Writers-in-Residence Excerpts of Work

Coast Walk (March 1980)

It was time to walk into the storm.

You couldn’t tell on the drive down to Florence exactly what the next day would be like.  I had packed up our yellow-orange Rabbit with a bag of clothes and a bag of books, another for our three-month old son Matthew, and finally a pile of coats and a dish for the dog’s kibble.  We would stay at the Fireside Inn in Yachats, a small coast town of about 400 residents thirty miles north of Florence.

Kathy brought Matthew out and placed him in the back in his car seat.  Matthew was always easy to travel with, alert and watchful, or asleep, cozy in his blankets.  He seldom cried or fussed, and Kathy seemed always to know when he needed to be fed or changed, so he seldom needed to cry for those needs.  Besides it was only a short drive to Yachats, ninety minutes or so, so it would have been fine even if he had fussed all the way down.

I noticed my Kathryn as she put Sabaka, our 10-year-old black spaniel mix, into the car.  Kathy was quiet, a bit more turned inward, since Matthew was born.  But she never looked more beautiful to me than when she nursed Matthew at home, sitting so quiet in the pale yellow wicker rocker she preferred, Matthew at her breast, tiny noises as he grew strong on her life milk, her head tipped downward, watching without expression her son taking his innocent due.

Today she smiles cheerfully through her quiet.  She is dressed warmly in a white cotton turtleneck and jeans by Liz Claiborne, the ones with a lovely gussetted front that highlight the waist that had already returned to her.  She wears brown shoes and warm wool socks pulled high up on her calves and a big wool coat, more of a big sweater really, cream-colored with brown highlights, big brown bone buttons to hold it closed and a hood to pull up if it was needed.  She didn’t bring a layer to break the wind and this always meant she’d be uncomfortable after a while walking on the beach.  She also brings along a cream and light brown knit wool hat and matching gloves.  I catch myself eying her mouth and her lovely neck and throat and she catches me looking at her.

I wore colors in those days: a Viyella shirt, a light blue plaid, over an ordinary white tee shirt to keep the wool off my skin; a zippered grey hooded sweatshirt over this, enough for almost any weather, all I wore most of the time even in Ann Arbor winters; Wrangler straight leg jeans; and Wolverine boots, ankle high in a yellow-orange leather over navy blue Gold Toe cotton fluffies.  I also carried a navy blue L.L. Bean parka, hooded, with a strong nylon shell to break the wind and lined in a red wool plaid to retain the body’s heat.  I kept a pair of lined black leather gloves in the right hand pocket of this parka.

We arrived at the Fireside a little after 2 PM.  The Fireside sits facing the Pacific on the top of the sandy bluff overlooking some ancient basalt rocks, cold, black texts on the march of Cascade lavas 100 miles to the sea.  We take our room and settle in.  There’s baby stuff to unload: clothes and diapers and apple juice and the little jars of cooked squash Matthew liked best.  There are blankets in which to nest Matthew when it’s time to nap or sleep and a little reclining chair, fabric stretched over a strong, steel wire frame, springy, rocking Matthew with just a touch or by his own infant’s flailing limbs.  There's a bowl for Sabaka’s food, set on the carpet near the door; we use the ice bucket for her water and set this by her bowl but on the tile at the entry so that the splashes from her drinking do not soak the carpet.

I bring in the single bag that holds both my and Kathryn’s clothes.  And I bring in another bag filled with books, six or seven for each of us and six or seven more for Matthew.  Kathryn brings Jane Austen and Dorothy Sayers and at least one trashy yarn.  I bring science fiction and suspense by Ludlum and some military history.  Matthew will enjoy his mother’s voice reading to him; he will play Pat the Bunny as the evening unfolds and he will hear Goodnight Moon last as the time comes for night sleep.

Kathryn and I sit at the round table by the window.  We can see the Pacific crash onto the basalt from the window of this ocean front room.  We are quiet together, though not silent, as we read and jostle Matthew in his chair.  Sabaka is old, so she is content to lie nearby, though she springs to life when Kathy or I take her out for a while.

We eat dinner early at the Yachats’ Crab & Chowder House.  The food is quite good: Kathryn enjoys some broiled wild salmon; I choose pan-fried oysters, but with the red cocktail sauce instead of tartar.  We drink iced tea and we eat dessert, even though we know there’s a bag of Oreo’s and another of pretzels waiting for us back in our room.  Matthew is mostly quiet in his little chair, but he perks and fusses just a bit when he smells the food arrive, some instinct at work triggering his hunger and always threatening to interrupt Kathy’s dinner unless she had fed him first.

We return to our room and it is now dark.  Kathy and I sit at the table again, reading and talking to Matthew and listening to the sea break onto the rocks below.  It’s too dark to see the ocean from the room, too much light inside reflecting off the windows.

About 10 PM Kathy gets ready for bed.  She feeds Matthew while the tub fills.  Then, she eases into the hot water, a froth of white foam on top from the lavender bath oil, the foam just like the salt spume at the edge of the water but warm and fragrant.  Kathryn is so beautiful sitting in the tub.  She pins her hair up and I can see her long neck rise from the hollows at her throat framed by delicate clavicles.  I can see her look at me, a quick flash of smile, first from her eyes and then her mouth, before returning to her book, and I see the young maiden in her, the woman too beautiful for me.  I see the mother in her full breasts, those lovely curves almost chastely framed by the bath oil’s foam.  I can almost imagine her old, with her body thinned again by its patient aging, knowing I will see that same light glint brightly off her eyes as she smiles her small smile at me when I go.

