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18—Seals of Approval

To: Friends and Family
Subject: Seals of Approval

With this first week of the last year of this millennium, we've also got sun. The price for fair skies in the rainy season is cold. But I’ve got fire!—so have been using the spotting scope in my house to get know my neighbors, the Pacific Harbor Seals. Every day, between 40 to 80 of them haul out at low tide on the sandy spit across from my house not far from the mouth of the bay. Here they lie in all kinds of weather—lookin' like bombs that just ain't gonna study war no more.

Netarts Bay is only about 3.5 square miles and narrow, which means I've got a great view from where I am, right there across from the sandy beach at the edge of the wooded area on the spit.
In just several days, I’ve come to recognize the regulars. Hydrogen is a rotund black fellow with white markings like hippie flowers. Always next to Hydrogen is Oxygen, small and white with big dreamy eyes. Buddha, a large buff creature, gazes into the sun even when there is no sun. And Sartre is a huge mottled animal with three chins and slightly crossed eyes that look neither here nor there. Lao-tzu is black with white circles like spectacles around the eyes and the white whiskers of a sage. Little Mohawk is white with a gray streak from head to hindflippers. And Buster is gray and annoys others by always trying to nudge its way into the middle of the herd. Cranberry is white with dark red markings and the sweetest seal face you could imagine. I refer to those who blend into the herd as The Chorus.

Seals should not be confused with sea lions, whose flippers are more pronounced. Seals are more streamlined and can scoot rapidly using the muscular action of their bellies to undulate across the sand. Seals are members of the order Pinnipedia, meaning “winged feet.” They grow to five or six feet, can weigh as much as three hundred pounds, and divide their time between sand and water. They can dive to 1500 feet, can stay under water for as long as forty minutes, and even sleep in the water.
As the tide goes out, they don't swim onto the beach. They just begin to appear, their backs at first seeming to be big boulders. Then they arch their backs so that their heads and tails are raised, giving the appearance of a miniature fleet of Viking ships. What I find most fascinating is the way they line up, knowing before the water goes exactly where where the edge will be. When the water recedes, their markings and personalities begin to emerge.

As the tide rises, they arch their backs, heads and tail flippers up. Again, they don’t swim away, but wait for the water to lift them, surrendering at last to the ocean. The last thing you see is the hindflippers, two lotus prayer hands, disappearing into the deep.

Yesterday I drove an hour north to the Seaside Aquarium where I got within a foot of the seals, with only a metal enclosure between us.
If you're willing to get wet, the aquarium sells small baggies of raw smelt for a dollar. At the first sight of a tourist with a baggie, the seals stop swimming, rush to the edge of their wire enclosure, and go into performance mode. 

17—Catching Fire in the Land of Many Waters

To: Friends and Family

Subject: Catching Fire

12/29—8:30 p.m. 
I’ve been reading Vaclav Havel’s Letters to Olga (written in prison). 
Havel went to prison for his dissident, then became president of his country.
I’m sitting here tonight, inconsequential. Bookended by eternity. Safe. Except from my safety. And oh yes, from the storm that won’t quit.

It began around 3 when I woke from a nap to wind lashing the trees like knives through all the silks of the world. Suddenly the rain came like bullets out of gunmetal sky. With the gray ocean thrashing about like the mind of a restless god, an unsettling dark took possession of the world. It’s now 8:30, and the lights keep flickering as if all civilization is now under siege. The big wide window pane before me just buckled and crackled like cellophane. A terrible chill has found its way into my bones and won’t leave. 

I tell you there’s more to the weather here than meteorological forces. 
And whatever it is feels personal.
Everything would be better if I had a fire. However, I've been engaged in a Promethean battle with the big cast-iron bully inhabiting the middle of my living space.
While any dumb fool can set swaths of California on fire with the careless flick of a cigarette ash, I can't start a fire by holding a BIC lighter to an artfully constructed pyramid of newspaper, dead twigs, and treated wood chips. I have, however, created a lot of smoke, which along with the smoke detector has driven the cats under the down comforter on the bed. 

Screw the wood stove. Fuck the scout hand book.
I’m going to join the cats—and begin to repent for all my comforts, as the only one Havel had in his prison was a cup of evening tea.


Rainy Day Books
Next afternoon: Gray all day. But no wind or rain. Just bones radiating cold like freezer packs. Word on the street—wind last night registered 90 mph. I drove into Tillamook for cheap gloves so I could cut off the fingers. 
Instead, I discovered fire-starter sticks bathed in pitch and Rainy Day Books. 

Karen Spicer, Proprietor
and Webster, resident cat 

And yes, folks, this evening we have fire! 

Getting the cold out of my bones has given me the courage to go deeper into this place. And I’ve just learned from my newly purchased Nehalem Tillamook Tales that there really is more to the weather than weather—and why, despite coming here for self-reflection, I feel compelled to you tell my story:


To: Friends and Family

Subject: Unincorporated

For those who wanted to hear more about Netarts:

Netarts is an unincorporated town with small neighborhoods scattered on either side of the highway. The town covers about 2.6 square miles at an elevation of 69 feet above sea level, although my house couldn’t be more than 30. There are370 households and 750 people, many of whom aren’t full-time residents. 

