Monday, August 3, 2009

As Far West As I Can Go

At the western most edge of Oregon, the wind holds forth, blasting and shaping trees into distorted shapes, pushed away from the steady forces of the summer northwesterlies, and usually dwarfed into toughened, misshapen trees nearly forced against the earth by the 100 mph gales of the sou’westers of the rest of the year. Most of the plants here are brave grasses and herbs, or simply the bare rock.

It is a calm day here, by Cape Blanco standards, and the fog flies along, parallel to the ground, before disappearing again as it heads back over the sea. I look at the logs of the lighthouse keeper, written with a firm hand and a steel nib back in 1885, and nearly every day’s entry has the word “gale” and “fresh”, with an occasional storm and reports of damage to a shed, or the breaking of a window.

I climb up the spiral stairs of the lighthouse, surrounded by a tower of brick, fired from native clay less than a mile away, and marvel at its strength, holding up against everything the Pacific Ocean can throw at it, for 139 years. Several generations of lighthouse keepers have come and gone now, the lard fueled lamps replaced by kerosene, and then electric bulbs. The 1000 watt bulb today burns on, still warning mariners of the perils of the reefs and shoals dotting the waters for several miles out to sea. Volunteers now tell us about the life of the lighthouse keepers and their families, and the supply ship that came just once a year, bringing the lard, the salt pork, and the precious box of books to keep one’s mind occupied for another year, while the wind howled and the fire was tended, keeping the lard liquefied, keeping the lamp lit, every night. Every night.

You can’t go farther west than this, and still be in the continental United States, and the narrow paved road out to the cape has narrowed down to barely the width of my car. This is the end of the road.

We visit the 1893 farm house of the nearby Irish dairymen, marveling at its indoor hot water system, its large cooking stove, brought in by sea from San Francisco. One son became the assistant lighthouse keeper, and built a house across the river, where he could see the lighthouse beam every night, on his days off. But, perhaps he turned away, instead looking at the river, or the herd of cows, or peered deep into the thick forest of Port Orford cedar, spruce, and hemlock. He lived a long life here, never really leaving, and I only stay for a few hours, pondering the solitude, the beauty of this place, feeling the cool wind against my face.

Soon, we head back to Bandon, looking at the large brown gulls crowding several offshore rocks. We pore over several bird books, trying to find their name, finally settling on Heerman’s gulls, who only come here in the summer, flying north from their usual haunts south of San Francisco. Like the lighthouse supply ship, they may not stay long. They keep to two rocks, leaving the others for the cormorants or the other gulls. Bird real estate is segregated here, limited. Everyone knows their place.

We walk the beach, enjoying the light, the rhythm of the waves, the amazing shapes of all the various rocks, the hauling out of the sea lions, and the black crookneck silhouettes of the cormorants, and, as the fog moves in, the moaning of the fog horn on the jetty.

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