In Some Matter of Unknown Time: Love Song for a Coastal Town

by Julie Marie Wade

This story begins with salt—three and a half bushels of it—excellent, fine, strong, & white¹. That’s what the explorers wrote in their log, leaving Seaside on February 20, 1806.

These men had traveled from Missouri, army volunteers under the command of Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark. It was the first United States expedition to venture all the way west, across the Continental Divide and down into the Columbia River basin. But then the explorers met winter in the Pacific Northwest and found themselves dripping (some things never change), rain riding every gust of wind, the dim light heavy as a helmet on their heads, and the elk meat at risk of spoiling.

Five men left base camp at Fort Clatsop just after Christmas. They walked slowly in their sopping boots to a place by the seaside not yet known by this name. There they built a furnace from rocks and found some wood to burn. (How did they ever get it dry enough?) For nearly two months, they boiled water without stopping, pail after pail of it. There must have been shifts, stories by the campfire, meanderings of necessity and boredom along the wind-torn shore. Did someone learn to whittle driftwood? Did they roast razor clams for every meal? Was it ever clear enough, even once, to fly a makeshift kite and watch it rise like smoke in the low-hanging sky?

Seven weeks of ceaseless fire yields 28 gallons of salt—three and a half bushels. They hauled it back to Fort Clatsop, hand over fist. Eventually, their food seasoned, their meat preserved, the Corps of Discovery traveled all the way home.

*

Today there are seven cities called Seaside in the United States: one in California, another in Connecticut, still others in North Carolina, South Carolina, New York, and Florida. But the Seaside I’m speaking of lies in Clatsop County, Oregon: just north of Cannon Beach, just south of Astoria, 79 miles west of the Portland metropolis. It is year-round home to six thousand people.

Once incorporated in 1899, Seaside gradually became known as a vacation destination. In the 1920s, Mayor Alexandre Gilbert donated land from his real estate ventures to build a promenade—first a wooden, then a concrete walking path spanning one and a half miles along the Pacific shore. The city itself is only four square miles, a small curl of sand and rock tucked behind the coastline’s ear. Gilbert loved it there, encouraged families to visit the coastal resort. He even imported live French escargot to Oregon, some of which escaped before becoming supper for his guests. These snails’ offspring can still be found in tidal marshes of the Clatsop Spit. In 1932, Gilbert died in his west-facing home as tourists strolled, blissful and wind-blown, along his beloved Prom.

*

This story begins with breath. Johnny has never seen the ocean before. He lives in Portland with his parents and younger sister, but no pets—not a housecat even, not a dog in the yard. Johnny has asthma, you see. His mother boils eucalyptus leaves, presses his face into the steam.

“I want to go to the ocean,” he pleads. “I want to run out in it and try and catch a wave.”

One summer, the family drives to Seaside, someplace the father has heard about. Little Florence is cold, shivering on her beach blanket despite a fluke of sun, but not John. He grabs a stick and writes his name in the hard, wet sand. A wave erases it. He tries again— in the soft, dry furrows, closer to the dunes. The wind erases it.

“Be careful!” his mother calls as he dives into the surf—but her boy arises, dripping and victorious.

“I can breathe better here!” Johnny insists.

Is it the salt in the air? The doctor doesn’t know. Could be all in the boy’s head. Still, his father packs a hamper, drives the family to Seaside every year.

*

It must be 1949 or 1950 by now. No one calls the man Johnny anymore, save his wife, a quiet woman who hasn’t cottoned much to their new Montana life.

“A family called Wade was never meant to be landlocked,” John concurs. But until he can find a job on the Coast, they’ll have to settle for summer vacations in Oregon.

Both children take quickly to the sea, but Billy is the one who parrots his father. “Did you know the ocean can heal all your wounds? It’s the salt, you know.” Father and son launch a small diamond kite while mother and daughter build castles with extravagant moats.

“Ponce de Leon should have come here instead,” Billy tells a woman in line at the Seaside Aquarium.

“Is that so?” she asks.

He nods, clasping his sister’s hand. They are waiting to touch orange and purple starfish in the open tank, to peer at the octopus whose milky suckers grip the glass.

“My dad says if you swim in the ocean all year round, you’ll live to be a hundred—maybe more.”

