When the earthquake hit, Doyle Hooper was out on the very tip of Cascade Head. The initial shock threw him to the ground and he watched from his stomach as the head broke away from the mainland and the sea rushed in to fill the new-formed channel. The trail he’d hiked crumbled from the cliff in a cacophonous explosion of dirt and trees. Behind him, the tsunami wave gathered strength like a fist as it drew back from the shore. The head, which had become an island, was pulled farther out. Trees and chunks of rock plunged from the sides, but somehow Doyle remained unscathed in the open grass at the peak. Then the wave surged in around him and he watched in horror as it delivered its crushing fury onto the distant speck houses and roads of the coast.
A National Guard helicopter rescued him the next morning. It took a wide, sweeping flight back to the airfield outside Tillamook. Doyle looked down through the thick windows at the remains of Lincoln City and Neskowin. Mangled bridges, buildings turned inside out, cars atop trees and trees atop cars, all tangled together as if they’d forgotten which one did what: who grew and produced oxygen, who ran on gas. Aftershocks twitched the landscape like a shaken blanket.
Two days later, after a perfunctory checkup in a vast medical tent and two nights on a high school gym floor packed with other survivors, Doyle took a bus (his truck was never recovered) home to Idaho. But he was unable to go back to his former life. He left his wife, August, and quit his job as a hand at the Flying Saddle Ranch. He’d come to believe that his destiny lay on the same epic scale as the cataclysm he’d witnessed, and his own miraculous survival. He signed on with a publisher in New York City to write his memoir. Using the advance money, he bought a piece of land on the new, mostly deserted, Pacific Coast. He pulled a trailer out to the very edge where he could watch the waves pound the pale rock of the freshly exposed cliff. It would be at least a thousand years, he figured, before another quake.
The writing went slow and infuriating. The words on the page never seemed to match the visions in his head. Many mornings he simply gave up, stormed outside, and stood cursing at the waves. But with the help of a ghostwriter, he pushed on, and after a year found himself with fifty thousand cobbled-together words, and a title: One Man Is an Island. The freshly bound manuscript looked like a work of some significance, and he imagined a bright future of TV appearances in strange and distant countries. But by the time it was released, it had been overtaken by many other tales of suffering and heroism in the face of the Cascadia Earthquake, now ranked the worst natural disaster in United States history. Some were even more precarious than his own: the little girl who floated atop a Douglas fir for two days before washing ashore in Los Angeles, delivered, she claimed, by a benevolent pod of dolphins; the old man who woke in bed to find the whole upper story of his house at sea, sheared clean off from the main floor, and somehow watertight.
Doyle read these bestsellers with vexation, wishing he’d been better able to describe his own feeling of being carried from death by the earth’s mothering hand. He and he alone, atop the birth of an island. Husband to creation. The magnitude of it, the full-throated glory. His dreams turned back to the night he’d spent there on the grass beneath the stars. He swore he’d never slept better, even with the occasional violent heaving from below, and the distant smoke and sirens. Daily, he began to drive down the coast to where he could see the island’s rocky crest three hundred yards out to sea. He’d spend hours there, gazing at it as if at a lost lover. The gentle green knoll, the strong, sheer flanks.
Finally, unable to bear his loneliness, Doyle sold his land and trailer at a loss—people were cowards—and used the last of his money to buy a used, twenty-five foot Grady-White fishing boat. Its cabin was just big enough for a bunk, hot plate, and his few belongings. He prepared for what he imagined to be his final chapter, at sea. Stocking a month’s worth of food along with the notebooks and pens he’d use to finally properly capture the feeling of being borne atop a vast tectonic shift.
The nearest rebuilt harbor was in Astoria, and the ocean voyage south took two days’ hard sailing. Battling swamping waves, sleeping for an hour or two in the cramped, rolling cabin. The flash of exultation he felt watching the island grow and take on its familiar shape quickly turned to despair as he neared. Huge waves slammed the sides. There was nowhere to beach or anchor his boat and no way to climb to the top if he did. He could barely make out the grassy knoll on which he’d lain. The jagged striations in the cliff face seemed to glower at him. Doyle circled round and round in his small boat, evading treacherous coves and rip currents, searching in vain for some re-entrance to his Eden. Of course, there was none. All he could do was look up at the implacable rock—wet and black and shining—and weep and rage and call out to August, for the loss of the only kingdom he’d ever had.
As darkness came, forsaken, Doyle turned the Grady-White back toward the interior. The prow skimmed northward with a tailwind. He wondered if there was a ranch somewhere that might still take him in.