In this same spirit of egalitarianism, the beaches in Oregon belong to everyone. 
My meanderings revealed a microcosm of egalitarianism with homes that included trailers at the Big Spruce trailer park, faded beach cottages like mine, a variety of upscale designer dwellings, and everything in between. For example, at the corner of Holly Heights Avenue and the main road is a ramshackle and overgrown turquoise house. Yesterday, my heart jumped at the sight of man in flannel sitting under the sagging porch roof with an arrow through his head. A closer look revealed it was a mannequin. Today, the fellow is sporting a green wool scarf and rakish fedora. At the top of Holly Heights hill is a row of upscale condos with oversized garages, a southerly view over Netarts Bay at the Pacific, and a beautifully manicured commons area. 

Most of the towns I passed through on my way up the coast were tourist meccas. But even with its spectacular view of the sea and the pristine beaches, Netarts remains just a quiet town with ordinary people doing quiet ordinary things. 

The air is so pure that when I walked past the deli this morning, the exhaust from an idling car made me nauseous. When a man all spiffy and fashionable in layers of fleece and Gortex came out of the deli juggling coffee and a muffin while speaking urgently on his cell phone and motioning to the woman in the car to open his door, I felt jarred by an alien energy. Instead of becoming more reflective, as planned, I feel myself, how shall I say it?—fading. Like an old beach house, beloved by several generations who always keep swearing they should come here more often.

This morning I was trying to decide if I’m going inward or dropping out. No conclusion. For now, there is only this place.

Simple as life here is, though, the place is not without irony—take, for instance, Happy Camp, a beach site for tourists that is also an officially designated tsunami hazard area. Barring the arrival of a hundred foot wave, there’s no way to convey the peace here where everything floats on the sound of the sea. 

Following my walking tour, I stopped at the post office inside the Netarts Grocery for some stamps and to inquire about how I might receive mail since there’s no delivery on my street. The post office is a small beige room, more like a wide hallway, just past the ice cream freezers lining the front of the grocery. At the end of the wall of post office boxes is a Dutch door with a counter extending outward from the lower half. Lounging on the counter was Lugs, the resident cat, you will recall as President of the Netarts Chamber of Commerce. 

Lugs in front of the Sea Lion Motel

15—Through the Rainbow

To: Friends and Family
Subject: Through the Rainbow

Greetings All,

So many wanted me to let them know how the trip went that I decided to keep a log. Because of the cats, I’m limiting the driving time each day, and we’re taking a longer route through California and up 101 to avoid snow. 

Dec. 25: Modesto, CA
We left Vegas as planned this morning. The cats slept all the way to Motel 6 and find our room way more interesting than I do. As I walked around the neighborhood, people were coming and going with shopping bags full of gifts and food. They appeared more busy than merry.

How many gifts will end up returned or at Goodwill? Peace on Earth and Goodwill to shoppers. Why not simplify the season—we each buy something we really want or need and pretend it’s from everyone who loves us. What did Joseph and Mary do with the sheep, gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold—good choice. But sheep? And all that perfumy stuff? I wonder if Jesus had allergies. 

While enjoying a dinner of reconstituted vegetable soup, fruit, and bread, I watched the Christmas choirs on TV. I felt relieved to be free of the holiday busyness. Free but alone, like a lingering soul.


Dec. 26: Eureka, CA
As we cut across California before heading north to Eureka, our drive through forested hills and valleys was quiet and uneventful. Except for the rainbow. 

14—One Week Before Departure

December 18, 1998.
Anxiety crawled over me like ants. 

“I have no idea what I’m doing,” I told my therapist.
“Just go,” she said. “Have fun.” 
“Fun?” I snapped. “Fun is for people who can afford vacations. I thought I was supposed to be on some big damned quest.”
This woman who was more annoying to me than anyone I knew stopped scribbling notes, set aside her big yellow tablet, and looked me square in the eyes.
“Just what is it that you want from life?” she asked. 
“Magic,” I quipped sardonically.
“Magicians are merely masters of illusion,” she observed then looked at her watch.
Time was up.
As I was leaving, she patted me on the shoulder.
I wanted to slap her.


Later over lunch, my friends kept referring to my trip as “the grand adventure.” Easy for them to say. I mean, on Christmas Day, there they would be—safe and merry in their lovely homes, snugged up with their significant others, surrounded by family, and secure in their jobs. And there I’d be—a small, fifty-six-year-old woman with no prospects setting forth with two disgruntled cats for a month alone in a dank cabin by an inhospitable sea. Why hadn’t anyone even tried to stop me? 
This wasn’t a quest. It was an act of precarious and escalating delusion.


Back at my apartment, I phoned my father in Pennsylvania. Dad had always despised and even feared travel. What’s more, he’d started warning me as early as first grade that my “nonconformist notions” put me on a “collision course.” Clearly, he’d been right. 

Surely Dad would support my decision to accept reality and finally do the sensible thing.