By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE COASTAL OREGON TOWN OF DEPOE BAY (pop. 1,398) advertises itself as “the world’s smallest harbor”. They might have saved themselves the cost of a sign. Everything about this little strip of gristle along U.S.101 suggests small, conveying the unmistakable feeling that you are Miles From This, A Further Piece Up The Road From That, or On The Way To Elsewhere. This place right here, though, is not much more than craggy connection tissue between other places, places that have substantially more going on.
But then there is that coastline, most of it seen in five minute out-of-the-car stretches by passersby who follow the signs for the Whale Watching Center. The decidedly no-nonsense concrete slab that houses said center sits atop a pile of blackened, stony scab that boasts but one break in its protective sea wall, a narrow channel that admits just one boat at a time (tourist charter local fishing skiff, or Coast Guard cutter) from the “harbor” across the street, a small collection of crafts most towns would label a “marina”. This traffic flow is regulated by the outcome of the daily conundrum, will there be whales, or, more accurately, will whales, or anything else, be visible beyond a hundred yards?
And yet, even swallowed up in soupy fog, the snaky fingers of which close upon the coast like grasping, ghostly fingers balling into a fist, Depoe Bay could make Melville’s Ishmael himself pine for the open sea. Paradoxically, it reveals all and conceals all at the same moment. It’s a portal to departures, an end point to journeys, a portent, a welcome, a warning…..and an irresistible itch that only a camera seems able to scratch.
Coastal towns like Depoe can subsist on their four blocks of bar-laden business district, their single low-power oldies radio station, their preciously tacky gift shoppes, the gallons of chowder dispensed each day. But the real show is the one that won’t stay still, the one that is equal parts miracle and menace, doldrum and dream. With it, the Depoe Bays of the world maintain their tenuous spots on the map. Without it, all poetry vanishes in a bank of mist.