Thursday, May 20, 1999
Why do we do things? You can ask Freud if you wanna dig him up, or you can work out the answer: I wanted to see Coos Bay because there was a neat restaurant near where I lived called the Coos Bay Cafe. It always sounded rock-bound.
Which Coos Bay wasn’t. Dinner, in a dark Italian place, had been dense, oversauced meat balls. Breakfast, in a retro diner, was nuked hash browns. Where was that great home cooking?
Still, we might have stopped anyway: even before reaching the town we’d seen signs announcing the House Of Myrtlewood. “What’s that?” Tom asked, somehow thinking I’d know.
I consulted our guides—without help. “‘Another tourist attraction,” I guessed, slipping the books back under my seat.
“We should go.”
He didn’t know. But his instincts were often good.
The billboards also advertised Free Video Introduction and Tour of Our Plant, so it didn’t seem we’d lose our clothes or find the dog trimmed into a poodle. When we got there it turned out they made bowls. Bowls? Also boxes. And spoons.
“Myrtlewood only grows in two places,” the helpful video told us, the sole occupants in a room seating maybe a dozen. “Western Oregon and The Holy Land.”
Oh, god—a holy roller hard-sell? Nope, just coincidence. Their “plant,” it turned out, was no larger than an L.A. four-car garage. The reason: the business was tiny. Myrtlewood trees can’t be “harvested”—their word—till they’re a hundred years old.
After that, the wood is dense enough for finishing, and most of the items were made by hand. By women, it turned out, though not for any mystic menstrual reasons: they simply work cheaper. (There’s a surprise.) And who else would spend their lives carving flatware?
Though because the wood is so old, and in limited supply, of course it costs extra. A salad spoon you’d buy in K-Mart for a buck, here retailed for fifteen.
“But it lasts your whole life,” cheered a saleswoman.
Great. A spoon that trails me through senility.
“And they feel so nice.”
Tom was already stroking one.
“I could get some for my mother,” he proposed.
“They smell nice, too,” the saleswoman added. But she was just suckering me to put a spoon up to my nose.
Moments later, as I glared at a velvet-lined collection plate you’d need a congregation to fund, a guy next to me started laughing. Then he explained.
“A buddy of mine told me about this stuff. He does woodworking—you know, weekend junk. Birdhouses. But he saw a myrtlewood putter and figured he could make one cheaper.”
I’d already passed its mate on a shelf. Priced higher than a Porsche.
“Anyway, he hunted down a mill, thinking that’d be cheaper than a lumberyard. And there was a stack of these planks—maybe eight-feet long, a foot-wide, couple inches thick. My friend said he take ’em. The owner said,’Nope, already sold.’ Turns out, for five grand each.”
They were destined to become a countertop in some hot Frisco bistro. One this guy and I doubted we could ever afford. Still, before we left, Tom did buy his mom some spoons. I got fudge.
Then we headed up-coast. And if the drive from the California border had been almost empty, from Coos Bay north, it was Summerhomes!
And all that went with them: Shops selling presents for people visiting friends, and stands peddling even cheaper junk you could take home as souvenirs. The clustered towns seemed mainly separated by knots of signs, warning of bicycles, children, and crossing swimmers. Some villages seemed planned. Others, more spontaneous than mold. The speed limit was posted at fifty-five, but we weren’t topping thirty steadily, and it wasn’t even summer. One nice thing about Oregon though: you’re can’t pump your own gas.
The first time it happened, I thought someone was being extra friendly. Then I found out it was The Law—the only state besides New Jersey with that legislation.
“Why?” I asked the pump boy.
He shrugged. Polite, but still a pump boy. “Maybe so your hands don’t get smelly.”
Just outside Lincoln City, we passed the 45th parallel, halfway between the North Pole and the Equator.
“We should’ve taken a picture,” Tom said.
“We can go back.”
Though I did shoot a Tsunami warning sign.
“What’s a Tsunami?” he wondered. (Me, who can’t tell sushi from sheboygan.)
“A big wave?” I risked. “One that wipes out the world after nuclear attacks? Or maybe an undersea volcano?”
“They have those here?”
“Hey, I’m just visiting.”
We decided not to worry, instead distracting ourselves laughing at local signs: Lost Road (No Outlet). No Name Road. Dog Town. Lois Lane. Entering Sappho. But my favorite was Kids For Sale.
Reaching Seaside, where we planned to stay, we were stunned by the Motel 6: A room large enough to play hockey. A couch. Coffee table. Writing desk. Refrigerator—admittedly, half-sized. Even a microwave, and unbolted-down wall art. “Was this place kidnapped from another chain?” I asked the clerk.
Nope, Motel 6 had gone franchise.
“There are some things you have to put in,” she explained. “After that, you can add extras. As long as you don’t price yourselves out of the market. Or give the chain a bad name..”
Was that possible?
“How’s business?” I quizzed.
“Terrific.” She smiled. “There’s no competition.”
Not much for restaurants either: at the woman’s suggestion we tried the newly-built place right next door. It looked rustic, and we figured at least we could walk to indigestion.
“Why is it,” I soon asked Tom—as I played with, rather than ate, my food—“that it’s so much harder to make dinner than to design a restaurant?”
Because you only have to decorate once.