On Thanksgiving day, Paul and I drove southwest from Seattle, on our way to the Washington coast. When we saw a sign for Aberdeen (the hometown of Nirvana front-man, Kurt Cobain) we wondered if we should stop.
“Yeah, let’s do it,” I said, googling “things to do in Aberdeen” on Paul’s i-phone. Apparently there was a Kurt Cobain memorial park on the banks of the Wishkah river.
We drove over a bridge into town. Industrial-looking factories and warehouses loomed along the dirty water, aptly named “Gray’s Harbor,” and a quick drive through downtown revealed a few fast food places, some boarded-up shops, and a row of weather-beaten hovels, seemingly abandoned except for an overweight woman standing on a front stoop, smoking a cigarette. As we drove around looking for the park, we passed the city hall. A homeless man was camped out on its steps, drinking from a bottle inside a paper bag.
“God,” Paul said. “No wonder Kurt Cobain was depressed. This town gives me the creeps.”
In the early 1900’s, Aberdeen was known for its many saloons, whorehouses, and gambling establishments. It was nicknamed “The Hellhole of the Pacific” and “the Port of Missing Men” because of its high murder rate. And things haven’t gotten much better since. It was hit hard by the Great Depression, and in the 1980’s most of its timber had been logged so the sawmills closed, sending the town into even greater economic decline.
“Wait, I think that’s it!” I shouted. “Turn here!”
It was no wonder we hadn’t noticed the park at first. It was tiny, and looked like someone’s backyard. There was a sign with Kurt’s picture on it, and a small statue of a guitar. There was also a metal stand labeled “Kurt’s air guitar” and a plaque informing us that the bridge ahead was the bridge Kurt had sat under as a teenager; the bridge mentioned in his song “Something in the Way.”
On our way out of town, Paul pondered what Kurt would have been like had he grown up in a different town, in a different environment. “He might not have had so many problems.”
But, I thought, he might not have become one of the greatest rock musicians of all time either. There was something in his sadness that made his affecting.
The saddest thing about Kurt is that he really wanted to be a famous musician. He wanted to be admired and loved. But when it happened – and it happened fast – he was overwhelmed. He was afraid of his fame, afraid of disappointing people, afraid of himself. He committed suicide at the age of twenty-seven.
After Aberdeen, we headed to Long Beach, Washington. The claim to fame of this area is that it is where the Columbia River empties out into the Pacific Ocean, and thus it is where the Lewis and Clark expedition ended, in November of 1805.
On Friday, Paul and I headed to Cape Disappointment State Park to walk out on the jetty between the Columbia River and the ocean. The day was cold and misty, and I imagined Lewis and Clark and their crew arriving after months of exhausting travel, only to see the steep cliffs, swathed in fog and pounded by cold, gray waves. “The Graveyard of the Pacific” this place is called, for all the shipwrecks that have happened in its foggy waters.
The “Corps of Discovery” wintered on the Washington coast before beginning their journey back home. During this time, Lewis, who is thought to have been bi-polar, fell into a depression. He stopped writing in his journal and claimed to dislike the Pacific Ocean – in fact, it is said that he was the one to name the cape “Disappointment.” I wondered why he was disappointed. Because they didn’t find an all-water route to the coast? Because the Pacific Northwest was so harsh and sunless?
Most likely he was depressed because his journey was over. He had made it to the Pacific Ocean, but what now? How does it feel to reach the goal you’ve been working towards for so long? You’d think it would feel good, but maybe not.
In March the corps headed back east, and although Lewis was given a large piece of land and a high-ranking government position, he was unhappy and unstable, and a few years later, in 1809, he died of gunshot wounds in what is generally thought to be a suicide. He was thirty-four years old.
Recently I finished writing a novel I’d been working on for a while, and ever since I’ve been feeling at loose ends. What do I do now? I’ve completed my goal. (I’ve reached the Pacific Ocean!) Only I don’t feel as happy as I thought I would. I feel, dare I say it, a little disappointed.
I often wonder if the same will be true when I finally get a novel published. It’s something I want so badly, and yet, when it happens, will I feel let down somehow? When you have a goal dangling above you, you are always looking up, reaching for it, but when you get there, what do you do? You are no longer reaching. You are standing still.
In Lewis and Clark’s case, you turn around and go back the way you came. And I guess that’s what I have to do, too. I have to go back over my novel. I have to go back to the drawing board and start writing something else. My next steps are foggy in my mind. This is not an easy place to be.
But I’m lucky that I’m of a (somewhat) stable heart and mind, not prone to depression or mania. Unlike Cobain and Lewis, I can withstand the long Northwest winter. I can wander in the fog for a while or sit contemplating under the bridge on the muddy banks of the Wishkah. And then, when the sun finally comes out and I can see my path more clearly, I’ll continue on.
Even when you reach your destination, there are always more places to go.