LINCOLN CITY, Oregon –This place tastes like dirty martinis – the brine, the fishiness, a hint of olives and low tide. A solid breakfast, obviously.
“I am the master of my fate,” as Henley said. But who’s the bartender? That would be this splashy stretch of the Central Oregon Coast. Breathe deep its vermouth. Except for the occasional Tesla, this could still be 1975.
The ocean here is the sculptor-in-residence. You should see this one masterpiece, Devil’s Punch Bowl, in the rocks down toward Newport. It’s got this little cave entrance where the water pours in, then flushes out again. Like an evil water park.
The seas are so rigorous and icy here that in three days we never see a ship. It swallowed them, I suppose, or gargled them. Oregon is ghostly in all the good ways.
Anyway, we’re in this condo by the beach, and there are only so many things to do in a condo before someone starts pulling our board games (I only do those at gunpoint, or maybe at Christmas).
We’d quickly exhausted many of the outdoor options. We walked the beach a couple of times, then drove south to where the surfers hang, down a thousand steps to the beach.
By the third day, tired of walking and sight-seeing, I say, “Hey, we gotta go crabbing,” which is the sort of suggestion I blurt out a lot and people usually ignore. This time, my sister and my son – tired of network morning shows – jumped at it.
“Crabbing? That’s stupid,” Smartacus said.
Next thing you know, we’re at this goofy little shack that rents crab nets. I like when life takes these twists. Like a Hallmark movie married to a Hitchcock flick.
Three nets rent for 45 bucks a day, and then you have to buy the shellfish licenses, which I don’t mind because nothing’s free – this is America. Just because shellfish live in the deep goo of public beaches doesn’t mean they should just be there for the taking. No, you need an $11 license. So we buy a few.
By the time we are out of there, they’ve dinged us for $100 bucks, then we still have to buy chicken legs for bait. All good. I mean, we’re going crabbing on the Oregon Coast. And I just like the sense of hope in that.
We plop ourselves into the sand by the river, with my sisters’ two mini-dachshunds – one of which belonged to my late Mom, the other that my sister adopted before it went blind. Two dachshunds, one of them blind, the other spoiled rotten by my French mother who only drank Champagne. Her and the dog, Champagne, morning and night.
So it’s a party, is what I’m trying to say.
What you do with these crab traps is stand on the beach and fling them into the big river that opens to the sea – 15, 20 yards; they open like butterflies as they sink to the bottom. Biologically, what happens next is that the crab spots it and thinks: “Oooooo chicken! I love how the sea provides us freshly plucked poultry!” In no time, he’s moved in for brunch.
When you pull these triangular nets in, they snap shut like an Irish wallet. Once ashore, the crab nips at you a few times, usually drawing blood. You pin it to the sand with your foot, then grab it by the rear arms, as you would a barroom drunk. Boom, in the bucket it goes.
Sure, there’s the blood, and at one point, I gash my finger tossing the net, drawing more blood. This is where the Hitchcock part of the story begins, for my blood isn’t the deep rich red of a good Cabernet, but rather a fruity pink, like a Hello Kitty purse.
“What’s wrong with me?” is the first question I ask of my bleeding finger.
According to my blood, I should be dead. Or maybe I am, and this is how you find out.
As you may know, I am now my own wife – possibly the worst spouse you could ever have. So I’m no help at all in minor medical emergencies.
These dachshunds are no help either. One keeps stealing the raw chicken legs we’re using for bait, but she’s toothless so it’s easy to get them back. The other mini-dachshund is blind, and like me, has no idea what is really going on all around her. She seems very happy though. Despite my bleeding.
My sister, meanwhile, is pulling in this giant Dungeness crab, the size of a sports car. Bravo!
For four hours we crab, and we catch just the one. We keep swapping out the water, to keep it alive, in case we want to breed it or something later.
At one point I mis-judge the beach drop-off and am nearly swept off to Japan. But I recover with my dignity intact, though my shoes and schnitzel may never be the same. Honestly, I think I sprained every remaining muscle in my dad bod, even the one eye lid that twitches a lot.
So it was pretty fun. This other crabber starts telling us about clamming, and right away I think to myself: “Hey, there’s another activity I can totally muff: clamming! Let’s go!”
Which is how I lost a shoe in the slough across the way.
“You smell like Alaska Airlines,” my son says as we sit on a log, dog-digging for clams.
“That’s an improvement,” I say.
According to him, I’ve been wearing the same t-shirt for three days, which up here in the woods, isn’t that long at all.
“Thank you,” I say.
Listen, Smartacus is around for only four more weeks, so I appreciate every kind word.
SMASH CUT a few hours later, and we’re back at the condo. It’s like the Thanksgiving of seafood. We have this one ginormous crab that has been bottom-feeding on – I don’t know – raw chicken and the thumb nails of old pirates?
We have two dozen clams we raked from the muck of the pretty bay; they don’t eat anything but their own mucous.
Still, you slosh almost anything in melted butter and it tastes pretty darn good. You set out a forest-floor Willamette Valley Pinot, and some cheeses, the kind that return your slurpy kiss.
And even with the one crab and two dozen clams, you have a rich feast.
That’s this coast, all right: a total feast. Lighthouses. Dairies. Artisans. Little motels made of wood (not laminate)…curvy roads, dirty martinis – grand clouds of them dancing in the August air.
The Oregon Coast reminds me that the best way to fall in love is a little at a time, not all at once.
