This final day of location scouting in Portland proved to be the most demanding. Even more so than the tour de force of Hensley’s fateful Friday.
The task that lay before us was to cover in one day what takes Hensley two days to do. The Woman had flown in the night before, and so on Saturday morning I climbed into the back seat of my sister’s beige Honda Accord and relinquished the seats of honor to the women.
The drive out to Mount Hood took the better part of an hour, and I made note of the features along the way. The novel requires Hensley to locate a cabin in the remote reaches of the foothills, and via Google Maps I had identified what appeared to be the perfect spot. But it was imperative that I survey the environs to verify the grade of the slope and the wildness of the terrain.
I had selected a road that wound up a series of switchbacks through dense forest to what appeared to be a meadow that interrupted the slope. I hoped to place my cabin in this clearing, but I had to see it for myself so I could take you there.
The road turned out to be a ragged track of rock with scarcely two feet of clearance on either side of the car. Before we had gone a half mile, we had the wall of the mountain to our right and a precipitous drop to our left. It was a dicey proposition and make no mistake. We had failed to swap drivers at the turn off, so my sister was at the wheel, taking blind hairpin turns at a few miles an hour with an eternity of air just inches from the front fender.
As terrified as she must have been, she bravely inched around the curves while I sat in the back seat, white-knuckled hand grasping the arm rest and wondering if we would find a wide spot to turn around, or if I would have the soul-melting task of backing the car down the mountain.
But nothing would do but for me to lay eyes on the meadow, so we doggedly clawed our way up the mountainside for what seemed like an eternity but was likely only a mile, two at the most. Of course there was no reception so I had no way of checking Google Maps to see how close we were to the meadow. I expected it to open before us after every turn and was consistently disappointed.
We encountered a few wide spots in the road where the women suggested we turn around, but the spots were not near wide enough to do anything less than a twenty-five-point back-and-forth reversal, so I insisted we proceed forward. Eventually we came to a spot that afforded two vehicles to pass, and I proposed that they park while I proceeded forth on foot to see if the meadow was around the next turn or perhaps the next after that.
The temperature was in the mid-forties at best, and there was a light drizzle. I held my fleece windbreaker over my head and proceeded up the mountain on foot. At every corner I saw sky beyond the trees and thought, “At last the meadow.” But it turned out to be yet another switch back and only gaping air beyond.
Multiple times my body told me to turn back, but my mind said, “You will never again travel these 2000 miles to see this place. It would be foolish to turn back without giving it the good old college try.” So I trudged onward and upward.
Finally the grade started to level out as I approached a stand of small deciduous trees, and I thought the meadow must lay just beyond. But as I approached, I saw that the road turned and went through them. I was still far from the meadow, if any such thing existed.
Disappointed but realistic, I turned back. On the way down I counted my steps. As a veteran of high-school marching band, I knew how to strike out in a consistent 30-inch stride. I used my fingers like an abacus to keep an accurate count and registered well over a thousand steps by the time I reached the car. Doing the math, I realized I had gone approximately six-tenths of a mile one way, covering over a mile in the 30 minutes that I had been walking.
I arrived at the car to discover that The Woman was in a state. As we had turned off the highway to the mountain road, she had seen a sign warning about bears. After I had been gone 10 or 15 minutes, she grew concerned, and they yelled and blew the horn, but in the dense, damp foliage and behind multiple switch backs putting who knows how many feet of living rock between us, it would have been impossible for me to hear them.
I was wet, cold, and exhausted at the effort, but I took the wheel and steered us back down the mountain to the Dairy Queen in Rhododendron. There I ordered the Flamethrower burger that Hensley picks up for his stakeout. The teenage cash-register jockey was singularly unimpressed that he was about to become immortalized in my next novel.
I would say that I was more demoralized than refreshed by the experience, and the next leg of our journey would be punishing, a 90-minute trek through driving rain to the coast. Because The Woman is without equal, she volunteered to drive, and I gratefully relinquished the keys and took a nap in the back seat as best as I could as we proceeded through the city and over the mountains to Cannon Beach, the location of the final scene of the novel.
In the larger scheme of things, the city of Cannon Beach is little more than an eyelash on a bluff overlooking the cold Pacific of the American west coast. Finding parking near beach access was a considerable chore, and we had to walk a half-a-mile just to climb a hundred feet of stairs to a hotel and another hundred feet down to the beach.
The temperature had dropped to the high thirties, and the wind had picked up, blowing rain into our faces. The women elected to shelter in the hotel, and I braved the trek down the bluff and across a quarter-mile of beach to Haystack Rock.
My only protection against the freezing wind was my sodden fleece windbreaker and a collapsible umbrella, which did just that. The tide was creeping in, covering the vast expanse of beach with an inch or two of water surging back and forth. I threaded a path between rivulets on damp sand, occasionally having to tiptoe through shallow currents, intent on getting as close to the rock as possible.
If you’ve never experienced Haystack Rock, you can see from the photos that it is an imposing and humbling formation. You might have seen it in the closing scene of the Disney movie The Goonies. A few decades ago I had the pleasure to visit it under much more hospitable conditions and with a much better camera, but those photos seem to have evaporated in the course of the dozen moves that I have made since then.
If ever there was a location to bring a mere human to the point of considering the grander scheme of the universe and life as we know it, Haystack Rock is such a place. Here Hensley faces his final battle. There I stood in the punishing wind and rain, umbrella useless, hair plastered to my head, jacket soaked, shoes overwhelmed in the tide. I considered the choice that lay before Hensley.
As a result of his experiences In Mexico, as detailed in Endless Vacation, Hensley comes to reevaluate his chosen lifestyle. At the rock, he faces a decision—whether to sacrifice his personal good for the greater good. Would he stay the course, or would he walk away? Which was the right thing? I could see it going either way.
I trudged back through the tide waters and the driving rain, pondering Hensley’s choices. At the hotel, I joined the women, and we went to Mo’s to warm up over a bowl of chowder.
We discovered that half of the restaurant was closed off as the rains had flooded it earlier in the day. We got a table overlooking the beach. I had traveled more than two-thousand miles to walk in Hensley’s footsteps in the desert, in the mountains, and on the beach. As I took a deep breath over the chowder, I looked out the window at the sunset and wondered what Hensley would decide to do.