheat fields, through Dufur -- of the famous Threshing Bee -- then dropped down to Maupin, drove across the river, turned left, and within minutes found a camp site along the Deschutes. The sun was just setting, the rocks were warm, and a warm breeze was blowing up-canyon.

We were set up by dark, and by the light of two kerosene lanterns watched lightning flashes just below the hills to the south. When we returned to Bend we learned that there had been quite an electrical storm that night!

After Mrs Elliott retired, I sat outside in the dark, smoking a fine cigar. A deep roaring sound, louder even than the river, began to be heard on my right. Looking for the source of this sound, I saw the bright headlamps of a southbound freight train illuminate the canyon walls. The Union Pacific and Burlington Northern and Santa Fe railroads run along the western side of the river and for me, watching that train, with four locomotives at the front and four in the middle, work its way upriver, wheel flanges squealing against the rails, was the perfect ending to the last perfect night of a very pleasant and leisurely trip.


  1. So sorry about the crowded Oregon State Parks scene. They didn't used to be that way. It all started when lots and lots of asshole Californicators moved up here.

  2. Nice writeup! We are headed up to Tillamook this weekend and might try camping at Pacific City.

    How do you do your pictures / captions? Are you hand-coding, or does blogger have a feature I haven't figured out yet?

  3. The plates on the cars and RVs were from all over.

  4. No need to hard-code pictures. When you're composing the post, just click on the little picture icon on the toolbar and Blogger will take you from there.

  5. For all the months that I thought you were an arrogant ass: I take it back.
    Thanks for an interesting and informative post.

    Peace out!

  6. "For all the months that I thought you were an arrogant ass: I take it back."

    What did I say to change your mind?

  7. Enjoyed the report! It brought back memories of the area, except we hit all the wineries east of the coast. That helps w/ the cheese in Tillamook.

    What is "Dickish"


    Mr. BZ

  8. Looks like a wonderful trip !

    I tried to follow your blog through my twitter account. So my picture could be next to my comments but I don't think I did it right. Any tips on how I follow your blog w/ my picture?

    -Malia Ward

  9. Thomas: Dickish. Adjective.
    dickish (comparative more dickishish, superlative most dickish), Somewhat like a dick.

    Malia: I dunno. If you have a Blogger profile or Google profile your picture will appear if you're signed in when commenting. Twitter, I'm not sure about. But thanks for following my blog!

  10. It's fun to hear about your VW camper van. We have had VW's latest van (the Routan) for a year now, and have had a good experience with it. No camper, and I would imagine that VW purists hate it since its mechanicals are Chrysler, but it's a great van nonetheless.


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