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Long Beach Peninsula: America's Last Coast

It sometimes seems to me that I loved Washington's Long Beach Peninsula before I ever saw the 28-mile-long finger of land that dips into the Pacific at just the spot where the Columbia River shoots into the ocean. My father and my aunt had spent summers at Long Beach in the 1920's and 30's, before their family moved from Oregon to California. Until I was 10, when we resumed summering there, I heard about the magical sunlit shore, with its wide shelf of sand and its stacks of silver driftwood. I heard about the old lighthouses and the chain of tiny towns that cling to the peninsula's flanks like barnacles. I heard about my great-grandparents' Victorian cottage in Long Beach itself, and I heard how Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had come "in full view of the Ocian" (as Clark, that execrable speller, put it in his journal in 1805) at this very place, our place, our beach. As a child I loved the peninsula the way children love summer places—intemperately and unquestioningly; as an adult, I've figured out why, and have come to love it all the more.

In geological terms, the Long Beach Peninsula is quite young, having been formed about 10,000 years ago, when winter storms washed sand north from the Columbia River. Lewis and Clark ended their journey of westward exploration at its headlands, where they marked their names on a tree, forever changing the history of the West. Just 100 years later, during the area's heyday, sun-seeking Portlanders like my great-grandparents came downriver by train or boat to Astoria, Oregon. They took a ferry across the Columbia to the Washington side, then boarded a stagecoach or, later, the beloved narrow-gauge railway that until 1930 ran up the peninsula. The onetime daylong trip now takes 2 1/2 hours by car from Portland and 3 1/2 from Seattle.

Lewis and Clark's big bicentennial celebration begins locally in 2005, and for miles around, people are getting ready. The area hasn't looked this good in a long time. Museums are expanding, monuments are being restored, restaurants and hotels are opening. An eight-mile "trail of discovery" is being laid along the explorers' presumed path to the sea. Maya Lin is even designing a sculpture in commemoration of their journey. Finally, the peninsula is coming back.

I have visited the region for 30 years, and I find that every summer, as soon as I arrive, there is always a moment, several moments, during which I pause to marvel at its physical beauty. WORLD'S LONGEST BEACH, a sign asserts—maybe. Among the most untouched—certainly. While I don't swim here (the fierce tides pluck a life or two every summer), I do walk, for hours on end. And let the pristine air bathe my lungs. And beachcomb. And feel time slow down.

I pause on the beach, and at the lighthouses above it. North Head (built in 1898) reveals the finger of the peninsula, boldly pointing due north into all that ocean. From Cape Disappointment (built in 1856) you can see the wily bar where the Columbia River spills into the Pacific. "One of the most fearful sights that can possibly meet the eye of the sailor," said an experienced naval officer, Commander Charles Wilkes, in 1860. And it is as true today as it was then. Since 1792, when Captain Robert Graydiscovered the river, more than 2,000 vessels have been wreckedin these waters and some 700 people have been swallowed up in the place nicknamed the Graveyard of the Pacific.

But it's not all drama and dread. The peninsula has miles of grassy, deer-and-quail-filled dunes that accreted after jetties were built between 1895 and 1917 at the mouth of the Columbia to guide all the imperiled sailors. Its primeval woods are so thickly canopied and silent that when I hike through them I feel I have stepped outside of time. Its bounty is breathtaking. From the water come oysters, clams, crab, tuna, halibut, sturgeon, and salmon (which are much diminished but still manage to hang on). Berries, a staple of the Native Americans' diet, thrive here. Greens can be common (watercress) and less common (goosetongue, sea bean). Mushrooms are almost infinite (chanterelle, angel wing, shaggymane, slippery Jack). It's a feast, and local restaurateurs have developed what amounts to a peninsula cuisine in response.

Recently, when I paid a visit to the area, I began, as always, in Astoria, on the Oregon side of the Columbia River. The oldest white settlement west of the Rocky Mountains, it was founded in 1811 as a fur-trading post by John Jacob Astor's men and was where Lewis and Clark spent the miserable, rainy winter of 1805-06 (at Fort Clatsop, just southwest of town, there's a re-creation of their log stockade).

Astoria is a layered town—literally, since its center burned in 1922 and was rebuilt over the ruins, and in almost every other sense, too. It has 200 years of history behind it and 10,000 quirky citizens living in Victorian houses and Craftsman bungalows on steep, San Francisco-like hills. Artists—the photographer Robert Adams, the painter Noel Thomas—seek refuge in Astoria largely because of what Thomas, who paints in a former 1920's dentist's office near the river, calls its "self-pride." Astorians, he says, are "house-proud and lawn-proud, they are proud of their history and their old wharves and their old boats. There is a feeling of creative enterprise that has kept the place from selling out to the tawdry and the touristic."

Nevertheless, in anticipation of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, the downtown is being tuned up. A train connects Portland to Astoria for the first time since 1952, and minutes from its station down by the river, the recently enlarged Columbia River Maritime Museum sets out the gloomy but glorious history of the nearby waters. The 1925 Liberty Theater, once a picture palace, now a performance space, has been halfway restored; the Hotel Elliott across the street is three-quarters of the way there. Chester Trabucco, an Astoria son, has invested more than $3 million in the 1924 building, producing a well-tailored boutique hotel with an Edward Hopper palette, gas fireplaces, and cedar closets in the rooms. The Elliott, Trabucco told me, is his way of "giving something back to the city."

I go to Astoria for its antiques shops and its used-book stores. Each summer I climb the 164 steps of the Astoria Column, a monument inspired by Trajan's Column in Rome, no less. Clad in a sgraffito pictorial frieze that illustrates important points of Northwest history, the column presents the land-and-sea-scape from so high up that it looks like a map. The skeleton of the four-masted Peter Iredale, one of the wrecked ships, lies aground in nearby Fort Stevens State Park, and is every year eaten away more poignantly by time and sand and sea. Food is a special delight: the farmers' market on summer Sundays abounds with berries, corn, goat cheese, smoked fish, and fruit that tastes as though it had been kissed by the sun. Restaurants range from the eccentric (the Columbian Café, where Uriah Hulsey spices his vegetarian and seafood dishes to order) to the calming (the riverside Gunderson's Cannery Café) to the elegant (Home Spirit, in a grand Victorian up in the hills).

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