Cruising Oregon's Scenic Byways

Cruising Oregon's Scenic Byways
I must go down to the seas again,to the lonely sea and the sky,And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sails shakingAnd a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.- John Masefield

There's something compelling about coast roads. Drawn primordially to the water's edge, we seem to want to cruise coastlines whenever we can. When I moved to British Columbia 15 years ago, one of my few disappointments was that no coast road exists. And for good reason. The BC coast is a collision of mountains and deep-sea trenches: steep slopes and sheer walls of rock tumble straight into the ocean.

Oregon's long, unsheltered coastline differs dramatically from the fjords and inlets that characterize much of the coastline to the north. Long windblown beaches sweep out into the Pacific as breakers roll and crash on rocky headlands. Outside the summer months, weather becomes an issue in motorcycling the coast, which is notorious for Pacific storms that swirl in a 1,000-mile arc, drenching the land strip between the ocean and the Coast Range. It's no accident that some of the world's largest temperate rainforests, and tallest trees, are found in these parts.

I know late October is chancy, but a three-day weather window is all I need. Anticipating a couple of clear days, I nurse the Sprint across a sodden Olympic Peninsula toward the clearer skies in the south. Nurse, because the deciduous trees have dumped their toast-colored leaves on the road, and thousands of pickup tires have mulched them into brown Teflon. In the gray light, the slick, soaked streets of Washington's coastal mill towns seem to melt right into the ocean. Close to the Columbia River in Long Beach, WA (a finger-like sand spit of holiday hovels) I settle into a cheap motel and crank up the electric heater to roast-dry my boots and riding gear.

Crossing the Columbia

The four-mile-long bridge across the mouth of the Columbia River at Astoria skims the water on a succession of massive pilings before a soaring cantilevered span lifts the road high above the busy waterway below. This is Oregon, and my first stop: the eponymous town of Seaside.


In 1811, John Jacob Astor dispatched the Tonquin to establish a fur trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River, close to where Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had established (and then abandoned) Fort Clatsop five years before. Meanwhile, the Hudson's Bay Company had sent explorer David Thompson overland to claim the territory for Britain and map the Columbia on the way. Held up by inter-tribal wars, Thompson arrived just five months after the US team had founded Fort Astoria. But for Thompson's delay, Washington State might now be part of Canada…

Highway 101, Oregon's 'scenic byway' follows the coast from top to bottom, though in many places it's hardly a byway, and sometimes the scenery is nowhere to be seen. The route used to connect the coastal communities on Oregon's oceanfront, but the pressure of increased truck and RV traffic has turned the byway into a by-pass. To discover the coast often means taking the myriad turnoffs that lead from 101 to the water. It's tough to get lost  -  all roads lead back to 101.

Seaside is a good example. Like many Oregon coast towns, it's a victim of its own economic success. Meeting the demands of millions of summer vacationers has made it a mess of clapboard motels and strip malls you cruise past on 101. But detouring to the waterfront reveals its quaint side. I idle the Sprint down the narrow main street, past the typical collection of tourist-trinket stores and fish 'n' chip restaurants, then park right at the waterfront by a brightly-painted plaque commemorating Lewis and Clark. The morning mist mingles with the spray from the breakers in a greasy haze.