The Heron's Nest
As soon as I climbed down from the realtor’s black SUV, I noticed the path. Across the narrow end of the street, a pencil-thin opening, like a part in a young girl’s hair, appeared in the center of thick beach grass. To the left of the path, a several story, cedar-sided house stood, feet from the cottage we were about to tour. Hal, the realtor, noticed where I was looking.
“That’s the path to the beach,” he said, and nodded.
My breath caught in my throat. So close, I thought. Then I listened hard, and heard the whoosh and fall of the waves.
I didn’t want to get my hopes up. We had already been in and out of five cottages and it wasn’t even twelve o’clock. Each of the places we’d toured so far seemed worse than the one before. The first was set in a forest of scrub pine, next to a manufactured home with so much trash tossed around and piled up here and there in the muddy front yard, it looked like a landfill. We walked through another cottage that appeared to be only half-done.
“The owner ran out of money,” Hal explained, as I shook my head at the partially tiled backsplash in the kitchen and sheetrock-less, framed addition at the back.
We smelled the mildew, as soon as Hal opened the door to a place with dark pink shag carpeting. Another cottage was so tiny, it looked to have been built for a doll.
This small blue cottage was our last hope. The asking price rose several thousand dollars above what we’d planned to spend. Diane, our first realtor, who’d cancelled at the last minute and put Hal in her place, threw this one in, saying, “Just take a look.”
A few weeks ago, I couldn’t have imagined that my husband Richard and I would find ourselves on a remote coastal peninsula, looking to buy a beach cottage. Two months before, when we suddenly decided to take a ride, we had barely heard of this place. We had just made it through our third winter living in Portland, Oregon, where we moved when we could no longer afford San Francisco. I had looked forward to the change, especially since we were lucky enough to find and buy a Victorian house, in a tree-lined neighborhood filled with colorful late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century homes close to downtown. But the move turned out to be hard. I missed San Francisco, my walks overlooking the ocean and San Francisco Bay, and our daytrips to beaches in Marin, especially hiking at Point Reyes National Seashore. Even worse than missing places I loved was dealing with the weather. Rain came down constantly, beginning as early as September and barely letting up until after the Fourth of July.
We caught a break one Saturday in April, though. The sun came out and the temperature warmed. The forecast called for an entire day of sun, followed by a repeat of that glorious weather the day after.
I pulled out the Oregon and Washington maps. We had already explored the Northern Oregon Coast, which I’d found over-developed, and in some places, downright tacky. But there was Washington. I’d heard of the Long Beach Peninsula, just north of Astoria, Oregon, but knew nothing about it. My finger traced the length of the slimmest thread of land running alongside the Columbia River and then into the Pacific Ocean.
“Let’s go there,” I said, and Richard agreed.
Just in case, we each packed a small bag with a toothbrush and change of clothes. The ride turned out to be longer than I’d anticipated, but at least the weather held up. I settled into the low passenger seat of the Corolla for what I loved, a car ride to an unfamiliar destination. We passed by lots of uninteresting farms and drove through several downtrodden towns, full of churches and bars. Just before entering the City of Astoria, the road began to run alongside the Columbia River. Sunlight sparkled on the river as we crossed the Astoria Megler Bridge on the outskirts of town. Midway, a sign welcomed us to The Evergreen State.
Coming down from the bridge, Richard made a left turn, following signs to The Long Beach Peninsula. Two-lane Highway 101 ran parallel and almost even to the river there. Sunlight reflecting off the water was blinding. I already loved the place.
We passed through several small towns with Victorian houses, most needing fresh coats of paint, lining the road. In between towns, water glistened in rivers, lakes and ponds. It didn’t occur to me that all this water probably resulted from buckets of rain falling.
In the town of Long Beach, we parked, got out of the car, and followed signs to the beach. A wooden boardwalk ran parallel to the sand. The beach was one of the widest I had ever seen and hardly any people were on it. We walked and walked. Sun and blue water, sand, a bit of warmth on my face. I wanted to pretend that this lovely day would go on forever, and that the endless rain had vanished, never to return again.
We found a room in a small motel two blocks from the ocean. Then we went for another walk, to check out the town of Long Beach and find a restaurant for dinner. I was easy prey at that moment, having fallen for the place right off, after nearly three years of longing to go back to California. The realtors at Long Beach Realty must have known the effect a beautiful sunny day would have on a visitor like me, and that’s why they planted a kiosk filled with full-color listings of cottages smack in the center of the sidewalk.
