Rockaway Beach, Oregon—Great Low Key Getaway (Plus A Rowdy Roddy Piper Story)

Rockaway Beach, Oregon: Low Key and Restful Vacation Destination

First things first — before getting into the Rockaway Beach, Oregon, story, allow me address the giant stuffed bear in the featured image. The short answer to Why is that giant stuffed bear there? is: I have no idea. During my last stay at Rockaway, that bear was there, under a yield sign, for three consecutive days. There’s no greater context around it, but I figured it was a more interesting picture than the typical shots of sand and sunbathers you get in beach stories.

Anybody familiar with the Pacific Northwest knows that our rocky, primitive beaches tend to be better suited for hiking and picture taking than for sunbathing or playing in the sand. The relative scarcity of sandy beaches means that hordes of tourists swarm to every appealing spot once the weather gets nice. Rockaway Beach, for some reason I’ve never quite understood (but always feel grateful for), somehow manages to avoid the worst of the crowds.

Go to Rockaway in wintertime and you’ll feel like you own your own private beach. Go there in summertime and you’ll find plenty of fellow beach goers, but nothing on the scale of the waves of humanity that descend upon places like Cannon Beach.

When I vacation, I prefer peace and quiet over crowds, so Rockaway is my go-to beach spot. That does not mean, however, that there aren’t plenty of events and activities going on there, as well.

My personal favorite Rockaway event is the annual Pirate Festival. It’s full of good, clean fun for kids and adults alike. At night, there are pirate fire artists who breathe fire and play with fire swords and swing around other various fire-themed items. They perform, by the way, in the parking lot in front of a steam train that takes you on a fantastic scenic coast tour.

Affordable Quality

Because they aren’t quite as overloaded with crowds, Rockaway tends to be less pricey than many of the other Oregon Coast destinations. I don’t have the numbers for this offhand and will update this blog in a couple months after I visit Rockaway again, but the prices for food and lodging have always been very reasonable in my experience. That doesn’t mean the stuff is “cheap” in terms of quality, though. I’ve honestly never had a bad stay in Rockaway, and at this point I’ve probably stayed in all the major rooming places.

The dining options are a bit more limited than some other places, which is of course the price you pay for choosing a low key destination over one of the more storied ones. However, the food that is there has always been good quality and the service always friendly.




Rowdy Roddy Piper Story Heard in a Rockaway Beach Bar

Notice to readers: this story really isn’t part of my Rockaway travelogue, so if that’s the only reason you’re here, feel free to move on (and thanks for visiting!). I just want to share this tale that was told to me by a local at Rick’s Roadhouse on the town’s main drag.

Apparently, wrestling and entertainment legend Roddy Rowdy Piper lived somewhere close to Rockaway. The woman I spoke lived in the same town as him. She told me that Piper was as nice and down to Earth as a guy can get.

She also told me about a boy with agoraphobia that also lived in their town. Piper was this boy’s hero. The kid spent hours watching wrestling in his bedroom and dreaming of meeting his idol.

As one might expect, the kid wanted Piper’s autograph badly, and as one may further expect, the boy’s mother wanted to fulfill her son’s dream and get him that autograph. So, when the boy’s mother ran into Piper at a restaurant, she immediately engaged him and begged for an autograph for her son.

Piper began to sign his name but then thought to ask why her son wasn’t getting it himself. The woman told Piper her son’s story.

Piper sat down, got a new piece of paper, and started writing again. This time, though, he wrote a full paged letter. When he was done, he signed it “Rowdy Roddy Piper” and promptly told the boy’s mother that she couldn’t take the letter home to her son. The only way the boy would get it was if he walked into the restaurant and got it himself. Piper then gave the letter to the hostess and told her she was not to give it to anyone except for the woman’s son.

The mother went home and told her son the story. The boy was driven fairly mad with curiosity and the desire to get a personal letter from his hero…mad enough, in fact, that he worked up the courage to go into the restaurant himself and get it.

After that, the story goes, the boy’s anxiety diminished, and he eventually was able to regularly go out into public again.

I heard this tale while drinking beers at the roadhouse. I have no way to corroborate it. But it’s one hell of a story, and Piper is a man I’ve always admired, so I decided it needed to be recorded somewhere.

Rest in peace, Hot Rod.

First Time Elephant Ears

The crew of Portlanders sitting next to me in the bleachers titters at the hokeyness of their first small-town rodeo. Then the bull rages out of the gate in a cyclone of horns and hooves, throws its rider on the second buck and kicks the grounded man square in the chest. The crew grows quiet.

Down in the arena a rodeo clown distracts the beast as attendants rush the shaken competitor to safety. “Damn,” one of the Portlanders finally whispers, to herself as much as to anyone else, “that was intense.” Her companions nod in agreement.

She’s right, of course. It was more intense than I expected it would be, having never been to a rodeo before. That’s not what brought me to Tillamook, though. Not entirely. For me, the attraction was more subtle than that, and perhaps more serious. In a way, it was more about the spectators than about the spectacle.

