It’s six a.m. and I am traversing the dark bowel of Highway 38, sipping my infamous Black Hole Coffee—Italian Roast beans from Cafe Mam, brewed so strongly that all the milk is sucked into its dark center, never to again see the light. The radio is tuned to the classic rock station and turned up loud. There is nothing subtle about my approach to the morning, no tea or classical music or deep meditations, just raw energy in a white car flying through the darkness.
Headlights probe intermittent bands of fog settled into the Umpqua River valley. I can’t see the landscape in the misty darkness, but I know that outside my warm raucous bubble the land is both pastoral and chaotic. The pastures are not forests because the trees were cut a century ago and biological succession is kept at bay by growing hay or grazing animals. I know that the river is discolored from recent rains running off of muddy clearcuts, that winter steelhead are returning, that spawned-out coho lie dying and rotting in small tributaries. The river is full of smallmouth bass, and in a few months people will be bragging of catch-and-release 100-fish days without a thought for the multitude of steelhead and salmon smolts needed to feed all those bass. Eat more bass.
Daylight creeps in from the east. The pastures at Dean Creek remain dark, but I know the elk are there, grazing on grass now reaching upward in the lengthening days of this dying winter. The bulls are shedding their antlers, ready to spend the rest of winter separated from these obvious outgrowths of their virility. They have their manhood figured out, a temporary affair winnowed down to three months of herding and bugling and reproductive angst in the fall.
On Highway 101 I pull off at the green metal bridge crossing the Coquille River. Gray clouds slide in from the Pacific, but a yellow envelope of light slips through a slot in the eastern sky, drifting downward over the estuary. The tide is moving out. Small dark spruce and Douglas fir give way to brown rushes on the edges of the tidal flat. Gray bones of trees lie in an uncovered mass grave along the river channel, hurled there by the silverback ocean, testament to the fury of past storms, each one questioning its final disposition. Caffeine and adrenaline begin to wane. I feel myself shrinking.
South of Bandon the highway becomes flat and straight, tracing a remarkably level erosional terrace. Patches of daffodils are in full bloom. The southwest coast is the banana belt of Oregon, a climate conspiracy between the moist, stabilizing influence of the Pacific Ocean, a more southerly latitude, and warm Santa Ana–like air pushing from the interior Klamath-Siskiyou mountains down the river valleys of the Umpqua, Elk, Rogue, and Chetco. In July of 2008 Brookings recorded 108 degrees Fahrenheit!
Continuing south through sleepy Port Orford, the erosional terrace disappears, forcing the highway onto the headlands. But the headlands don’t want it there. They shrug their shoulders in passive aggression, trying to slough the road off into the sea. People work constantly to keep that tiny black ledge of pavement hanging onto the steep slopes. But the highway is in constant disrepair, and eventually the land will win this fight.
The green pyramid of Humbug Mountain looms ahead. Shaggy overcast peels loose from prickly spruce boughs, yearning westward. Twin gray sheets of sky and ocean meet on a quantum horizon that becomes more indistinct the harder I stare. Once I was attracted to the idea of infinity embodied in the unending sea. Not anymore. I love the substantive edges of continents, the curling surf hurling itself onto beaches and headlands, churning up sand and shattered clam shells and broken bits of mountain with sharp edges worn innocuously smooth. This is energy I can understand.
The battered ribbon of pavement turns inland, squirming into a canyon between the edge of the Pacific Plate rising on my left and the terraine of Humbug Mountain on my right. The highway slopes downward, but Humbug Creek is flowing in the opposite direction and seems to be running uphill. Here I once found a Del Norte salamander, three inches long and so darkly brown he was nearly black. His smooth belly was the color of an oncoming storm. He lived under a piece of rotten wood that had dislodged from a downed spruce snag. Further up the road, a highway crew is cutting the prodigious roadside vegetation, and as I pass the smell of bay laurel inundates the car. I think about chicken soup.
My mind wanders on to subduction zones and earthquakes and tsunamis. Then here, in this narrow slot between Humbug Mountain and the Pacific Plate, I begin to understand my fascination with the southern Oregon coast. I am attracted to danger. The easygoing weather and luxuriant forests are a benevolent curtain. Behind these soft green drapes, life exists on the frenetic edge of everything. This is a place where landslides or tsunamis or hard winter storms could wipe out entire communities of plants and animals literally overnight, including the people who have chosen to live here. The landscape is unpredictable and precarious. The universe is unpredictable and precarious. Our lives are unpredictable and precarious. Each of us is riddled with holes, black and loud, gray and chaotic, defrocked and bugling, sucking energy inward before we explode, sending our unique waves of energy rippling outward into the world.
[NOTE: This essay began as a poem entitled Black Hole Coffee at Butt Dark Thirty, written in response to a writing challenge offered up by my friend Val Brooks. The essay version began as a column in Nature Trails, the monthly publication of the Eugene Natural History Society. TAT]