Inspiration on the Oregon Coast

My front yard for the month…

Several months ago I bought the book,  “Bittersweet,” by Susan Cain after reading one sentence in a book review.  “Have you ever wondered why you are drawn to sad movies, gloomy days or  melancholy music?”  Sold.  Evidently, I wasn’t alone and I wanted an explanation.   I started thumbing through the chapters on my walk home from the bookstore, looking for the why’s behind my attraction to the gloomy and seeking my in print tribe of like-minded people in the process. After reading the book,  I took an online test that NPR posted in conjunction with the review and confirmed what I suspected… I am “a true connoisseur of bittersweetness:  the place where dark and light meet.”  This was not new information to me, but what was, was the author  seeing it as not  a bad thing.  Instead, she says,  “Embracing your melancholy could make you happier in the long run. We found that people who score high [on this test] also score high on states of awe, wonder, spirituality and absorption, which predicts creativity.”  I’ll take it!  Gloomy days and all.   The author even made suggestions for those who tend towards optimism, but want to embrace their melancholy (the suggestions weren’t as dark or dreary as you might be imagining). I was thrilled.  I had a diagnosis and a reason for going to a place I knew beforehand would likely be cold and rainy to spend a month and write about it along with other writing projects, a bag of knitting and a big stack of books.  I’m also understanding why I love listening to anything by Philip Glass and one round of Leonard Cohen or k.d. lang singing “Hallelujah,” is never enough.   Nor is five rounds, if I’m being totally honest.

I thought about this while walking on the beach last week on the beautiful Oregon Coast.  I’ve been here around two weeks (I’m not keeping count because I don’t want to know how close the end is),  and with the exception of the cold, rainy day when I arrived, the sun has been shining almost every day.  It’s not at all what I expected but has been a welcome surprise. When I told friends I was renting a place on the Oregon coast for the month of April, several asked me why?  The weather in April will be gloomy and rainy, to which I responded, that’s why.  My family didn’t question my timing, especially my family who lives in Oregon, because they know me and my love for a gloomy day that to me translate to “put the kettle on and get the notebooks or computer out.”  It’s a call for indoor recess that I meet with a sigh of relief and gratitude.  I envisioned being tucked away with a fire, my computer and a mug of tea, and the moody sea for inspiration.  Instead, I’ve hiked, I’ve explored, I’ve walked miles on the beach and I’ve spent time in coffee shops, cafes and the book store in town.  I’m learning to embrace and understand that the biggest part of writing is not putting the pen to the paper or the fingers to the keyboard, but rather, is letting my mind wander and taking note of the path it’s making and if it is pulling me towards a destination I hadn’t thought of.  There’s not a better place to do that than on the vast, expansive Oregon Coast and on most days, I only passing a handful of people. 

Having been born in the mountains and raised in the mid-west, I don’t know “ocean things” such as tide tables or sneaker waves or rip tides or tsunami inundation zones, but I’m feeling more comfortable and am learning the rhythm of the tides and the best time to discover star fish in the tide pools.  And I’ve downloaded an earthquake app on my phone  because I’m in a tsunami zone and my son, in looking out for my well-being, suggested it.  Although I’ve been to this part of the coast multiple times with my Portland kids, it feels new this time — new because I’m experiencing it by myself.

I’ve always answered mountains when asked, “Mountains or ocean?” In the same way I’d say salt, when asked “salt or sugar” or sunrise with the “sunrise or sunset” question.  There are several more questions that go with this “personality quiz”  my sister and I devised, possibly before either one of us had seen the ocean, so only chose mountains.   I’ve learned these past ten days that although I consider myself a mountain girl because that’s where I was born and where my barometer was set, I think it’s okay, while I’m sitting out on my deck with the sea in front of me, to say I’m an ocean person too.  And if I’m honest, I’m also a sugar person and a sunset person.  I’m unapologetically taking them all.  When I’m back in Boulder, I’ll lean into my mountain side, but right now, with the sea in front of me,  I’m claiming ocean girl for the month and am taking in all it has to offer.  It’s moody.  It’s dramatic.  It’s vast, lonely and inspiring and the perfect spot for inspiration.

