I’m from a sleepy town in the Triad region of North Carolina. All my life, my parents took us kids to the closest beach on the east coast there was: good, old-fashioned Myrtle. Even back in the mid-1990s, it was a treasure trove of commercialism, with high-rise condos juxtaposed against centuries-old motels still somewhat holding on, amid the tearing down of the old Pavillion and the installation of a brand-new boardwalk.
My toes never touched the Pacific Ocean until I was well into my newly married years. Twenty-five with no obligations I couldn’t pick back up at the office when I got back, I set out on a one-week road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway with my husband, who was also raised in the same small town, just a few blocks down the road from my childhood home. Like me, he’d never been west of Tennessee and, well, we were young and excitable and ready to see what else this country had to offer.
We started that first journey in Seattle, then made it all the way to Los Angeles in the span of seven days. We did so many things wrong on that first trip. I messed up the timing on my itinerary so badly that we ended up driving through glorious Big Sur in the dead of night, missing it all. There were no seals on the coast of San Simeon. The taco truck I’d planned an entire afternoon around near San Francisco was nowhere to be found on my GPS.
The one thing I did right? I planned a one-night stay in Cannon Beach, Oregon.
It’s cliche to say it was a moment I’ll remember forever. I’m a trained creative writer, so surely I can come up with a better way to describe it than that. It was illuminating? Grandiose? No, all of those adjectives fall flat.
When we pulled up to our hotel, the sun was just beginning to set. We didn’t know where the beach was, but we just took off running. We left our luggage in the car and the car in the parking lot. We ran across the street and found a thicket of brush. It was tall enough to crawl under, so we decided to go for it. When we emerged, the first thing I saw was a group of teenagers sitting around a fire on the sand. Then, I looked up and saw it for the very first time: Haystack Rock.
It was unlike anything I’d ever laid eyes on before, and I remember audibly gasping and tugging on my husband’s pullover. How could something so gorgeous, so gigantic, be in the middle of the ocean, right in front of me? The autumn before, we’d witnessed hundreds of hot air balloons ascending at sunrise at the Hot Air Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque. This was even more overwhelming than that. I read later that local news outlets call it one of the seven wonders of Cannon Beach. I’ve never seen a single one, but I’d put it up there with the seven wonders of the world.
The next morning, we came back to the same sight. I had a hot disposable cup of coffee in my hands, a cream-colored thrift store coat on and my hair was a mess in the salty breeze. Looking back, I’m not sure that, until that point, I’d ever been happier or more content. Though I was freezing, I took off my socks and boots and dipped my big toe ceremoniously in the ocean.
The Friends of Haystack Rock society, when detailing the history of Haystack Rock, notes that its story began about 15 million years ago. It began as an undersea geologic formation, encouraged to erupt through the sea via a process known as continental, or tectonic, uplift. What a beautiful and encouraging story, to think that all of the forces in the universe conspired together to bright to light something so magnificent.
That was in 2011. I thought about Haystack Rock for two whole years until finally convincing my husband to go back. This time, we were making the trek just to the Pacific Northwest. This was during the height of the “Twilight” craze, so we naturally planned a visit to Forks, Washington, where the stories are set. Save for a K-mart selling life-size cardboard cutouts of the characters and a few signs on storefronts proclaiming “Vampires Welcome,” there was a surprising lack of fanfare. On that trip, we did fall in love with Victoria, B.C. Eating at Red Fish/Blue Fish while the sun set over the harbor, garlic butter dripping from our fingers and the warm September air at our ankles is a memory I’ll keep close all of my days.
Before we boarded a flight back home, we made another stop to Cannon Beach. By then, we felt like old locals, though we had only been once. We went back to the same coffee shop, then to the same diner we’d first discovered years ago. On our first trip, I’d burned the roof of my mouth so badly a few days beforehand the cook at the diner came out and offered to make me a custom dish of scrambled eggs and cheese. Though I’m the shyest wallflower you’ll ever meet, I mustered up my courage and told that story, asking for the same dish again, for old time’s sake.
We left the next morning filled to the brim with gratefulness. There’s something about Haystack Rock that I can’t quite define. I’ve seen buildings and mountains much taller. I’ve seen coastlines that are wider, less populated and with whiter sand than that of Cannon Beach. Still, I keep daydreaming about going back to it just once, twice or 10 times more.
Since that last trip, we’ve added two kids to our brood. My daughter is four and my son is two. They’re amazed by the smallest things. They go crazy watching the leaves fall from the maple trees behind our house. They thrill when I take them on a nature walk beside our backyard creek. I can only imagine their reaction if I took them back to that same thicket of trees, then revealed to them the most surprisingly beautiful sight.
I think places like Cannon Beach exist for one reason, and one reason only: To give us pause.
They make us think about the size of the universe, and our place within it. They stir something up deep within us that we didn’t even know needed stirring. And once we’re touched by it, heaven help us, we can never go back to the way we were. We’re forever altered by the experience, and forever better for it.