A sleepy town on the Columbia river

Astoria: Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Tale of Ambition and Survival on the Early American Frontier
By Peter Stark
400 pp. Ecco Press. $17.


Well, hello!! Yes, it’s been a while since I’ve written one of these, mainly because I’ve been in Astoria these past 2+ months and that has coincided with a significant lapse in my review writing. I just haven’t done a very good job of keeping up with anything that’s been happening around here, and that has made me sad so I have chosen today, my friends, to remedy that.

So while I could write a proper review of this book, about the founding of Astoria, a town many of you have likely never heard of, I am not going to do that because that would be boring — for me. Instead I will just say, “really insightful book! check it out!” and write about these past two months in Astoria, if that’s ok with you. If not, there are, of course, plenty of actual reviews about this book that you can read.

I arrived here on July 20th. The plan was to stay until October 20th — I find it quite difficult to be anywhere for more than three months at a time — but I will instead be leaving here on October 13th and that, my friends, is not a moment too soon. Because, truth be told, I would have been better suited to three weeks here than three months. That’s not to say anything bad of Astoria except that there just isn’t a lot going on here.

There’s a riverwalk, which is lovely, where you can go to watch all the cargo ships come in, but even this activity fills me with melancholy. Why? Because water, in general, makes me a bit melancholic, but more so because these boats are coming from exciting places like Shanghai, Sydney, Seoul, Singapore, and other exotic places that don’t even start with the letter “S” and, well, I’d rather be in one of those.

This doesn’t feel like a place where one goes to live, it feels like somewhere one goes to die. Perhaps that gets back to the whole “doomed” expedition to found the city in the first place, but lest I actually start talking about the book, let me quickly get back to what I was talking about: death.

Yes, a place one goes to die.

The, erm, funereal nature of this place is only further heightened by the fact that I don’t have a car, which means I must cycle if I want to go anywhere outside of town — which is walkable enough on its own. That would be fine, if it weren’t for the fact that there are bridges leading out of town in nearly all directions, one of which you can’t cycle on, one of which you can but which appears most foreboding, and another of which I have cycled on but it doesn’t really go anywhere other than Fort Clatsop, where Lewis and Clark spent a winter. I’ve been renting cars, and that’s how I’ve managed. Otherwise, I may very well have drowned myself in the river by now.

Of course, the reimposition of COVID restrictions has only added to this. People are generally less friendly these days, at least here in the US, and it’s especially hard to connect to people when you’re all wearing masks. There’s also quite an eclectic crowd here. You’ve got everything from your Q-Anon crazies (a painter, wouldn’t you know!) and your more bohemian, lefty types. But they’re all a bit cold and stand-offish, much like the sea lions that bark to keep their kin from attempting to hop up on their pier or buoy.

The food, as well, hasn’t exactly been a showcase of the diverse, lively ethnic cuisines I like to see, though there is some good Mexican, so that’s something. It seems most of the tourists come here for “The Goonies”, a very 80s film starring a young Sean Astin, specifically to tour the filming locations. That seems to be about it. There is a lovely bridge though, the Astoria-Megler bridge, which is the “longest continuous truss bridge” in the US, for what that’s worth.

No, the bridge actually is lovely.

As is the river.

But a weekend trip ought to do it. No need to come move out here for three months. If only someone had told me THAT before all this. Oh well. I shall remember it for the future.

Was Astoria today what John Jacob Astor had in mind? Would he have been disappointed with what his little Pacific outpost had become? I don’t much care, to be honest with you. He didn’t seem like a very nice fellow himself.

So, my fellow readers, while the thought of leaving Astoria brings me joy, to you all I say, it’s nice to be back!

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