In 1920, a two-story hotel was erected in the small logging town of Wheeler, at the point where the Nehalem River bends west and becomes Nehalem Bay. An economic downturn and declining patronage led the hotel to shutter in 1928. It briefly reopened in 1937, only to close again following a fire on Christmas Eve in 1939. In 1940 the building was converted into a sort of medical clinic with overnight options that remained in practice until 1980. Ownership changed hands over the next few years until a visiting couple, taken by its charms, purchased the building in the late ’90s and began restoring the hotel to its former glory. They passed the baton to Katie Brown in 2009, and she has undertaken that labor of love ever since. Today, the hotel occupies eight rooms on the building’s second floor, while the first floor is the domain of antique stores and art galleries. The building is the centerpiece of a wildly charming half-mile-long stretch of Highway 101.
I met Katie years ago while I was on assignment for a story about small coastal towns. I stayed for a night as part of my research and loved it all—the hotel, the town, and Katie. After the tragic loss of most of my world to a house fire in early 2022, she generously offered to have me back for a respite when I could find my way out there. When I arrived, she gave me the keys to room 5 and told me to hold onto them, to come and go as I pleased until the start of the busy season several months later. The hotel became my home.
Many things helped me survive the months that immediately followed my partner’s untimely passing and the loss of our home—nature, writing, the love and support of family and friends—but this particular act of kindness from Katie was as large a factor as any.
Katie was suffering from her own personal turmoil several years ago when she decided to take a trip down the Oregon coast and, on a whim, stayed a night in room 5 of the Old Wheeler Hotel. Then she stayed another night, and then a third, and then she decided to buy the place. Fifteen years later, she still stays in room 5 from time to time when her life gets a little overwhelming or she needs some respite. Make of that what you will.
Room 5’s appeal and ability to offer healing and peace begins with the view. The second-floor corner space looks out a landscape I lovingly refer to as the Nehalem Serengeti: the Nehalem River and Bay, Lazarus Island, the Sitka Wetlands, and, off in the distance, the adjoining peaks of Neahkahnie Mountain. The view provides instant comfort when I wake and limitless avenues of thought, contemplation, and inspiration throughout the day and into the evening. My coffee cruises to the public dock after sunrise, followed by my wine wanders at sundown, are the finest bookends to a day I’ve experienced yet.
In addition to the beauty and tranquility of the area, there is something magical about living in a historic hotel. I saw a quote a few years back—more of a meme, really—by the artist Numa Parrott that resonated with me as a person who has spent a lot of time on the road. It goes like this: “I really enjoy just existing in hotels. The long identical hallways. The soulless abstract art. The weird noises the air-conditioner makes. Strange city lights in the window. Six stories off the ground. Strangers chatting in the hall. Nothing in the dresser. No past, but an infinite present.” I agree; I love staying in hotels for all those reasons. But residing in a hotel—especially a very small, very old one—is an entirely different animal.
At the Old Wheeler Hotel, ancient and uneven hardwood floorboards elongate and contract. The place has so much soul and character that you almost have to work to ignore it. There is something preternatural about being alone in such a place for the evening when no guests are present, a pleasant eeriness that comes with walking the low-lit halls while the creaking floors and antique mirrors tacitly convey my course. The hotel exudes mystery and mischief, with an undercurrent of good intentions. In that regard, spending time there is much like being in the rainforests of the North Coast.
There are distinctive, haunting qualities to coastal parcels of windblown Sitka spruce and shore pine forest. One moment I’m walking cautiously through hobbit tunnels cut into thickets of silk tassel, salal, and wax myrtle. Then I turn a corner and emerge into a grove of trees so contorted by the elements, it appears as though I’ve stumbled upon a dance frozen in time, my sudden presence causing the trees to hold their form until I finish passing through.
I always turn to Mother Nature when things go pear-shaped, and this time has been no different. I know better than to seek answers from her, though; I am hunting instead for perspective. My time spent grieving and healing outside has taught me that not all of her cycles are equal or fair by human empathetic assessment. Some, like the changing of the seasons, are reliable in their timing end execution, but others are more ambiguous.
When an ancient forest is all but erased by wildfire, it can take centuries to grow back to a similar state. It’s likely the forest will never resemble its former incarnation. The forest will again hold life, and there will be beauty in the regrowth. Whatever the eventual outcome, it will take time. It’s a process that neither you nor I will see completed, a loop not meant to be closed. I’ve learned to be OK with that.
I go out and appreciate the things currently happening and anticipate what I know is coming: The countless new greens of spring joining again in concert with the evergreens; the multicolored wildflower meadows in June; bird calls both foreign and familiar. I am grateful for wheels in motion that I’m not yet aware of and cycles yet unseen. I trust that, with every step, paddle, breath, day, year, and indeterminate measure of whatever, I am alive and moving forward, however slowly it may seem. Make it through another day. Collect another sunset.
I called Wheeler home for eight months before finally moving into a more permanent residence on the coast, about a half-hour down the road, near Tillamook. I feel compelled to be where the rivers, mountains, and ocean converge, near the elk and the salmon, where my favorite trees of fragrant needles and flat leaves connect the sand to the soil. Here there is life and abundance. Here I find beauty, inspiration, meaning, perspective, and purpose every day. It’s where I belong—for now, anyway.
I tend not to entertain much outside the realm of the proven and factual. I am agnostic about religion, ghosts, and all forms of woo. Yet I know there are things for which no real explanations or answers have yet to be revealed. I feel like I’ve been cared for and helped along on this journey in ways I don’t know and don’t understand. And I don’t have to. The journey continues, and it started with a simple act of kindness that turned out to be a lifeline, a sanctuary, a home base for healing in an unassuming cozy corner in Wheeler, labeled room 5.
TagsDeath and Dying, Family, History, Place
1 comments have been posted.
Thank you for this magical piece! And for showing us another way to both survive and to help the grieving. Bless Katie! I love Wheeler and often pass through on my way to Manzanita, when on writing retreat at the coast, and take the same photo of the bay every. single. time. All good wishes to you on your journey!
Kirsten | November 2023 |