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Literary Hook: A story about a trip across the Oregon Coast

February 9, 2011

By Christine Swanberg
Author and Poet

The Chinese zodiac assigns symbols to year of birth. Chinese New Year is celebrated in early February. Although this is not the Year of the Ox, people born in 1949 and any 12th year before are considered to be “oxen.”

Oxen are hard-working and reliable. The first time I read about this was several years ago in Chinatown in San Francisco. I loved the coincidence of being there for the Year of the Ox because it turned out both my husband and I were, indeed, oxen. After many trips to the Oregon Coast, this story took shape. It is not autobiographical, though the places were witnessed firsthand.

Freedom’s Just Another Word

After their previous long, drawn-out divorces, Natalie and Mack agreed they would never divorce—no matter what. They had lost too much. They didn’t know just what they would do as they headed north from San Francisco, their small hauler filled with the remains of their lives: Aunt Laura’s antique bed, half sets of Waterford crystal, Lenox china, and Oneida silverware. Good-bye, upper middle class. Good-bye, Barrington, Ill., castle in a cornfield. Good-bye, community reputation.

Natalie and Mack had fled their former lives. Both of their previous spouses fought them for the toothpicks. Eventually, Natalie and Mack gave up, said “The hell with it, take it all”—and moved on. This was their honeymoon, a cross-country venture with no final destination. In San Francisco, they had discovered it was their year, the Year of the Ox, when they treated themselves to dim sum in Chinatown. All 1949 babies were oxen, the table mat said. Hard-working and reliable. Well, maybe hard-working.

They would drive the great coastline north on Highway 1, taking in the healing waves of the Pacific, its Saturnine sunsets, and they would remake their lives. That hairpin turn road leading past the Pelican Inn, Muir Beach, and the Zen Center seemed to Natalie the perfect metaphor for her life. Any minute she could crash over the edge.

Snaking along the coast like pioneers in a covered wagon, they watched the congested Bay area give way to rugged wilderness. They drove in a daze of sea, sun and redwoods past Point Reyes, Mendicino, Eureka, and over the border into Oregon. The Oregon coast was virtually untouched, more expansive and exotic than anything Natalie had ever seen. She was smitten and said, “I feel like I’ve come home.”

They drove and drove for the sheer pleasure of it, past Coos Bay, Newport and a series of shanty towns that line the coast but don’t obscure it. By sunset, they reached the Three Capes: Cape Kiwanda, Cape Lookout, and Cape Meares. They found themselves in a real cowboy farmer town: Tillamook, with its cheese, its big-eyed brown Jersey cows, its old bungalows awash with colorful rhododendrons, its old-fashioned barber shop, and Rainy Day books. The Jerseys drank from the creeks and streams amid lush green farmland, where skunk cabbage had begun to bloom, their huge rolled, yellow flowers like enormous cigars.

They took the two-lane around the bend to Oceanside, looking for a place to sleep. It was that time of day when the sun seeks the horizon like a magnet. Traversing the thin mountain road past pristine Netarts Bay, they watched seals, herons and egrets pick their last catch of crabs and oysters at low tide. Then, the glowing coral sun poked through the Three Arches of Oceanside. Oceanside, a tiny village tucked into the rocks, glimmered with electricity inside rustic houses that seemed to grow from the rocks on their own. Oceanside: a few shingled cottages, an espresso café, a fire department, a post office, Roseanna’s Restaurant, and a little white chapel. Perfect.

They checked into a small beach cottage. Huge crashers and crying gulls greeted them as they walked to an inviting restaurant, Roseanna’s. The sun shone through the three arches, and the horizon swirled with magenta, crimson and gold wisps. Roseanna’s bustled with an interesting mix of casual people, which made Natalie feel even more at home. No Gucci bags or Prada shoes here. Max ordered a bottle of Puffin Pinot Noir, a local favorite. Even though it didn’t really go with the gingered halibut special, it seemed the perfect ending for the day. Both full and smooth, the wine was like an elixir, a reward at the end of a very long journey.

“Do you think we could start over here?” Natalie asked.

“I was thinking the same thing. Portland’s only a couple of hours away. Or maybe we could get a dairy farm.”

They roared, knowing some things were out of the question.

“But don’t you just love those graceful brown cows with those sweet eyes? Like oxen. Like us.”

“Hardworking and reliable. Right.”

When the waitress brought the salad, nasturtium and fragrant lavender blossoms had been tossed like confetti over the top.

“How pretty,” commented Natalie.

“Oh, yes, and they’re perfectly edible. Nasturtium tastes like a cross between radish and onion, quite delicate.”

“Are you Roseanna?”

“That would be me.”

“Could you use another waitress?”

“Call me in the morning.”

Christine Swanberg is a local author and poet.

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