I threw my duffle on top of my wife’s suitcase in the back of my dad’s SUV. It was a tight fit. We were headed from Portland, Oregon, out on a road trip along the Oregon Coast for four days, and even though we were planning on staying in hotels along the way, it still looked like we were going to either camp or colonize our way from Seattle to California. Our plan was simple: Hug the sheer cliffs along the Pacific Ocean until we touched Northern California, then turn north again and cruise home to Seattle. Every town was a potential rest stop. We would drive until we were exhausted. Our only rule was this: “If it looks fun, we stop.”
This whole idea of playing things loose was new for my dad, a man who is notorious for planning down to the hour and keeping maps filled with detailed notes on expected arrivals and suggested departures. This weekend, however, his massive road atlas had only one destination circled: Coos Bay, Oregon. This was more than a road trip, it was a pilgrimage.
The Oregon Coast is defiant. Highway 101 clings valiantly to the bluffs as the Pacific Ocean hammers away at the rough basalt below. Waves peel layers off the state and drag them back into the sea, slowly and patiently. The result is an ever-elevating cliffside that looks out over the water. The history of Oregon is written along the coastline. The highway dips down to the sea and meets fishing towns before spiraling up again to the tree line, along old logging trails.
My dad had invited Tawny and me to drive with him and my step-mom along the coast to Coos Bay. His grandmother (my great grandmother) had purchased a cab company in Coos Bay in the 1950s. She started as a driver to pay the bills for herself, and her daughter and ended up eventually buying the company. This is the spirit of enterprise you’re likely to encounter in Oregon. It’s the pioneering attitude that made my dad hang that Coos Bay Cab sign up on his wall back home, the same attitude that contributed to me becoming a professional traveler.
We were eager to pay homage to this spirit on our trip.
We followed the coast down the edge of Washington, then toward the Columbia River, in Astoria. The Astoria Bridge spans the whole of the Columbia river and ushers you into a picturesque town (scene of the cult movie, The Goonies). Victorian homes with widow walks and brass bells stud the dramatic hillside. It’s a seafaring town. On the tallest peak there is a pillar that towers like a sentinel over the town. I never had visited Astoria before this trip, but the second we arrived, this tower was like a siren beckoning. The column is a tourist attraction, and the side is inscribed with the pictographic history of the region. Built in 1926, the column has 164 steps, and offers a commanding view of the area. No wonder I was so intrigued.
Later that day, we stopped at Josephson’s Smoke House. A bit of a local legend, this 1920s smoke house gave me the first taste of what was to be a long weekend of seafood. Each stop along our journey seemed impossibly better than the last. The Oregon Coast is to seafood aficionados what the French countryside is to burgeoning sommeliers. All of the seafood restaurants we visited were locally owned, and each had a slightly different interpretation of how to do seafood. Buttery salmon, whole crabs, bread bowls full of thick clam chowder, and halibut shacks were among the goodies we consumed.
As we continued, we breezed through Seaside, blasted past Cannon Beach, and rolled into Tillamook, the home of the famous eponymous dairy. The tour looked fun so we stopped. What started as a history tour of the state quickly became a culinary tour. We explored the hidden paths of comfort food.
Viewfinder Tip: Keep your eye out for Prehistoric Gardens. This park, near the Southern Oregon border, has life-sized dinosaur statues.
As we continued, each town we passed was a snapshot of charm. Cedar-shake houses, bleached by the gray dawn, were clustered together on the shore. Some of these houses were artisanal soap shops, some yoga studios, others kite shops. Somehow, we observed, the people of Oregon’s coast are building local businesses into thriving towns. It seemed like the modern atmosphere in this part of the world was just like my dad told me the vibe had been for my great grandmother. The emerald coast seemed the perfect spot to plant a dream. It truly seemed like anything could grow here.
It was mid-day Saturday when we hit the small town of Florence. We were only a couple towns away from Coos Bay at this point, and I already felt like we were closer to my great grandmother and the rest of the Staudingers who came from Oregon. My dad told us all about his memories of Devil’s Punch Bowl State Natural Area, an amazing natural cave filled with sea water. We laughed a lot.
When we got to Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, just past Florence, we saw a sign for ATV rentals. We stopped, Tawny and my step-mom elected to hang out in the car while my dad and I went on the ATVs. We signed what felt like a few hundred waivers and then were escorted out to a massive expanse of sand dune that stretched to the horizon. Our guide pointed vaguely to two patches of evergreen about two miles apart. “That’s your boundary,” he said. We nodded in acknowledgement. “In one hour, just follow the trail home.”
With that, our guide revved his ATV and left us alone in the shadow of three- and four-story dunes.
My dad and I pushed those ATVs to the limit, up and down the dunes. We got stuck in the sand a few times and had to dig ourselves out. When we finally got to the boundary of the dunes we realized we had plenty of time left.
“The area past the evergreens looks fun,” my dad said.
I nodded. This time, we didn’t stop at all.
To what extent do you like to explore when you take road trips?