Sunday, February 5, 2012

Look Away

The electronic yelping of the alarm brings me to full wakefulness in seconds.

But it takes minutes for me to remember where I am; the darkness around me is without feature, and for a moment all I understand is that the bed is not my own, and I am briefly panicked by the strangeness of the place I am in.Slowly light seeps into the darkness. I remember that I am in the Sandpiper Motor Inn in the small Oregon coastal town of Port Orford. I am the road to a job in the far southwest of Oregon.

It is well before sunrise on a Thursday morning. My head is clothy from bad sleep and my ass still sore from the five-hour drive the preceding afternoon and evening. And I have to be back on the road in less than an hour; I still have almost an hour to drive to my work.I'm here to look over the property of someone whose home - some sort of home, possibly a rental property or a summer house - has been damaged by some sort of landslide the previous weekend. It's business as usual for me; this sort of natural hazard is much of how I make my living.

For the homeowner it's a disaster, a nightmare.

For me, it's a living.

Sometimes we make our bread from the heartbreak of others.

In some ways Oregon reminds me of some parts of the Third World I've visited more than many of the other United States.

We have only one real "metropolis" here; you're either in the capital - in Portland - or you might as well be in Siberia. The further you get from Pioneer Square in Portland the poorer and more neglected much of the land becomes.

By the time you get to the furthest parts of the state; the stony deserts of Malheur County, the high dry hills of the Wallowas and the valley of the Snake River, and the rainforest serpentine mountains of Curry County, my destination today, you're either in the most spectacular of untrammeled wild places or the nastiest sorts of rural squalor.You can celebrate that or detest it; here in Oregon you cannot escape it.

The sky above Port Orford is still dark, but with the vague lightening that heralds the pre-dawn. A soldier would call it the barest edge of Before Morning Nautical Twilight, BMNT. The streets of Port Orford are quiet and still wet with the heavy coastal dewfall.The thing I always notice about the south Oregon coast is old.

Everything seems old, the places, and the people, because southwestern Oregon has very little for a young man or woman to stay for. There is no industry so a living is farming, logging, or fishing, the same triad that the first white people to these lands lived off.

But the land is mostly too hilly or too stony to farm, the valley floors too small to crop efficiently. Much of southwestern Oregon is underlain by the green serpentine rock that softens into a thin, meager soil that grows little and that sickly.

The timber is largely played out, or locked up in big corporate lands. The fishing gets poorer every season.

Little other than retirement or tourism - both pastimes for the old or the bored - still makes you a living down here. Mind you, the coastal tribes' casinos seem to be busy. I'm not sure if that falls under retirement or recreation. The number of fat recreational vehicles in the parking lots suggest the former. The Mill Casino; Land of the Lost Social Security check.

All the morning trade in the little coffeehouse is drawing Social Security for damn sure, other than the barista and I, and she seems less concerned about that than I am.

Her coffee is hot and caffeinated and that's really all that you can say for it. The smoked salmon in the cream cheese spread is rich bur sadly, it's probably from Norway. The great local runs fished out almost half a century ago.

I stop to snap a picture of the sunrise over Battle Rock. More than twenty years ago I stopped here on a sunny summer day, the first moment I put a foot on the ground of the place I have called home since then. There was an errant gray whale arcing from the shallow water of the bay, and the woman who was then my wife was charmed by the dark hills, the gunmetal ocean, and the great sea animal that seemed as old as both of them.I drink my coffee, and think of those times and these, and watch the sky pale to the southwest.

It's still barely dawn as I drive down the coast southwards through the rind of Coos County. Highway 101 is empty, the sky slowly paling above me but both the western horizon and the hills of the Coast Range to the east dark with lingering night.

I've never driven the Coast Highway at night without feeling the ocean over my western shoulder. Its not so much a genuine sensation as much as the thought of that immense, restless thing beginning there and extending so far away. Although I know where it is and what it is the Pacific Ocean always feels like it's looming far over my head in the night sky; not fearsome, really, but vast, endlessly vast, and in its great size a trifle frightening like a half-anticipated shiver at listening to a well-known ghost story.The little town of Ophir isn't really a town at all but an idea, the notion of a settlement now occupied by nothing but some sort of ramshackle store. Which appears to be closed and to have been closed for some time.I spend the morning doing what I love; studying the geology and landforms of a new place, trying to read the riddle in the rocks, the soils, the slopes, and the works of man that have so violently collided with them.The homeowner is unlikely to be pleased.

But I couldn't be happier. This is why I do what I do, this is why I love what I do - because it sets my mind, and my hands, and my knowledge against the bones of the Earth. I fell like I could sink into the soil and rock beneath my boots and hear the song the moving tectonic plates sing to each other as they pass, too faint for human ears, too slow for human lives, too huge for human strength.

About midday I get back in the truck to find something to eat and a cell tower in Gold Beach. I spent several weeks there back in the late 1990s, working on an ODOT contract. The little town has come up somewhat since then, when it was a hardscrabble coastal town in a very hard country. The stores look a little more prosperous, the people a little less straightened.But the Verizion cell service is out. Again. The locals accept this without so much as a real cuss word; the problem must not be that unusual. The illusion of connection with the settled parts of Oregon is so convincing that it comes as a shock to realize just how isolated this distal end of Curry County really is.

On the way back to my worksite I round a corner and, for just a moment, I tap the brake in fear that one of the local housecats has misjudged its moment to cross the road.But just for a moment. Because there is nothing domesticated in the muscular angularity of the animal that jolts to a stop along the road edge. The stilty hindquarters points up the stub where the long kitty-tail should be. The way it moves is pure wilderness in motion; after that initial moment's confusion even I, who have never seen a wild bobcat, couldn't confuse this a animal with the familiar indoors pussnums.

The bobcat shoots my truck a look that says without words that it has no use for me or my ugly human thing, and then it is gone.

By the time I finish up my reconnaissance the winter shadows are getting long. The little valley is already shaded, and the welcome February sunshine lingers only on the topmost slopes. I slowly drive north again, through the non-town of Ophir and back to the coast highway, heading for home.Humbug Mountain challenges the slow wintertime rollers of the North Pacific like a spiked fist slammed down on the coast, her forests fierce with the twisted krummholz fashioned by the storms of January and March.Deep in the shadowed side the ridiculous gimcrack thunder lizards of Prehistoric Gardens are frozen in their glass-eyed roars; who the hell really visits this curiosity, I wonder, other than in a spirit of giddy mockery?But well before you encounter this silly faux-fierce sideshow you've unknowingly passed by the real terror of the coastal mountains basking peacefully in the afternoon sun; the Arizona Inn landslide, one of the largest of all Oregon's coastal mass movements, 32 acres of massively complex interleaved failure that has moved Highway 101 at times as much as 25 feet seawards and down.Too large to go around, too immense to control, the engineers and geologists of Oregon have installed miles of drains to dewater this monster and slow its inevitable creep towards the sea that relentlessly gnaws away at its toe.

There is no victory against this landslide. All we can do is hope to slow its motion, to postpone for another day the tearing and shearing of the coast highway. And in that, perhaps, is enough of a triumph. Gravity and geology have not been tamed. They will never be a house pet. But perhaps its enough to have sent them back into the dark woods to await another day.The long coast road spools out ahead of me, five hours or more. There is chowder and dark beer waiting for me in Newport, and a silent house where my beloveds sleep at the end of the drive.And above the vermillion sky the bright unfixed point of Saturn shines down on the unstill Pacific and the darkening purple of the dreaming hills beyond.

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