I’m back to civilization, with all its traffic and non-scenic scenery, but it feels nice: I don’t have to worry about water and food for a change. I’m down to 400 feet above sea level, so it’s warm. For the first time since Death Valley I’m wearing only shorts. It even smells like summer. The grass is long, leaves green, sun bright. A light breeze is pushing me gently forward.
I cross a bridge over my old friend the North Umpqua. The river is still lively here, but wider and calmer than yesterday. Soon it flows into the mighty Umpqua and the big sister subdues it altogether. The Umpqua will take me west the remaining 25 miles to the Pacific. The road hugs one of the big river’s heavily forested tall banks. But yesterday’s dramatic scenery is gone. The banks are not as steep and craggy. The river is wide and calm, with an occasional stretch of lazily gurgling shallows. The Umpqua is up to 400-500 meters wide at its mouth in the town of Reedsport.
The west-bound lane is swollen with a million RVs and pickups pulling trailers loaded with ATVs. It’s Friday, the start of the Memorial Day weekend and the Oregon Coast tourist season. Throngs of offroaders are converging on the Winchester Bay sand dunes. (I learn about the dunes later, but now I’m annoyed with the herds and intrigued by their ATVs.)
When I arrive in Reedsport I decide to turn south to Winchester Bay, counter to my northbound plan. The ocean is just a couple of miles from here as a crow flies, but people tell me that if I continue north, the nearest beach access is 20 miles away, near Florence.
But getting to the ocean proves difficult. It’s as if an invisible wall has risen between me and the shore. People give me conflicting directions. I sense unfriendly vibes from the locals, at times in the form of feigned ignorance, at times as misinformation, and at times as attempts to discourage me from going to the beach. The tourists — the campgrounds are filled with the drunk ATVers — are friendly but genuinely ignorant.
The directions I get range from, “You can’t camp on the beach and all campgrounds are full for Memorial Day” to “There’s no beach access down this road,” to “The ocean comes inland half a mile up this road” (Wrong: it’s the bay, not the ocean).
The night complicates my search and I almost concede that I should try again in the morning. But heck no! I didn’t bike 4,450 miles to reach the Pacific and just go to sleep without seeing it. I can actually hear the waves crashing so painfully close.
My travels have taught me to double check directions by asking other people — unless my gut tells me that the person truly knows what he’s talking about. Most often wrong directions come from well-wishing folks who are convinced that they are right, but are clueless. For instance, two days ago a store keeper just east of Cascade Pass insisted that the pass was after Diamond Lake and even tried to prove it to me on a map, though the map was actually showing the pass as located before the lake. And the places in question are just 15 miles from where the guy lives! I’ve learned to nod, say thanks, and follow my own judgment.
Anyway, after two hours of circling around in the dark I finally find the beach.
Surprise: instead of mighty cliffs like those I’d seen on Olympic Peninsula up in Washington and was expecting to see here, the beach is more like the flat, sandy Atlantic shore of Fire Island, New York. The only difference is that things are a little bigger here: the dunes and waves are taller, the beach wider, and there are more rows of surf breaks. And the sky is a little darker and starrier.
But something else makes this place truly surreal in the night. The Umpqua Lighthouse, on the side of a low hill behind me, casts an unusual triple signal. One red and two white lights, unevenly spaced, illuminate the hill like the slow moving rays of a giant disco ball. The engines and headlights of the ATVs zooming all over the dunes make things even stranger.
I easily find a campground with plenty of unoccupied spots, but the keeper is not there, so I find some people sitting around a fire and piggyback on their campsite. After all, all I have is a small tent and I don’t need hookups.