The Oregon Coast, Traveling Alone, and Unexpected Life Lessons

I had the opportunity to take a trip to the Southern Oregon coast, an area of the state to which I had never been.  I was excited to get out of the office and travel alone, as I so rarely have time to myself these days.  It’s hard to find privacy in a small two-bedroom abode with three adults and three cats.

So off to Bandon I went.  The weather was perfect: nothing but blue sky and warm sun.   My first stop was Drain for a survey, then Elkton for lunch.  As I traveled towards the coast, I stopped at the Elk Reserve.  Sadly, only a small group was visible from the viewpoint.  At this time last year, the fields were teeming with elk, who must have been hiding in the safety of the trees that lie past the fields, adjacent to the highway.   I hopped back in my state vehicle and continued driving, taking the 101 south to pass through Reedsport.  It felt weird traveling through the towns in which I served my last AmeriCorps term of service.  These were places I swore to never return.  The familiar sights and sounds reminded me of the difficulty of that year, and how I managed to get through it in once piece.

As I drove down the highway, I took the opportunity to stop at the scenic overlooks and lighthouses, taking in the gorgeous views of Oregon’s tall lush trees and the glittering blue of the Pacific Ocean.  Each time I stopped, there was some old man hanging out in his car, which I found unnerving.  How can there be this many dudes just chillin’ at overlooks?  At one viewpoint, two men were trying to coax a squirrel to come near them.  Being in Douglas County, I didn’t know if they wanted to feed it, or have it for supper.

I continued south, passing through Coos Bay and a myriad of other small towns.  Eventually I made my way into Bandon and found my motel, which was right next to the beach.  The second I stepped out of my car I took in the intoxicating aroma of the ocean.  My room was perfect.  Clean and quaint, with a balcony that faced the sunset.  Excited, I changed into a pair of jeans and sneakers and headed across the grass to the cliff, where an adorable wooden staircase spiraled to the sand.  Halfway down was a gazebo with a bench, where a couple sat gazing on the horizon.

I continued to stay perched on the bluff, watching the sun disappear behind the roaring waves, feeling the bittersweet rush of having the privilege to witness something so beautiful, yet having no one with which to share the moment.  I looked around to see a handful of couples, some on the cliff’s benches, others down in the sand.  Since there was no point in feeling sorry for myself, I perked up and headed down the stairs.  The tide was high and the waves were fierce as they crashed and pounded against the mountainous rocks that blocked their path to the shore.  As dusk fell, I stood and watched the water creep near my shoes.   The moon was bright behind me, while the sky was fiery with oranges and yellows in front of me.  I walked around until it became too chilly and dark to remain by the ocean’s edge, and headed back up to my room.

Sleep was slightly allusive, no thanks to the cold I had been battling all week.  I opened my eyes at 7:00, decided that was too early, and gave myself a little more time.  Just before 8:00, I pulled my tired body out of bed and threw on jeans and a hoodie for a morning walk on the beach.  The last time I was in a coastal town and taking a morning walk alone, my life was in a tailspin.  This time, things were much different.  I noted how I am no longer on an emotional nosedive.  Instead, things have evened out.  I mostly just feel an overarching sadness and regret that gets a little easier as each day passes.

I explored the rocky coastline, taking in the clean air and sound of the waves and wildlife.  When I went to Lincoln City in February, I noticed how the sand was speckled with shiny black stones.  I gathered as many as I could in the small bag I had on hand as a memento of my first solo trip.  In Bandon, there were just as many rocks, but of all different colors and sizes.  Again, I collected as many as I could to signify another adventure.  Finally I had to get back up to my room to prepare for the day.

After checking out, I had breakfast at a little café and then hit the road, bound for Port Orford.  The thirty-minute span between Bandon and my newest destination was insignificant, save for one small town (at least I think it was a town) that was a ‘don’t blink or you’ll miss it’ style.   I finally reached Port Orford, which was also fairly small.  The person I had planned on interviewing was gone on an emergency, so I loitered around the little town for a while.

I made my way to a beautiful overlook.  The ocean seemed to span for miles, reminding me how small and inconsequential my life is when compared to the vastness of the sea.   The sun was hot on my face and the water sparkled as if it was filled with millions of tiny diamonds.  Even the faint clouds looked gorgeous, covering parts of the sky in unique patterns.  There were a few surfers in the water, taking advantage of the waves and weather.

I tried capturing the moment with my iPhone camera, but of course could not do it justice.  I also attempted a few selfies, but could not get it right.  I noticed an older woman sitting on a bench. She had long, nearly waist length white hair that was flowing in the wind, and bangs she kept brushing out of her eyes.  She wore a simple oversized brown button down shirt and jeans with tennis shoes, and was busy writing in a notebook that sat on her lap.

I hesitated in bothering her, but figured the worst that could happen was she would say no.

I walked towards her.  “Excuse me, will you take my picture?” I asked.

She smiled and said, “of course!”  Afterwards, she handed me my camera back and made sure I liked the shot.

“Thank you so much.  Traveling alone can be fun, but there is no one to take pictures of you. I just end up with a bunch of selfies.”

She laughed a warm, hearty laugh that warmed my soul.  “I totally understand that!  I’m traveling alone as well.  I’m up from Southern California looking for a house to buy.”

