astorian charm and solitude

…still life at 11:L4 pm

october 6-8, 2007
astoria, oregon

There was a sign in the B&B warning us that we were in a remote area of the coast. I’ve never thought this area to be particularly remote seeing that there are several routes in and out and that touristy Seaside is just down the road. Still, apparently storms occasionally knock out power to the town, leaving residents to make do with alternate sources of power and light. Charmingly, the Rosebriar provided our room with a plain cardboard box. Inside was a candle, matches, and a flashlight.

There was a nice stillness inside the Rosebriar’s lobby. We sat in the part that was a living room. By living room, I mean an old-fashioned sitting room, or parlor, with armchairs and couches arranged around a coffee table. Often, as is the case at the Rosebriar, a fireplace, rather than a television, serves as a focal point, though not too much of one. The fire is mainly there to keep people warm while they engage in the primary activity of convivial conversation.

It was a wonderfully overcast day and the afternoon was giving way to evening. The drizzle outside made the stillness inside comfortable, relaxing, and contemplative. The coffee table had an open bottle of wine for guests. There were no others around and the counter was closed. K. and I sat in the quietness and sipped wine as we pondered dinner options, both restaurant and clothing. We had come back just so that we could change from our day clothes to our evening, dinner clothes. This is how uppity life on the coast should be.

Astoria is thankfully further from the larger-city bustle of Portland thanks to the two lane highway in between. Two-lanes have more of a tendency to follow the terrain and work with or around it, whereas the larger four-lane, divided highways are more likely to flatten terrain to get where they are going. (They are still better than Interstates.) Two-lanes, then, make a more scenic route more intimately engage with the landscape. They pass through towns rather than skirting around them. They take their time. As a result, they make the drive longer and, thus, make distances seem further.

After passing in the blink of an eye through small towns, US 30 enters Astoria. Here, it properly bifurcates into two, one-way streets. This is the proper way highways should pass through larger small towns. It creates two main drags and potentially doubles the linear footage of the business district.

Astoria simultaneously feels properly coastal as well as touristy, with public accesses here and there peeking through remaining bits of working waterfront. The remnants of a waterfront railroad trestle form the basis of a new pedestrian walk along the river. One is just as likely to find restaurants and boutique-like shops on the water as one is to find warehouses. Piles from old, removed piers poke above the water line at low tide. Downtown lies just off the waterfront. Antique shops –a mainstay of touristy locales– can be found scattered among local sports bars. Residences climb up the hill behind downtown onto the bluffs.

This layout, with impressive Victorian homes leading up the bluff, speaks of a certain historicity that is absent in much of the Northwest. It harkens back to the Old Money East. In fact, Oregon’s oldest city itself is named for millionaire John Jacob Astor, whose Pacific Fur Company set up a trading post in what was to become Astoria. The city became an important port and economic hub. Eventually, the seat of Clatsop County government sat in Astoria.

Downtown, though somewhat run down, shows plenty of evidence of Astoria’s heyday. Some of the old buildings are taller and grander than what one would expect of a town of just under 10,000 residents. But when you are named after one of the country’s original millionaires, and living off his bankrolled ventures, you can afford to dream big. Nothing lasts, though, and eventually the declining or relocating fur, timber, and seafood industries left the town a sleepier place. Today, bed & breakfasts capitalize on all that sleep while antique shops sell off the surplus of finely-aged junk that mysteriously gravitates toward this neutron star of history. The result is a dense cluster of history –of the non-indigenous, white person type, that is– surrounded by a relatively young space.

I’ve heard tell that Astoria has a budding arts scene. Seeing all the little galleries and such downtown confirms this claim. Is it the location, the history, or the natural beauty that inspires artists? I think it’s the weather. It is perfect for the introspection, and even downright depression, that produces some of the most compelling art. The isolation probably helps, too.

It was October; it rained the whole weekend, as it should have. I’ve only ever been to Astoria when it was cloudy. Even last year on my visit to Seaside, where it was sunny, the day had clouded over by the time we drove into Astoria. This is probably as it should be. To an outsider like me, Astoria’s mystique and charm is partially dependent on clouds. I can’t imagine the cognitive dissonance I’ll feel if I ever go there during the sunny month. It’s certainly a romanticization on my part; however, coastal Oregon is naturally misty, overcast, and wet. I like the rainy overcast weather. I think I have the opposite of SAD.

Unfortunately, there are some downsides to this idyllic, romanticized, and somewhat isolated coastal living. Like anywhere else, Astoria wrestles with its share of issues when the tourists go home. The debate over an LPG terminal on the Columbia has been raging for a while now. While walking downhill toward downtown, we saw a flier publicizing a community meeting concerning condo development. Although Astoria’s downtown is gorgeous, it seems a bit small for the population. There is not much going on after dark, except for the bars. At the coffee shop, the barista told us of the high incidence of alcoholism and drug abuse. After three years, she was moving back up to Seattle.

Culturally speaking, I knew that I was safer letting my “freak flag” fly here than, say, in Golconda, Illinois. But still. While walking around, I noticed a few people looking somewhat incredulously at my outfit out of their car window. My somewhat goth-inspired look of black, lace-up knee boots, black-and-white stripey tights, a black skirt with pink piping, and an olive green Ike jacket might have passed with less of a blink in Portland, for example, so I was little more self-conscious about it in Astoria. It’s odd: sometimes when travelling and away in smaller locales, I’m more likely to tone down some of my smashing, extra-ordinary looks. Sometimes, I don’t cross any gender lines at all; it’s an issue of (perceived) personal safety. Other times, like this one, I apparently throw caution to the wind, despite self-consciousness of the counterproductive variety and with more than a little internal mental debate.

Perhaps I’m too sensitive at times. This is Astoria, for fuck’s sake, and these parts of the Pacific Northwest, unlike the Inland Northwest, are mixed bags of strange animals. The very idiosyncratic sense of individualism here can lead to strange forms of tolerance. I’ll take mere tolerance over outright mockery or threats any day of the week.

On the other hand, if there was ever a town more lubed up for heavy investment by The Gay Dollar, this one is perfect. In fact, it may have already begun! There was a gregarious gay couple at one of the downtown galleries who sounded like they lived here, at least for part of the year. What with the nice restaurants and places to sample nice wines, for example, Astoria has potential to be a regional, get-away mecca of fine taste, style, class. Coldwater Creek Cannon Beach and simultaneously family-friendly and promiscuous Seaside are both far too heteronormative. Additionally, all its natural beauty, with its outdoorsy opportunities, is a nice butchy counterbalance to it’s potentially foppish polish. Astoria could be the quintessential, idyllic, reasonably quiet, “on the coast” vacation spot.

Until such a glorious day dawns and even hopefully ever after, Astoria remains, for better and sometimes less better, further away and more isolated than it appears on a map.

My thanks to colleague and native Astorian, Shannon Lynch, for sanity-checking this post.

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