Squad cars are jammed nose-to-tail into the brush on both sides of Sandpiper Drive as I wind my way towards Highway 101. There must be more than seventy-five of them. It’s disorienting. Nothing ever happens here. Waldport is the kind of small coastal town in Oregon that people drive through to get somewhere else. Which makes it a perfect refuge.
This is the eleventh year I’ve spent a week or longer in Waldport for personal retreat time. I began this annual tradition the year I turned fifty-five and realized it had been decades since I had been consciously alone, without any distractions. It’s funny how even if you live alone, which I have ever since I fled my marriage over thirty years ago, how little time you actually spend with yourself. My work at the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence is 24-7. Even on weekends, I respond to sexual assault calls at the hospital or cover hotline shifts when the regularly-scheduled advocates are called elsewhere. Besides work, there’s laundry, grocery shopping, phone calls and email, outings with friends, and everything else you do to keep your life going. The time I sequester myself at the coast every year has become as vital to my well-being as oxygen.
Sandpiper Drive is narrow, and with all the police cars, it’s down to one lane. As I snake my way through, I notice one of the cars is emblazoned with BEND, which is clear on the other side of the Cascades. PORTLAND. SALEM. EUGENE. MEDFORD. My own home, ALBANY. Police cars are part of my everyday work life, but seeing one from home crammed into the bushes here in Waldport startles me.
I stop at the roadblock at the entrance to Highway 101. Two Oregon State Police troopers approach. One peers inside my car and tells me to step out and open my trunk. His radio crackles on his shoulder.
“What’s happening?” I ask, unsnapping my seatbelt. An exhaust smell, or maybe burnt rubber, overpowers the salty air.
The trooper inspects my trunk, then asks if I live here. I tell him no, I’m staying in a vacation house. My voice cracks. I haven’t spoken for days other than saying “thank you” to the cashier at Ray’s grocery in town.
“What’s going on?” I ask again. The second trooper is crouched on the asphalt peering beneath my car. He’s a big beefy man and his bullet-proof gear bulks him up even more. I don’t see how he’s managed to squeeze his head and shoulders under the frame like that.
“There’s an armed gunman at large. He shot a police officer in Lincoln City last night. Got stopped here by a spike strip. He took off into the woods.” The trooper juts his head towards the area I just drove through. “We put out a reverse 911 call at 6:00 this morning instructing residents to stay inside.” He looks at me as though I should know this. “He shot at some people crabbing in the Alsea Bay right before that.”
The Alsea Bay is about two miles south from where I’m staying. I would have been on the beach walking to the Bay when that reverse 911 call went out. An hour before sunrise, the moon was still glimmering through the overcast silvery darkness. The beach was completely deserted, as it usually is in January. Normally when I get to the Bay, I spot a herd of small gray seals, but didn’t see any this morning. It occurs to me now that the gunshots probably frightened them.
“The place I’m staying doesn’t have a phone.” Law enforcement must have been watching me from the bluffs the entire two hours I was out. I picture men encased in heavy body armor clutching high powered rifles radioing one another as they track my progress combing the beach for sand dollars. Chills creep up my spine.
“Cell phone?” the trooper asks. I shake my head. It’s 2011 and my friends are constantly urging me to get one. So far I’ve resisted, saying my work cell phone is intrusive enough.
He asks where I’m headed and I tell him I’m going to spend the day hunting for clam fossils at a beach north of here.
“You might not be able to get back in if you leave,” he warns me.
I consider this for a minute, but decide that with this many officers, the armed gunman would probably be caught by lunchtime. As I drive away, I ponder the term, “armed gunman.” Isn’t that redundant? Would he be a “disarmed gunman” if they got his weapon away from him? Or an “unarmed gunman”? Or would he be just a “man”?
I spend my retreats at a small blue house across the street from the ocean here in Waldport. My writing group was scandalized that I don’t use this time to write. One year I tried, but it pulled me out of the moment. Though I complain about never having enough time to write the personal essays which could maybe someday turn into an actual book, the only writing I do here is in my journal, and then it’s just phrases.
Mostly I walk, no matter what the weather; and this time of year, it’s primarily rain and wind. Early in the morning down to the Bay, a local beach during the day, back at my home beach late afternoon, and again at night before I go to bed. This is the perfect beach. Wide, so even at the highest tide, there is still beach left to walk on. It stretches two miles south to the Alsea Bay, and if you don’t mind getting your feet wet, almost four miles north before the huge formations of Seal Rock. So, whether the wind is coming from the north or the south, you never have to end your walk struggling into a headwind.
