I never would have ended up in Florence, Ore., if I had not had someone there to visit, but that seems to be the way with Florence: you just end up there. That’s what happened with my friend, Max, and wife Jan, at any rate. Several years ago, Jan was trying to get back from their previous home on Vancouver Island to Oakland, Calif., where she and Max have a small six-unit complex of apartments that they rent out and where they were going to celebrate Christmas together— that is, until a snowstorm came in and closed down all surrounding roads, so that Jan found herself stuck in Florence. Ironically, though, it was the one place in the area that did not have snow, which inspired her and Max to buy a plot of land at an RV resort and set up camp, where they have now been living part-time for about two years.
I got there, because when I was in Sonoma, Pomona told me that if I was driving up Coastal Hwy 1, I should pay Max a visit. While Pomona herself had not yet been to visit him and Jan, she said she knew that in their backyard, behind their large mobile home, they had parked a smaller one for guests, and so I agreed to let her get in touch with Max and Max agreed to host me and that’s how we left things. Between leaving Ben’s place in Cotati and arriving in Florence, though, I had to spend a night at a campsite and I ended up in a rather dismal place in a dark valley with one gas station, where a glum attendant humorlessly rang up my potato chip dinner. Having arrived by night, I checked myself in using the self-registration station and so by the time I left at dawn the next day, I had probably spoken 10 words in 36 hours. Thus, it was with great glee that I pulled into Max’s driveway and extended my hand in greeting to this stranger. He showed me my bunk for the night inside of a Toyota camper, much like Roxanne but a little newer and bigger— with a better rear axle, I might add. I set my things down inside and looked around with a contented sigh. Yes, this would do for a night.
That night, over Chinese food that Max deemed the best in town and something a little closer to authentic than your average fortune cookie joint, he told me about being born in China and then growing up in Taiwan. He was 25 when he moved to the States and had just finished his military service, as well as undergraduate school. In Cincinnati, he earned his Masters in electrical engineering and then moved to California to try for his doctorate but soon realized he was not cut out for that and settled instead for a job in Silicon Valley, where he spent the rest of his career until retirement. And somewhere along the way, he met Jan, an Englishwoman, who was in Oakland overseeing a renovation on their property while I was visiting.
Florence is not where they will end up forever, he said, but for now, it will do.
“Simple, unsophisticated and its main attraction is nature,” Max said. “And cheap.”
Because it’s in Oregon, for example, there is no sales tax. The cost of living is affordable, too, and gas is mandatory full service for less than the price of a gallon in California. There’s not a lot of culture, though. A small downtown on the water harbors a variety of restaurants and some shops, though Max wonders how anyone stays afloat, what with tourism being so thin, and then there is a wide beach for strolling, which is what we did the morning of the day I left, taking Rennie with us and letting him run free for awhile.
As we were driving back downtown for one last meal before I took off, Max made an abrupt U-turn.
“You shouldn’t leave Florence without seeing Rhody Drive,” he said.
That’s what they call Rhododendron Drive, where the rhododendrons come into bloom every year, drawing crowds of people to see them in their glory. Unfortunately, I missed it by a month or two but driving down the five or so miles of road, you could see all the empty green bushes packed into the brush and you could imagine how splendid it must be, all those colors bursting forth at once.
“How did they get here? Do you know?” I asked.
“How did they get here?” he said. “They’re just here, I think.”
Kind of like us.