City in the Sand

On the northern Oregon coast, Tillamook Spit is long and brush-covered, storm-blasted in the winter. A constant wind turns the waves white with spindrift. Seagulls hang level, not needing to flap their wings to stay aloft. Driftwood lies in frozen forms like an accidental still-life. 

The need to fill in blank spaces . . . I moved to Oregon for graduate school. The choice was lightly considered: born in Ohio, I’d never been west of the Rocky Mountains, never seen the Pacific Ocean. I finished up my MFA in 1998 and did not leave. Oregon has a way of getting beneath your skin. Things change and things evolve. I fell in love and got married and became a father, found work as a teacher, bought a house. And while developing curriculum for a high school class, I found myself digging into the history of my adopted state.

For some reason, the saga of Bayocean struck a chord inside of me. In the early days of the last century, Bayocean was an improbable sort of Oregon dream. A sportsman named Potter, originally from Kansas City, came to elk hunt and fish in the coastal wilds. The Oregon coast enchanted him and he found it difficult to leave. But he was also a real estate developer, a rich man, and so he bought Tillamook Spit, that narrow bar that separates bay from ocean. In 1906, he and his namesake son platted a community of some 3,000 lots. Within four years, more than 100 buildings had been constructed in this community without a past—a post office and a fine hotel, a movie theater and a heated saltwater pool. A wooden dance hall was nestled amidst the dunes. Bayocean boasted electric lights and four miles of paved roads at a time when the rest of the state was mostly mud tracks. Spring water was piped via an aqueduct from a nearby mountain. There was a fish cannery. But Bayocean was always intended as a luxury tourist destination. Hear the music from the dance hall—summer night, orchestra on a raised stage. The music shimmer-drifts over swaying couples, a waltz mingled with the sound of the ocean.

The strophe and anti-strophe of the waves.

Bayocean began to vanish almost as soon as it was born. The sea ate away at the spit, the reclaiming way of the world. It was hubris, building on an unprotected beach. Steadily, the frontage dissolved and a few outbuildings were lost to the ocean. And then went the dance hall. A storm in 1936 severed the access road, briefly turning the spit into an island. Eventually, the post office closed and the last of the citizens moved inland.    

I don’t intend for this to be some sort of ode to melancholy and loss. It’s not that at all. Maybe this is about the power of the vast ocean. It was the Pacific and the shuddering landscape that brought Potter here for hunting. The water moves as if it is breathing. It is the same ocean I came to see with my own eyes when I was in my 20s. I moved to Oregon full of vinegar, sure in my own mind to be the next big thing. I wanted to be Hemingway and wanted to be Faulkner. Older now, I understand that even the best-laid plans often erode and life cannot be strictly planned. Life as a series of unforeseen waves—Potter and his namesake son were sued several times for fraud.  

A November afternoon—walking on the spit with my wife, watching our girls climb on the sawgrass-covered dunes, seeking teenage isolation, while our six-year-old boy finds a length of bull kelp and twirls it around his head as he shrieks with laughter. I came to see this place, too. They say in some places the remnant foundations of Bayocean can be found if you’re willing to dig. But something else has taken the town’s place all over again—wildness and pure beauty, a return to the way of the world and the wonder. Plans and dreams always change and the world reclaims. Everything is in constant transition, unknowable in its changing, day upon day. I know that now. I’ve made my peace with it. I like to think that somewhere old Potter is okay with it too—the way the tide breaks over the naked and bare Tillamook Spit. It is truly lovely.

—By James Pearson