“Let’s take a look,” I said to Richard, the multicolored photos beckoning a few feet away.
It only took a moment before I saw one. I spotted another and then another one after that. My heart started to beat too fast.
“They’re so cheap,” I said, and Richard leaned in to see where I’d just pointed.
“Wow,” he said, after studying several listings, then moved down the sidewalk to look at others.
As much as I had always loved time spent at the beach, the idea of owning a beach cottage had never once crossed my mind. Every beach town I’d ever known was expensive, with cottages not even remotely affordable.
Richard and I stood there in that early evening spring light, pointing to photos and reading descriptions, a bit more breathlessly each time. At one point, I pulled the little notebook I often carry out of my bag and started jotting down listing numbers, addresses and selling prices. I felt as I did once in awhile when I drank too much wine or rifling through a clothes racks at Macy’s, with seventy to eighty percent markdowns.
Over dinner, we talked about the possibility of buying a beach cottage, as if this had been our intention for driving two and a half hours from Portland all along. Always the practical one, Richard made calculations on the fly, of how much we’d need to put down and what the monthly payments with property tax and insurance would amount to. I, on the other hand, imagined the long walks I would take on the beach and the sunsets, clouds drenched orange and the ocean tinted mauve. In my imagination, the days would be exactly like today, sunny and mild, with barely a cloud in the sky and not the teeniest threat of rain.
As if we weren’t already sold on the place, the following morning Richard drove us farther out the peninsula. After passing through the town of Long Beach, the road grew dark, lined on both sides with thick stands of pine. Next, we entered an even smaller town, Ocean Park, filled with tiny Victorian beach cottages, where bright orange buoys attached to fishnets hung over bleached wooden fences. Instead of heading toward the ocean, Richard turned east, to the peninsula’s bay side. And that’s when I knew. I had definitely found a place I could love.
Willapa Bay, with its mudflats and dark hills in the distance, reminded me of favorite spots back in Northern California. We stood on a wooden deck outside a closed little visitor center watching herons as they stood perfectly still, like sentinels, searching for small fish. An old wooden cannery, the red lettering on its side too faded and broken to decipher, sat on the shore, a short distance west. Not far from the cannery and next to a restaurant that was closed, a tall mound of oyster shells, bleached white from the sun, rose up.
We drove farther north, through the tiny Victorian town of Oysterville, along the shores of Willapa Bay, to the very tip of the peninsula at Leadbetter Point State Park. From the parking lot, we followed a narrow sandy trail out to the water. Standing on the white sand beach, I watched herons peck the mud next to the shallow water. Best of all, there wasn’t a single other person in sight.
This last cottage we had come to see was painted teal blue, with board and batten siding. Since my hopes had already been dashed several times, I told myself not to expect much. But the proximity of the cottage to that path leading to the beach was too wonderful, even though the listing price might have been just a little too high.
Hal unlocked the front door and Richard and I followed him inside. The living room was open and good-sized, with a wide window on the ocean side and a pellet stove in the corner. An open kitchen adjoined the living room, and a window over the sink looked into the backyard.
I stood at the sink for a moment, gazing out. Beyond the green lawn was a thick forest of dark scrub pine. Standing there, I felt a calm serenity wash over me, as if I’d just gotten a massage. The place was so quiet.
There was room for a small table in the kitchen, then a short hall. The bathroom had warm wood cabinets. The two bedrooms were adequate, though small. Windows on all sides of the cottage let in lots of light.
By the time we stepped outside to look into the adjoining laundry room and garage, and glimpse the good-sized backyard, I knew. This little board and batten-sided beach cottage was going to be ours.
Only later, after we filled the cottage with well-worn furniture purchased from a local motel and some fun wall hangings, including a wooden sign with a large index finger pointing the way TO THE BEACH, did I hear the story of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The famous expeditioners, who made the journey across the country, were relieved when they finally got their first glimpse of the ocean, here on the Long Beach Peninsula. But the weather they encountered during the wet winter of 1805 made them far less happy. In his journal, Clark dubbed it the worst winter he had ever spent.
Surprisingly, the weather held up for us that fall, after the sale of the cottage closed in October. Every weekend, we made the two and a half-hour drive out to Ocean Park, where our empty little cottage awaited us. Until we started staying at the cottage, I hadn’t realized how noisy our street in Portland was. Construction noise, cars driving past, people slamming car doors and talking as they walked by on the sidewalk, where the constant background sound I had become accustomed to hearing.