After her bath, Kathy cozies into the bed to read before sleeping.  Matthew is next to her in the center of the bed in his nest of blankets from home.  She pulls the covers up around her as begins to read her Dorothy Sayers mystery.  Sabaka lies on the floor by her side of the bed, also ready for the night after I’d taken her out for a last pee.

I decide to go out again for a while before I sleep, so I pull on my parka and gloves and let myself out.  Kathy knows that I do this and is content to read and maybe doze a bit for the hour or so I’ll be away.  I walk down to the Yachats walking path, the 804 trail, and head north into the wind.  The tide is high or near high and the waves pound into the rocks, magnificent sprays and deep bass hrumphs punctuating the rush of inward coming waves and the pebbly staccato of their backwash into the sea.  I notice the white of the incoming waves; it is an almost luminescent milk color despite the absence of moonlight through a gray and black sky colored in strange charcoal pastels by blue gray clouds hurtling low above me.

I walk for ten minutes along the maintained pathway until it slopes down to meet the beach at the north end of this little town.  There I walk out onto the beach and continue, moving first toward the hard sand at the water’s edge and then north again, into the wind.  I walk for another ten or fifteen minutes, past several rock formations, some to the left in the sea, receiving the splash and slide of waves on and about them, some to my right, rising up out of the sand or leaning out from the sand cliffs that border the beach.  I walk until I encounter a shallow stream.  It’s too wide to jump and it’s too deep to wade through without washing over the tops of my boots.  So I turn around and head back—the wind gusts at my back, nudging and shoving a bit as though to remind me of who is waiting for me some twenty minutes away.


When I return to the Fireside, I turn and look into the wind throwing those gray black clouds across the sky.  I let myself hope, just a bit, that what I thought I was seeing might be there in the morning.

I am greeted as I wake by the sound of the wind rushing deeply out of the southwest, driving gray rain before it.  I get up and walk to the window to see waves explode on the Yachats basalt below me.  The tide is coming in and it will challenge this day the claims laid to the sandy beaches between surf and shore by the sand cliffs and the sea-mined pebbles, some as large as dogs or worn tires.  I smile and I start to laugh, my laugh a prayer of gratitude, because I know what I am going to do next.

It is time to walk into the storm.

I get ready and as I do so I think about where I should go.  I slip on my various layers: Viyella shirt, gray sweatshirt, jeans, and my Wolverine boots, with the hooded parka to hold heat in and keep the wind out.  I could go to Neptune, my favorite beach, full of huge basalt boulders and outcroppings, but I think that too risky because the surf will wash most of the way up to the sand cliffs, leaving me no room should a sneaker wave rush in or the tidal surge be unusually high.  It’s not that it’s so dangerous, I’d most likely only get soaked and cold, it’s that I had decided that I would take Matthew with me, to feel his first storm.

Kathy dresses him warmly.  She layers him in cotton: a little tee shirt, a small shirt with tiny buttons up the front, a one piece union suit with little mittens and little footies at the ends.  She adds his cold weather layers and then bundles him in two blankets before she hands him to me.  While Kathy does not want to go along—I am pleased she does not—, neither does she worry.  It is a storm, with winds of 30-40 MPH and a cold rain, but it is not a typhoon either, so she tells us to have a good time as we head for the car and the short drive to the open beach I’ve decided we’d go to.

The beach is just a couple of miles north of Yachats and we park close to it.  The beach itself is an ordinary one for Oregon.  We will have to follow a short trail down ten or fifteen feet of sand cliff and then strike out across the soft sand to reach the edge of the surf some sixty or seventy yards away.  While storm generated surf can always find its way to the sand cliffs—that’s what shapes them—the tide is nearly full and there is plenty of room between the edge of the surf and the cliffs should we need to avoid a surge of unusually high surf.

I climb into the back seat with Matthew to get us ready to walk into the storm.  I take off my parka, unzip my sweatshirt, and open the Viyella shirt.  I lift Matthew from his car seat and peel away the layers around him until I can press his warm infant’s body into mine.  I wrap the Viyella around us, cuddle one of the blankets around Matthew’s back over the shirt, zip up the sweatshirt, and pull back on my parka.  I get out of the car, pull up and tie the hood, and slip on my gloves.  Matthew sits with his right cheek against my left pectoral and I can look down and see him there, nestled snug against me, eyes wide open and alert, my right hand holding his bottom securely up into my belly and my left hand holding him into me across his back.  We climb down to the beach.

And there we walk into the storm.  The wind comes from the southwest, so we walk into it, tacking a bit back and forth as we head south, the sand cliffs on our left.  The rain spatters noisily on the nylon parka, a sizzling staccato like jazz brushes on a snare, sighing and surging in that wind.  The wind, too, is loud: low whooshes rise to a banshee’s keen and subside again, an ebb and flow in the wind just like that in the surf.  And the surf surges on the right: I see the deep green upwelling as a wave rises to crest, eight or ten feet high, and then falls over, a deep boom falling towards us as white surf rushes toward us four feet thick.  This white water boils toward us coldly and thins out when it reaches my feet as I dance in the salt spume the wind froths out of those spent waves.

No moment like this can endure: a man early in his prime, his naked infant son looking up at him, both drawn by and fed by the power of a storm, ordinary in itself, not the storm of the century, but another Oregon late winter blow.  I am so keenly aware, I notice everything—the waves pressing over top each other in this fierce wind, the clouds scudding into the headlands farther to the south, my sure stride as I walk grounded on the hard pack at the edge of the sea, the three drops of water that have made their way to Matthew’s face, two following the line his tears might pursue, the other sitting at the top of his left cheek, waiting for my recognition to fall.


Russ Tomlin,
Eugene, Oregon,
USA

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