Stella, Washington to Brookings, Oregon (5,482 - 5,872 miles)
The sign warns in red letters about harassing wildlife—something about 100 years in solitary or chopping off fingers and toes—I can't remember which or the exact number of years or digits. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating about the dire nature of the penalty, but the sign is there and I intend to heed its warning.
I'm on a pier, thirty yards off the Astoria, Oregon shoreline, in an area that was once populated with canneries, and a narrow ramp leads off the pier down to a dock close to the water. A colony of sea lions has claimed the dock, not so much as a foot between fins and whiskers. The air is alive
A man and woman, French tourists with black hair and Patagonia jackets, step off the pier and inch down the incline. They near the colony and she shakes her head side to side. He grips her hand, tugs her along. How close is too close when it comes to sea lions? Never having met one, I have no idea. The man raises his camera and takes aim, lowers the camera and the couple inches closer. The colony seems preoccupied with doing sea lion things, which includes the occasional sea lion gliding into the water or sliding up onto the dock. Mostly they lie on their stomachs and bark at nothing in particular.
The breeze has a cool wetness to it, and I zip up my fleece, stuff my hands in my pockets. My stomach growls, which reminds me I haven't eaten breakfast this morning, and I ignore the hunger pains and continue watching the couple. Every step moves them closer to the sea lions and farther from the safety of the pier. Have these animals ever eaten anyone? When the couple is twelve feet from the colony, the woman jerks from the man's grasp and plants her feet. She will go no farther.
The man inches down the incline.
The colony erupts, some of the sea lions diving into the water, others raising on their front flippers in annoyance. Brown heads twist around; beady eyes glare in the couple's direction. A sea lion lunges at the incline, jolting the metal platform with its weight, and the woman falls to her knees. The man grabs a handrail and stays upright. His camera goes into the water with an expensive splash and he stares downward, at the ripples that lap in ever-expanding circles. Then the woman is up, shrill voice barking at the man, and together they slink up the incline onto the pier. She's still barking and he hangs his head, chin almost touching his chest. I hope he has a sleeping bag and a sleeping pad. My guess is their bed will only have one occupant tonight. I dig out my camera and take a few pictures of my own, feel the hunger pains again and decide it's time to eat.
After a visit to Safeway, still within earshot of the sea lions, I load my food bag with groceries and munch an apple. Apples are cheap and fresh in the northwest, and my favorite is Gala, which has just the right sweetness for me.
I'm eager to see the coast. I hear it's beautiful and hope I'm not disappointed. I'm seen real beauty on my way across this nation, sunlight catching the turquoise water of the Keys, wind filling a mainsail on the Outer Banks, the stark grandeur of the Rockies, a night sky so full of stars it was more light than dark, the joy of children riding a handmade carousel, and I'm not easy to impress.
Now that my body has slimmed down, I'm hungry more often than not, and waking up in the middle of the night and wanting food is nothing out of the ordinary. Except this time my food bag is locked up in a communal metal box in a hiker/biker campsite. I'm camping in Cape Lookout State Park, at a reasonable 6 dollars for the night, which also includes shower facilities, and the park guidelines suggest storing your food away from the raccoons. I'd debated keeping my food in my tent, kept imagining a rabid raccoon gnawing through the fabric, then one of my legs, all in an effort to gain access to my opened packet of Gummy Bears. I finally followed the guidelines and crammed my food bag in the box, storing my bag alongside the bags of eight other cyclists who'd read the same warning, and now, six dark hours later, I'm up and navigating the woods via headlamp, mouth salivating at the choices at my disposal.
Beef jerky or peanut butter or Gummy Bears.
One of the three, no reason to be greedy.
Of course my food bag is filled with more than beef jerky and peanut butter and Gummy Bears, but I have no desire to break out the stove and cook mac n cheese or ramen noodles. I also don't want to drink coffee or a Carnation Instant Breakfast; no, this almost full jar of peanut butter will do me fine.
Back in my tent, I sit in the dark and hold the jar with both hands, listen to the roar of the ocean against the beach. I take a big breath of salt air and twist the lid. The act transports me back to when I was a kid cross-legged under the Christmas tree, taking my time opening a present, prolonging the anticipation. I hold the jar tight and twist faster and faster, desire trumping anticipation, until the lid is open and the pea-nuttiness scent fills my tent. I search for my spoon. Yep, right where I left it. Up close to my pillow. Easy access.