In between walks, I sit and watch the ocean. From the beach if it’s not raining, inside with the sliding glass door open if it is.
It was tough settling into my first retreat. All the ordeals I had tried to leave at home clamored for attention. For six months my mother, who lived in Florida, had been in intensive care languishing on a ventilator. During our conversations preceding her collapse, she stressed that she didn’t want me to visit, she didn’t want to see me. As Mother lingered, my older sister telephoned every night and we rehashed old childhood traumas. After a while, the stories, repeated over and over, wore so thin I had no sympathy left for either of us.
Yet sometime during that first retreat, my thoughts began flowing in and out like waves, never settling on anything. Distressing memories that had been attached to my core as relentlessly as limpets on a rock began to loosen. Some even drifted away.
That week absolutely sustained me for what was to come the following year: My visit with my mother before her death, when we looked into one another’s eyes with so much love and forgiveness that my heart cracked open. My sister’s angry estrangement. A spell of vertigo, when for two weeks I could not turn my head without losing my balance. My decision to put my fourteen-year-old springer spaniel, Sweet Molly McGee, to sleep.
By the time I got to the coast for my second retreat, I was spent with sorrow.
Yet my annual retreats are not about trying to make sense of past events. They are a time for peace to refill the space grief hollowed out. The surf’s perpetual ebb and flow recalibrates my own tide. It makes sense, when you think about it. We come from the ocean. Seventy percent of our bodies are made of water. Our DNA is imprinted with the rhythm of the tide.
At 3:00 Sandpiper Drive is still blocked off. I continue south and pull into the BayMart convenience store. This is the only other road leading down to my place. I approach the trooper at the roadblock and ask if I can go through. He shakes his head, rain flipping from his hat. Maybe in a couple of hours, he says. Maybe tomorrow.
Newspaper reporters have turned the BayMart into a makeshift headquarters. Dented metal folding chairs are scattered through the aisles, and reporters hyped up on cheap convenience store coffee type furiously on laptops. The Oregonian reporter from Portland tells me there are over a hundred SWAT team officers raking through the woods.
I drag a metal chair over the dinged linoleum to the store’s public computer and open my email, something I never do when I’m on a retreat. My friends are frantic: it’s all over the news, I should come home right away. One of my co-workers tells me to at least turn on my work phone if I have it with me. I fire off a handful of reassuring, but noncommittal, emails.
Back in the car, I rummage through my glove box to see if my work phone is there or if I left it in my briefcase at home in Albany. It’s here. I plug it into the car charger. The hours I spent scouring the Lost Creek beach for clam fossils seem long ago. I glance at my bucket and pull out the big scallop fossil I found, close my eyes, and focus on the weight of it for a minute.
Uncertain what to do next, I drive into Waldport. It’s a ghost town. Scant traffic creeps along Highway 101, which also serves as the main street. No one is out walking. A big sign on the drug store announces it is “Closed for Safety.” Other stores, dark and abandoned, stand empty as husks.
I drive back to BayMart, buy an ice cream cone and sit on the bench out front under the awning. Through the steady drizzle I watch the troopers turn cars back towards the highway. The Oregonian reporter joins me and lights up a cigarette. He says that David Durham was pulled over for speeding by Officer Dodds in Lincoln City around 11:00 last night. After Durham shot Dodds, he took off down 101. Then he shot out his back window and hit two police cars and another vehicle.
Lincoln City is about an hour north of Waldport, but it wasn’t until the spike strips that Durham’s car was stopped. Officers believed he was either in the woods or hiding in one of the vacation homes in the neighborhood where I am staying.
I knew most of the homes in my area were vacation homes. When I walk the beach at night, mine is the only house lit, whether I walk north or south.
It’s starting to get dark and I approach the trooper again. He advises me against going back in, but says if I do, to use caution. He gives me the phone number to dispatch and instructs me to call before I go out on the beach in the morning to see if it’s safe.
I’m not exactly sure what “using caution” means in this particular situation. Don’t talk to any strange armed gunmen? It’s hard to believe any of this is real.
When I get to the house I back my car deep into the carport. Surely I’m not in any danger, but if I do have to leave in a hurry, I want to be able to drive straight out.
I heat up soup, a thick vegetable beef I brought from home. I wonder what David Durham would eat if he is in fact holed up in one of the rentals here. The kitchen cupboards in all the vacation houses I’ve ever stayed in, including this one, contain pretty much the same stuff: A few packages of top ramen; a can of cream of mushroom soup; fast food packets of ketchup and mustard; salt, pepper, and oregano; birthday candles; a half empty jar of instant coffee; and for some reason, baking soda.