A person can spend only so many days staring into computer screens before the whole world starts to feel like one dimly lit, claustrophobic little box. That was how I’d been living for months, and it had become downright depressing. Constant connectivity had me feeling completely disconnected. Somewhere along the line, I found myself longing for the kind of small-town community interaction that I’d grown up with, the kind that seemed to have gone extinct over the last twenty years.

So, at 5:30 on a June morning, I started the 150-mile drive south to Tillamook, Oregon. I didn’t need to leave that early for the rodeo, but the June Dairy Parade started at 10:30, and I had no intention of missing it. It was the thing that had caught my eye more than the rodeo itself. In its 59th year, the parade represented a touchstone to the past and the kind of Americana that my flabby, office-cubicle spirit sorely needed.

I got there early and found the town still sleeping, empty foldout chairs lining the sidewalks along the parade route. I parked my car on a backstreet and headed towards the center of town where I found the Coliseum movie theater’s marquis looking like a beacon shining from the shores of the 1950s, calling me back to a time I never experienced and yet often miss. All of downtown Tillamook, really, looks like a place preserved in amber.

A gentleman in good blue jeans and a Vietnam veteran’s hat talked to me for a good five minutes about where to get breakfast and about some of the town’s latest news. He made it clear he was in no hurry at all. And why should he be on a summer Saturday?

Most of the seats were filled at the Dutch Mill Café when I walked inside. People flowed in and out of the door as I sat drinking coffee. Some of them ordered food. Others just stopped for a few minutes to talk about the parade or about their farms. They all seemed to know each other’s names. My eggs over-medium were perfect.

Spectators started filling the streets about half an hour before the parade. I finished my coffee and went out to join them. The event was delayed because a car that had been left in the middle of the route had to be towed. Signs had been posted for multiple nights warning drivers about leaving their cars, one of the organizers told me with a shake of her head.

Nobody seemed to mind the delay. The weather was perfect, and people just milled around talking and laughing. When it finally did get rolling, it was even better than I could have imagined.

Fire trucks and convertible cars. Synchronized dancers and bands playing on hay bales stacked atop flatbed truck trailers. The theme was “An Udder Day in Paradise,” and the floats were decorated accordingly, often with hilarious results. Kids scrambled amongst each other to gather the candy and cheese packets thrown out to them by the handful. I managed to snatch up a couple pieces from the frenzy and still get my arm back intact.

Parade participants called out to friends and family who clapped and cheered them on in return. I turned to a woman I’d previously exchanged pleasantries with and said, “Wow, it’s hard to find stuff like this, these days.”

“Well,” she said, “Tillamook is about fifty years behind the times.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

She thinks a moment before laughing. “Well, I guess it’s a bit of both.”

She knew better than me, of course. It was her town, and I was just a visitor. Nothing is perfect. Stare too long at paradise and you will begin to see the flaws. But the experience was exactly what I’d been needing, and I left the parade feeling a warm buzz.

With a couple hours before the rodeo I went to the Blue Heron French Cheese Company because I liked the look of the building. Kids squealed nervously as they fed goats and mules by hand in the yard while, inside, two musicians entertained wine tasters with a soulful rendition of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel.”

With a stomach full of fancy cheeses I went to the Tillamook Air Museum and checked out Aero Spacelines’ Mini-Guppy which, contrary to its name, is absolutely enormous.

Standing behind the cockpit and looking out through the windows of the plane built in 1949, I absorbed that singular feeling that comes from being immersed in the past. What’s the proper name for that sensation?

It’s a kind of sublimity, nostalgia mingled with trepidation, the feeling of being planted firmly in the ground, the sensation of temporal roots growing from the bottom of our feet and anchoring deep into something vaster than we can comprehend. It’s the comfort of realizing we are part of something much bigger than ourselves, and it’s the fear of becoming lost and forgotten in the immensity of that boundless continuum, all of it exhilarating in its silent, subtle way.

I arrived at rodeo just before the start of events and found a seat in the bleachers. Before things kicked off I watched a little girl, maybe five-years-old, take her first, tentative bite of an elephant ear. Her eyes lit up like pinball machines when it hit her mouth, and her family broke up laughing.

The competitors paced around each other in the chutes, eyes focused upon their ropes, saddles, and horses, triple- and quadruple-checking everything before it was their turn to perform. They paid for a slot in the competition, money slapped down for a chance to win glory and prizes.

By the time the crew of Portlanders climbed into the stands beside me, I’d already found everything I’d gone to Tillamook to find. The world is much wider than a computer screen, and runs a whole hell of a lot deeper. The places we came from are never as far away as they seem. And those rumors of the death of the quaintness of small-town America? Well, they’ve been greatly exaggerated.

The Portlanders grow quiet as the next rider hustles up to try his luck. I hold my breath in anticipation right along with them. I might have come for something different, but dudes mounting monstrous, pissed-off bulls just to see how long they can last before being flung to the ground and possibly kicked in the chest? Yea, that’s pretty cool, too.