I’ve found my pace, starting with coffee in the morning, switching on the fireplace, and turning the swivel chair in the living room to face out towards the ocean.  At the end of the day, I watch the cars start to line up along the road directly in front of the place I’ve rented to view the sunset.  I love the importance that is given to the daily ritual of the sun dipping below the horizon.  People bring their chairs to the beach or sit on driftwood, or some remain in their cars with the opened doors and coolers.  Last night, I watched the silhouette of a man with his dog, the only two on the beach visible to me from my deck.  They both stood perfectly still in anticipation for at least 15 minutes.  As soon as the sun dipped below the horizon, the dog looked at his owner then took off running as dogs do.  I honestly think the dog was enjoying the drop of the sun as much as his owner.  It was a beautiful moment in time and I get to do it again tomorrow night.  When I looked back through my daily sunset photos, the man and his dog are in every one of them.  It’s their nightly routine.  I love it even more now.  Meeting the end of the day with heightened anticipation even though it happened yesterday and will more than likely happen tomorrow  and every day that follows,  feels hopeful to me.  I’ve even learned wen to start Philip Glass’s “In the Upper Room” to synchronize his final and most dramatic piece to come on just as the sun makes its final dip, leaving behind a pink streaked sky.  

My sister had a friend from college that had the same response whenever she was experiencing something incredible. She’d say,  “Sell my clothes, I’m GOIN’ to heaven!” (emphasis on the GOIN’).   She was raised Catholic.  Maybe its something that all Catholics know — you don’t need clothes in heaven.  Presbyterians, on the other hand, would likely pack a change of underwear, socks and a map, just in case.  That being said,  I’m starting to tag stuff…

This morning, the sunny skies became cloudy, the temperatures dropped and raindrops are starting to fall.  I put Philip Glass and the kettle on and have declared it an indoor recess day.  My bittersweet soul is happy.

Indoor recess…

On the road again… this time, the Flint Hills…

Last week, because being in my house was so miserable, I got in my car and drove.  This was on the heels of my 16 hour driving home adventure from Colorado 3 days earlier, so the pump was primed.  I’ve got to back up a bit here and explain the details of my normally very happy, peaceful and comfortable home….

I had new hardwood floors installed in my family room, which meant that all the furniture in that room had to be moved to other rooms.  I have an old house with lots of small rooms, narrow hallways and tight corners, making it a disaster when it comes to moving furniture from one room to another.  The result was having my furniture stacked and stuffed everywhere, which was an adventure on the first day, but midway into the 2nd day, after climbing over a couch then having to walk across a kitchen table just to get to the kitchen, it was no longer fun.  I also had to go outside and walk around the house to enter the garage because the interior door was blocked.  This did not fare well for someone who is constantly running back into the house because I’ve forgotten something.  Passageways were so narrow that I had to bring groceries inside by the handfuls as there wasn’t enough room to get both the grocery bag and me through the narrow slots between the furniture .  Add to that, no internet, no TV and really no place to sit, short of the dining room table or my bed.  I tried hard not to complain, too much, but that, for 6 very long days,  was the edge of my limits.  Of course the silver lining to the whole mess was my desperate need to escape my house, hence my wander through the Flint Hills.

I love the Flint Hills, yet have only stopped and enjoyed them a handful of times.   Every time I get a glimpse of them from I-70 during my many Colorado trips, I make a mental note to make them a destination, not a pass through, and so this time,  that was exactly what I did. And just like my wander through Eastern Colorado and Kansas several days ago,  I went old school and dug out the atlas for guidance.

Of course I chose the hottest day of the year, with readouts hovering between 104 and 106 on my car, making getting out and wandering around not all that much fun, but I suffered through, took some photos and when I had enough,  made my way to Cottonwood Falls.  It is one of the first settlements in Kansas and it doesn’t look like it has gotten much bigger since its beginnings, tipping in with a population of just over 1,000 folks.  It has one of the most stunning courthouses I’ve ever seen, which claims the honors of being THE oldest courthouse in continual use west of the Mississippi.  I’m not a history buff, but I am a cool building buff and seeing  this beautiful building for the 3rd time,  still got  to me.

It was just after 5:00 when I got into town and the streets were pretty empty of both cars and people.  I do love wandering around these small towns, especially when they are so eerily quiet.  I lived in a couple of very small towns as a little girl and have to think that I’m tapping into a vague memory of something that feels very familiar,  but that I have no distinct memory of.  From Cottonwood Falls, I drove to Florence, KS, simply because it sounded like a pretty place and I didn’t feel quite “done” with my exploring.  Florence, Kansas, population under 500, was even quieter than Cottonwood Falls, but it wasn’t the the town of Florence that became the gift that night, but rather what I found enroute…. a small school house, sitting by itself in an open field.  I took a quick look then drove on into Florence, saving a more thorough look around for when the sun was just a little bit lower in the sky.

Downtown Florence, Kansas.

Don’t be thinking this is some place. It’s not. It’s “Someplace Else.”


