On the Oregon Coast

BY SCOTT F. PARKER

Read by the author

A mile or so north of the Necanicum River in Gearhart was the family house that was a second home to me as a child. Before I was born, I’m told, my grandfather used to like to walk to the house from the Peter Iredale, the large shipping vessel that ran aground amidst a strong western wind over a century ago. Recalling when my cousins and I used to climb on the shipwreck in the eighties, I see the remnants are disappearing into the sand. Meanwhile, it seems to my unscientific methods that plastic and other detritus are proliferating along the shore.

***

. . . plastic cup, pink, cracked; wedding invitation, faded; bottled water wrapper; plastic water bottle; flip flop, right foot, black and gray striped w/ Jolly Roger logo; fibrous plastic sheet, large; Airhead wrapper; juice box, grape; rope, three feet (approx.); headboard (partial), green, wooden; fountain soda lid, crushed; Styrofoam shell, segment; fountain soda cup, 44 oz., Mountain Dew logo; safety label, unidentifiable piece of children’s sports equipment; large plastic jug, windshield wiper fluid; can, Dr. Pepper; plastic gallon jug, water . . .

***

A dark cloud is soon to pass as if symbolically over me. It’s coming purposefully in off the ocean, self-contained against an otherwise prismatic range of blues. I feel the fat drops of first rain and continue walking south.

The Oregon Beach Bill of 1967 granted public ownership to the state’s entire coastline. Allowing deviations for geographical obstacles, it is possible to walk unimpeded from Warrenton to Brookings.

***

. . . can, Hurricane High Gravity; plastic water bottle, half-filled with red liquid; plastic tub, yogurt, large; plastic water bottle, three-quarters filled with orange liquid; glass bottle, Coors Light; cardboard box, flattened; Styrofoam, clump; glass bottle, Dos Equis; plastic lid, Dairy Queen ice cream; cigarette lighter, green; wrapper, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups; juice bag, “Tropical” flavor, alcoholic; two-by-four, three nails protruding; Arizona Green Tea, gallon . . .

***

I often feel at my best on this beach; how could today be excepted?

I zig and zag through the dry sand of the high-water mark from plastic bottle to plastic bag. It’s a hare’s effort to make a turtle’s pace, but I’m experienced enough to be travelling without shoes. Better to risk cutting my feet on glass or jagged seashells than to waste energy with a flat sole.

The brief rain has passed and I wield my camera freely, though I am overwhelmed in my task. There is no sense recording either the myriad small pieces of plastic or the nondescript ones (plastic cone that might be used for . . . ; large plastic thing?). I shoot the larger, more distinguishable waste.

***

. . . glass bottle, whiskey, pint; can, orange Crush; plastic bottle, Gatorade; packing tape, unused roll; six-pack box, Belgian White Ale; plastic bottle, Gatorade, blue; plastic water bottle, full; plastic tub, cured sand shrimp; plastic bottle, green; plastic water bottle; glass bottle, Coors Light; plastic jug, blue, large; plastic water bottle, Aquafina; plastic water bottle; can, Kick Start; plastic water bottle, mangled; fountain soda lid, crushed; plastic water bottle, in Safeway bag—

***

—my solitude is interrupted by a military helicopter that flies overhead, hesitates, and advances slowly down the shoreline ahead of me. My instinct is to seek cover, but I am surrounded by ocean, sand, and beach grass. And I’ve already been seen. The helicopter lands on the beach a few hundred yards to the south. I have never seen anything like this and am helpless to explain it. Am I some kind of eco-terrorist? I catch myself wondering. I slow my pace and try to adopt a recreational aspect. Suddenly it rises up and vanishes faster than my eye thinks possible. This planet is very small.

***

. . . plastic dish, Lunchables; electrical wires, multicolored; wrapper, Top Ramen; plastic bottle, Gatorade; plastic bottle, Powerade; plastic water bottle; plastic jug, large, top half; plastic bottle, orange juice; plastic water bottle; plastic bottle, Gatorade; Styrofoam, clump; plastic water bottle, Kirkland; Ziploc bag; can, Bud Light; plastic jug, dish soap; Styrofoam, clump; Laffy Taffy wrapper, purple; bottle cap, Pacifico; plastic bag, corn nuts; cardboard box, rubber gloves; juice box, orange; plastic cup, clear; highlighter, yellow; plastic water bottle; plastic water bottle, yellow lid; plastic cup, yogurt; plastic water bottle, blue lid; Ziploc bag; plastic water bottle, crumpled; ribbon, white; plastic water bottle, crumpled; plastic water bottle; cigarette lighter, purple; plastic water bottle, crumpled; wrapper, 100 Grand; plastic water bottle, crumpled; plastic water bottle; plastic cup, clear; glass bottle, beer; plastic water bottle; plastic cup, Starbucks, venti; plastic water bottle; Styrofoam, clump; can, orange; plastic cup, McDonald’s, large . . .

