The 101 between Coos Bay and the Washington border is a mostly terrifying affair. It twists alarmingly, it’s cliff side lane crumbling, deteriorated and potholed, the inland northbound lane subject to cliff overhang which is lethal to large campers. We had scraped and busted our awning to uselessness on those rocks before the first year was out. Hippy buses full of cats and children, small dogs and dark eyed women with their long haired men, seemed to chase behind and in front of us, heading the same general direction. We would camp close by, but not next to them, but they seemed cult-like and distant. A parrot sat on one of the younger women’s shoulder. I wondered how many of them were living in that converted old yellow bus, and how they possibly managed to get along together in their own tin can sardine living situation. The parrot tipped it’s head towards me quizzically, almost threatening.
Reaching Tillamook, we decided to camp at a state campground that is full of twisted stunted myrtle trees, it always feels half deserted, unloved. A place people stop but don’t stay long. It has neither the charm of the dusty chipmunk town of La Pine, nor the heavy forested intimacy of Honeyman with it’s ATV loops and sand dunes, and land which has not been manicured and cleared to within an inch of life and heart. We pulled in, drove round and drove right back out again, heading north once more. I hated pulling off the main drag of the road we were travelling on, turning this way and that, following signs, never known if we were going to be drawn into getting lost in a Los Gatos style trap, as if the world and time will swallow you, never again to spit you out and you will be stuck driving in circles, forced to live in some godforsaken trailer park in the middle of nowhere’s end of the road. I would feel the panic rising as roads went from blacktop to gravel. I loved moving, loved getting on up the road but could never shift the sneaking feeling everything would be my fault if we got lost, and people got upset. Lingering fears caused the years of abuse by my husband in the time I spent in Japan would seep into daily life. I figure I’ll always be nervous, waiting for that kick, that punch, that slap, that chair leg across the back, or the glass smashed around my head.
It was now officially dark, the road tilted alarmingly towards the sea, dragging us towards the oncoming traffic. It became wilder, sparser, the towns smaller and more spaced out. Large houses with carved whales, hotels and resorts, beaches and motels, scattered behind us. We played a game wondering how much the hotels would cost the further up the coast we got, the numbers getting more outlandish, throwing in first born children, genetic material and promises of souls into the mix. Hotel Oregonia. Astoria came into view. I kind of like Astoria. Large shopping center, beautiful views, and the longest bridge I have ever gone over.
By now it was very late and very dark. The children were sleeping peacefully, Billy driving, while I navigated. We swung around the route through Astoria, following signs for the bridge and Washington State. It was a maze of turnings which had to be made, or all lost, or we were lost. We were too tired to carry on much further, but there was no place to stop and sleep for a while, no place to camp. One of the signs promised a rest area just over the bridge. That would do. It was not cold, we didn’t need heat, just to stop and sleep. There was an uneasy silence, Billy was pulled right up, nose almost to windshield, white knuckling the wheel. He opened a window to try and stay awake, turned up the radio. Michael Stipe was singing about losing his religion while we prayed to just get over the bridge. The road was eerily empty, I could see no-one coming either towards us and Oregon, or in front or behind us headed into Washington. We drove past some roadworks signs, but nothing to say the bridge was closed.
The lack of traffic made us uneasy, we turned off the radio. I looked at Billy and asked him if he thought the bridge might be closed. If the bridge might have a huge gaping hole in the middle of us, that were were about to launch off of and into the water below. We could not see the bridge, nor how long it was. Billy had no idea what we were driving over, if I had, I fear I might have refused, got out of the camper and sat there sulking on the side of the road. It was dark, thankfully. He looked at me, and said nothing. His face grim. We had been driving for six hours or so, the ghosts of possible disasters were looming over us in the shadows, ready to kill the lot of us. The sky speckled with shattered shards of stars, the moon thin and mean, a slither of light. The bridge kept on going and going and going. Billy picked up some speed, there was still no one coming in either direction, were were alone. I was, to be truthful, terrified. I could not shake the feeling that this might be it, we might be driving across a closed bridge. As ridiculous as it is, I have a very real bridge phobia, and fanciful Billy does not help at all to calm anyone down, instead joins into the fear amplifying it into a possibility.
Eventually we saw posts, a sign welcoming us to Washington, and our wheels bumped noisily off the bridge onto blacktop. I always love seeing signs that I’m entering a new state. I get a childish kick out of leaving behind one set of rules and entering anew, of a fresh perspective, a different place. I always tried to get the children excited about such events, leaving one state and entering another. They rarely cared. I tried to snap photos of the “welcome to” signs, but I always seemed to be navigating the next turn, rather than hands on my camera or phone. I still had my camera, long gone now, pawned for food money. It was a simple old thing, but I loved it. I have no old photos from the days before the phones, all my albums long since lost and destroyed. All the old baby photos, with my tired face and arms full of sweet smelling little people. All of them. Gone.
Just as you pull off the bridge, to your right there is a rest stop, I was begging Billy to slow down, give me a chance of not missing the turn, and there we were. Dismal Nitch. I have come to love that place. We drove right into a spot near the bathrooms, turned off the engine, put blankets over sleeping children, and collapsed fully clothed onto the bed, hugging each other. Billy had a way of folding me into his arms, enveloping me protectively. Through our old days before I had children and a violent husband, he would hold me, occasionally prodding me to make sure I was breathing, alive, with him, and now, years down the line, he told me no one was going to hurt me any longer. And I believed him. I still felt unsafe sleeping in that empty rest stop, by the windy bay that separates Oregon from Washington, the waves lashing the shoreline viciously. It is fairytale dismal. You expect a parade of random creatures to come and peer in your window, but all there is is the wind and the rain and the sea.
We had made it from the roads of Los Angeles through Oregon, and we were going to settle down for a while, in Washington State. I often wish we had stayed in Washington, it is a pretty place, at least near the coast and in the northern sections, and we were happy there. We were happy there….for a while.