*

This story begins with heat. One year during a rare temperature swell, John falls asleep in the sun. When he wakes, his body is nothing but a great red blister, a human transformed into lozenge with limbs. It takes him over an hour to trudge up the beach, to cross the Prom and rap on the back door of their rental. In truth, most of the way, he crawls.

His wife hasn’t learned to drive yet, and his children are still too young, so they stay on in Seaside for an extra week—John in a dark room with a compress on his head, June daubing the burns with cold tea bags.

Meanwhile, Billy and Linda run wild in the surf. They go to the market for Dungeness crabs. They play hide-and-seek in the dense seagrass.

“Oh, Johnny,” June smiles, gazing out the window toward the shore. “You should see our little urchins. I think they have the ocean in their blood.”

*

In 1966, Bill drives his bright blue Chevrolet Impala from Seattle to Seaside without stopping. His long body looks like an exclamation point when he steps outside and leans against the car: those trim black slacks and narrow jacket, that close-cropped hair slicked farther back with gel.

“You’re awfully dressed up for a trip to the beach,” the Linda who is not his sister says, joining him there in the light wind.

They have been dating for two years now. She must suspect something when he invites her on his family’s annual pilgrimage.

“I could say the same for you,” he smiles. The Linda who is not his sister wears a straight navy skirt she has sewn herself, a white blouse with an L embroidered near the collar in red script, and canvas sneakers she changed into on the ride.

They left after work at the Sears store downtown and still made it in time to watch the sun set. He slips his arm around her waist. She leans her head against his chest. Pretty as a picture, they stand in pleasant silence beneath a statue of Lewis and Clark.

This is the night when Bill, who is not yet my father, proposes to Linda, who is not yet my mother.

The truth is, she has never cottoned much to the sea or the shore. In fact, she wonders what all the fuss is about: splashing in the cold surf, chasing Frisbees over crumbling humps of sand, saltwater taffy sticky in everyone’s palms, their tongues blue with it. Who could love the sunburn, the windburn, let alone the way the frigid waves burn, stinging until they turn a body numb?

Maybe she can change him, Linda muses to herself, not the first woman or the last to tend this thought like fire. Maybe she can love the ocean right out of him.

Together they walk along the promenade, pause by the salt cairn with its plaque to commemorate five men who once camped there.

“What’s this?” Bill asks, bending down.

“What’s what?” Linda leans over him. Lamps are buzzing on now in the azure dusk.

Bill looks up without rising, perches on his knee. He has planned this all so carefully. When she sees the box in his hand, she takes a small step back, covers her mouth in a gesture of feigned or real surprise. “Will you—”

Now she can see, by lamplight, the bright glint of the ring. Now she knows her answer for sure.

*

This story begins with flesh and blood. My parents have tried so long to make a child, to bring into the world veined, pulsing evidence of their early vows. I am that flesh-stamp. I am that blood-proof. After twelve years, I am the solitary wave that reaches their shore.

When I arrive, I tear through my mother’s body like a windstorm, yet family and strangers alike are quick to pronounce, “Julie is her father’s daughter.” I have his height, his smile (my teeth, like his— excellent, fine, strong, & white), his general exuberance and zest for life. I follow him through the world like a shadow.

In 1984, my father tells my mother they have waited long enough. My first christening took place in a church; my second should take place at the sea. “Seaside,” he insists. “It’s a tradition.”

“I want to make new traditions,” she resists.

Yet here we are, standing on the promenade, my pink jelly shoes already snug on my fast-growing feet. People are riding past in surreys, on bicycles built for two, but I only have eyes for the ocean. My mother thinks we might go shopping in town, take in a movie at the two-screen cinema. My father thinks we will spread blankets on the sand and open a picnic basket, linger all day watching kites twirl above and leaping, amphibian-like, between the shore and the spume.

I don’t know yet how much I am going to love the bumper cars or the penny arcade, the lush anemone in the touch tank or the seals who bark and slap their flippers, eager for fish-heads we line up to buy. I don’t know either how much I am going to love the Elvis-themed diner with the jukebox in the corner or the chowder at Norma’s Restaurant with the lighthouse façade on the upper floor. But I know I love Seaside, just as my father does, just as his father before him. This is not to spite my mother, though she frowns as she soaks my swimsuits in Woolite and tries to untangle my hair.

How can I explain: the ocean is a heritage that feels like a reflex, the way I run into the waves without flinching, never fearing the thrash or the squall. My father stands behind me, beside me. We are Wades, we are wading; then we are diving and splashing, dripping and victorious together. We never doubt the waves will scoop us up in their currents like snow in a shovel. We never doubt they will fling us back to the shore.