At the cottage, I couldn’t help noticing the silence. Almost no cars passed by our dead-end location, and I never once heard the whirr of an electric saw or a hammer pounding against wood. The silence’s effect on me was a surprise. As on the first day we looked at the house, stepping into the cottage, I immediately felt calmer. Sitting in the living room, on the worn blue couch under the wide window, it was possible to hear the waves roar.
It took about five minutes to follow the path through the dunes to the beach. The yellow-green dune grass rose up high on both sides.
Even on reaching the beach, the water-dampened sand lay nearly half a football field’s length away. Unlike farther south in Northern California, where coastal lands eroded every year and beaches grew narrower, up and down the Long Beach Peninsula the beaches were continuing to widen. Cars were allowed to drive on the beach, but in the fall, we hardly ever saw one.
In fact, Richard and I rarely ran into a single other soul when we took our weekend beach walks. It was astonishing to be on a beach without people. Of course, this wasn’t Hawaii or New Jersey in August or even Southern California, where the air was balmy and the water warm. Except for a handful of surfers near Cape Disappointment State Park, south of our beach, I never saw anyone enter the water.
The solitude we experienced at the cottage was wonderful, while also leaving me feeling melancholy. Mostly, as the months went by, moving into winter when days grew dark by four o’clock and raging storms blew in, sometimes turning a blue sky deep purple-gray in seconds, I felt lonely. Yes, it was still fun and romantic at the cottage. We got to know the owners of the restaurants and shops, including the two cheerful elderly ladies who sold us fresh-cooked Dungeness crab at their several hundred square-foot store, wearing bright red cloth crab claw hats. We scoured the antique malls looking for furniture and knick-knacks for our Portland Victorian house, while wind-powered sheets of rain battered the coast. We enjoyed memorable seafood dinners in the handful of good restaurants, including the cozy interior of the 42nd Street Café, where on Sunday nights, the chef came out of the kitchen and played the harp. And we treated ourselves to Sunday brunch, in an oak booth at The Ark, overlooking Willapa Bay.
On the rare occasions when the sun did come out, we rode our bikes on ironing board flat Bay Avenue, reveling in the open views of Willapa Bay on our right. We peddled through quiet Oysterville, hardly ever seeing anyone outside, and out to Leadbetter Point. We also walked up and down the silent streets of Seaview, a neighborhood filled with charming turn-of-the-century houses. And each time one of the motion detector lights came on outside the cottage’s back door, we imagined that one of the small black bears we’d learned roamed the area had set it off.
My former therapist, Janice, often suggested that I “hold both.” I came to understand this simple, yet profound, piece of advice to mean that feelings were almost never black and white. It was possible to be both happy and sad at the same time. And this was how I felt about the beach cottage.
On the one hand, we owned a small, snug home a mere five-minute walk from the beach. The peninsula, like my long-ago favorite place, Long Beach Island, New Jersey, had the ocean on one side and a bay on the other. It was even home to several rivers, including the mighty Columbia, along with lakes and creeks. Because of the vast amounts of rain that soaked the place, some body of water could be found in almost every direction.
Over the years, I had come to love isolated areas, where people were sparse, even while I still spent most of my time living in overcrowded cities. Except for a handful of weekends in July and August, the driest months of the year, the peninsula felt like the ends of the earth. It attracted a mix of folks, from well-heeled Seattleites who owned spacious weekend homes with wide ocean views, to those with shady paths who occupied moldy trailers in remote woodsy corners scattered up and down that narrow stretch of land. There were artists, as well, attracted by the natural beauty and inexpensive housing. And a handful of chefs and innkeepers, who kept the tourists coming.
But with everything I loved about the cottage and the Long Beach Peninsula on which it sat, I also felt disappointed. Just as when I moved to Long Beach Island during the off-season, somehow forgetting that winter on the coast had little resemblance to August, our stays in the little blue cottage were nothing like my fantasies. In the two years we had owned the cottage, I never once put on a bathing suit there. Neither did I dare wade into the rough, frigid ocean or even get my feet wet. I don’t think we ever considered toting our low plastic folding beach chairs out the path. In addition to the lack of sun, that super-wide beach, with an occasional truck passing, didn’t seem meant for sitting and sunbathing.
The biggest disappointment, though, was with myself. Owning a beach cottage hadn’t changed my life.
Before buying the cottage, while the idea still danced around my mind, I was expecting more. Ever so slowly, I had started coming to grips with the fact that what I expected was impossible.