For the first time in the eleven years I’ve stayed in this house, I turn on the TV. The aggressiveness of it completely drowns out the sound of the ocean.
The news repeats a lot of what the Oregonian reporter said. They show the roadblocks at Sandpiper and the BayMart. Aerial views of the beach. Officer Dodds is alive, but in serious condition. Durham’s co-workers describe him as happy-go-lucky.
It seems Durham had been acting paranoid and delusional lately, believing the police and FBI were out to get him. His brother relates that the week before they had seen District 9, a science fiction movie about monstrous insect-like aliens landing in South Africa. Durham had believed the movie was a documentary.
A picture of David fills the screen: forty-three years old, white, six foot three, 185 pounds, longish brown hair. A big goofy grin.
I can’t sleep. Even the ocean’s murmuring through the open window in my second-story bedroom doesn’t calm me.
Not long ago, one of my co-workers told me about a homeless man she knew. He believed that a band of aluminum foil wrapped around telephone poles would prevent aliens from landing. He’d wrapped most of the poles on Highway 20 between Corvallis and Albany, a stretch of almost twelve miles. When she told me that, I felt oddly grateful to him. Delusional or not, he was putting a lot of effort into protecting us, total strangers, from the hands, or tentacles, of aliens.
If David had thought District 9 was real, he must be freaked. What was he really seeing when he shot that officer? Those early morning crabbers?
The search for him has been in the vicinity between me and the Alsea Bay. The news said he grew up in this area and did a lot of camping. Even with the little bit of exploring I’ve done, I could make it north to Seal Rock without being seen from the highway or the beach. From there, he could easily cross the two-lane Highway 101 and go anywhere. He’d have an even better chance of escape if he took a hostage.
Then it occurs to me. Except for the owner of this house, no one knows exactly where I am. Even the officers at the roadblock didn’t ask for the address of where I’m staying.
If David had been watching me on the beach this morning, as law enforcement probably had, he would know I am fit enough to keep up with him, but as a woman in her mid-sixties, not a threat. Then again, it sounds like he’s mostly been shooting at people rather than trying to take one for a hostage. But who knows? He seems pretty unpredictable – hardly the “happy-go-lucky” guy his co-workers described him as. Being a hostage would be terrifying, but if I was, maybe I could convince him to turn himself in. I’m good at talking to people who are in crisis; it’s possible he would listen to me.
Unless he believed I was a District 9 alien.
A sudden wind gust whacks a tree branch against the side of the house.
I leap out of bed, slam the window shut and yank the thin little curtains together. I wish I had a dog with me. I’d feel so much safer. My springer spaniel would have been useless, but her predecessor, Beau Beagle, was fearless. Well, they’re both long gone and I’m on my own here.
I take a couple of long deep breaths. If David’s watching the house, I don’t want to alarm him with any activity, so I leave the lights off. I skulk into the kitchen, snatch my work cell phone off the counter and turn it on. Crouching down along the floor, I reach up to each window, making sure it’s locked. Then tug the drapes shut.
The only exit door has one of those push button locks on the doorknob, which is basically worthless. When I was growing up, we had one just like it on the door between the kitchen and the garage. If you got locked out, all you had to do was give the knob a good smack with the heel of your loafer and the door would pop open. I grab a chair out of the dining room and ram it beneath the knob.
Before going back to the bedroom, I peek outside. The ocean sounds far away and forlorn. There are no streetlights here, and the clouds masking the moon glow eerily. A darkened SWAT vehicle slowly creeps by.
It’s Day Two of the Occupation. The Waldport Police dispatcher snarls “No!” when I explain where I’m staying and ask if it is safe for me to walk on the beach. It’s 6:00 a.m.
I flip on the news. The same footage of the roadblocks at Sandpiper Drive and the BayMart. The picture of David smiling. Shots of heavily armed SWAT team officers thrashing about the bluffs and woods. They look much scarier than that picture of David.
I open the sliding glass door and stare through the grey drizzle at the ocean thundering up the beach. The wind whisks into the house.
The troopers at the Sandpiper roadblock recognize me from yesterday and they chat it up as they search my car for David. They seem reluctant to let me leave. It’s like I’m the most exciting thing that’s happened to them all morning.
