The Continental Pt. 13: Retracing the Oregon Trail
(This article is part of the 15-part series, The Continental, written by Christie Grotheim with photography by Niklas Andersson as the couple takes a six-week road trip across and around the United States in their 1979 Lincoln Continental. Click here to catch up on the full series.)
– – –
I had been talking to Niklas for days—maybe weeks—about Oregon, and now we were so close we could smell it. Literally. As we neared the border, I sniffed the earthy sweetness I remembered as a child. I wasn’t sure if the smell was of blackberries or the wild foxtails’ cascading purple bells, but it filled the air and added to my excitement.
My mom grew up in Oregon and my grandparents lived there until they passed away ten years ago—within six months of each other after 61 years of marriage. Though they died of natural causes, like Romeo and Juliet, they couldn’t live without one another. I have many fond memories of Coos Bay and North Bend: their house on the bay, the tide pools, the sand dunes, the mountains, and that beautiful coast.
All along the 101 in California, I questioned my firm belief that Oregon has the most gorgeous coastline in the country. In Big Sur I began to doubt myself, but as we crossed the state line, Oregon proved itself to me once again. In Oregon, the ocean pummels black volcanic rocks, which jut out from the sea. The waves are a force to be reckoned with. They tear toward the land like claws, exploding into cliffs and spraying the coast before they recoil. The rocks and the ocean shape one another each second of every day.
En route to my Uncle David’s house, we turned away from the sea to smaller roads until we hit a gravel road. After a thirteen-hour drive, I was afraid that last stretch across the rough terrain might shake our car to the core, or at the least loosen some screws sending us to another mechanic. People in these parts drive 4-by-4s, not ’79 Lincoln Continental Town Cars. Poor Niklas was shaken as well, dodging massive potholes in the black of night. When we arrived David greeted us at the car, and walked us to his home in the woods.
“This must be a big change for you New Yorkers being way out in the middle of nowhere.” He paused. “But I like the silence; I like that I can hear the sound of a bird’s wings flapping when it flies overhead.”
I wanted to hear a bird’s wings.
The next day Uncle David loaded up the four-wheeler in the back of his pickup truck and took us to the dunes a few miles from his house. Niklas and I hung on for dear life sharing a little rack on the back while David goosed it up the biggest hill, almost inverted, nicknamed The V8 because only a V8 engine will get you up there. He gave us helpful hints, like downshifting and turning on top of the dune ridge in order to see what’s on the other side. Then he handed us the key and left us there. Niklas and I looked at each other, both a little unsure of ourselves. At least I grew up riding three-wheelers, four-wheelers, mopeds and motorbikes. The fastest vehicle Niklas rode on was probably the public tram. He’s a pasty Swede, not all that athletic or outdoorsy. He doesn’t like to walk barefoot, even on the beach. The most he does for exercise is walk to the corner deli. A city boy, he tells me.
All that changed when he drove on the dunes. With each hill he grew braver, spinning out in the sand. Suddenly he was a testosterone-filled powerhouse, flying up and over with a devilish look in his eyes and a mischievous smile on his face. With me on the back he drove ever faster, ever higher, dune after dune after dune. It was a rush; a combination of adrenalin and nostalgia, the rush of holding on tight to my (manly!) man mixed with memories of my younger self riding those same hills.
My Aunt Sheryl served us home-cooked meals and conversation came easily. They pointed us to the best tide pools and the next morning we rose early and drove to Shore Acres. With child-like wonder we searched the nooks and gullies between smooth rocks for treasures: purple starfish, sea cucumbers, and bright green sea anemones. We jumped from rock to rock pointing out things to one another, waves crashing all around us. Safely back at the shore, I turned to look for Niklas. Again he surprised me. That city boy was climbing jagged rock cliffs with the agility and strength of a mountain man.
“Don’t go too high sweetie.” I shouted over the sound of the sea.
The same thing my grandparents had shouted to me countless times, climbing that exact same rock formation
That afternoon we visited my other Uncle Ralph who owns an auto shop in the nearby town of Coquille. We had planned on having him check out the Continental and give her a once over. But the irony is that now that we were at a mechanic who would take a look free of charge, she was running smooth as silk, purring like a kitten.
Uncle Ralph hadn’t changed. All of about 5 foot 4 inches, he’s boisterous with a boyish face, thick grey hair and the energy of a younger man. We offered Ralph the driver seat, and he showed us around the old downtown, showing off the car. He chatted with locals at stoplights and on sidewalks.
“Look at my new ride, Ethyl, whaddaya think of these wheels? Big enough for ya?” he shouted out the window. He knows everyone in town and introduced us to many.
“She’s my niece but she’s a spitting image of my little sister!” he said again and again, beaming when he mentioned that we live in New York City.
I was beaming inside too. Introducing Niklas to my Mom’s side of the family was important to me, and he took part eagerly and openly. He embraced Oregon, a part of me, and a part of my roots.
On our way out of town, he suggested we drive past my grandparents’ old house by the bay. High on a hill, Grandpa built it with his own two hands. We pulled up the drive and I got out to snap a few pictures of the car in front. Oh, if only they knew, they would have certainly gotten a kick out of the Continental. Especially my grandfather, a farmer—and a mechanic. Born in 1910 he had seen the evolution of automobiles firsthand, but he only drove Fords. I remember a series of Falcons in particular.
I stood in the yard in front where I used to run around chasing harmless grass snakes. I scanned the area searching for what had been a thriving berry patch, vines full of the biggest raspberries and blackberries I’d ever seen. The sweetest I’d ever tasted. I looked at the now overgrown vegetable garden where my grandma often stood, and I pictured her bent over picking fresh squash.
And I heard the sound of a bird’s wings.
– – –
Niklas Andersson is a lighting designer and photographer from Gothenburg, Sweden, who has recently set his sights—and lights—on New York City. With a passion for ’79 Lincoln Continentals and a love of the open road, he offers a unique perspective, from both behind the wheel and behind the lens.
Christie Grotheim is a New York-based writer whose personal essays can be found at Ducts, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and Smith Magazine. Though her workspace is in the West Village, she prefers writing longhand from the passenger seat with the world whizzing by and the wind in her hair.