As an adolescent growing up in Portland and when on summer break from Harvard, John Reed frequently visited the North Oregon Coast and wrote about these experiences in some of his first published work. This was a few years before he rode with Pancho Villa in Mexico; consorted with Trotsky, Lenin, and Stalin in Russia; wrote Ten Days That Shook the World; and became the country's most famous romantic revolutionary and radical journalist (and the obsession of Warren Beatty, who starred as Reed in the classic 1981 film Reds). Reed died in 1920 and is the only American ever buried in the Kremlin Wall.
On one trip in 1908 when he was 21, Reed, a native Oregonian, described the north Oregon Coast as a place of "wildness and desolation that cannot be imagined." In his essay "From Clatsop to Necarney," he sketched the story of a September hike from Seaside over Tillamook Head to the base of Mount Neahkahnie and the beach at Oswald West State Park.
In this piece (and a few others recounting or fictionalizing outdoor adventures), Reed always described what it meant to be a young man in awe and in love with Oregon nature, totally free, away from the city and lectures, a "vagabond," as he called himself. Of course, in that era, he was unaffected by popular youth culture because capitalism hadn't invented one yet. He decided for himself what was cool and what would engage him, and at this point of his life, briefly, before class politics took over, what engaged him was taking on a wild place without gadgets and writing lyrically about everything he saw, felt, and intuited.
Every now and then, I've had the privilege of teaching students who remind me of Reed in "From Clatsop to Necarney." You never forget them. They change you. The most recent one was named Asher Doyle, an expert on culinary mushrooms who founded a mushroom appreciation club a few years ago at Newport High School, where I teach. Asher would often bring me chanterelles he picked and sauté them in butter on a little propane stove set up in the parking lot. These were the best school lunches of my career, and I might have been the only teacher in the country to enjoy such free haute cuisine served on a paper plate.
I think a young John Reed and Asher Doyle would have got along famously.
What a magical story Reed tells. Resting by Elk Creek near Cannon Beach with two friends, he wrote: "stretched upon our backs, and dreaming under the old, old trees, while the spell of the place and the bright strong day took hold upon our hearts." They revived and continued walking down the beach, where they "ate lunch, and smoked a fragrant pipe." Nearby in the trees, a few squatters lived, "many of them alone, silent men for the most part, filled no doubt with the hush of great spruces and the stars, and the sonorous silence of the sea."
Later, toward evening, Reed and his buddies caught eight trout, "which we devoured ravenously." They snoozed around a campfire until dark and then, "stripped and dashed into the surf." After a short swim "came a long run up the beach and back, racing along naked in the dark, thrilling with the starlight and the firm white sand, pagans again and star-worshipers to the bottom of our souls."
I believe very few men or women can go wrong with experiences in youth like John Reed's on the Oregon Coast. I just wonder: Are we doing enough as a culture to create more John or Jane Reeds? I'm not talking about procreation.
(To see where John Reed frolicked, head to Oswald West State Park and take the Necarney Creek Trail.)
÷ ÷ ÷
Matt Love is the author/editor of 10 books about Oregon. He lives in South Beach and teaches creative writing and journalism at Newport High School. His latest book is Of Walking in Rain.
Books mentioned in this post
Matt Love is the author of Of Walking in Rain