Signs & Messages: Reflecting on Local History

At Yaquina Bay State Recreation Site, there is a plethora of signs.  There is a mélange of warning signs:

  • No fireworks!
  • No camping!
  • No touching sea lions!
  • Be careful of steep cliffs, rolling driftwood, sneaker waves, strong currents, and incoming tides!
  • Be wary of leaving valuables in your car: they are not secure!

And the most recent:

  • “Tsunami Debris Watch: Find It, Bag It, Leave It.  Help Stop Invaders”


That last one is serious business, particularly since the floating dock arrived just north of here, not far from my mom’s house, earlier this year.

ImageNot far from the extravaganza of warning signs (that should be followed by a “Have a Nice Visit!” sign), there is a historical marker.  It is wooden and solid and confers a serious, withstanding-the-test-of-time quality.  On it is long paragraph that informs any reader about the history of this place: the lighthouse built in 1871; the connection between this point of land and Cape Foulweather further north, named by Captain James Cook on March 7, 1778:

“News of Cook’s Voyage to the Pacific Northwest stimulated the American interests in this region and aroused in Thomas Jefferson an interest that led to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the dispatch of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.”

Now, I loves me my Lewis & Clark history.  I attribute this rather incongruent interest to having grown up in Oregon.  So I am happy to read this bit of historical trivia, even if it is a stretch to connect this bit of earth to L & C who never stepped foot here.  I have no problem with that.

What I do have a problem with is how modern this sign’s history is, how unimaginatively recently it stops (or starts), particularly since this sign stands in the midst of a great, natural wilderness that was populated by many complex human communities, the descendants of which still live and still live in these wider environs.


When I was a kid and came to the ocean and read the “no camping” sign (yes, even four decades ago, such a warning existed), I thought it was directed to me and my family: no vacation camping on the sand! You must go to an approved campground, which we did.

Now that I am older, I know that these “no camping” signs are for the homeless people who are not camping for vacation, but are camping for shelter.  These are folks who are drawn to the coast because generally it stays above freezing here, whereas in the Willamette Valley, it freezes and can freeze deep.  Now, these folks are not likely to set up a tent, or some other makeshift shelter, on the beach.  It’s too darn windy and too much exposure to weather elements.   They are much more likely to find a relatively isolated stand of trees, where they won’t be harassed, plus there they gain some protection granted by the woods.  Still, the sign is there, just in case.

Now that I am no longer a child, now that I understand that many warnings and rules and signs are not always meant for all, but are targeted for a few, I can read the message behind the sign.  It makes me wonder about the message behind that Oregon History sign.

A message that history began with European exploration. 

A message that usAmerican manifest destiny is why I am able to enjoy this scenic outlook, so I should be thankful for such gifts and not give too much thought to the costs. 

A message that there was no one worthy, no civilization of note, in this area before the late 18th century.

It makes me think of the oft-left-out stanza from Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land:”

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

Let us bring our hearts and minds to all kinds of signs.  Let us read not just the words, but the messages beneath them.  Let us ask for whom they are intended and for whom are they not.  Let us demand of our awake selves to ask aloud: do we heed them or tear them down?

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