***

In 1969, Governor Tom McCall founded SOLV (now SOLVE), a volunteer organization that hosts annual beach cleanup, among other environmental efforts. Since 1984, volunteers have picked up more than 1,000 tons of garbage from the Oregon coast. My aunt Martha fills plastic garbage bags with trash every time she visits the beach, and every time there’s more to pick up. One coastal resident I talked to said she knows people who save themselves trips to the dump by taking their garbage to the beach whenever SOLVE has a cleanup scheduled.

***

. . . can, PBR; plastic sheet, large; wrapper, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups; plastic bags, large, filled with sand; plywood, three-feet-by-four; plastic water bottle, crumpled; can, Dr. Pepper; plastic bag, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, snack size; rubber glove, right; plastic water bottle; can, Coca-Cola; glass bottle, Corona, melted; can, Coors Light; plastic water bottle, crumpled; Styrofoam, block; plastic bottle, Pepsi; plastic water bottle; plastic sheet; plastic water bottle; can, Rock Star; can, Coors Light, crushed; plastic water bottle, yellow lid, filled with brown liquid; glass bottle, Blue Moon; garbage bags, filled with sand . . .

***

It’s been three hours. I have taken four-hundred-plus pictures of unique pieces of trash and am not yet halfway home. The amount of stuff out here astonishes me and I both seek and dread more.

The rank odor of rotting flesh leads me to the lower half of a seal carcass. In my relentlessness, I’m disappointed not to discover any unusual pieces of plastic in the carrion. Later, when I’m sorting through all the photos of recklessly-discarded water bottles, I’ll regret having not taken more shots of something as elegant as this seal.

Death. A truck did try to run over some seagulls (this is the stretch of coast where cars are allowed) and the sheer quantity of all this stuff does invite hopelessness, but but but  . . . besides the stuff, when I look up from the ground, it all opens right up and the sound of the ocean cushions me in my little life as my attention:

***

. . . bonfire, previous night’s, still burning, hundreds of nails released from burnt wood; plastic bottle, Gatorade; plastic water bottle; plastic water bottle, pink lid; plastic garbage bags, filled with sand; plastic water bottle, American Falls; wrapper, cigarillos, Game; fire starter, blue; Frisbee, half, red; can, Bud Light, Lime-A-Rita; can, Pepsi; plastic water bottle, Crystal Geyser; Ziploc bag; can, Coors Light; glass bottles, beer, broken; springs, in bonfire remnants; can, Coca-Cola, smashed; can, Mountain Dew; yellow tape, CAUTION.

***

My batteries are running low. I put my camera away. There is strain beginning to accumulate in my legs, but my real exhaustion is psychic. I move down to the wet sand and walk fast. Tillamook Head (where the lighthouse was the orientation point for the Peter Iredale’s captain) is ever ahead and I try to convince myself it’s getting larger in my field of vision. It is, I think. My grandfather must have known well the subtle changes of this view, this moment even.

My skin is hot from sun, cool from wind, and sticky from salt. I can barely hear my troubles ricocheting around in my mind over the steady crush of the sea. It occurs to me that I’m relieved to have the plastic behind me, the Necanicum and a long stretch of beach ahead of me, the ocean and the dunes to either side, sand below, sky above, accord within—everything in reach.

There’s more to notice than just plastic and other trash. There’s seaweed, sand dollars, cockle shells, jellyfish, mussels, clams, crabs by the hundreds, driftwood, seagulls, pelicans, brownish birds with red heads, old men walking dogs.

***

There’s lots more I want to find here, but I feel a sunburn setting in on my right side, and it’s time for a beer. And anyway, this isn’t a story where getting out and enjoying some natural beauty solves all human problems. No, this is the one in which looking at the living birds and the dead seals, moving fast and slow with the elements, taking time to inhale the horizon, forcing ourselves to dive in the water no matter how cold it is, mindful of all that haunts our journeys, we act accordingly.


Scott F. Parker is the author of A Way Home: Oregon Essays (Kelson Books, 2018). Find him online at scottfparker.com.

Image Credit: “Crumpled,” Jesse Wagstaff

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