A few weeks ago I took advantage of an unusually sunny Sunday – a merciful break from the mid-winter gray of the Pacific NW. I headed from Portland toward the coast, set on doing a favorite hike but open to wherever the day took me.
I hiked my hike in the astounding 55 degree sunshine, but it took me less time than I anticipated. With a few hours of sunlight still ahead of me, I decided to make a day of it. I drove north on Highway 101, toward my favorite spot on the Oregon Coast, and one of my favorite places in the entire world: the small town of Pacific City.
I don’t say that lightly. I’ve been visiting Pacific City for over 20 years. My mom and I discovered it randomly after dropping my brother off at a Boy Scout camp circa 1997 (ish?). It’s smaller than many of the tourist towns on the northern coast, lacking the commercialized hotels and endless gift shops, but there’s an enormous sand dune to climb and the rocky cliffs of Cape Kiwanda to explore. Pelican Pub & Brewery has a patio that pushes right up to the sand. Time and again I’ve made my way there, retraced my same paths, reconnected with the ocean. But lately when I arrive I find a sharp sting of dismay. Like so many of my favorite places in Oregon, Pacific City feels overrun.
The town itself isn’t even technically a town, it’s an unincorporated community with a long history. Up until the late 1800s, the land was inhabited by Native Americans –the Nestugga and Killamook tribes. But by the turn of the century, settlers had arrived in the Nestucca Valley and Pacific City was on the map as a destination. Throughout the 20th Century the hamlet grew and changed. From Kelp Ore resorts to commercial fishing to the Dory Boat fleet, it wasn’t until the 60s that Pacific City finally settled in as a vacation destination and never looked back.
Out on the sandstone cliffs of Cape Kiwanda there used to be a rock that looked like a duck’s head – the “Duckbill monument.” It wasn’t anything super special, a cool rock atop a naturally-formed pedestal, slowly worn into its shape – who knows how many hundreds of years in the making. For me it was a permanent, instantly recognizable part of the landscape. A few years ago, a group of visitors decided to knock it down after one of their friends fell from the top of it while trying to take a photo for social media. Centuries of natural history toppled because of an irresponsible choice and a broken leg.
Every time I visit Pacific City I climb the dune. Every time I circle around and down the side of it, slip underneath the cable fence marked “Danger Beyond This Point,” and make my way out onto the cape. Up over the sandy hill with the spikey grass and down through the short cluster of trees. Over the round mounds of sandstone. Across the narrow split and up the steep slope to the farthest cliffs. Every time I note the changes in the path, water and wind slowly eroding, and I wonder how long it will take before I won’t be be able to get out there at all. Then I sit and watch the waves work craters into the dark stone below, listen to them crash up against the cliffs just to the north, sometimes even feel the reverberation as they hit in their steady rhythm. I watch the ocean roll and recede. The unmistakable sound of wind and water thick in the air.
This time I did the same. But where I used to sit alone, I now sat among couples with picnics and clusters of people waiting for the sunset. I watched a teenager make a dangerous climb out onto a rock. I closed my eyes. I listened to the wind, to the ocean roll. Then, with the sun cutting a sharp angle in the sky, I heard shouting. “I CAN’T TAKE A SELFIE.” I shaded my eyes and saw the teen on the rock was yelling to his friend just below me. “I CAN’T TAKE A SELFIE FOR SHIT!” I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a part of me that wanted him to fall into the ocean.
It was only a matter of time. I’ve watched the development happen. The long row of timeshares, the luxury hotel, the vacation rentals stretching the area to capacity. I have countless memories on that small stretch of sand. From that original discovery when I was young to partying when I was a teenager to endless road trips in every season. Dinners at the Pelican Pub, beers on the beach. I go at least a few times a year, to visit on my own or to bring friends. Each year I see what I used to love slip a little bit farther away.
There are those who say I could always leave. Quit my whingeing and find some other place to live. But it feels unfair to have to give these places that are so dear to me away. Hand them over to a new batch of people with no understanding of what used to be, of their true value. Move out of state and become an intruder in someone else’s home.
I told my tale of woe to friends of mine over dinner a few days later. I told them about the tour vans and enormous trucks. The hipsters cracking beers and listening to music on their wireless speakers out on the cape. The parking lot full and the beach stacked with cars (in January!). My feeling of peace and nostalgia shattered by high school kids yelling and taking endless photos; people dotting every possible frame.
We lamented the state of our state. The throngs of people moving to Portland every day (our city). Their reach then moving farther and farther out, clogging our hiking trails, driving up the price of our favorite weekend getaways. It’s a classic conversation, one I’ve had so many times to no purpose or end. But then my friend’s wife made an assertion: we’re not complaining nonsensically, we’re not being assholes, we’re simply mourning the loss of something we treasured. And we have every right to do so.
I connected closely with her point of view, because so often lately I find myself disappointed by the way things are going in my small corner of the world (not to mention the world in general). Places I grew up exploring, hidden gems, places that felt like mine (even though I know they never were) are now places I feel like I have to give up. So I mourn.
If she’s right, perhaps I’m stuck in the anger phase of mourning. Maybe even denial. And I know at times I’m also part of the problem. I have, after all, always ignored that fence on Cape Kiwanda even though I know it exists for a reason.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever stop visiting Pacific City, though at some point it may be consumed entirely. Already I’ve thought about switching my focus to searching for new places to go. Wondering if there are any discoveries to be had, anything new I can find within an hour or two of Portland. Any solitude within reach of my home. I can tell you that if I find them I certainly won’t post about it here. I’ll share them with close friends and family. And try not to take them for granted.