I parked the truck outside Nehalem Food Mart, circa sundown during the wet season. I’d just dropped off one of my daughters (a.k.a the Ghost of Christmas Past) with a kindly Scrooge who’s given her lifts to the Cannon Beach Coaster Theatre. Sent them off with delicious slices from Pizza Garden.
The remains of two warm pies sat in boxes on the passenger seat, waiting to be eaten with my other daughter soon after she stepped off the school activity bus. To pass the time I grabbed a book from the backseat — Murders at Moon Dance by A.B. Guthrie, one of the earth’s most eloquent western writers. Good twilight reading while parked in downtown Nehalem.
“Men whose curvature of leg attests years in the saddle clump up and down the board walks, the eyes in their weather-beaten faces by habit screwed into a squint against sun and wind. The talk on the streets and in the saloons is of cattle and horses and grass and water, as it was in the beginning.”
Such talk is common in Nehalem too. With minor adjustments, the locale would make a good set for a Hollywood western — that is, if movie moguls were interested in places where the locals are often soaked to the bone, and most of us are stranger than your average cowboy.
Looking up from my book I saw a whiskered gent with his canine familiar bobbing along the sodden sidewalk. Some call him Pendragon, because he grew up in the same neighborhood as King Arthur. A long-term coastal dweller, P’s one of my favorite storytellers. His best tales are personal legends of encounters with newcomers, all conveyed with a fine Cornish accent.
Like the one about when P was ambling through the woods, one evening in Cannon Beach, and surprised two bible school students who were about to fully indulge their carnal impulses.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but do you want to make a baby? Because if you don’t, you better be using protection. And by the way, do your elders at the school know you’re in this deep?”
Of course the would-be sinners quickly snatched their fig leaves and slithered back to safe quarters, infused with fresh fear of a Lord who can work in mysterious whiskered ways.
Or the one about how P came upon a campsite, in the same vicinity, that was being used repeatedly by people with no respect for nature.
“There was trash strewn everywhere, empty hot-dog packages and bags of buns. I figured someone should send the bastards a message; so, well, I dropped my trousers and emptied my bowels right there in the middle of their fire pit. Organic material, it’ll decompose a lot sooner than all that shit they left.”
Long live Pendragon, I thought as I watched him grace the streets of Nehalem. Just the kind of bloke I like to check in with when I’m surfing the social environs. Figured it was a good idea to tell him about an upcoming salmon celebration — held every year to mark the creatures’ return to spawn in area streams. I jumped out of the truck to give him an invitation.
“Technically it’s a potluck,” I said. “held in Cannon Beach on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. But don’t worry if you remember late and haven’t prepared anything. There’ll be salmon provided by the host group — the Ecola Creek Awareness Project.”
The word “Ecola” set him off.
“I want to know who’s responsible for changing the name of the Ecola Creek Bridge?” he demanded. “Someone put a fucking sign up that says Fir Street Bridge. That’s not what it’s called.”
I confessed I had overlooked the new sign, as often happens while moving about in my bookish bubble. One can acquire the false notion that one knows much when in fact one sees very little. I’m indebted to folks like P who help me pay closer attention.
At that moment another friend walked up who excels at such neighborly assistance. Dean Bonde happened by just in time to hear Pendragon hold forth on the importance of names, drawing up memories of places from his youth — Plusha Bridge (by his aunt and uncle’s farm where he worked), Henwood (a hamlet of stone cottages where the natives raised hens), and Upton Cross (a village a bit upland from the first two). I got the impression P grew up in a place where the faerie tell their tales to folk who’ll listen.
“Ecola Creek used to be called Elk Creek,” Dean reminded us. “Then they changed it.”
Neither P nor I expressed objection to that re-naming. Ecola is an Indian word that means whale, so it affirms an elder identity that’s attached to a good story.
“The old word is the best,” affirmed P in a voice that could have been used to caution visitors about certain secluded coves during the new moon.
A heightened sense of awareness came over me as the talk swirled round the three of us gathered by the Food Mart (which, despite the sign out front, our family insists on calling the “Blue Store”). I felt at one with Nehalem, “place of the people.”
Then Dean upped the ante in the matter of naming.
“You know, what’s always bothered me” he said, “is that somebody changed the name of Neahseasu to Tillamook Head.”
“Neahseasu?” asked P.
“Neahseasu means place of the god of the north,” said Dean. “Neahkahnie means place of the god of the south. That’s what I heard.”
Me too. I heard it from Dean about eighteen years ago, not long after my first visit to the Oregon coast. He and I were communing during vespers at Bill’s Tavern. At the time I assumed all the locals knew about Neahseasu.
I was wrong. P had never heard of it. Neither had most of the old-timers I spoke with as follow-up to our sidewalk chat in Nehalem. I asked a couple of local history buffs who couldn’t tell me much. Didn’t get far with books or the web, either. Don Berry mentions Neahseu’su (his spelling) in his historical novel Trask. It’s spelled as Nah-se-u’-su in Oregon Geographic Names, by Lewis McArthur.
But that’s the old name, all right, handed down in various phonetic forms from the first namers. What does it mean? To date, the most definitive answer has come from Dean, and he doesn’t remember where he heard it.
Further insight was provided by my friend Doug Deur, a respected ethnographer who’s studied the indigenous cultures of the region. Doug was skeptical about linking the name Neahseasu (which he pronounces “Ne-ah-se’a-su”) with any deity associated with a cardinal direction. Yet it sounds like there’s room for common ground.
“Exact meaning is unclear,” wrote Doug in an email, “but I have associated [Neahseasu] with a being who was said to have been manifested there.”
That reminds me of something Dean told me soon after my arrival to Cannon Beach. Newly enthralled with this wonderland of surf and stone, I remember the bemused grins I got from locals when I started rambling on about the native landforms. Not Dean. He looked me square in the eye and said “Haystack Rock is a living being.”
In the same vein, Neaseasu and Neahkahnie are massive promontories of being. These sibling headlands are northern and southern focal points for folks who live along the hilly coastline between Seaside and Wheeler. Surely they’ve been revered for a very long time.
“Every time I read ‘Tillamook Head,’” says Dean, “in my mind I whisper the word Neahseasu.”
Spirit moves me to follow Dean’s lead. And now Pendragon has got hold of it. Soon the word may start circulating anew among all the strange beings who dwell here.