I returned to the park in late September and Bruce took me to see the rig—a 1977 Winnebago Minnie Winnie, approximately 22 feet in length. A metal rectangle on wheels splashed up with gold and orange stripes. I vaguely recalled the same graphic design style adorning the walls of my junior high school.
Bruce opened up the door and I stepped inside. A mild aroma of cigarette smoke and Oregon Coast motel mold hung stale in the air. I inspected the interior appointment: worn shag carpet, four-burner propane stove with oven, cabin lights, slider windows with blinds, dark wood paneling, fridge, table with bench seating, a cabover bed accessible by wooden ladder, a swivel reading chair, overhead electric heater, and an 8-Track player, the works.
It was certainly better than a couple of studio dumps in Portland I’d rented during the late 80s and early 90s.
I opened a cupboard and read a sticker: this Minnie Winnie was union made in Wisconsin. I liked that. I read the rig’s odometer: less than 60,000 miles—1500 miles a year.
My first thought: I need Bob Seger on 8-Track, any Bob Seger. Second thought: buy incense and smoke this rig out. Third thought: I was now living in a RV, sort of like my favorite heroic anti-hero, James Rockford from The Rockford Files. He was right on the beach. I was a block away. He was an ex-con. At the time, I didn’t think that would ever apply to me. It sure does now.
Bruce told me the previous owner’s name was Joe and he had died of cancer. There was no one left for Joe at the end except Bruce, who provided hospice care. Bruce told me in recent year he’d done the same sort of care-giving for three other long-term residents of the park. After they passed away, he’d inherited their ancient rigs as well. Bruce owned a collection of Dead Men RVs. I thought about that and knew there was an incredible story (or great name for a rock band) in there.
Years from now, will I end up dying alone this way, hitting the sauce, popping pills, writing illegible journals that no one will ever read, leaving a dog behind? Will I be consigned or consign myself to this fate if I can’t ever get back into the game of helping others and write something that can save me?
I have no partner. I have no children and my older sister has no children. My financial future is bleak. There is no such thing as good luck or the big break. No one is coming to save me.
The Dead Men RV syndrome haunts me. I try to retain the Rockford ideal as a happier counterpoise.
Bruce left me alone and I instantly dubbed the rig, Hey Joe. He left behind a Mr. Coffee coffee maker and wooden cane. I drank coffee every morning brewed from a dead man’s coffeemaker and once or twice twirled the dead man’s cane like a dandy.
I stowed my gear, set up the bed, arranged the kitchen, wiped down the surfaces, and put up a watercolor painting of me and Sonny on the beach, a gift from a friend. I sat down in the swivel chair and rested. I dozed off, awakened a half hour later, and noticed my Pendleton wool shirt was covered in Sonny’s fur. It occurred to me that her fur will be in my things the rest of my life. I got up and took the painting down. Out of sight, out of mind, the saying it goes. It seems true for people in my life these days, but not so much with the dog.
Bruce had positioned Hey Joe alongside the office for the best Wi-Fi reception in the park. I tested it and the signal looked strong. I had total privacy and a short walk to the restrooms and showers, past hummingbirds and a toppled statue of Buddha under a rhododendron. There was a little picnic table out back, on a lawn that needed mowing. I could drink coffee and write there. Birds and small woodland creatures would most likely put an appearance.
In the mornings I would write in the rig and also at Gold Beach Books. In the early afternoons, I explored beaches and collected limpets and hairy tritons. I built a few forts. I walked for miles and miles and never saw another person. I met an old man panning for gold on Nesika Beach and got the lowdown on his subsistence hobby. I took photographs for the web site. I saw a dog named Tickle eat salmon smolts in Hunter Creek. I drank a beer or two in Turkey’s, watched turkeys from a bar stool, and listened to priceless Oregon Tavern Age stories. I met a man in the park who had just spent three months in the Curry County Jail after violating a restraining order against his estranged wife; he was a concrete man and had found a job and new girlfriend in Roseburg, a nurse, and it was working out fine. I visited an old golf course and watched an old man strike balls on the driving range. I found a locally-grown poetry pamphlet out of Port Orford and read it. I gave it to one of the park’s residents who remarked he used to write poems. He was excited and said he would type up his old poems and submit them. On one of my morning walks, I met a former rapist and registered sex offender who cut up and sold firewood scavenged from the beaches and slash piles. He lived down the road from the park in a cabin with an ocean view, owned a dog, and had the greatest display of firewood I have ever seen in my life stacked on his front lawn. He told me sometimes got up in the middle of the night, turned on the truck’s lights to illuminate the yard, and rearranged his stacks. He was an artist. I ate the last blackberries of the season. I never did find a good 8-Track tape. I often drove slowly by the Gold Beach animal shelter to watch dogs in their outside kennels. One brown mutt was always standing on his little house staring at the ocean, never barking.
