(This is an updated version of an essay that was scheduled to run in a coastal magazine last fall.)
“There used to be a lot more going on here,” said the man. He was standing in the graveled parking lot of a stately grange hall that advertised an upcoming corn feed. He held a gallon bag of blackberries he’d just picked on an abandoned rail line. The back pocket of his jeans was distinguished by a purple juice-stained handprint. He gestured to the large wooden building across the street. He said he’d lived there for 29 years and that it used to serve as a grocery store and gas station. I damn near thought he was going to invite me in for a beer. I should have invited myself!
Welcome to Brownsmead. The magic river kingdom most people heading to Astoria on Highway 30 drive right on by.
It was a summer morning in Astoria and my great collaborator was visiting me from New York. For reasons I can’t explain, I suggested she drive us around Brownsmead and that we investigate the area. I’d never spent any significant time there, but had been intrigued by some of the residents I’d met since moving to Astoria. They were certainly different in the best way possible.
I think in a way, to the collaborator, I was trying to suggest (with opaque methodology) that she should escape the steel, glass and bustle of the big city and make a creative stand here, with me, near the river. I should have made the suggestion a lot plainer. Saying things roundabout leads to emotional dead ends.
We launched our investigation without a map or looking anything up from the digital netherworld. We drove Highway 30 past Knappa and then turned left when we saw the sign for Brownsmead. How hard was that? We had no agenda, no deadline. If you see that sign on your next Highway 30, take it. Get lost.
We first followed several curvy roads through forest and farms to an unmarked boat ramp that afforded stunning proximity to the Columbia River. We got out, walked on the dock and inspected the ancient pilings nearby, some of which had trees growing from them. A peregrine falcon appeared and hovered overhead. Ripe blackberries beckoned so I picked a few to add to our meager breakfast of cheese, apples and a banana. I watched my great collaborator take photographs and marveled at her unique way of framing shots. Her powerful aesthetic is sorely missed in my life. The absence is entirely my fault.
The tour continued as we kept driving past more farms and houses. We saw a big brown dog napping near a goat. We saw two other shaggy dogs resting in the shade after tending to a flock of sheep. We watched a black pig scamper toward a creek. Two bald eagles materialized above us. My friend saw her dream house perched precariously on stilts over a slough. I saw my dream house, a tiny shack sitting atop a dike. What a writing studio it would make!
We crossed bridges and followed sloughs with their rotting pilings. Some houses had gone to seed, taken prisoner by blackberries. We saw a farmer wearing overalls carrying two buckets of something. He was alone in the middle of a pasture.
The Brownsmead Grange came into view and we got out of the car to inspect. I took a peek through a window and saw a wooden backboard and advertisements for doctors dead for half a century. I noticed the old train depot and vestiges of the long lost railroad line that once rolled through the heart of Brownsmead.
We met the man and he pointed us to another attraction. We didn’t find it, of course, but that hardly mattered. We kept driving around and discovering more of Brownsmead’s poetry, a little worn around the edges for sure, but the stanzas never seemed to stop.
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