I. The thing I remember most about our first trip to Astoria was burning my feet on the sand sliding down the dunes to get to the shore. It was in the high 80s and sunny, unheard of weather for the Oregon Coast in late September. There were very few people with us on Area B, the unromantically-named gem of a beach along the panhandle of Ft. Stevens Park.
Next, I remember Robin stretched out next to me baking to a toasty dark olive while I felt myself progressing to an advanced state of lobster. Even so, I didn’t want to move. The next day I was to deliver him to his first term of grad school. We knew we were on the cusp of something gravely difficult and had fled to Astoria for a weekend away from the looming changes. Admitting sunburn and retreating from the beach would mean initiating the chain of events leading to the end of the weekend, the close of our first charmed summer together before either of us really had to function as adults, and the beginning of an uncertain next chapter.
If we kept very still, maybe time would freeze.* But of course, that’s not how it works. The sun dropped towards the horizon and it grew time to leave. We snapped a photo that day of me kissing his cheek and now, eight and a half years later, I’m struck by how we both look so impossibly young, Robin with all his hair and me in my green Rainbow Brite shirt.
II. Many years have passed, but not a single one has slipped into the archives without a trip to Astoria.
III. “Turn right!” I yelled on our most recent visit to Astoria. I have a weakness for brown road signs indicating points of historical and cultural interest; if spotted, they can’t go unexplored.
Now accustomed to abrupt right turns, Robin swerved right and steered us up a steep hill towards Fort Columbia State Park. A cluster of buildings came into view, rows of matching Victorians painted in an unfortunate shade of tan that seems to only be trotted out for federal/state park facilities and bridges. Downhill, a moldering concrete battery hunkered into the hillside, punctuated with hollow artillery gun mountings overgrown with blackberry vines.
It was now January and the place was deserted. Robin went to a viewpoint to take some pictures of Saddle Mountain while I wandered over to the interpretive signage.** Fort Columbia was built in 1896 as a fully-inhabited US Army defense settlement. One sign panel showed photos of the soldiers in a marching band; another was the “town” baseball team. Under the mustaches and somberness unavoidable in an era of painfully slow shutter speeds, I was struck by how young the subjects of the photo appeared. My eyes looked back and forth between the photos and the empty settlement–now turned into shuttered museums and occasional vacation rentals–picturing the men (boys?) walking the paths between the buildings with their dusty baseball gloves. It may currently exist as an empty park, but once it was home to many people long gone but still peering out of the sign’s photos. This seemed important to remember.
Photos perform an odd act of immortality on those captured within the frame’s boundaries. There is the sensation that a ghost has blinked into existence whenever I press the shutter release button, which perhaps is one of the reasons I tend to be selective of the moments and things I choose to trap.
Each time I near the top of the dune overlooking Area B, I wonder if I’ll see two kids just to the south of the trail, one in a green Rainbow Brite shirt, holding hands and laying in the sand by a hunk of driftwood.