I’ve always had a thing for metal that’s been rusted by nature…

The Bichet School

 The simple beauty of the schoolhouse in this beautiful setting speaks for itself in the photo.  It was on a quiet road so I was able to park the car, turn up the music and simply sit and enjoy what was in front of me under the changing light.  It’s so easy to get caught up in the frenzy of life, whether justified or not, and to be able to simply sit and enjoy the quiet scenery felt very healing.  On a side note, I read about the school when I got home and learned that the Bichet School had opened its doors on Jan. 1, 1896 and served the French speaking children in nearby Florence.  It closed in 1946 when it was down to two students, siblings, who then purchased it at auction for $600.  It has continuously remained in the family ever since.  At the very end of the information regarding the school was this:

Visit Instructions:  You must post a photo with your detailed description of your visit.

I hope my descriptions were detailed enough…

The party was over once the sun went down and with a full tank of gas, I drove home.  I learned my lesson on that a few nights earlier, when on a very remote road, I found my gas gauge moving to the left a little faster than I had anticipated.

For someone who has never really enjoyed driving, there has been a shift here, which is a bit of a surprise to me. I would have never guessed a few years ago that I’d find comfort and inspiration,  along with a creative outlet,  simply by getting in my car and driving to a rather vague, make it up as I go along,  destination.  Throughout this process, I’ve discovered not only the beauty of a “destination-less roadtrip,” but am learning quite a bit about myself also as I wander through and STOP at locations that I once considered “drive through only” areas.   The beauty is there, but sometimes it means having to look beyond initial expectations to see it.

One of my friends told me that she thought it might be a good idea to put a chip in me in case I’m ever lost.  I laughed, but now am thinking that maybe that’s not such a bad idea.

From the mountains to the plains… discovering new territory.


Last week, on my drive back to KC from CO, I decided that I needed to mix things up.  I needed an adventure.  Google maps doesn’t understand “adventure route,” so I had to go old school on this one.  I got out the atlas.  After driving back and forth from KC to CO on I-70 for the past 3 years,  I’ve got that route down pat and have settled into a pretty set routine of stops, simply because it works and I know where the Starbucks are.  But this time I wanted to drive on roads I had never been on and discover towns I had never been through.  It was the best decision I could have made!

Discovery #1.  You can easily and more importantly, SAFELY pull over to the side of a quiet two lane highway and get out and take photos without worrying about cars zipping by you at 80 MPH, as they do on I-70.  Yes, I’ve done that on I-70, but always with trepidation, and knowing full well that what I am doing is NOT a good idea.  But today, on Highway 36, with such light traffic that I could literally count the cars I saw in an hour on one hand, it was easy, and safe.

Uh oh… hay bale dominoes

Smashed silos

The Colorado Rockies are majestic, there’s no denying that.  They are bold and beautiful and literally have brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion.  Kansas doesn’t have mountains.  Hills, yes.  Mountains, no.  But what Kansas does have is a much quieter beauty that shows itself in views that seem endless of prairie grass or wheat or corn or any other crop, pushed up against an endless big blue sky.  It’s subtle – a whisper that taunts you to pull over and have a closer look, or better yet, a more thoughtful look.  After a few weeks of hiking through mountains, the plains of Eastern Colorado and Western Kansas felt like a very welcome respite for me…. a long, deep sigh.

Discovery #2.  More than once, when wandering through some of the very, very small towns on my route that day, I felt oddly conspicuous.  I had a sense, even without seeing my license plate, that they knew I wasn’t from around there.  Maybe it was the camera, or my quiet sense of awe, but they knew and I had to respect that.  I’m sure I’d be the same way.  I went into a gas station in Atwood, Kansas that had a Subway sandwich shop attached and saw a group of women, probably in their 70’s and 80’s, all in their Sunday church clothes, all sharing Subway sandwiches at a big table in the front of the restaurant.  I’m sure it is a weekly meeting for them.  I found myself hovering by the chip aisle just to get a better look.  It was a charming scene and I couldn’t help but stare.  It felt like a scene right out of the 60’s, especially given their clothing.  Oh what I would have given to have gotten an invite to join them, but then again, I was hardly dressed appropriately and then there was the detail of them not knowing or caring who I was, so I just meandered near the chips and spied for several minutes instead.

Setting the bar pretty low…


Rustic. Needs work.

