Pacific Coast Highway Day 1: Seattle to North Bend, Oregon (Aug. 11, 2021)

Initially, my cross-country route had included a rail trip from Seattle to San Francisco, but about a month before I was scheduled to leave, the Lava Fire in Northern California burned the Dry Canyon Bridge, stopping service for Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train south of Klamath Falls and causing major backups clear to Colorado from diverted freight trains. I could have flown, but I had wanted to drive the northern portion of the Pacific Coast Highway ever since 2007, when I’d traversed the southern half from San Diego to San Francisco with my second husband (then boyfriend, now ex-husband). 

The history of that relationship might be best represented by a map with our adventures stitched in different colors along the numerous routes we explored together over the years. My love of travel had taken hold long before I knew him, but after we met, the world unfolded in new ways. For instance, I’d always struggled with spatial orientation, but that man had an obsession with maps in his blood. I’m not entirely sure whether he told me at some point that one of his ancestors had been a cartographer or whether that’s a detail I’ve invented all these years later because it seems like it ought to be true. In any case, before a trip, he’d spend ages studying maps, imprinting their details so thoroughly in his memory that whenever we arrived some place new, it was as though he’d already lived there for some time.

My love of public transportation also began with that relationship, perhaps on the night we met, when we sat out on a friend’s rooftop, talking and listening to the trains go by. Even in that moment, the horn’s deep bellow felt to me like a summons. Having spent most of my life in rural, Southwest Ohio, I reached adulthood without ever having taken a public bus, subway, or train; the little town where I grew up didn’t even have taxi service after 5 PM. So by the time we met when I was 23, I could find my way around an atlas, but staring at the map of the New York City subway or the Amtrak rail system still filled me with a certain sense of trepidation. Such obstacles lost their relevance, though, when I traveled with my ex.

That first year together, we covered most of the East Coast from Maine to Key West–not in one fell swoop, but lots of little bursts. We kept a tent in the trunk of his Chrysler so that we could hop in the car on any whim and get as far as we could from Fayetteville in however much time we had before one of us had to be back for school or work. We traveled mostly by car, but we’d often use subways in places like New York or D.C. After a couple of years, we ventured out West and drove the southern half of the Pacific Coast Highway. A year after that, we took our first Amtrak trip to see his family in Maine, and then the following summer, on our honeymoon, we traveled via rail pass from North Carolina to New Orleans, Phoenix, the Grand Canyon, and Chicago. 

Photo taken from the Sunset Limited during my first rail pass excursion in 2009

As the relationship was ending–eleven years after that first night we sat on the rooftop, listening to the trains go by–one of the first things I did was book a rail pass and backpack solo cross-country via Amtrak. I think that in many ways, I needed to prove to myself that I could navigate the world without him. I’d relied so heavily upon his sense of direction over the years that I hadn’t really cultivated my own, so in one sense, the trip was an act of remediation. In another sense, I was trying to preserve certain parts of myself that I had discovered within the relationship–parts of myself that I still loved–while also figuring out how to let the marriage go.  

So last summer, when the Lava Fire made it impossible to get from Seattle to San Francisco by train, I figured it was my chance to finish driving the Pacific Coast Highway–another loose end I could tie up to close that chapter of my life. It was something I’d wanted to do for over a decade, and although the car rental shortage made my plan obscenely expensive, I shelled out $525 to rent a silver Ford Ecosport for a few days and set off toward San Francisco.

On a couple of previous trips, I’d explored several stretches of coast around the Olympic Peninsula and Willapa Bay, as well as the part of the PCH that runs south from Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula to Cannon Beach, Oregon; I decided that rather than retrace old steps, I’d take Highway 5 from Seattle until I hit OR-34 and then veer west toward the coast. The advantage of this route was that I could stop in Corvallis and say hello to Elena Passerello, a friend I’d met in 2017 at the Willapa Bay Artists’ Residency. Elena had cemented her place in my heart when she asked everyone at the breakfast table whether we’d heard the creature making strange cries in the forest the night before, and then she belted out an impression so accurate I was later able to phonetically transcribe the noise into Google and determine it was the alarm call of the barred owl.

Though I hadn’t seen Elena in four years and hadn’t done a great job of staying in touch, I messaged her to say I’d be passing through and asked if she wanted to meet up. We caught up over pints at a little brewery with outdoor seating and chatted about books, my plans for the press, and our current projects. Elena is one of those people you can pick back up with after four years without feeling like you ever really missed a beat, and we made the most of the hour and a half we had before she had to hop on a conference call. I left with a notebook full of reading recommendations and a happy heart, took route 36 south to 126 and then cut west to the PCH.

Just before sunset, I stopped for sushi in North Bend, Oregon and noticed The Mill Casino and RV Park across the street. I’d seen casinos on a list of places one could potentially park overnight without being asked to leave, and since my car rental cost more per day than most hotels I’ve stayed at, I figured I might as well sleep in it. I parked in a spot midway into the lot, put down the rear seats, and inflated my sleeping pad so I could stretch out in the back. As I was setting up, an old, beat-up, black van parked next to me, and the woman inside began covering her windows with silver, plastic sheets. Then a little, black cat darted through the parking lot, and I felt a strong, familiar impulse to rescue it. I realized I was in no position to do so, though, sleeping as I was in a rental car on my way to San Francisco. A minute later, the women who had parked next to me walked by with the cat in her arms, and it dawned on me that the two of them must be living in the van together. I felt a strange, silent kinship for the woman–a fellow cat lady sleeping in her car–as well as an attendant sense of unease and a pang of homesickness. I considered leaving but couldn’t decide where else to go, until I finally settled on staying and seeing the experience through to morning.

As far as cars to sleep in go, I give the Ford Ecosport two out of five stars. When you flip the back seats down, the trunk space is kind of slanted so that there’s no truly flat surface, and you have to sleep on a bit of a slope. I also give the Mill Casino parking lot two out of five stars. An hour or so into my fitful sleep, I woke to a conversation going on between the woman from the van and a man I guessed to be in his mid-to-late twenties, judging by the sound of his voice.

“I’m so high,” he told her, and I lay in the back of my car, worried about what he was high on and hoping he would go away soon.

After a few minutes, he headed into the casino, and I fell back to sleep.

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