There is a place they call The Devil's Punchbowl, where we saw whales

August 10th, 2014, 11am

It’s funny how what appears to be a specific moment can also be a jungle of memories and sensations that defy mere words. Let’s say I just want to focus on this snapshot, taken during my recent Oregon Coast trip with Bobby E, a dear friend who I’ve kept in touch with for 25+ years back when he worked alongside me at my dinky but adventurous restaurant in Athens, GA.

As an ancient Greek writer put down, “A man can walk into a river twice, but when he returns to the same river later, nothing will be the same, for both the man and the river will have changed.” This is but my first visit to this place, and already changes were underway for me during this visit where we stop by Otter Rock, Oregon to see what we could see.

This photo is The Devil’s Punchbowl, a really exquisite bit of geology perched at the headlands of Otter Rock. If I was able to hike down to the beach the perspective is even crazier, as the rock formation has cave aspects, is influenced by the tides splashing inside the bowl, and of course, as a human on the beach looking up is quite a shift from how one greets the Devil’s Punchbowl as a tourist: looking down into the Punchbowl from the vantage overlooking the windswept Pacific Ocean.

Luckily, for us that foggy day in August, we are also suddenly invited to see whales cavorting near the rock feature. Most likely, they are two grey whales who stay along this swath of Oregon coast. I see the undulating whales breathing via blowholes at the surface briefly; like a dream, I’m thinking how can it be that I have lived 50 years on this blue dot so majestic but how can this really be that this is just now the first time I am seeing whales?

A woman pulses with joy at seeing the whales, like a songbird. I envy her bcuz to be honest, I’m a bit hungover. Robin Williams died yesterday, and though my friend, Bobby E, and I are on vacation, this sorrowful news has found us. Mike Brown has also just been murdered in cold blood on the main streets of a St. Louis suburb, but at this exact moment of seeing the whales, that news (and the implications that ensue like the strange fruit of dark dismay) doesn’t exist in my mesh of experiences. Losing the quicksilver charm of Robin Williams is enough, as last night we kept drinking, chatting with people into the wee hours at a Newport drinking establishment aptly named The Sandbar, after a good meal and a terrific story from Bobby E that touched on birthday cake for Patty Smith, who like Bobby grew up in Philly, and on George Dureau the New Orleans painter, and my mentor in Rumi, the poet Coleman Barks who still lives in Athens and enjoys sidling up to the bar where Bobby works for a nightcap of bourbon and the quiet conversations of friendship & affectionate soulful crazy that Bobby attracts like a firefly blinking in the illusion of an endless summer night.

There are no fireflies in Oregon, but we make do, Bobby and I on this night. Laughing and being surreal, catching up and drinking a really awesome special white wine after closing time, a Verdeca from Puglia that is so good plush with almonds and an electricity like a psychedelic cactus— a wine that awakens our thirst for life, as we sit shrouded in fog in the back of a parking lot at 4 am in Newport. We are talking about anything else than Robin, mostly, though we both know dear friends who battle depression, until I close the night by riffing on how once we mess up the land from global warming will the whales let us share the seas with them, and I’m joking like Mork that the whales say, “Now my little monkey cousins y’all better calm down if you comeback below the waves, cuz this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around!”

That word of joyous endless summer night, that Sanna shared with us on Hi, the sahira— it hangs tough in elegiac moments, too, when you wish that love could have been banked for everyone who feels the cold chill of depression and health woes, so that when you make someone laugh mightily, as did Richard Brautigan or Robin Williams or anybody who has faced this Veil of Tears with humor and warmth, when that person who brought laughter, kindness, joys needs to be reminded that the love created should be equal to the love each of us needs, I wish that my night before I saw the whales at The Devil’s Punchbowl could be me and Bobby E filling up the starlight with hope, friendship, and the truth that love matters like an element of the periodic table, like someone who holds you by the hands and says, I’m listening…tell me your stories….

The biography of my moment at The Devil’s Punchbowl is almost complete, but there are a few more tangled up in blue simultaneous aspects to share, if I may. One is there is a winery perched most improbably here on these westernmost headlands. We are a little hungover, and not truly ready for diving into the alcohol seas again, but I do have an affection for the improbable derring do of this enterprise. It’s The Flying Dutchman Winery, and while they purchase grapes from across the state every last drop of wine is made and aged at this facility, where they let the grapes rest in the salt air open top fermentation tanks to impart some coastal juju to their wines. I only tried a rich Cab Franc from The Flying Dutchman, and again am shown a grape that Oregon brings to life better than elsewhere though it is secretive and not well known outside of Oregon that the foxy red grape of the Loire has a home on the other side of the planet. Next time I visit this unique spot I’ll be ready to taste more from their stash of pirate wines.

Of course, as a pirate in my New Orleans heart, I love the fable of The Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship reputed to have sunk off the tip of South Africa that was piloted by an utterly driven captain from Holland who chased speed in the trade winds in defiance of rough conditions. It is said that for years the crew would exchange letters written a hundred years before to people long dead for supplies at ports around the globe. I mentioned this ghost ship to my nieces, who are avid Scooby Do fans into ghostly things, and a string of pirate stories rise from the oceanic depths whispering to be told. I think I sense a series…

The other moment embedded in this moment is not that big a deal, but there were many people who swim in wet suits in the beach besides The Devil’s Punchbowl. Sometimes the whales are orca, or other whales on whichever seasonal side of the whale migration to the Arctic for summer feasting, and the people diving are in close proximity to the whales. Has anybody been hurt by a whale, Bobby asks? No, though a few dogs have been chomped at, but no people. We see the divers, as the area to wash up is at the public bath here, and I guess I should thank them for preparing the whales for our return. Will we have letters to send to the future, or will we build geodesic domes beneath the pressures of all that water, rocked by the waves that hold our dreams far below the starlight?

We are pulling away from this zany Devil’s Punchbowl, and Bobby E spies an old Cadillac, and immediately drops into singing the classic Philly soul song, which sounds like Curtis Mayfield but is in fact by William DeVaughn, and which has been a favorite tune of mine for a long time, with its famous “digging the scene with a gangsta lean…just be thankful for what you’ve got” and the road spills underneath us like a ribbon to mark our place in this fantastic book we are reading about a precious blue dot where whales sang, and people laughed and gave each other hope when the spirits moved them moment to moment by the mile, unexpected places where love was earned by smiles left behind, the road ahead beckoning us to give all we’ve got.

“You may not have a car at all But just remember, brothers and sisters, You can still stand tall, and be thankful for what you’ve got….

Diamond in the back, sunroof down…”

Stephanie, Ken, Shu, Kristen and 1 more said thanks.

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Chris DeBarr

Chef who believes in eating the world to save it. Wine & language & sharp knives are the tools of my métier. At heart, I'm a warm & fuzzy Dadaist.

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