Before I knew it, our conversation began rolling and she told me how she couldn’t handle the SoCal pollution anymore.   The endless smog hurt her lungs on a daily basis, causing her to feel older beyond her years.   “People in my family live to be ninety to a hundred years old.  I’ve got a lotta years left on me, and I want to spend them feeling good,” she told me with a laugh.

I told her she picked the right place, and she agreed.  Then she told me the story of how she has lived in many different places, including Arkansas.  At the time she was married to a long haul trucker who was gone for weeks at a time.  Their house was a shack, with no electricity or plumbing, and tarps covering holes in the windows and ceiling.  I was dumbfounded.  “How did you handle living like that?”

“Oh, I have an easy temperament,” she said.  She explained that the worst was the weather, including a tornado that came within five miles of her home.  She spoke of the horrific wreckage she witnessed, and knew that she didn’t want to stay there much longer.   She moved back to California, where she has been living the past fifteen years.   Now, she is ready to move on again.  “Luckily, traveling is in my bones,” she told me.  “I just listen to my gut instinct, do what it tells me to, and that’s how I get along in life.  It never steers me wrong.”

“I’m envious of you,” I replied.  “I feel like I can’t trust my gut anymore, because things keep going awry in my life.”

“Oh, well that’s because you are being distracted by the tiny voices in your head.  That is where you go wrong,” she said, brushing the hair out of her eyes.  “What you’ve got to do is tell that little voice to shut up.”

I laughed, and she said with a smile, “Oh, I’m completely serious.  One day I realized that those little voices were just screwing me up, and I literally screamed out loud to them ‘hey, SHUT UP!’  And that allowed me to focus on what my instincts were telling me.  So that is what you need to do.  Scream it out loud if you have to.  ‘Just shut up!’  It will work, I promise.”

I smiled back at her and nodded my head.  “I will definitely try that.  I have been at such a crossroads lately.  I’m having trouble figuring things out.”

“Oh, but look where you’ve come from! And look at you right now.  You are a brave woman.  You are in a job where you are traveling alone.  Not everyone can do that.  And now that you are at a crossroads, that just means that something isn’t working, so you need to pick a different direction.  You’ll figure it out.”

This may sound weird, but I felt honored to have been called brave by this stranger I just met no more than sixty minutes prior.  She had such a comforting smile and deep kind eyes that I wanted to sit and talk to her for hours.

“I hate to leave, but I have to head to Medford for a conference,” I said.  I knew I had to get her name, so I introduced myself.  “By the way, my name is B.”

She smiled.  “I’m Gwen.”

“Gwen, it was so lovely speaking with you.  Best of luck with your house search.”

“Oh, it won’t take luck,” she winked.  “Just a determination to find something that will work for me.  And I’ll find it.”

“I have no doubt you will, Gwen.  Thanks again.  Take care.”

As I walked away, I couldn’t help but think about what a strange wonderful incident this had been.  I was here to interview someone for work, and instead had an amazing conversation with someone else entirely.  Life is funny that way.

I drove out of Port Orford, back through Bandon, to make one last stop before leaving the coast: the Coquille River Lighthouse.  I almost passed my opportunity, not seeing the turnoff I needed to take to reach my destination.  I doubled back, headed down the windy road, and finally the lighthouse came into view.  It’s a historic place, and as much as I hate to admit it, very underwhelming.  I thought I had wasted my time going there, until I walked further toward the ocean to another magnificent view.

To my left was the Coquille River, to my vast right was the Pacific Ocean.  The air smelled rich and clean, and there was little sound except the ocean waves.  A long jetty separated the river from the sea, and I saw a man and his dog down the very far end of it. I didn’t realize you could walk on it, and debated on getting up there as well.  It seemed a little unsafe, but I thought about being brave and challenging myself to do new things, so I clamored over the rocks and hoisted myself up onto the jetty.  There was a pile of driftwood preventing me from going too far, and I was going to call it quits, until I remembered that I was likely never to have this opportunity again.  I managed to make my way past the driftwood and walked toward the ocean.

It was a surreal feeling being up there with water on three sides of me.  The waves were coming in fast and crashing violently against the far end of the jetty.  I made my way about half-way down and took in the moment.  The cold wind whipped around me and stung my skin.  The ocean air smelled clean and crisp.  I took a deep breath, and gave myself gratitude for coming this far, and for the progress I’ve made since the miscarriage and breakup.  I thought about the positives in my life, and reminded myself that I’ve been through hell and back before, and I can do it again.  I stood there for some time, when finally I saw that it was nearing 4:00.  I still had a three hour drive to Medford, so I headed back toward the shore to make the long trek east.

It was a wonderful two days, and ever since my Bandon adventure, my conversation with Gwen keeps popping into my head.  I always thought that my gut instinct was the little voice, but I’m realizing that your body can be sending you conflicting signals at the same time.  For example, there can be a difference between what you think you should do for whatever reason, be it obligations or fears or desires, and what you know, deep down, that you really need to do.  Or, it could be that your gut is telling you what your brain needs to accept.

I’ve been trying to apply this theory to my life lately.   I’m up for a job that I’m not sure I want, so I’ve been focusing on what my instincts are telling me to guide me to a decision.  I don’t have an offer yet, so it may not even come down to that.  However, I feel like I have enough information and instinct to steer me in the right direction.

Like with everything, only time will tell which direction I go or what happens to me.  If the past six months have taught me anything, its that the only thing you can expect in life is the unexpected.    Everything else is a crapshoot.

Until next time ~ B

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