Columns

2008.10.08 Lisa travels U.S. 20

on . Posted in By The Way

By LISA KLOK OUELLETTE

Newport, Oregon wasn’t supposed to mean much to me, and it probably never would have if it weren’t for history. Not the brand of history that deals with the founding of America, the Emancipation Proclamation, or the Rough Riders, but personal history.

My husband and I decided last spring that we needed a vacation, and we also decided that the vacation should take us to the west coast, a three-week tour of all the landmarks we dutifully learned about and answered multiple-choice questions about in our high school history classes.

But more than standing in front of the granite likenesses of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt, I wanted to see U.S. 20, the road I traveled so often during my stay at the Observer. The road I could probably navigate blindfolded if need be.

U.S. 20, after all, had provided me with a number of feature stories for the paper. I had managed to learn a great deal about a strip of pavement in a few short weeks: the cabins that used to be on the edge of town, balloon rides, the contents of semi trucks, the boom and decline of Fayette, and the discussion of whether a new traffic light should go in. With a little research, I was writing stories for weeks, and the agony of finding a feature was averted. But more than dodging the writing bullet, I had also become quite interested in how much significance, how many stories, just one road could have.

It was also the road I traipsed about much of the time as I went on my endless pursuit of news and lunch. Stepping outside of the Beaverson Realty office, the highway was the first thing I encountered as I made my way to see Tom Spiess for a quote, to the post office to stare into our empty box, or to Ned’s to enjoy a grilled ham and cheese sandwich and a cup of coffee.

And when I first visited Fayette in David’s blue van, I remember taking U.S. 20 silently, awkwardly back to the Morenci office, neither of us quite sure what to make of the other. Later it would be the road I traveled with my husband (then boyfriend) on the back of his motorcycle, spit flying behind me.

I saw a lot of your road, though not all of it. We detoured for a while through South Dakota and Wyoming, but we eventually met up with the black expanse through Idaho and Oregon. I won’t lie, Fayette is a metropolis compared to other towns found on this stretch of the highway. A town like Fayette would be a welcome relief from the places you find on U.S. 20 between Idaho and the Pacific, towns that consist of only a two-pump gas station and little else. Usually we missed these towns, only realizing that we had even gone through them after they were nothing more than specks in the rearview.

And eastern Oregon is a miserable place to be, which explains why no one is there. The landscape could be described as high desert, nothing but sage brush abounds. It is not the place to be stranded.

But eventually, if you stick to your original mission, you’ll end up in Newport, Oregon, the end of U.S. 20, and the beginning of the Pacific Ocean.

Living in Michigan, my parents always chose to take the family to the Atlantic coast for vacations, so I wasn’t prepared for the wonder of Oregon. I wasn’t prepared for the authenticity. I expected yuppies and condos and miniature golf courses with fake volcanoes around every corner, but the Oregon coast has none of those things, or if it does, they are well hidden.

You’ll be happy to know, or at least I was happy to know, that at one end of a very long road was a town not so different from the one I know in the middle. That’s not to say the towns are identical. Instead of farming land, the people on the coast “farm” fish, but the men in cargo pants and sweatshirts making their way to the docks lined with weather-beaten fishing boats are not so different. There was nothing fancy here–no yachts, no five-star restaurants, no gas stations with flower boxes beneath the windows. No one had anything to prove. It was just calm, comfortable and real. Charming, but charming without pretense.

And so it wasn’t really the distance I had traveled that made Newport matter, but its similarity to the place I once knew, and the people I continue to hold dear.

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