My friend Karla and I occasionally go on road trips in her little RV, a 1980s Dolphin. In October 2012, we hit the road heading north from her farm in Gaston. First stop: Astoria, where we climbed the 164 spiral steps of the Astoria Column. Clear skies gave us a great view of the Lewis & Clark River and Youngs River meeting the Columbia on its way to the Pacific Ocean. We paid a whole dollar for a year's worth of parking privileges in case we decided to come back.
We found lunch on the waterfront and watched the busy harbor while we ate. Then we drove across the Columbia into Washington, heading for Ilwaco and Cape Disappointment. The small fishing town of Ilwaco looked mostly dead, but we guessed that it may be the type of place that comes alive during the summer. We did find an open liquor store that had lemon drop fixin's--important supplies for what we were about to do.
Tugboat at the Astoria waterfront
Karla and I are both terrified of tsunamis, yet we were about to spend the night in a tsunami zone. This is not our usual M.O. and I can't remember why we decided to risk it. Cape Disappointment State Park is at the southwestern tip of Washington, on a spit of land with the Columbia River on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. We drove around a bit to make sure we knew the way to higher ground just in case. We always scope out tsunami escape routes when we spend the night at the coast. Seriously.
Beach covered with driftwood at Cape Disappointment
We pulled into the lower campground and took a spot by a small lake surrounded by tall reeds. Then we went off on foot to explore. On our way from the campsite toward the beach, there was, of all things, a shack serving up wood-fired pizzas. The guy running it told us how to get to the trail that led to one of the lighthouses, and agreed to have hot pizza waiting for us when we got back. I think he was going to close up for the season after that weekend. Lucky us.
It was a nice long hike to the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse, past an old army battery, an interpretive center, and lots of signs warning us to keep out of various places (there's a Coast Guard station there). Once we found the lighthouse, which glowed in the golden evening light, we stayed to watch the sun set, chatting with another photographer who was doing the same thing. The sunset did not disappoint.
Hiking back, we stopped to check out the old battery, which was downright spooky in the dark with its heavy metal doors and chambers built back into the hill. We had just enough light to see by, and got back right on time to collect our pizza.
Cape Disappointment Lighthouse
Pacific Ocean sunset
After the excellent pizza, some lemon drops and a nervous night of tsunami-nightmare-filled sleep (seriously) we headed out to explore the northern end of the peninsula, which contains the town of Long Beach, creatively named because it sits along the longest beach in the United States--28 miles of wide uninterrupted sand. We found the town to be nothing special in its touristy cheesiness, though the beach was pretty enough except for the cars driving on it. But there was more to explore.
Continuing north, we found the tiny town of Oysterville, also creatively named. Before we knew where we were, we came across a field covered with huge piles of oyster shells, seagulls swooping from above to pick at them. This was obviously a busy place during the week, but it was deserted that weekend.
Oyster processing plant?
Piles of oyster shells
Oysterville is on the east side of this north-jutting peninsula, facing Willapa Bay and "mainland" Washington. There's not much to the town, but it's super charming. Leading to the bay from the main street are smaller streets that are not paved, not gravel, but grass, mowed very short. At the end of Division Street is a beautifully weatherworn wooden bench that appears to be there just to sit on and enjoy the view.
Division Street to the bay in Oysterville
Turning left from Division Street
Looking down Territory Road toward the Oysterville Church
Someone collects colorful bottles
We saw an old schoolhouse, a cute little church, a large, fancy-looking waterfront restaurant that seemed out of scale, and absolutely no people. It was the perfect place to spend an hour or so taking pictures and enjoying the quiet. Heading back to the west side of the peninsula, we came across a cemetery--another awesome place to spend some time. And the house that literally seemed to have fallen off its foundation made us pull off to the side of the road so I could shoot it.
If the house is a-rockin', don't bother knockin'?
Resting place of respect
Didn't live long enough to get a name
We were SO curious!
Unknown but honored
We drove as far north as we could, into Leadbetter Point State Park, just so we could say we'd been from one end of the peninsula to the other. Then we headed south again and then east, past cranberry bogs on Highway 101, which then took us north to see more of Washington. The drive through Willapa National Wildlife Refuge was gorgeous.
We hugged the coast of Willapa Bay and then headed inland to the town of Raymond, hoping that the sloughs and parks on the map meant there would be pretty places to explore. But Raymond turned out to look like a dying industrial town, so we veered north toward Aberdeen, where again we hoped that the Chehalis River and its many sloughs would be appealing. By the time we got there, though, it was dinnertime and we were hungry.
Our usual strategy is to find the "charming old town" part of a city, farther off the freeway from the usual fast food, where there are always great non-chain restaurants and often other things going on. Alas... Aberdeen did not have a charming old town section that we could find. We made do with a less-than-charming cafe and then decided that the afternoon had been a bust and we should turn around and find somewhere to spend the night. If we'd had more time, we might have been inclined to find our way to the Chehalis sloughs, but we only had the weekend and so far this part of Washington wasn't feeling very welcoming. When we stopped at a roadside bar looking for local information and a couple of margaritas, the bartender looked us up and down and said she didn't make margaritas there. Nice.