Discovery #3.  I realized that I really do love the process of discovery, and if there is a little bit of an adventure involved, better yet.  This still kind of surprises me because I was such a scaredy cat kid.  My sister, Robin and my best friend, Kim, and I, when we were in the 1st and 2nd grade,  decided to start a company called the “Whirlybird Dog Catchers.”  As I recall,  there was a show about some sort of rescuers on TV with whirlybird in the name, hence the name of our “company.”  (I”m sure we would not have had any idea what a “whirlybird” even was had it not been for the show).  We had to improvise on the helicopters so would pretend to be jumping out of them once they had landed, then would run to the site where there was a stray dog.  It was the jump then run part that seemed more important than the obvious, which was catching the wandering dogs, and we’d practice that element over and over again.  The “catching” of the wandering dogs, not so much, because there was one problem with our little company… I was afraid of dogs, except for my own.  Our “company” didn’t last long, the whole fear of dogs hampering the goal a bit, but we sure did have fun as adventure always followed a run from a helicopter, didn’t it?, whether the helicopter was a real one or a pretend one.  We were terribly naive but cleverly creative and I’m so glad now, some 55 years later, that no one (i.e. no parents), told us our ideas for a company were silly.  We also went into the diamond making business that involved burying a charcoal briquette, but that’s another story, and no, it didn’t work.  Oddly enough, those were the memories that came to mind as I was stopping my way across eastern Colorado and western Kansas with my camera in hand, looking for the right shot and making a new discovery in the process.  Maybe I was getting a nudge from that 6 year old girl who was always looking to discover… something… anything…

A few days earlier, I had seen a write up on a place somewhere in KS that a sculptor from California had gone to for the summer and had carved several limestone fence posts into beautiful works of art, mostly of faces.  So, I decided to try and find the fence posts, which took me a good 2 hours off track. I did find ONE of the fence posts, parked my car and started to make my way over to it.  There was a deep ditch between me and the post and as I started stepping down into the thigh high grasses, I realized that it was a very bad idea.  I was in a no cell phone reception area, was wearing sandals, had no idea if that ditch was filled with water and saw more than one sign that said (in a very emphatic tone) PRIVATE PROPERTY.  And so feeling like my wandering for the past 2 plus hours was for naught, I retreated to my car, checked the atlas and decided on my route home from there.  I’ve got to admit, I rather loved the idea of not knowing exactly where I was headed or what I’d see, but knew I was headed in the general direction of East so I was making progress….

When it got dark, and my sunset photo ops were over, or any other photo ops for that matter, I was done, and ready to be home, but unfortunately I was still a few house from home.  My normally 9 or 9 1/2 hour journey, door to door, was now inching its way towards 13 hours, which again was fine given my objective that day, which was not efficiency or speed, until I ran out of daylight,and almost out of gas, which was another problem.

Discovery #4  Gas up, whenever and wherever you can on a road trip where you’re making it up as you go along.  I always gas up when my tank hits 1/2 when I’m on I-70, simply because the coffee to bathroom break ratio and timing makes it a necessity, but all of those rules seemed to fly out the window when I was traveling seat of the pants, making it up as I went along, as I inched my way across Colorado and Kansas.  Everything seemed fine until it became dark out and then scary began to take over.  I’ve got a reading on my car that tells me how many miles the car can go before running out of gas.  Great!  I had 130 miles left and home was 95 miles away.  I could relax. Yet I continued to check that read out and realized that the miles remaining seemed to be ticking off at twice the rate of my odometer.  Toyota, could you explain this to me???  It’s dark, I’m on a two lane highway, no cell phone coverage, and my gas gauge is hovering between 1/4 tank and you’re in trouble.  I turned off the air conditioner.  I turned off the radio.  I coasted as much as I could, while maintaining my speed,  thinking that I could improve my gas mileage, even the tiniest bit. The road signs became so infrequent that they really were nonexistent because there were no towns where I was.  I re-grouped, wrapped my head around sleeping in my car on the side of the highway, and how bad could that be, right?  Down to the fumes later, and I came upon the town of Burlingame and a Casey’s General Store became my oasis, my bright light, my I can relax now.  Crisis averted and I was so happy I bought an armload of snacks, turned the radio and air conditioner on and cruised home a happy girl.

Discovery #5.  If you’re looking for quick, efficient, straightforward, predictable journey then taking the backroads and making up a 670 mile journey as you go along, would not be a good idea.  But, if you want to discover something new around every turn and delay yourself in the process from a 9 1/2 hour journey to a 16 hour journey then I’d say go for it, but only on the condition that you allow yourself to slow down and observe, discover and absorb.  I can’t believe it has taken me this long to begin to discover the other part of the state that I have spent most of my life in.  There’s a lot out there and discovering a tiny bit of it was a lot of fun for me.  I’ve done this all over the state of Colorado, so it was especially nice to make a  discovery a little closer to home.

I don’t think this will be the last time I do this, but now with some experience under my belt, I know that timing for daylight and fueling up wherever there IS gas are priorities.  Oh, and not only one, but two back up batteries for my camera, and a bevy of snacks and food as my thoughts of charming roadside diners never came to fruition.  Here’s to road trips… better yet, here’s to road trips in your own big back yard.  I’ll do it again.  In fact not even a week later I DID do it again!  Only this time it was simply a wander through the Flint Hills with a drive home that same night… but that’s another story and another blog post.