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Escape to Wheeler

The first time I stopped in Wheeler, a man stood in the back of a pickup wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt and overalls. He could be a farmer or a fisherman, except that he was wearing a jester's cap of many colors. The long appendages of the knitted cap flew like an airborne octopus as the pickup drove by. Juana Del, owner of Wheeler Bay Lodge at the time, whom I had just met, reads my surprised face and says, "Oh that's Willow Bill." As if that explained it.

Willow Bill, in his thirties, was not dull-witted, nor the town clown, as his appearance might suggest, but at the time was perhaps the very heart of this small bay town on the Oregon Coast – a willow sculptor, an artist barely making it, as most artists do in small Oregon towns, but an integral part of what makes Wheeler a real community.

If you're traveling on Hwy. 101 between Cannon Beach and Tillamook, it is likely that you've driven through Wheeler without stopping. It's easy to miss — a few buildings strewn along the highway facing the bay. What catches the eye is Nehalem bay itself, framed by Neahkahnie Mountain and the jagged relief of its brethren. A motley sprinkling of buildings line the shore and you will probably see the intriguing clustered motel units of the Wheeler on the Bay Lodge. (Some may remember the old incarnation, the Wheeler Inn motel, that had on the roof a female dummy stuffed in a wheelbarrow with the sign, "Wheel Her In". By the time you’ve admired the bay, however, you’ve passed the town.

Wheeler was a booming lumber town at the turn of the century with huge mills on the waterfront, now long gone, a testament to a short-sited industrialism with machinery accommodating only old growth timber and proving too costly to redesign and recalibrate. A few log trucks still plow through town, downshifting, laden with seven or eight or even ten logs, where a log truck once carried only three. Or one.

Wheeler has survived the long decades of economic depression with its town buildings intact, and now is being revived by what could be called the New Pioneers — those who come from elsewhere to reconstruct the old. And they do come from all over the country: Oklahoma, Seattle, Chicago and yes, California. They are not replacing a fishing and lumber town, they are resurrecting a town that had played itself out. Wheeler seems to have dealt with the new reality more amicably than most former lumber and fish towns, seeming to have melded with the old-timers with little resentment or ill-will.

Nehalem bay is still active with non-commercial clamming, crabbing and salmon fishing, and there's still a small marina where boats and gear can be rented.

After a sound sleep at the Old Wheeler Hotel, Nehalem Bay is glassy green and eerily still, except for a couple heron and the twitter of birdsong. No busy crabbers, fishermen or kayakers break the spell. Without a sound, a subtle ripple in the water jars the reflection of sky, forest and mountains as a Chris Craft drifts by unmanned.

The owner, Tohn Keagle, reaches down and picks it up. (Yes, Tohn.) He’s just finished building the perfect replica of a 1930s 24-footer the newest addition to his collection of scale model cars, trains, planes and boats and is making certain it floats. Tohn, like many in this small town, population 391, has arrived from elsewhere in the last few years. He’s a little different from other newcomers, though. He was raised here.

“My blood pressure’s come down a few points and my kids like me a lot better since I moved back,” says Tohn, who quit his high-pressure computer tech job in Seattle and now works construction with three former high school buddies. “I guess it’s because life is pretty slow here,” he says. We look around us at the glorious bay and the mountains and the quaint historic town, where on this morning we see not a soul, and laugh.

I head back across Hwy. 101 past the cute railroad station hut in the middle of town (passenger service defunct since December ’07 storm) to explore the few blocks called town. This, as I discover can take a while, especially if you like antiques, collectibles and eclectic stuff at sometimes bargain prices. I love the amusing store combinations — Simples Herbal Apothecary and Liquor store and the video/bakery/grocery. You could get lost in the labyrinth Wheeler Station Antiques or find everything sewing you need in the warehouse-sized Creative Fabrics. Trillium has an exquisite collection of Northwest art and jewelry and owner Mary Lou Tierney’s own miniature woven baskets - each a perfect gem.

Lynn Thomas, a music teacher and violinist from Portland who recently moved to Wheeler to join Charlie Fuerstenau, the owner of Richfield Antiques & Collectibles tells me that the weather is better here. People come in to the store soaked from hiking just a couple of miles away and ask, “what’s the deal?” The deal is Wheeler lies inland just enough to be protected.

I think I’ll go beachcombing and have lunch at Rockaway but as soon as I leave Wheeler, the foggy breezy beach makes me turn return. I deliberate over fish & chips (barely dusted or battered) at the Sea Shack and watch the lovely bay rippling in a slight breeze. Yep, in the sun.

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