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I live 47 miles from Astoria, Oregon. It’s a lovely town at the mouth of the Columbia River, sheltered a couple miles in from the Pacific Ocean by a serious sand bar and Cape Disappointment (
There are three stories I want to tell you. 1) The story itself: the real life nation-building story. 2) The play about the story, which somehow totally works! 3) The Armory, the building hosting the play.
I entered the theatre with a virgin understanding of the journey about to unfold. That is, no understanding. I had learned, in the course of reading a brief synopsis while buying my tickets, that the man who financed the expedition to found Astoria was John Jacob Astor. And in that way, two weeks ago, I learned how the town got its name. That should illustrate the level of not knowing the story I’m talking about.
Over the next 3 hours I began to realize it’s a *monumental* story of how my part of the North American continent became the United States instead of Russian territory, or British, or Canadian. Before the play I could tell you more about the founder of the McDonald’s franchise than I could about the early explorers of Oregon, because we are products of what we’re fed through media. Why oh why aren’t we fed the good and healthy stuff?
The play is based on the book by the same name, written by Peter Stark. It’s set mostly in 1810. Astor was a wealthy German immigrant who wanted to become more wealthy by capitalizing on the fabulous otter pelts that rumor had it were there for the taking on the Pacific Coast. From his home in New York City, Astor arranged for two separate approaches to the Columbia River: one by land and one by sea. Back then, the sea route was by way of Cape Horn, Chile. Remarkably, the sailors got there first. The time pressure is a plot point, since whomever establishes the first trading post will control the fur markets on the west coast and will certainly have access to the most wealth. Astor is constantly fretting about news that the French might beat him to the prize.
Hundreds of people joined his expeditions, including men from Scotland, Hawaii, Quebec, Ireland, and England who joined the original Americans on the teams. And original, original Americans (indigenous people) contributed further to the survival of those who did make it to the destination. Because yes, many people died along the way, including the two Hawaiians who froze to death trying to cross the bar into the Columbia River. They were not the only men who died at the bar, in the shadow of Cape Disappointment. Remember I said “foreshadowing?”
What’s remarkable, and irresistible, about this story, is how much went spectacularly wrong. Many people died by accident, and some were killed. Two went insane. Often people fought with each other, and hated each other. Miraculous are the repeated incidences of survival in the snow, survival from starving, survival from drowning, from raging ocean storms. Though catastrophes don’t always result, there was always a threat: of mutiny, getting lost, scalped, abandoned.
Chris Coleman, the artistic director, pulled off magic with that stage. One set, mind you – with occasional backdrops – conveyed a ship on the open sea, or a wealthy fur-merchant’s home, or a frontier fort, or a camp in steep mountains, beside a creek. We got up close and personal with four people rowing a boat, we listened to quiet conversation among the bunks below deck of the ship, we huddled close to the fire and tried not to feel hungry while a trapper told a story, we gasped in despair when three provisioned boats smashed and were lost in a river, and we watched while travelers reluctantly slid from their horses to continue on foot. All one set, and it worked. Like I said: magic.
Scenes with all actors on the deck of the ship were convincing partly because everyone swayed in unison with the waves. We soon learned that tables can be anything, often boats. I enjoyed the artistic creativity throughout, such as when Astor meets with three potential leaders of the excursions. All three are on stage at the same time, in points making a triangle. As each one leaves the meeting with Astor, they rotate until another is before Astor.
More magic: 16 members of the cast! Just imagine how many people you would need to portray the multiple journeys (one by sea with all the crew to run a ship, the overland party split into two, and still Astor remained in New York), and then imagine only 16 people bringing it to life. It’s a tribute to the quality of the actors that they were able to pull this off, switching back and forth between dramatically different characters, such as when Leif Norby starts as John Jacob Astor but becomes a crusty, bearded Frontiersman Edward Robinson, and back and forth. DeLanna Studi is introduced as Astor’s elegant wife, then becomes a pregnant Indian woman, then switches back. The accents switched from thick Scottish to Kentucky backwoods to prim English to French to German. Wow! I’ll interject my only criticism here: impressed as I am by the ability of the actors to do this, it was distracting to look into their faces and recognize other characters. This was amplified because I was in the front row and so close I could discern crow’s feet. I think at a distance it would not have been such a problem for me.
Action never stopped, and even the slow moments were tense or foreboding. In real life the years-long journey was a grueling series of hardships day after day, but on stage the successes and catastrophes rode each other’s heels, barely allowing an audience-member’s heart to settle in between. Amidst the hardest times in life, humans manage to find a way to laugh at their circumstances, and thus we had a not insignificant number of funny moments, such as when a couple of Frenchmen gazing at sharp mountain peaks began comparing them to breasts (“Grand teton” is large breasts, in French, and we can only imagine our travelers must have been in Wyoming about then).
Surprisingly, there was a lot of singing, though it was not a musical. I found this to be very effective support to enriching the scenes, helping us to be back in time with the actors, and helping us to understand the cultures blending on stage. One funny example was during a scene with many people rowing a boat and singing to keep the cadence. It was one of those classic tunes that multiple countries claim, with their own lyrics, and the rowers from different lands were competing for which was the “correct” version of the song, with good-natured and rowdy aggression, singing louder and louder like sports fans arguing over favourite teams.
