CANNON BEACH, Ore. -- In the soggy winter of 1805- 06, as Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark hunkered down with the Corps of Discovery at Fort Clatsop near Astoria, rumor of a beached whale at what is now known as Cannon Beach, some 20 miles south, reached them.
Hoping for a change in their monotonous diet of elk, Clark led a party of 11 down the coast and over the majestic headlands near Ecola Creek. There they came upon one of the most breathtaking seascapes on the West Coast , a massive beach dominated, at the water's edge, by a basalt monolith soaring some 235 feet high. A magnet for puffins, gulls, and other birds, this natural wonder is now known as Haystack Rock because of its distinctive shape.
We've crossed the country to Cannon Beach for 16 consecutive summers to join my wife's extended family, 21 of us spanning three generations, for eight glorious days of cool breezes, long walks, and lazy afternoon s.
Just 75 miles west of Portland, and a four-hour drive from Seattle, Cannon Beach is a favored vacation spot for northwesterners who come to enjoy a beach so wide and long you can always find a spot far distant from other beachgoers.
Some summers only the hardiest souls brave the cold ocean waters, but other years the water is warm enough for bodysurfing. Nestled between coastal mountains and the sea, Cannon Beach offers dramatic views of sea, sky, and mountains everywhere you look, views marred only by the massive forest clear-cuts that pock mark the mountains to the west. Timber, after all, is king in Oregon.
Summer days in Cannon Beach often begin cool and misty, only to turn brilliantly clear by mid day, and the area is blessed with low humidity and none of the insects that can make many East Coast beaches unbearable.
The town itself is only two or three blocks wide in most places, but stretches for a couple of miles between the Ecola headlands and the tiny village of Arch Cape to the south. Its commercial center is the quarter-mile stretch at the northern end, a mostly tasteful amalgam of galleries, restaurants, and shops, all of which seem to take horticulture seriously. Cannon Beach in summer is a festival of flowers and small gardens that thrive in the moist climate
The town has attracted a lot of second homeowners from Portland and Seattle during the past 20 years, changing a sleepy beach town into a more upscale tourist destination.
Cheri Lerma came from Detroit in the mid-1970s when she was 27. She opened the Cannon Beach Cookie Company in an old drug store a decade later.
Lerma was ``still in the throes of hippiedom" when she landed on ``the upper left edge," as some call this stretch of Oregon coast, and found a lot of kindred spirits -- artists and other hippies -- drawn by the area's natural beauty and then-affordable housing prices. (Real estate prices in Cannon Beach soared 45 percent between 2004 and 2005.)
``When I saw the elementary school right on the ocean, I thought, I want my boys to go to school here," said Lerma, so she built a 1,700 square foot house and a privy out of recycled materials on three acres in the woods on the east side of town.
Though Lerma laments that Cannon Beach is no longer affordable for the proverbial starving artist , she still enjoys the friendliness of the locals and the tourists that sustain her business.
Tommy Huntington, a local Realtor who grew up in Portland, first came here in the mid-1940s on vacations with his parents. It's been his home since 1995 and though many things in town have changed, he values what has not.
``Even in summer you can walk the stretch of beach north of Ecola Creek, the `Canadian side' we call it, and be the only person on the beach," said Huntington. And though the hippies have moved on, Cannon Beach retains a bohemian, artsy feel, he added.
At the end of every trip to Cannon Beach, I make my way to Ecola State Park and follow the steep, winding road to the park's main lookout point, which offers several short trails from which to enjoy the views that greeted Clark 200 years ago.
From this often-blustery promontory you get majestic views of the coast, with Haystack Rock in the distance, to the south. Look west and you see Tillamook Rock Lighthouse a mile offshore. And to the north are the rugged Ecola headlands as they drop, quite literally, into the sea.
The best time of day is dusk when, depending on the weather, the entire scene is bathed in a sublime golden light. It's a bittersweet moment because I know it will be another year until we come back, but I do know that we will follow the setting sun back to Cannon Beach.
Contact Peter Zheutlin, a freelance writer in Needham, at email@example.com.