private birthday party at Oswald West State Park

evening surf at Short Sands Beach, Oswald West State Park

Last week was my birthday week in a hothouse month. Notoriously picky, I learned somewhere along the way, after many annual disappointments, that if I wanted a great birthday, I must give it to myself: the right gifts, agreeable company, carefully chosen meals, the best cake-and-ice-cream combination. Life can be stressful, so why not make this one day a secret (or not-so-secret) extra-special day? Other people can disappoint. A friend might forget or be too busy to make time. A partner or family member might buy the wrong thing, even after weeks or months of dropped hints. Only you know what you really want. And that can depend: some years we might want to throw a big party, while other years we might want to be left completely alone. Plus, it's nobody else's job to make us happy, right?

Since I've always loved putting care packages together for friends far away, picking out little luxuries to make them smile, why not do the same for myself? Another benefit is that this stretches one's birthday out longer than a mere day. And since anticipation is much of the fun, this adds weeks to a birthday-fun quota.

pink wildflowers at Short Sands Beach
In the weeks leading up to the big day, I'd been buying myself a few gifts here and there to that end: a new pen, a new Moleskine day planner (using Powell's store credit), a few classic writing reference books (two of three being secondhand), two cans of spray paint for the Thonet chair, and the biggest splurge: the Caroline Z. Hurley "Jules" linen throw I'd been wanting for months (via Urban Outfitters for free shipping). The night before, I picked up a small chocolate cake and a bunch of blush-colored roses at Trader Joe's. And most importantly, I arranged for the day off work (unpaid), asking my friend Jeff, who's self-employed, if we could spend the day at the beach. And we did.

stained sea cliff, Short Sands Beach, Oswald West State Park

Though I'm familiar with Cannon Beach and love the hidden, less touristy beach in Manzanita, those spots being more or less straight shots to the coast from Portland, I'd never been to Oswald West State Park, sandwiched between them along Highway 101. Since one of my favorite artists with excellent taste, Stephanie Congdon Barnes of 3191 Miles Apart, had mentioned Oswald West years ago on her blog as a place her family liked to camp at, it had long been on my to-see list. (Sadly, the park no longer allows camping after a large tree fell in 2008.) Unlike the long arm of beach at Manzanita, Short Sands Beach nestles inside a cove popular with surfers. Most of the visitors were in fact surfers, toting boards and backpacks full of wetsuits, though some were like Jeff and me: family or friends just out for a weekday at the beach.

And what a day! We walked down the short, easy trail under the highway and along a bubbling creek to the beach, picked out a spot on the sand about halfway down the beach and whipped out the picnic blanket, anchoring it on all sides with sea-rounded rocks. The morning was overcast, even nippy, so I was glad I'd brought a long cardigan. But the cove grants quite a bit of sheltered wind protection, so at least we didn't get as windblown as on most Oregon beaches. And though we wore hats, we both got a little burnt on our lower legs and feet scrambling like monkeys over the south-side rocks and tide pools before we even thought to pull out the sunscreen. The midday tide pools were full of anemones, tiny hermit crabs, little fishes, barnacles, mussels. There was even a narrow sea cave slit into the cliffside.

seaweed on rocks, Short Sands Beach, Oswald West State Park

rock-carved initials, Short Sands Beach

kelp in tide pool

driftwood whorls

wormholes in driftwood

The afternoon, though, grew hot. Cloud banks rolled in like waves, threatening to pull the shades on the sun but kept burning off right over the beach, as if by magic. We alternated between people-watching on the blanket, jumping up and taking a stroll down the beach in bare feet, snacking on dilled Havarti and caraway crackers, dozing on our stomachs, cooling our feet off in the chilled surf, and reading paperbacks. (I'd packed a copy of an old Agatha Christie mystery checked out from the library just for the occasion—my kind of summer-trash reading.) Late in the afternoon, we picnicked on homemade hummus, pita, Greek olives, sheep's-milk feta, and cucumber, tomato, baby sweet peppers, and carrots for dipping, with cherries for dessert. Somehow I didn't take any photos while we were on the blanket. Maybe I was sun-dazed, hypnotized by waves. Or I was just . . . happy. (I did think about snapping a picture of my toes on the purple-striped blanket against the sand, but nobody wants to see toes.)

driftwood dragon

visitors at Short Sands Beach, Oswald West State Park

Then in the early evening, though I wanted to stay on the warm sand forever, we packed up, stored everything back at the car, and returned for a walk along the mostly flat trails in the preserved old-growth temperate rainforest of the park. We saw a woodpecker and giant banana slugs and salmonberries and walked along a babbling brook and over a bouncy suspension bridge.

early thimbleberries at Oswald West

Reluctantly, as the sun dropped behind us, we drove back on Highway 26 to Portland, commenting on the many sad, bitten clear-cuts and replants in the coastal forests, the quiet small farms, the brightening and clearing of the sky from gray to blue as we headed east. Back at my place downtown, we ate chocolate cake with coffee Häagen-Dazs and played Gin Rummy till midnight with candles and French jazz.

backlit tree, Oswald West State Park

It was the loveliest day—let alone birthday—I've had in a long, long time: a perfect day. I felt alive. And Oswald West State Park is now my favorite spot on the Oregon coast. Can you believe all this is still available for free? (Thank you, Jeffrey, and thank you posthumously, Governor West, for saving Oregon's public beaches.)

What would your perfect birthday look and feel like?

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