Two years in, Richard and I were still without friends there. Instead of getting know other Long Beach residents, artists and writers like us, we spent our beach weekends completely alone. We didn’t have family or close friends drive out and visit us, as our neighbors across the street and in the tall cedar-sided house on the oceanfront did. The beauty and solitude of the area hadn’t yet inspired me to draw and paint. In fact, I never bothered to take my art supplies out to the cottage.
Owning the cottage and spending time there reinforced Richard’s and my isolation. In the city, this didn’t seem so apparent, perhaps because we stayed busy. But the cottage was so quiet, reminding us how alone we happened to be.
As was my habit, I felt reluctant to mention the disappointment to Richard. But during Fourth of July weekend heading into our third year of owning the cottage, I could see that he felt as depressed as I did. The rain hadn’t let up the entire three days we’d spent there. It wasn’t just a light sprinkling, but one of those constant downpours, with wind flinging blankets of rain sideways. Even a walk with umbrellas and hooded rain jackets seemed decidedly unappealing.
“I didn’t expect it to be like this,” I said. I had just sat down on the worn blue couch, after Richard got the wonderful pellet stove going.
“It rains all the time,” Richard said, joining me on the couch.
“It’s so depressing,” I added, as if this needed to be mentioned at all.
We hadn’t come to any decision about the cottage by the Friday afternoon I noticed the trees. I was feeling grateful at that moment. The sun was out and I looked forward to a long beach walk. We had just arrived from Portland, and I still needed to unload the groceries. Washing my hands at the kitchen sink, I gazed out past the back yard to the thick stand of pines. But the woods didn’t look the same.
Pulling out a bottle of Windex from under the sink, I spritzed both sides of my glass lenses, then wiped them with a paper towel. After sliding my glasses back on, I looked again. It seemed unbelievable. But trees that had been there two weeks ago had disappeared.
“Richard,” I yelled. “Come here.”
I could hear the panic in my voice.
“What is it?” he asked, hurrying over to where I stood.
“Look out there. The trees are gone.”
I pointed directly ahead.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“See there? Those trees that were in the center are gone.”
We stood there gawking, not wanting to believe what was right in front of our eyes. At that moment, I realized how happy the view of those trees had made me and how crushed I felt at their loss. But where had all those trees gone?
Richard dialed the number of our neighbors in the oceanfront house. Retired teachers, they were one of the only households on our street that lived on the peninsula full time.
The trees, it turned out, had been cut down by the new owner of the woodsy property behind our house. Our neighbor, Ann, learned of the plan before it happened, and suggested to the new owner, a woman who lived in Portland, that she ought to discuss it with us first. That discussion, obviously, never happened. In fact, until Richard talked to Ann, we didn’t know the property behind us had been sold.
As if the trees disappearing behind our house wasn’t news enough, there was more. The woman, we found out, was a detective in the Portland Police Department. She had bought the property with the goal of eventually building her retirement home. In the meantime, she planned to camp out there on weekends, in her RV.
The final bit of information Ann passed along was the darkest. The minute Richard gave me the news, I knew. This was the death knell for our beach cottage. The detective, Ann explained, was in charge of the police department’s canine unit. When she came out to camp on her property, twelve four-legged members of the unit would accompany her. The trees were being removed to make way for a fence, to keep in what we assumed would be twelve fierce, constantly barking dogs.
So, my beloved trees weren’t the only victims of this new owner. The silence I treasured was also on its way out.
In the weeks after we signed the contract to buy the cottage and waited for escrow to close, Richard and I tossed around possible names for the little blue board and batten-sided house. As in other beach communities, cottages of all sizes and conditions on the Long Beach Peninsula, from simple, rundown fishing shacks to elegant oceanfront estates, had names. Signs announcing the name were sometimes affixed on or next to the front door. In other cases, they sat in the yard atop wooden or metal legs.
No matter what I suggested, Richard said no. The Tide’s Inn. No. The Blue Heron. No. Nothing, in his opinion, sounded right.
Since we couldn’t agree on a name, no sign ever went up out front. Many of the names we threw around were inspired by the cottage’s blue color, which Richard kept vowing to change, at some point, to yellow.
As it turned out, we always referred to the place as the beach cottage, and that worked just fine. And right after noticing the missing trees and learning of the detective’s plans, we decided to sell the cottage we had never been able to name.
