LOVED IT LIKE A ROCK

Rock of Ages: Haystack Rock at duskby Jim Gullo, for Oregon.com

It took me about twenty minutes to figure out that even though you may come to the northern Oregon communities of Cannon Beach and Seaside for any number of reasons -- the beaches, the ocean views, the clam chowder, the recreational opportunities -- you stay for the rock. You look for the rock, you photograph the rock…you basically fall in love with the rock. I did, and I'm not ashamed to say so. I'm so taken with this particular rock that I'm gazing at it as I write this, after moving my comfy leather chair to frame a better view of the rock through my patio door. It is my new main squeeze, the object of my affections, my pet rock. This is my touching story.

The rock in question here is Haystack Rock, a 235-foot basalt monolith that juts straight up out of the ocean just a few feet offshore from the town of Cannon Beach. It dominates the landscape from Tolovana Beach to the south, all the way through Cannon Beach to the slopes of Tillamook Head, the rocky headland that separates Cannon Beach from the neighboring resort town of Seaside (and is not to be confused with the cheese-making town of Tillamook, forty miles south of Cannon Beach on Highway 101). It is, in fact, the third-largest coastal monolith on the planet. With its supporting cast of rocky islets that dot the ocean landscape here - including the Tillamook Lighthouse that sits on a solitary island, two miles off-shore -- Haystack looks like something that the rugged Coast Range of mountains coughed up and spat out into the water, a geologic afterthought and a kind of fond farewell to the continental landmass.

It is beautiful in its way, but the words that my rock evoke have less to do with pretty, and more to do with rugged, imposing, wild. From where I sit, in an oceanfront room at the Tolovana Inn, one of several local lodgings that offer great views of Haystack Rock, the cold, relentless Pacific Ocean is showing five separate wave breaks as it rolls onto a hard, sandy shore. When a storm kicks up and the winds start to blow, the waves merge into a single giant cauldron of spray and foam and surge. This is not a watery landscape that beckons, like a Hawaiian bay or a South Pacific lagoon. "Stand back and admire me," the ocean here says, "but enter at your own risk." As if to prove the point, the waves batter the ocean side of Haystack Rock and its two satellites that are appropriately called The Needles, throwing up great plumes of spray.

There are many rocks around the world that travelers go to admire: Diamond Head on Oahu, Corcovado in Rio de Janeiro, the white cliffs of Dover. Haystack Rock is as significant to Oregon as those signature rocks are to their locales. I couldn't keep my eyes off it as I explored the area.

Ocean Avenue in Cannon BeachCHOWDER, SLAW AND A ROCK

That big ocean has a magnetic quality, and my first order of business was to allow myself to be drawn to it. Lemming-like, I walked the sands of Tolovana Beach, but not to throw myself into the chilly Pacific. I was looking for food, and found it at Mo's, the chain of friendly seafood-and-chowder restaurants that dot the Oregon coast. Here, the restaurant sits right on the sand - on stormy days, the waves can crash onto the restaurant's windows, said manager Ben Van Osdol - and the views of the surf and Haystack Rock are superb.

I ordered the signature clam chowder, which puts me in good company. "Chain-wide, we sell 500,000 gallons of it a year," said Van Osdol, "and on a good day here, we go through 120 to 180 gallons of soup." Creamy with milk and dotted with butter, it made a fine, hearty meal with a side order of coleslaw topped with bay shrimp.

Thus fortified, I set out to explore. The population of Cannon Beach ranges from 1,000 to 1,600 people - "depending on how you count the second-home owners," said Kim Bosse, Executive Director of the local Chamber of Commerce -- and visitors to the area top 750,000 a year. There are 22 restaurants registered with the Chamber, from pizza joints to fine-dining venues, and 1,189 hotel rooms, many of which, like mine, provide epic ocean views. There are also numerous vacation rental properties, and I set out to find two of them, always with the thought, of course, of getting closer to my favorite rock. One charming cottage on Neilson Street, which is located on the rocky outcropping between Tolovana and downtown Cannon Beach, framed my favorite Haystack in the picture windows of its living room. Another, called the Crabshack, was a historic, wooden home on Ocean Avenue with a patio that was steps away from the wide, sandy beach in the middle of town. Both properties are available through Cannon Beach Property Management, which, according to owner Tami Florer, has 44 such homes to lease on a short-term basis.

I reflected on all this while munching on a chunk of Haystack Bread from the Cannon Beach Bakery, a fine white loaf that, unlike its namesake rock, is light and chewy and makes darned good sandwiches. See the rock, eat the rock, be the rock.

GETTING TO KNOW MY ROCK

Down North Hemlock Street from the bakery, the Coaster Theatre was preparing for another season of shows. Built in the '20s as a roller rink, the theater has become one of the great community stages in Oregon since it became a playhouse in 1972. As manager Pia Shepherd explained, the theater stages new shows throughout the year, including Bus Stop and Dames at Sea this spring, and in the summer, it becomes a full-blown repertory theater, with three shows running at once. "That way, people who visit can take in several shows over the course of a week," she said. Slated for the summer of 2009 are the farcical Bullshot Crummond, Sherlock's Secret Life, and Neil Simon's Come Blow Your Horn. A big, extravagant staging of Hello Dolly! will finish this year's season in November and December.

As I watched, director Tyson Stephenson was directing his actors in preparation for William Inge's Bus Stop. And who was playing the lead role of Bo Decker, the amorous cowboy? None other than Ben Van Osdol, the manager from Mo's restaurant. Paths cross often in a small, close-knit community like Cannon Beach, and Stephenson explained that most of the actors who tread the boards at the Coaster live on the coast between Astoria and Tillamook. It truly is a community theater.

View from Indian Beach LookoutI spent the afternoon visiting Ecola State Park, which occupies the Tillamook Head bluff on the north side of Cannon Beach and has hiking trails, picnic areas, and striking views and access to Indian Beach, a crescent of protected sand that is a favorite of area surfers. The parking lot above Indian Beach is said to be a great place to watch for the whale migration that takes place in these waters in November and March. As I left, I happened upon a herd of elk grazing alongside Highway 101, another testament to this wild, rugged landscape where the mountains meet the sea.

By dusk, I decided to get even more familiar with my favorite rock. I never realized that Haystack Rock was so close to shore, and indeed, at low tides you can walk right up to it. I strolled down long, wide Cannon Beach as the waves crashed and the ever-present wind sent fine streams of sand scuttling across the surface of the beach and collecting into polyglot drifts. The eastern side of the monolith was exposed, and showed a boulder field of barnacle-encrusted rocks and shallow tidepools. Several seastars in orange and red had attached themselves to the base of the Haystack, and waited for the tide to return.

During the summer, you can explore the rock up close through guided nature tours offered by the city of Cannon Beach's Haystack Rock Awareness Program, which meets on the beach every day at low tide from April 1st through the summer months. "We teach the public about the tide pools and the puffin nests on the north side of the rock," said program coordinator Lisa Sheffield Guy. "We see sea-stars, crabs, anemones and my personal favorite, the nudibranchs or sea slugs." School groups, she added, can book private tours with the department's volunteer environmentalists.

My favorite rock deserves nothing less than such heartfelt admiration. Tell her hello for me when you go to visit.

Jim Gullo has been an award-winning travel writer and journalist for over 20 years, with travels for stories to over 35 countries and publication in many top national and regional magazines.

Elk grazing alongside Highway 101 Bartender Dave Butler pours a round at the American Legion, Cannon Beach