*

In 2001, when I am newly grown, I meet a woman who reminds me of the ocean. She comes from landlocked country, but her eyes are Pacific blue. Immediate and unrelenting, this love. Startling and overwhelming, this love. It would be overkill to tell you she is my Seaside, so instead, I tell you this:

One summer evening, we drive from Seattle to Seaside without stopping in her white Mercury Tracer with a CD player rigged to the radio. We make it to the statue of Lewis and Clark just in time to watch the sun set.

“How cold is that water?” Angie asks.

“It can get up to 70 degrees in September,” I smile.

“But typically?”

“Typically, it’s 40-50 degrees.”

“And you swim in it?”

“Always.”

We lean together in the azure dusk. Strangers stroll by, blissful and wind-blown.

I tell her how my grandfather believed the ocean would keep him young forever, that this place was a portal to the Fountain of Youth.

“But didn’t you say he died at sixty—complications from asthma, fluid in his lungs?”

I nod. “I never got a chance to know him.”

I tell her how my father proposed to my mother here and how they brought me every summer of my youth.

“But didn’t you say your mother never really cared for the ocean—that she was bored at the beach and always wanted to go home?”

I nod. “They were never happy together the way I wish they had been.”

Angie and I walk slowly toward the salt cairn. When no one is looking, she takes my hand. The lamps are buzzing on now. The air is dense with salt. Then, she kisses me in plain sight, and like a kite, I am soaring.

*

This story ends with quake and flood. I don’t know when, only that if is dangerously naive. Seaside, Oregon: Shangri-La for some of us, for Alexandre Gilbert and John Wade and Bill Wade and me: those four square miles flush against the sea; that precise midpoint of a 700-mile fault line.

Angie and I are fifteen years into our future, 3300 miles from the coastal town. Married now and happy at home on the lip of the Atlantic, we read this grim report: no other place on the West Coast is as imperiled by the Cascadia subduction zone as Seaside. When the earthquake hits—they mean the “Big One” kids drilled for in the Pacific Northwest, hiding under our desks at school; the “Big One” for which kids packed jerky and trail mix sealed in Ziploc bags, for which we learned to duck down and cover our heads or freeze in doorways miming the Vitruvian Man—the continent will jolt westward into the Pacific, displacing an enormous amount of ocean. The tsunami that results from this quake will be, for residents of Seaside and anyone who happens to be visiting there, essentially unsurvivable.²

Maybe tomorrow, maybe next month, or maybe not for a hundred years—but in some matter of unknown time, the place I loved first, love most, will be washed out, Pompeiied by tidal waves, returned to a voided strip of rock and sand. So, what to do now? Find a flight, of course. Reserve a rental car. Book a cheap hotel at the southern edge of the promenade. No, better yet, splurge on a night at the historic Shilo Inn.

Which is to say: go back again. Run shrieking into the sea, regardless of the season. Buy a trinket at a beach shop. Fly a homemade kite. Crack a sand dollar open and scatter the tiny white doves. Eat an elephant ear dusted with sugar and cinnamon. Feed the seals. Feed the seagulls. Write your name in the sand and watch the waves erase it. Write your name and the name of the one you love inside a heart raggedly sketched with the first stick you find. Kiss each other in the open, in the salt-spray, where everyone can see. Be barefoot, be tousled. Then, let the waves erase you, as though you were never there.

¹This phrase and other information about the early expedition to Seaside, Oregon, appears on the National Parks Service website at this address: https://www.nps.gov/thingstodo/salt-works.htm
²This italicized material comes from “The Really Small Ones” by Kathryn Shulz, published in The New Yorker on November 4, 2016.

 

Julie Marie Wade is the author of nine collections of poetry and prose, including Same-Sexy Marriage (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2018), SIX (Red Hen Press, 2016), Catechism: A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016), When I Was Straight (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014), Postage Due (White Pine Press, 2013), Small Fires (Sarabande Books, 2011), and Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Bywater Books, 2014; Colgate University Press, 2010). A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Wade teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University and reviews regularly for Lambda Literary Review and The Rumpus. In 2019, Noctuary Press will publish her first co-authored collection with Denise Duhamel, The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose. She is married to Angie Griffin and lives on Hollywood Beach.

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