Whenever I passed Gold Beach High School, I thought about the English teaching going inside. Was my counterpart there? I noticed the building was a short walking distance to a pioneer cemetery, an animal rescue thrift store, the South Jetty of the Rogue River, and the beach with piles of driftwood for fort building. I was still thinking like a teacher and planning lessons for Gold Beach High School students, the Panthers, students I would never teach. I would never build forts with young people again or instruct them to read old headstones and riff into stories.
In the evenings, inside Hey Joe, I cooked wonderful meals, drank some wine, watched war movies on bootlegged streaming services, and listened to Gold Beach’s FM radio station and their broadcasts of Panther 2-A football games. The announcer once played “This is Radio Clash” by the Clash, during a break and I could not believe it.
I have never felt more lonely in my life. That loneliness taught me much of what I needed to learn about myself.
During my Hey Joe residency, I corrected the proofs of the gigging book, the last one with my great collaborator, as it turned out. The book went to press. I wrote up copy for the website, processed the photographs and the collaborator weaved her technical magic. In short order, the website sparkled. I wrote a book proposal for The Secret Oregon Coast and sent it out to a far flung NY publisher. Actually I wrote the entire book inside Hey Joe. I wrote half of what would become Oregon Tavern Age: Sketches from Coastal Drinking Life. I wrote tens of thousands of words in my journal. I wrote letters and mailed them. Something about working inside Hey Joe brought forth a torrent of writing. Or maybe it was being on the existential lam and trying to keep myself alive. I’ll never know.
The weather remained sunny and clear for the first few weeks.
And then came rain in mid October. The heavens opened up with its surly wet multitudes and soaked the parched watersheds, and sluiced gold onto Gold Beach’s beaches. The old panner was going to finally get rich if he didn’t drown first.
It rained 15 inches in five days. The local record was smashed. The Panthers’ football homecoming game was canceled. I rode out the deluge in Hey Joe and the sound of the rain inside that metal rectangle was a sound and vibration of rain I had never heard or felt before. Sometimes, watching movies and listening to the radio became useless because there was no way to hear anything but rain machine-gunning the roof. I was living rain passages from Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, the greatest book of rain of all time, and these moments made me laugh; I needed to laugh.
At one point, I considered downloading a decibel meter app for my phone and determining the sound level. Was it the equivalent of rock concert or jet taking off? Could it damage my hearing? Maybe there was a world record of rain in that deafening level, too.
I decided against the decibel meter. The science didn’t matter. I would just imagine the world record I endured, relished and created in my own mind.
Near the 15-inch mark, Hey Joe started to leak; how could it not? No RV ever built by union men could withstand that assault. It was time to go. The work was wrapped up.
I stayed almost a month at the park. I thanked Bruce the evening before I departed, told him to check out the updated site and he promised he would. We shook hands and he said I was welcome back any time.
“We can always find a spot for you, Matt,” he said.
Perhaps he really meant it. I believed him.
Later that night, I cleaned up Hey Joe and wondered what Bruce would do with it. I dearly wanted to buy the rig and have him store it for me, but I couldn’t afford that. There was so much still unknown then. There still is. Waiting, waiting, waiting.
The next morning, I left at dawn after a last cup of joe in Hey Joe. I had to return to Astoria, a town utterly dead to me then and even more so now. I twirled Joe’s cane one last time and said goodbye to his spirit, whoever he was. I like to think I honored his last real resting place with some good writing and honest self reflection.
I have contemplated, from time to time, moving away from the ocean, and perhaps seeking rebirth in the deserts or mountains of Oregon. There would be total extinction and anonymity there. No one would ever look me up or read another word of my writing. I could go deep into nothingness.
When that thought has occurred I always stop myself: have you gone insane! The ocean has been my home for 20 years. All my creative and spiritual forces emanate from my intimate engagement with it. It’s where I want to end my sentient life—walk right into Hart’s Cove on Cascade Head.
Also, I need rain like it rains on The Oregon Coast.
I have to make my stand at the ocean. I might have to make it in an RV. That seems like a great notion.
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