At long last the overland parties reunite and find the Columbia River (though not yet its mouth). Captain Thorn sends enough sailors to the bar that eventually some of them live to find the entrance into the river. And that’s the end of part one! We have to wait until Portland Center Stage presents next year’s performances, to find out what happens in the end. In the meantime, I’m going to read the book.
I mentioned earlier that the performance was about 3 hours, but that includes a nice long intermission halfway through. Before the show I had admired some of the structure of the old brick building, called the Armory, and at intermission I investigated further.
The brick structure appears castle-like from the street, but it’s hard to get a good look at it because it’s downtown in the Pearl District and surrounded by tall buildings. Inside, I saw that the entire expanse is open: no support beams the length of it. There are two levels, but the second level is merely a balcony, a mezzanine level, that surrounds the open lobby with places to sit and chat, or look out the window. So I looked out the windows, which are bonafide rifle slits – glassed in and wood-framed, ha ha – leaving no doubt about the military origins of the building. I walked right up and put my hands on the bricks. Something about touching something helps me connect to the proper time and place to understand it.
So many bits were intriguing to me that I had questions about its construction, and sought out the concierge. I asked for an information brochure.
“We have a book, if you want,” he said. “It’s a regular, bound book, all about this building. We give them to people who are particularly interested.”
It was the most serendipitous outcome of a random question that I’ve had in some time. The man walked off, and returned moments later holding a large, gorgeous, illustrated, full-colour, 192-page book about how a crumbling and abandoned former military armory became a modern theatre. In fact, that’s the name of the book: “Voices of the Armory: A Chronicle of the Transformation of a 19th century icon into a 21st century theater.”
“Here you go!” he said, obviously pleased to hand it over. “It’s free! I think you’ll love it. I have one and I love it.”
The show was originally supposed to run through February 12th, but was so successful that the run was extended. If you are in Portland, you can still see it, and you should! Look for it at https://www.pcs.org/ Tickets are available through February 19th.
First of all I’ll tell you about my night. I was not very hungry after eating gouda cubes and smoked salmon on crackers with complimentary Chardonnay, so I picked a place called Wet Dog Cafe & Brewery (there are a lot of breweries in Oregon), hoping for a tasty dessert. I arranged for a chauffer to take me there in one of the hotel’s three restored antique cars. I think he told me it’s a 1958 Chevrolet. My driver was a great guy who had been driving for the hotel for many years and probably would have been fun to ride around all night with, but in minutes he let me off. Once inside the Wet Dog, I was tempted by the marionberry cheesecake and since I was at a brewery, I had a pint of Bitter Bitch, because, who could resist with a name like that?
While I sat there I was watching the Bengals-Steelers game and saw Martavis Bryant pull off an astonishing forward somersault through the end zone to maintain control of the football. Did you see that? Wow. I was so impressed I had to tell the ladies sitting next to me. Before I knew it, we found out we were
practically neighbors, and had made plans to move on to the place across the street, the very cool and chandelier-filled Inferno Lounge. My chauffer came back at the end of the night to get me safely home in that beautiful car.
I ran out of space yesterday to tell you about the post-worthy Cannery Pier Hotel & Spa. It’s more than you’d want to spend if you’re just traveling through, but highly highly worth it for a splurge. The photos will have to convey the beauty and quality and uniqueness of this place. It could get an entire blog post itself, but instead you’ll just have to suffer with a dozen photos.
The Lewis & Clark Bridge that I drive every day is almost the last bridge across the huge river. The Astoria-Megler Bridge is the last one, and it’s a doozy. At 4.1 miles long, it is the longest continuous truss bridge (the load-bearing structure is made of connected pieces forming triangles) in the United States. The whole hotel is on a pier out in the river, and my room was almost beneath the bridge.
Saturday evening was rather cloudy, but Sunday morning dawned spectacularly, and that made for some brilliant scenes for me to capture.
I had a complimentary breakfast with fresh fruit and Greek yogurt and juice. The attendant even fetched me a larger plate when she saw I was having a waffle. I carried it all upstairs so I could continue to watch the view from my window seat. Finally I couldn’t lollygag in the gorgeous room anymore, so I packed up and headed out. With a day this beautiful, I had no choice but to head back to the Astoria Column that Mads and I visited in March on the first day of our road trip. I stopped first to take a photo of the Flavel House, which wasn’t open yet. Astoria is jam-packed with Victorian style homes and this one is one of the best. Built in 1884, it is now a museum, and something I’ll have to add to my next visit here.
It was still chilly, and on top of the hill the wind could get pretty brisk, but the sun was irresistible and plenty of others had the same idea as me. Soon kids were running to the gift store to purchase little balsa wood airplanes to launch from the top of the Astoria Column. I parked at a lower spot on the hill, and hiked up the grass to get a little exercise on my way up (parking at the top is $5 for the year if you don’t want to hike). Once I arrived at the column, I got even more exercise because there are 164 steps to the top.