That's when I sense . . .
no, that's when I smell . . .
no, that's when I hear the approaching horde.
Raccoons . . .
from all directions . . .
conversing excitedly in their little chittering raccoon voices.
There are hundreds, maybe thousands. They'd been waiting for this moment, hoping with each beat of their tiny raccoon hearts that a hungry camper would get up in the middle of the night and bring food back to his site. I think about twisting the lid the other direction, retracing my steps and re-storing the peanut butter, but no, I mean really, what are they going to do besides run around and make those annoying noises? I jam my spoon into the jar, withdraw a healthy lump, eat with gusto. It tastes sooo good, and I'm sooo hungry.
Something hits the side of my tent.
"Get out of here," I mutter under my breath.
What are they doing, throwing things at me?
I eat another spoonful, and another and another.
Something heavy bounces off my tent. Either they've brought a catapult along for the siege or a raccoon took a running nose dive into my fly.
I eat faster and faster, dives of the spoon into the jar, big swallows in-between, eat until my spoon scrapes bottom and the jar is empty of its nutty goodness. Feeling spiteful, I talk with my mouth full.
"Aawl gahhnn, ewe wittle astards."
I swallow water and try again, this time leave out the profanity.
I rattle the spoon in the jar, loudly, pronounce its emptiness once again. The raccoons are slow to get the message, and I recline under my sleeping bag occasionally startled when one of them bounces off the tent wall—
But then. . .
I hear salvation at hand. . .
another camper at the storage box.
Raccoons head that direction, bickering sounds growing fainter and fainter, and I think about sticking my head out and hollering to the camper, suggesting it might not be a good idea to bring food back to his site. In the end, I remain silent. The guy no doubt is super hungry and who am I to interrupt his late-night snack? I plump up my pillow, listen to him crawl back into his tent, zip the fly. His muttering starts soon after, and I hold back a smile as I drift off to sleep. Peace has returned to my corner of the world.
I pedal south on Highway 101, under a blue canopy speckled with clouds, stop to get out my camera once again. To the east, a hill cants awayfrom the asphalt. Blackberry bushes sprawl in the clearings, berries glistening in the sunlight, and around the clearings trees rise toward the sky. Their bases are mossy and thick and old, ground layered with brown needles, and I instinctively look for a flat spot on which to camp. But it's early, much too early to quit riding, and I look away, toward the west, where the road gives way to a rocky cliff that drops down to the beach. The tide is out, a hundred yards of sand exposed, and waves fall inward, foaming into white curls as they break against the shoreline.
Waves have pushed against this land for eons, abrading the rock, timelessly inching inward, eroding and reshaping, leaving behind formations that jut up out of the ocean in all directions. The coast's beauty comes from all of this—the verdant lushness of the hills— the abrupt fall of the land to the ocean—the curl of the waves on the beach—the glittering fish-scale water when the sun hits just right—and the rocky uninhabitable islands that stubbornly refuse to wash into obliteration. I'm in love with all of it and think this coast rivals anything I've ever seen.
Remind me to never camp in a hiker/biker site in a campground adjacent to a city. I'm in Harris StatePark, which butts up to Brookings, Oregon, and a homeless couple is camped on the site next to mine. It rained last night, and they have a Wal-mart tent that is undoubtedly neither seam-sealed or seam-taped. They sling wet clothes out of their tent, cuss the world, each other, basically anything that dares venture into their sight-lines. The girl is blonde and heavy, clothes tight on her body, and he's bearded and skinny. It won't be long and she'll match his skinniness; they are both meth-heads, tweakers who spent the night smoking inside their damp hovel. The air no longer smells of heated chemicals, so I suspect they've run out of their drug of choice and that's the underlying reason for their irritability. Then again, as I watch her carry dripping jeans to a picnic table in the sun, it could be the flood inside their tent. They look as miserable as nearly drowned rats.
She threatens to leave him, in a voice that says she's serious, and he utters a three word phrase that stops her in her tracks.
"You love me?" She goes to him.
I feel sick and pack my gear as soon as I can, leave and don't look back. California is beckoning and I can't wait to get there.