Aside from the drumbeat of the ocean, a hush abides in this Oregon community, a haven for those allured by calm.

By Paige Porter
March 21, 2003
Matt Brown

Parking spaces in front of the Pacific Way Cafe & Bakery inGearhart's town center sit vacant. But the restaurant brims withhungry diners, some of them waiting outside for a table. Thesefriendly patrons have worked up quite an appetite, walking ratherthan driving from their homes. "That's the Gearhart way," saysresident Cindy Hawkins, pointing to passersby. "This is a walkingtown. Even in summer, when the vacationers come, there isn't muchtraffic to speak of because everyone would rather go anywhere byfoot than by car."

Established in 1890, this Oregon city has long enjoyed asymbiotic relationship with visitors, whose seasonal presencetriples the population. Locals, who number 1,100 year-round, rarelyhesitate to give thanks for some 2,000 additional summer people,who pump money into their economy. Most of the temporary folksflock here from busy Seattle or Portland to be near this stretch ofspectacular sea. Still, Gearhart hasn't grown like Cannon Beach (10miles south), where signs of tourism are far more obvious. Nor havesmall businesses been vanquished by commercialization.

The junction at Pacific Way and Cottage Avenue featuresspecialty shops, small businesses, a corner grocery, and thecafé. All of these structures bear the town's signatureornament: a Fitzgerald's hanging basket, fat with flowers. Theneighborhood gardening and interior decor shop provides theseoversize floral arrangements that sway in the ever-present breeze.Fitzgerald's owner, Don Burdulis, says people come back each summerto see the flowers around town. He was one of those admirers beforehe acquired the store that started this colorful tradition.

"My wife and I came here every year from Bellevue, Washington,and we always stopped by Fitzgerald's to see the flowers and thegarden art," Don says. "Then one day we heard the owner ofFitzgerald's was selling, and I think we were both surprised at howsad we were. So we played with the idea of keeping it alive. Andhere we are. And here we're going to stay."

Fitzgerald's wears the same weathered shingles as many of thetown's houses. "We're right by the Pacific Ocean and we look likewe belong in Cape Cod," says Jill Graham, owner of GearhartGrocery. "But the weather is as Pacific Northwest as it comes: fogand drizzle and magnificent storm watching."

Six months of the year―mainly late fall, winter, and earlyspring―clouds hover overhead, the rains fall with regularity,and locals retreat to the comfort of their homes. "Winter is ourhibernation time, our book-reading days," says Cindy, "because whensummer comes, we do three times as much work, making up forwhatever we lacked in the slower season. And we get to know thevacationers. The advantage is that even if we don't go anywhere, wefeel like we've been on a vacation to the beach because they makeus see the beauty we have here with fresh eyes."

The beach pulled Nina Kristiansen to Gearhart from San Pedro,California. "I grew up near the water, so I knew I couldn't everlive without it. I was drawn to Oregon, so I drove from Astoriadown to Newport, checking out houses and rentals along the way. Andthen I stumbled upon Gearhart. I didn't think towns like thisexisted anymore. Many folks from Oregon haven't even heard of usyet. And that's part of why I love it. Our anonymity allows forthis incredible spirit, where everyone does know each other, whereyour kids can still play outside without your worrying, whereneighbors help you out if you need anything. And isn't that what acommunity is, after all?"

(published 2003)