The column is 125 feet tall with a spiral staircase inside that leads to an observation deck at the top. It was built with financing by the Great Northern Railroad and Vincent Astor, and was dedicated in 1926. It’s steel and concrete, and the outside is an unbroken spiral history of this area, told in pictures. I was interested in how the murals were made, so I looked it up. “The artwork was created using a technique called sgraffito (“skrah-fee-toh”), an Italian Renaissance art form,” says the column website.
I stayed at the top a good long while, though it was windy as heck and somewhat cramped. Adults and children alike launched their tiny planes, and we cheered them on as they often soared to unexpected distances and for great lengths of time before gliding silently to a stop. Anytime a plane landed nearby, someone at the bottom would scoop it up to try their own launch. The original owners didn’t care, because no one was about to make that climb a second time.
After that I decided to head back home. I stopped at Coffee Girl on Pier 39 on my way out of town. Named after the original coffee girl who sold coffee to the cannery workers at the Bumble Bee Seafood pier, the coffee was handed to me across the original coffee counter. Pretty cool.
Saturday I turned 46 and went down the road apiece to Astoria, Oregon. I stopped right away at a viewpoint and looked down on our rural valley, about an hour drive north of Portland, Oregon. From there I could see the industrial mechanisms of the local economy, in the form of lumber and pulp mills, and the Port of Longview.
The next thing that caught my attention was a sign that pointed the way to a toll ferry. I did not need to go wherever the ferry would take me, except that I have been randomly discovering quite a few small ferry crossings on the many Oregon rivers, and it’s become a new interest of mine. Sadly, I did not ride a ferry that day.
In no time I was in Astoria, the city built at the mouth of the Columbia as it pours into the Pacific Ocean. I took a few photos near the mouth of the river, which is filled with sea faring ships, of course, since it’s a safe harbour when the ships are not en route. Then I stopped for lunch at the Rogue Brewery on Pier 39. I drove on the pier to get there!
At the Rogue Brewery I veered away from the “Dead Guy Ale,” and the “Yellow Snow IPA,” and tried the “8 Hop IPA” and some homemade clam chowder (fresh clams, obviously). I somewhat recklessly agreed to become a citizen of the Rogue Nation and raised my right hand and took the pledge. I got a card that entitles me to a free pitcher of beer on my next birthday, but not this one. I talked with another woman traveling solo who is from Idaho like me, and has been roaming the West Coast since November, she said, trying to decide whether or not to retire. When she left, I talked with the couple on the other side of me, who were having a great day because the grandparents had the baby and they were free for awhile. They were both Air Force veterans like me and I quickly gave my VA-is-the-best-thing-ever spiel, and answered some questions and gave them my contact information.
Next I went to check in at the Cannery Pier Hotel & Spa. This place looked great online, and is *so* much better in reality. The service was personal and genuine. They learned my name in the first greeting, and from then on never asked again what room I was in. I told them it was my birthday and they wished me a happy birthday every time I passed the front desk (and even checked in with me the next day at breakfast, to see if I had enjoyed my birthday. I had.) I took a dozen photos, and I’ll share them with you in my next post.
There were about two hours of daylight left, so I left the place and went to find the sea.
First I got distracted by this garage covered in scavenged buoys. The woman who owned the home there said the garage was built at the same time as her grandmother’s home, which had been where we were standing before she tore it down to build her new home. “But Grandma loved her garage and it reminds me of her, and I just can’t bring myself to take it down yet,” she said. “We had a pile of these buoys that we had found, and one day we hung them up. Now people drop them off and we keep hanging them up.”
Then I was distracted again by a sign giving directions to the Army Cemetery. The road passed through what had clearly been an Army outpost years ago. Though it is entirely civilian now, one can’t ever erase the stamp of the federal government. It had the feel of a military base still. At the end of the road I found the humble Fort Stevens Post Cemetery, founded in 1868, according to an informational sign, when the first burial was Private August Stahlberger, who fell in the river and drowned while under the influence. It was also closed for repair.
Finally I found the beach. I honestly tried to pick out just the good photos, but… I fell in love with them all. It was an exquisite view in the January afternoon, as the sun shed her last rays on us ocean-loving humans.
On the way back to the hotel for their 5 pm wine, cheese, salmon and crackers, I had to stop again for photos. These reflections were still discernible in the very last vestiges of light at about 4:40 pm.
I went up to my room and changed into my new Christmas dress that I had only worn once so far. I enjoyed the treats downstairs, then came back to my room to try out a new whiskey that I received as a birthday gift. Have I mentioned that I’m a whiskey drinker? A co-worker has been lauding this Japanese scotch for the longest time. I was skeptical that such a good whiskey could be from Japan. I am no longer skeptical. Then, since I wanted to get a photo of my dress for Tara, I took about 75 photos in the bathroom mirror and failed them all. By the time this one was taken, I was totally cracking up at my own ineptness. But at least I got a fuzzy picture of my dress. It’s a sweater dress, so fuzzy is appropriate.