Sometime since yesterday afternoon big electronic highway signs were staked along Highway 101: “POLICE ACTIVITY – DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS.” Each sign jolts me.
Why are the officers focusing on such a narrow portion of the coast? Why haven’t they widened their search to Driftwood Beach, just a couple of miles north? Or Seal Rock? Or even where I’m heading?
I walk for hours at Lost Creek beach, walking as far north as the beach will allow and back, then as far south as I can and back. Then do it again. The ocean mumbles over the stones on the beach. There’s a steady drizzle. I pocket a few clam fossils.
On my last pass, I spot a man walking in my direction. He’s tall and is poking around the sand much the same as I am. He’s wearing a bulky daypack on his back. A lot of people hunt fossils here and I see them all the time. But a long stick-like thing, maybe even a rifle, is sticking out above the pack. My pulse quickens. I crouch down on the sand, like I’m examining a fossil. I angle my eyes up and watch him. It’s a walking stick, not a weapon. After he passes, I hurry towards my car, looking over my shoulder to see if he’s turned around.
The sky clears when I’m back at the house and I can see that it is going to be a glorious sunset, all pink and gold. I’m so overcome with longing I think I will die unless I’m on the beach with it. Defying the police dispatcher’s warning, I slink out to the ocean’s edge, looking up and down the beach as I go. The beach is ominously quiet. The ocean itself seems cautious and subdued. A blue heron, about fifty feet to my right, balances, one leg straight, the other a triangle. The water laps against my boots until the ocean swallows the sun and stars begin to dot the sky.
My skin prickles suddenly and I know I’m being watched – by the SWAT team or David, maybe both. The heron’s wings whoosh open, and he soars off into the night.
Day Three of the Occupation begins with my new normal: call Dispatch and have an officer bark “No!” at me. Turn on the news and watch the same footage of the roadblocks, the same picture of David. Stare at the ocean and the beach that is not safe to walk upon.
Two SWAT vehicles crawl past each other on the street.
As he searches my car for David, one of the troopers at the roadblock, the beefy one, tells me he and his wife are expecting their first baby.
The emergency highway signs blink warnings against picking up hitchhikers.
I walk up and down Lost Creek beach. Up and down. Up and down. Back at my car, I am suddenly bone tired. I just want to go home. I drive past the emergency highway signs back to my rental and pack up. It’s almost dark by the time I drive through the roadblock for the last time.
Now, more than ten years afterwards, those three days still periodically creep into my consciousness. Especially whenever I return to the coast for a personal retreat. I don’t know why really. Basically, nothing happened. Just a lot of hyped-up fear that didn’t come to anything.
Yet I feel a curious connection to David and occasionally google him. Dodds, the officer he shot, recovered and returned to the Lincoln City police force. David himself has never been found. What happened to him? If he had died in those coastal woods, or drowned in the Alsea Bay, wouldn’t something of his remains been found by now? Clearly, he was in the midst of some sort of mental health crisis, and I don’t see how he could have gotten out of Oregon without someone helping him. Sometimes I imagine him on a sparsely populated island living under an assumed name and teaching tourists how to sail. I imagine him wanting to return to Oregon to make things right but being afraid to do so.
I probably should have left the coast that first day. But I don’t always trust my perception of my own safety. I’m excellent at safety planning with survivors at my work, but not so much with myself. Maybe because I’ve never been hurt by a stranger, only by people who professed love for me.
Plus, I kept thinking David would be apprehended and my retreat could go on as though nothing had happened. I need, require even, these retreats to keep me balanced. Instead, a brittle edginess hijacked that year’s trip. I may as well have been my own hostage.
David was most likely out of the area minutes after he shot at the crabbers. I think I knew that, but still, other than the evening I snuck out to experience the sunset, I let my fear keep me off the beach in Waldport. And maybe that was best, considering all those heavily armed officers hunkered down in the bluffs, scanning the beach through their scopes, waiting for something to happen.
And there was good reason to be afraid of David. He shot a police officer. He shot at the vehicles pursuing him. He shot at the crabbers.
Yet when I remember the experience, I think of Beau Beagle who had been my staunch protector when I left my violent husband and started life over again in Oregon. We used to play this game where we would try to scare each other. If I started it, I’d pretend I heard a strange noise. “What’s that?” I’d say with a worried look on my face. Beau would cock his head with his ears at attention, then race to the sliding glass door and peer outside. But if he growled, I would think maybe there really was something out there and look out the door with him. Which would escalate him into a barking frenzy. We’d get so wound up we’d have to go for a walk to calm ourselves down.