If you ever get up here, try crabbing just for kicks. The fall is best, they say. Bring plenty of band-aids, and maybe a little flask, a beach chair and a book. Maybe a beautiful doctor who’s OK with blood.
Till then, in and out the ocean goes — a splashy metronome, jazzy song. One-two-three, one-two-three…
Me, my sis, my son…one-two-three…
Not quite a metaphor. More like … a waltz.
Say hey, did you miss the mid-week post? There was some sort of glitch – or possibly user error — that didn’t generate an email announcing its arrival. I’m no tech nerd, but I know that’s how a lot of folks find these pieces. So I’ve tagged it on the end here just in case. More Oregon to come, of course, as Smartacus preps to spend four years up here. Meanwhile, for past columns, books or some fine gin glasses, please visit ChrisErskineLA.com. Cheers!
What Heaven Looks Like?
(from Wednesday, Aug. 25)
EUGENE, Oregon – Not sure how we got here. A plane is a real possibility, for I can’t seem to find my car anywhere.
My son Smartacus and I are here at the University of Trees for a rigorous day-long orientation. Totally worth the trip, the freshman orientation is full of ice breakers and lots of forced fun that the kids mocked later in the day, as they unwound in the lobby after the sessions ended.
“OK, one fun fact about me?” said one young woman. “My first boyfriend was a Nazi.”
Sure, maybe it was funnier in the context of the incoming freshmen finally kicking free of the structured orientation exercises. At that point, they were being honest and funny.
Then they all went for ice cream. Mission accomplished. Go Duckies! “Gather ye rosebuds,” as the poets say.
From what I can tell, Smartacus has picked a fine school — proud, not prideful, with no snooty pretenses. The setting is leafy and grand; edgy architecture mixed with the crusty brick buildings that I prefer.
Each day, a little more mortar falls from my joints. So I can relate to these old buildings, while contemporary architecture – like these kids – seems awkward and without texture, untested by the vagaries of life.
Me, I prefer a building with a 5 o’clock shadow.
But Lord, how I loved watching our teen-agers mill about waiting for the welcome session, eyes on their phones, texting friends back home: “I hate this already. HELP!” Stuff like that.
Once things got going, the body language eased. The orientation director was that one thing campus officials never seem to be: real.
She welcomed the students and parents with the custom boilerplate, then launched into a personal story about her own awkwardness as a freshman. To this day, she said, she hates chit-chat.
“Walk-off home run,” I thought to myself when she finished, and I’m pretty tough on speeches. Like the kids, I know that most talks, in the vernacular of today, kinda suck.
I’ve never met a college campus I didn’t love – the ivy, the idealism, the aura, the opportunity. On one kiosk, a flyer seeks staffers for an alternative paper called: “My Brain Is Vomiting.”
I suggested that might be a worthy publication for Smartacus. I mean, the staff meetings alone have to be something to behold. And how great would “Sports editor, My Brain is Vomiting, 2021-2022” look on his resume?
Anyway, the parents knocked about campus as the kids enjoyed the tours and bonding sessions. We kicked the tires, wondering if we would get our money’s worth out of this giant castle complex. More and more, college seems such a ripoff.
But I’d say yes, Smartacus has picked an excellent school. I am happy for him, and completely envious.
He moves in Sept. 23. I move in the 24th. Shhhh, please don’t tell him. Better if it’s a surprise.
“We keep them children for too long,” grumbled the writer Pearl S. Buck.
And what’s so wrong with that?
After orientation, my sis drove down from her place in Portland. In a couple of hours, we reach the coast, where the sunset looks like the Sunday school version of Heaven.
Evidently, there are two Pacific Oceans, because this one looks nothing like the one back home.
This Pacific Ocean dresses in layers, like a French cabaret singer with a drinking problem. It has waves atop waves. They break and break again, then break a third time before slobbering to the sand.
On the horizon, a puddle of sun. God’s hot tub, no doubt, though I have no confirmation of that. Just a hunch.
Oregon is showing off for us; moody, overcast, a hint of fall. A day made for big books and bulky sweaters. A mist settles in, then a pissile. In Oregon, there are 55 different settings for rain:
Mist, hiss, drizzle, pissile, vapor, squirt, slurp, spit…
Lately, I’ve been looking for new business opportunities where a heightened sense of romance is vital, and there aren’t a lot of numbers to analyze or fluids to measure. That would eliminate most executive positions, as well as being a brewmaster in New England, or some other coast full of old lighthouses.
But on a berm, near this washboard sea, I find this rundown beach cottage. The ghost of an old sea captain lives in the attic, no doubt, with Mrs. Muir and a bunch of their cats.
Admit it, guys, haven’t you always had “a thing” for Gene Tierney?
First, I’d fix the roof, then the plumbing, then thread in the new wiring. That should take no more than 25 years.
Then I’d write a weepy book about the experience, as Nicholas Sparks does, and as I finished the final flower box, the whole place would collapse, leaving only periwinkles and petunias stranded in mid-air, as per a cartoon.
“Too much mortar seeped from the bricks,” the building inspector would explain. “He shoulda started with himself.”
Still, a worthy project, right? Stay in the Pacific Northwest too long and you’re in real danger of morphing into a garden gnome, with cherub cheeks and a wad of weed in your hip pocket.
Obviously, that would be my ultimate goal. You know me.
If I fell short, I’d sell the dump and move into a nice new condo with Mrs. Muir and her cats.
As I learned in college, we’re allowed more than one dream.