We set our sights on an RV park that Google told us was way back off the freeway near Raymond. Well after dark, our GPS led us along a narrow gravel road into a neighborhood (where a small sign did say RV Park), and as we turned into someone's front yard, it announced that we had arrived at our destination.
The startled homeowner disagreed and came running out in a bit of a panic as we turned the Dolphin around in his driveway, but he did end up being helpful. Apparently, on the unlighted road leading to his house, we had driven past a golf course, and the RV Park was part of that.
Quietest RV park ever
High beams on, we headed back down the road and saw the RV spaces right alongside it, with vast empty space that we figured must be the golf course beyond. With no idea if it was officially open this time of year or how to check in, we took a space and figured if anyone wanted us to pay or leave they'd come knocking. We didn't need any hookups anyway.
It did turn out to be the quietest RV park ever. We are used to casino parking lots and campgrounds where you can hear your neighbors, so to be on a deserted golf course with no one in sight and only the rare noise of a passing car was quite heavenly.
Good morning, alpaca!
When we woke up and could see where we had landed, we were even more thrilled. This golf course seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. There were alpacas across the street! And apple trees and wide-open skies! And rusty old buildings being reclaimed by blackberry vines to shoot!
But first, we walked over to the clubhouse to find out how much we owed for our night's stay. The manager there wouldn't take our money, but still invited us to use their showers if we liked. Much more welcoming! We thanked him and spent some time wandering around, taking pictures and letting Sherman (Karla's schnauzer) run around.
Rusty and being reclaimed
At this point (though looking back I think we should have given Aberdeen and its sloughs another shot) we decided we were done with Washington for now and headed back south to Astoria, but by a different route along the Lewis and Clark Trail Highway, which turned out to be a great decision.
As we came parallel to the Columbia River heading west, we spotted a huge rusty thing on the shore. (If you have poked around my website at all, you know I love to shoot rusty stuff.) Getting closer, we saw that it was an old barge. And beyond it was a ship of some kind listing in the water. We pulled off into the only space there was, next to a barrier that said "No trespassing," and decided to walk back to the barge first so I could shoot the rusty thing, and then come back and see if we could get closer to the ship without trespassing.
Biggest rusty thing ever!
Grass takes rusty root
Bubba took us past the intimidating signage
I was happily shooting away when Karla started running back toward the Dolphin. I didn't know why until I heard an angry man yelling, and then I went running back too. By the time I caught up with her, she had calmed Bubba down. That was his name and he was a friend of the property owner, who apparently had people ignoring his sign all the time.
Karla has a way with people and she took Bubba from threatening to have us arrested to inviting us onto the property and telling us all about the ship. Turns out it's the USS Plainview, which was once the world's largest hydrofoil and the Navy's first hydrofoil research ship. She was built in 1964, decommissioned in 1978, sold for scrap and then abandoned in the Columbia River across from Astoria.
And it turns out Bubba was a programmer, so he and Karla had plenty to talk about while I clambered about taking pictures of the ship and the other awesome rusty stuff on the property, including a couple of once-lived-in trailers and some old machinery.
Once upon a time, all this was functional
Rusting and peeling
Government property, once
Great rusty chains
Bubba and what was once a home
From that grand adventure, we went back to Astoria to find lunch, during which we decided to spend our last night in Vernonia, one of our favorite towns, where there is a small park with RV spaces right on the river.
But first, we had to explore the very cute town so I could take more pictures.
Former county jail in Astoria
Moose Lodge in Astoria
Big rusty thing!
Old dock remains in yin/yang of light
We took a different route again so we could go through Clatskanie and St. Helens just to see what they were like. Both looked like they would be worth a future visit (and I will be writing about our return to Clatskanie soon!), but we were eager to get to familiar Vernonia and settle in for some writing and downtime. We took the Scappoose-Vernonia Highway, another new route for us, through forest and open country, and landed at Anderson City Park.
Where Rock Creek meets the Nehalem River in Vernonia
Awaiting a rider
Color and contrast in Vernonia
Vernonia is a great little town. Best known locally for having its school destroyed in the flooding of 2007, it's just far enough of the nearest main highway that the Walmarts and other downtown-destroyers don't seem to think it's worth their attention, so it has a tiny but vibrant core and a tight-knit community. Rock Creek, the Nehalem River, Vernonia Lake (a former mill pond), and the Banks-Vernonia State Trail provide plenty of recreation, and the loudest noise you'll hear comes from the lumber trucks rolling through town. I take my kids there regularly during the summer, set up camp at the park, and set them free on their bikes.
But today we were kidless and ready to wrap up what felt like a bust of a road trip, though looking back on it now, I can see we found our share of treasures.
Cooterville City Hall on Highway 26
The next day we headed back to Karla's farm in Gaston, stopping in at the funkiest attraction Highway 26 has to offer: Cooterville City Hall. Two parts thrift store and one part junkyard, everything here is for sale, including the life-size and rather expensive pig sculpture that beckons visitors from the side of the road.
Of course, I had to spend some time shooting all the rusty stuff.
Next time: we give Washington another try, this time with kayaks!