Talk of the Town - Days of wine and roses September 04 2003

But hold the tsunami

Newport, Ore. A real vacation. No e-mail. No voice mail. And if a cell phone goes off within 500 yards, I'm going to dance the tarantella on it in size 13 L.L. Bean steel-reinforced hiking boots, even though I don't hike.

The root of vacation is "vacate" — as in abandon all worries. That's easy to do here. Pinot Gris and Riesling spurts from an abundance of local vintners. Roses grow out of junk piles. Atlanta traffic, humidity and ozone? All forgotten in a sea breeze that proves air doesn't have to resemble Dinty Moore beef stew.

So why am I worried?

It's the sign. A small sign down by the harbor. It shows a little stick man fleeing a giant wave. With the words: "Tsunami evacuation route." A tsunami. A tidal wave. A "Hawaii Five-O" wall o' briny deep.

I've seen Stick Guy before. He's a warning on my water heater, getting scalded if he opens the wrong valve. He's on the electrical box out in the yard, getting zapped if he messes with the power supply. And here he is again, running like hell for higher ground.

The need for speed I can understand. A tidal wave doesn't strike me as something (and I hope one doesn't strike me at all) that runs on schedule. "Time for the 5:17 tsunami." I don't think so.

But I only thought tsunamis occurred in Pacific Rim island nations where the people hate Americans and the governments are corrupt. Or where the people are corrupt and the governments hate Americans. Or where everybody hates everybody and we're all on the take.

Wait a minute. That's the Pacific Ocean right out the window. You mean this is the Pacific Rim too?

I had to investigate.

Turns out tsunamis can occur in successive waves of, well, waves. They're the result of offshore earthquakes, and there's an active fault line about 70 miles off our Northwest coast.

"Don't happen but every four or five years," said a laconic local.

"When was the last one?"

"Four or five years ago."

This concerns me, particularly since I'm not nearly as fit as Stick Guy on the tsunami sign. I mean, he's a stick. Not an extra ounce of fat. Of course he can hightail it to the nearest mountaintop. Me? I'm breaking a sweat just trying to get the seat belt on.

A growing sense of foreboding is not helped by my friend, Gary, who with his spouse has joined me and mine on holiday. Gary works for an insurance company, an occupation that gives him a heightened sense of the risk involved in any activity. Any activity.

"Yessir," he mused, looking over our seaside cottage with the practiced eye of a disaster claims specialist. "We've paid out plenty on these places back East. Too close to the coast. Smashed clean to bits by the storm surge in a hurricane. Guess a tidal wave would be even worse."

To head off a tsunami of indigestion, I decide to walk on the beach. "Watch that volcanic rock," warned Gary. "It'll cut up your feet so bad you'll fall and won't be able to get up. Had a claim once from the family of a lady in coastal Georgia. Turned her ankle on a sandbar. Drowned when the tide came in."

All right, so we'll drive. We motor down to a spectacular promontory known as Cape Meares. The highlight is Three Arch Rocks Refuge, a trio of massive stone formations looming out of a turbulent sea.

One of the best vantage points there is reached by walking through an old tunnel cut through a sea cliff that has seen better eons. Falling stones, and occasional boulders, can slide down onto the beach.

"Danger," proclaims a sign at the tunnel entrance. "Do Not Enter."

"We had a claim once," remembered Gary. "From a man whose VW bug got hit by a tractor-trailer in the Holland Tunnel. Rear-ended that sucker so hard it veered into the opposite lane, where it got hit again, by a giant ..."

"You know something?" I said. "I don't care. I'm tired of always being worried about what might or might not happen next. I'm on vacation."

"You should see the risk rates for vacationers. People away from home, driving strange cars, doing extreme sports. Crazy things they wouldn't normally do. People drop like flies."

"Well this fly is going to live for a change. I'm going into that tunnel and I'm going to enjoy the view from the other side."

Just then, a few feet from where we were standing, some rocks slid down the sea cliff. Despite the danger, it was truly a life-changing experience.

Bad news is, I can't see the ocean this far inland.

But I'm finally out of tsunami range.


i>Glen Slattery is high and dry in Alpharetta.