Meeting with the realtor, an exuberantly optimistic guy named Todd, who had spent his entire life on the peninsula, Richard and I both hoped we would get a buyer before the barking dogs arrived. Instead of giving Todd the price, we asked him what he thought. When we agreed to the price he suggested, Todd assured us the place would get snapped up right off.
Then he asked if the cottage had a name.
I was about to tell the story, that we’d debated and debated about a name but never agreed on one. The truth, I knew, was slightly different. There had been one name but we never used it. And that’s the name Richard blurted out now.
“The Heron’s Nest,” he said.
“The Heron’s Nest. I like that.”
We received three offers on the first day the cottage was listed. Later that afternoon, we accepted the highest one.
A week later, the winning bidders backed out. The wife, Todd informed us, wanted a bigger house. To our anxious response, our optimistic agent replied, “We’re moving forward with positive energy.”
And he was right. The second-place bidders were still interested. In fact, they didn’t even need to see the cottage, which would have entailed an eight-hour drive from their home in Northern California. Even better, the prospective owners weren’t going to apply for a mortgage. They planned to pay for the cottage in cash.
Since the worn blue couch and the rest of the tired furniture were included in the sale, it didn’t take any time to pack up what we were taking – a small collection of dishes, toiletries, and sheets, towels and blankets. We couldn’t help but laugh on seeing the brilliant sun shining on our final day. I felt a mixture of relief and regret, as we loaded the last box into the car.
A few months later on a fall weekend when the forecast called for clear skies, we made the drive out to the peninsula from Portland. Sunlight sparkled on the Columbia, as we drove through Astoria, heading for the bridge.
Soon after crossing the Astoria Megler Bridge, Richard turned off 101. The narrow road climbed up the hill, passing the cream-colored, wood-sided buildings of Fort Columbia, a decommissioned Victorian-era Army base. We had made a reservation to stay at one of the vacation homes on the site.
The Steward House sat at the top of the hill, where the road dead-ended. I got out of the car and admired the view. Then I turned around and walked over to the house.
Three wooden steps led up to the wide front porch. The porch was painted a pale turquoise blue and the body of the two-story house was cream-colored.
Like our Portland Victorian, the Steward House had fourteen foot-high ceilings and what appeared to be original Douglas fir floors. The living room had floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out on the Columbia.
We waited until the following afternoon to drive over to the cottage. As Richard made his way slowly to the end of what had been our street, I felt like a thief, preparing to rob a house. Richard and I worried that someone would spot us, even though we weren’t doing anything wrong.
I looked for the distinctive white picket fence that surrounded the front yard. Once I spotted it, I turned my gaze toward the cottage.
“Oh, my God,” I shouted.
Richard slammed on the brakes and the car lurched to a stop.
We both stared at the house we had sold only a few months before. Yes, it still had the same board and batten siding. But our little beach cottage was no longer the color of the ocean. The new owners had painted the place yellow, and it now sparkled a little in the sun.
“Amazing,” I said, and turned to Richard. “You were right.”
We sat there a few minutes longer, gazing longingly at the cottage and letting ourselves reminisce about our time there. Then Richard said, “Let’s see if she’s cut down more trees or built anything,” referring to the Portland detective.
He started the car and made a left turn in front of Ann’s house, where the paving ended and the road turned gravel. We crept down the road at about ten miles an hour. The road was only wide enough for one car.
As we moved under the canopy of pines, the sunlight was blocked and the road darkened. I noticed that the owner had installed a fence. We rounded the curve and I tried looking into the property, past the black metal gate. No structures were visible in the wide, muddy clearing.
I let out a breath that I only now realized I’d been holding. Then, I noticed the sign.
“It’s for sale,” I whispered, as if this were a secret I needed to hide.
“It’s for sale,” I said again, this time a bit louder.
Richard made a U-turn, but didn’t slow down as we passed our former cottage. I couldn’t help but wonder what we might have named it, if instead of teal blue, the color of the little beach cottage had been egg-yolk yellow.
Patty Somlo’s most recent books are The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil), a Finalist in the 2016 International Book Awards and a Finalist in the 2016 Best Book Awards, and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing). Her fourth book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, will be published by Cherry Castle Publishing in Summer 2017. She has received four Pushcart Prize nominations, been nominated for storySouth Million Writers Award and had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays 2014. Her work has appeared in journals, including the Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, Under the Sun, Guernica, Gravel, and Sheepshead Review, and in numerous anthologies. Find her at www.pattysomlo.com or on Twitter at @PattySomlo.