Young families, artists and retired coastal dwellers stroll the sandy path past Hawk Creek Café, toward the rhythmic ocean. The path continues along Neskowin Creek (or Slab or Hawk Creek, depending on who you ask) as it empties into the Pacific Ocean in front of Proposal Rock, a tree-covered basalt sea stack that looms a hundred feet above the waves just offshore.
This is Neskowin, a tiny, unincorporated coastal town with 170 residents. Neskowin is primarily a bedroom community for people who commute ten minutes south to the larger Lincoln City, north to Pacific City, or remotely from their home offices. Retirees and artists round out the population. Tourism is a small, yet steady anchor for the few businesses in town.
Following the coastline south along the churning waves at low tide, dark ancient stumps jut from the sea, exposing a primordial era. These tomblike shadows make up Neskowin’s “Ghost Forest”—the stumps of two hundred Sitka spruce trees, assumed to have been on the higher plate before the Cascadia Zone earthquake at least 2,000 years ago.
This ethereal scene is enlivened in the deeply saturated landscape and architectural paintings in Michael Schlicting’s art gallery, which lies just across Highway 101. When Schlicting was a child in the 1960s, the six- to ten-foot-tall ancient tree stumps were buried and invisible to residents. Then, in the winter of 1997, a powerful storm hit the coast. Like a monstrous blender, it churned the sand that covered the trees, and the stumps were revealed for the first time since their entombment.
This and other storms in recent years have left residents of Neskowin uneasy. A committee of locals and geological experts has been formed to assess ways to protect the town from the erosion occurring during winter storms. Today, the entire shoreline is protected by riprap—a sustaining wall of rock slabs—but this may not be enough. Already, some residences are uninhabitable during certain periods.
“The Ghost Forest is part of the identity of the community now, as is the erosion,” says Schlicting, age 59. “People’s reverence for the stumps mimics the protectiveness they feel about Neskowin.”
During low tide, on a calm day, you can climb up Proposal Rock, so named soon after Charles Gage and Della Page got engaged on its summit more than a century ago.
Originally a Nestugga (or Nestucca) Indian fishing village called “Woods,” the area was abandoned before white settlers discovered its shores. The earliest visitors came from inland areas, and Neskowin was lauded as a camping recreation site as early as 1876. The settling of the area, however, came in 1886, when a sailing vessel filled with wheat and lumber ran aground in the fog that often ensconces Neskowin.
Gladys Pierce was one of the earliest tourism proprietors. Throughout the 1920s, she charged $1 for a beachfront tent site; $2.25 for a tent site and a parking space. “Resort” life and dairies quickly became the mainstays of the community, with the dairies providing milk for nearby Oretown and, later, for Tillamook County’s cheese industry.
The Schlicting family moved to Neskowin when Schlicting’s father bought a dairy farm in 1960—a typical business in the area since the late 1800s. Settling into provincial coastal life, Schlicting started first grade at Cloverdale School, ten miles north of Neskowin. He says that he was still considered the “new kid,” even years later at graduation.
“The town has the same feel and character as when I moved here,” he says. Though dairies have long been the primary industry, Neskowin has always had equal parts beauty and intrigue. A number of artists have taken up residence along Neskowin’s narrow streets. The Sitka Center for Art and Ecology is just a few minutes’ drive down Highway 101. “My mother is an artist and has said that the local scenery invites art,” says Schlicting, who, in 1978, opened Hawk Creek Gallery in Neskowin’s former one-room schoolhouse, next to his childhood farm.
“I painted a sandwich board and planned to sell art to passersby for a summer after college,” he says. Today there is no sandwich board but a grey cedar studio where Schlicting’s paintings are displayed and sold. Hawk Creek Gallery is open on weekends throughout the fall and spring, and every day in the summer. Though he has split his time between Portland and Neskowin since 1991, his mother still lives in a home behind the gallery where, at age 93, she still paints almost every day.
“I’m living on inspiration,” Schlicting says of Neskowin and painting. “It’s what I have always tried to show my kids.” Schlicting’s two grown children seem to have inherited the artistic inspiration. Tyler, 32, is a mixed media artist and outdoor enthusiast. He recently moved back to the family property. Schlicting’s daughter, Ally, 26, is the manager of People’s Art Gallery in Pioneer Place in Portland. Though strikingy small, Neskowin is still divided into four districts by the locals. Neskowin Village is the historic core, complete with a grocery store, café and hotel. Narrow streets are lined with quaint, brightly painted cottages and Neskowin Marsh Golf Course. In summer, it’s a beautiful course, but rain and neighboring protected wetlands hasten its conversion back to a marsh in the winter.
South Beach is home to the ancient forest and a variety of gated communities. In Neskowin Heights, homes flank the north and east hills. Slab Creek Road is the address for most longtime locals—dotted with rustic homes and historic farms.
With its ghostly stumps, mini districts and austere beauty, Neskowin is a secret handshake and an engaging setting along the Oregon Coast.
Population of Neskowin: 170
Median household income: $42,000
Median single-family home price: $350,500