Sou’Wester!

Let me start by saying I do not recognize Oregon this spring. First, we had a couple nice days in April. Like, in the 70s. That happens sometimes; not a big deal. But we usually dive back into overcast misery. Not this year! While it has been snowing in my native Minnesota, in the Willamette Valley we’ve had weeks of unprecedented weather.

A recent weekend was outrageous. It was almost 90 in Portland. It was in the 80s on the coast! It’s never in the 80s on the coast. If you’re not familiar with it, the Oregon Coast is a place where people occasionally surf—in full-body wetsuits. The water temperature hovers in the 50s, or colder. It is a scenic gem, but not the Jersey Shore.

Last Sunday, when my husband Mike and I pulled onto the beach at Cape Kiwanda State Park around 3 in the afternoon, the thermometer in our car read 86 degrees. Cloudless sky. Outrageous.

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Doomsday global-warming theories aside, we were pretty thrilled about it

As the wind was huffing from the north, Mike parked the car perpendicular to the shoreline. We set up on the south side of the car: Beach chairs, cooler, wide-brimmed hats. We brought a blanket but since the wind was blowing loose sand in waves like you see in nature films of the Kalahari, it was better to be a couple inches off the ground. Every once in a while, the air would kick up a sandstorm—we would tuck in and wait for a few seconds.

The tide was out, so there was a vast expanse between the shoreline and the dry, loose sand. Everyone was parked more or less in a line, on the hard-packed sand furthest from the water. If you got too far into the soft sand it would be hard to get out without 4-wheel drive. Of course, that didn’t stop people trying. Every once in a while, someone felt a little saucy and purposely whipped around in that loose sand like Jim Rockford. I could hardly blame them; when else does one get to use a Jeep like a jeep? The beach seemed the perfect size to allow everyone to have their own space.

Our lil' slice of heaven ... about 20 minutes pre-Sou'wester

Our lil’ slice of heaven … about 20 minutes pre-Sou’wester

The part of the beach that allowed cars was about a mile long; we drove about halfway down to park. Many cars had gone all the way to the south end of the beach, which required fording some shallow streams. Bordering that end of the beach was Cape Kiwanda, about 1,000 feet high. It made a nice focal point to the scene, towering over the little cars clustered at its base. On its opposite slope was the inlet that houses Pacific City. Further out into the water, Haystack Rock ignored the wind, the crashing surf and everything else.

We ate a little lunch, walked down the beach and back, climbed a bluff to see what was up there (just a road), and sat in the sun. After a while, we got tired of the water being so far away and carried our chairs out to a rivulet that was coming in parallel to the shoreline. It filled and emptied as waves crashed nearby. This water, being in a shallow channel, wasn’t as cold. But still plenty cold. I had to pull my feet into the air occasionally to let them warm up.

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Any time the tide is out simply means it is going to start coming in again. As we ate our dinner, the little stream we’d had our chairs in became a river, and then disappeared altogether as the tide crested the small wall of sand that had created it. We’d also noticed a thin line of weather on the horizon. Clouds started piling up in the south.

“Look!” said Mike, who faced them. I turned to see that Pacific City was completely fogged in all of a sudden.

“That’s weird,” I said, and then noticed that fog was starting to pile up in front of the cape and Haystack Rock.

Then, it started reaching over Haystack like giant grey claws.

We gaped in awe; it was as though we were watching one of those fast-forward nature shots. The clouds moved at unreasonable speeds. The wind shifted and started coming from the south; the temperature dropped 20 degrees in an instant.

We wondered if this was how people behaved when Vesuvius erupted—simply staring at it coming, in slack-jawed disbelief. (Neither of us had the presence of mind to take a video …) Haystack was gone. The cars on the far end of the beach were invisible except for their headlights. We looked over and saw that the tide had surged; the water had turned steely and was blowing straight into the air. The egress of the cars on the south end of the beach was under water; they raced to cross at the most narrow point. A neighbor up the beach struggled to get his VW pop-top camper down before the wind ripped it off completely.

Mike ran to the driver’s side to close the windows. Sand stung my shins and face as I finally accepted that our beautiful day was over and this thing was coming our way—fast—and started folding up our chairs. The wind blew everything against the car, so we wrestled with our fold-up lawn chairs to get them into the trunk.

The whole thing happened in about three minutes. Easily the craziest non-human thing I’ve seen in real life.

We ducked into the car and laughed. It was so ridiculous! It had happened so quickly! But it had indeed happened. And we were not out of danger. The sun was gone; no sky, even—we were enveloped in this crazy storm. The ocean was blowing sideways; breaking in lopsided angles and surging ever closer to our car. All the hard sand was submerged; we had to bushwhack through the soft sand to get out.

As we pulled onto the highway, I checked the temperature. 61. A real, live Sou-wester had gotten us. I imagined experiencing that storm in a boat. Outrageous.

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