30 Days At The Norblad

It’s hot. The black rubber roof is transmitting both visible heat waves and a subtle asphalt smell into my room via the only two windows I have.

Ah, the room. A 10′ by 15′ palace that I call home at the “famous” Norblad hotel. It’s close to 90 degrees inside while outside is a perfect 75 and sunny. There’s no airflow.

How long have I been here? A week? Two? Have I lost track already? Or is time dragging on so miserably slow that minutes feel like days? I can’t tell. I look at my phone. Four hours…I’ve only been in this room, in this building, in this town for a mere four hours?! Well, only 29 days and 20 hours to go.

I’m tired. I’d nap, but the TV across the hall is blaring, the couple next door is having drunk arguments, and the smell of my room is too…it’s bad. I wonder if I’ll get used to the stench?

If nothing else I can hope to pass out from a contact high as the other neighbor’s joint smoke rolls through the screen. Is this how Ernest Hemingway lived in Paris? How did I get here again? Oh yeah…that conversation.

“No, you shouldn’t stay here in Portland. You need a break. Have you ever seen the coast?”

Bridgette is sitting across from me at the Hotel Modera courtyard in Portland. I’ve just told her I was intending to stay in the city for about a month after the business conference was over. My hope was to rest and work on some writing for the next 30 days at a place I’d never been. I needed the unfamiliar surroundings to stimulate the brain and recharge my batteries.

“Have you ever heard of Astoria? It’s a little town about two hours from here. It’s the Northwestern tip of the state where the Pacific Ocean meets the Columbia River. It’s beautiful.”

I shook my head. “No I’ve never heard of the place. Sounds interesting.”

“You need to go there instead,” she insisted. “Don’t stay in Portland. People here will bug you.”

Bridgette has knack for knowing what you need before you do, so of course the universe was completely behind this conversation because the next day I found myself on a bus headed up the coast to this legendary town after booking a room at a supposedly historic hotel for a month via the internet.

The Norblad Hotel was the only place I found that had a month to month option for rooms. It’s supposed to be one of the oldest if not the oldest hotels in the Northwest. It opened in 1924 and was named after the Governor who helped finance it’s completion. The pictures and description online made it sound simple, a bit rough around the edges, but quaint. So, I figured a month enveloped in simple rustic coastal charm would do wonders. Little did I know.

The bus was obviously taking the scenic route as it rattled around tight curves and dipped up and down steep hills. The landscape began to change into the Oregon I’d seen on film and in my mind. Large evergreen stands, valleys dotted with yellow flowers, small rivers running through it all. It was beautiful.

As we stopped in different towns along the coast, I kept thinking “Is this one Astoria?” I got excited at one point when we came into a place where everything was shingled like seaside cottages and quaint bungalows. I even saw “Bank of Astoria” on the front of one building. Surely we’re here!

Alas, the bus began to roll out and no, we hadn’t arrived yet. I decided to stop anticipating and just enjoy the view. We went through a few more small towns, two of which I caught myself saying out loud, “Please no. This better not be the place.”

I was having to fight off a little motion sickness as we traveled the last few curves and dips, so my head was resting against the window viewing the landscape with half open eyes when the bus rambled across a short bridge over a bay, revealing a misty hill dotted with houses. We came into the outskirts of this particular town and with a suspicious eyebrow raised, I watched the passing of run down buildings and sketchy taverns.

Pulling into the bus station I heard the driver say, “Astoria. End of the line.” Lifting my head a bit I took in the surroundings and thought, “This is it?”

Slowly stepping off the bus and shouldering my duffle, I attempted to get my bearings and find this historic hotel that would become my residence for the next month.

Waking the streets, I wasn’t exactly seeing the quaint fishing village I had envisioned where I’d spend my days huddled by the wood fire, wearing a chunky fisherman’s sweater, and taking contemplative ocean-side walks in a peacoat. I suddenly found myself wanting to go back to the place a few stops back that had all the cedar shingled buildings.

What I saw instead, was a town with a long blue-collar history coming to a close. A town, that after decades of logging, fishing, and shipping, is hoping to reinvent itself as a tourist destination and a hidden oasis for food, music, art, and of course beer. A town searching for a new identity and a bit unsure of what that will be.

I stopped a FedEx driver to ask for directions to the hotel as my smartphone wasn’t exactly getting signal here at the tip top of Oregon. A few minutes later I was on 14th street. Up a few blocks I could see the glowing neon sign attached to a building that had Arts and Crafts simplicity with a slight hint of the Gothic Revival that was popular in the early 1920’s. This was the place. The Norblad.

As I ascended the stairs my hand lightly stroked the old quarter sawn White Oak staircase and trim. It brought flashbacks to my days making furniture. There’s a seriousness to White Oak. It’s good wood to work with. Stable and beautiful. Stately.

Reaching the top of the stairs my eyes widened with some mild surprise. “Kinda dingy and run down. Eh, it’s an old building. Maybe this is part of the appeal and charm.”

I found the manager and finalized my booking for the month. The picture I had seen online was of a room with white walls, old Douglas Fir flooring, a small desk and chair looking out the window, and a comfy platform bed. Perfect for waking up and jumping into writing.

As we walked down the hall I started to wonder if things weren’t quite as advertised. The rickety door to my new home swung open and my nostrils stung a bit from the wafting scent of stale cigarettes and…is that cat piss? Behold, my new palace of dingy cracked walls, yellowed ceilings, and a floor that was more mystery stains than carpet by this point. A rusted iron bed frame attempted to hold up a sagging floppy mattress and flat pillows.

I looked at the guy and asked, “Is there a room available that looks like the picture online?”

“Oh, those are the nice rooms. We reserve those for overnight hotel guests only. These are the longterm resident rooms.”

He waved his hand gesturing me to enter my new abode and make myself at home. I stepped in as the door shut behind me. Looking around the immediate thought was, “What the hell have I gotten into now?”

I opened the drawers of the collapsing particleboard “dresser” only to be greeted by dried mouse poop sitting on pieces of old linoleum acting as drawer liners. Guess my clothes aren’t going in there. The closet, being very narrow, barely held things on hangers, but my real concern was the ceiling bits that were occasionally falling down. Was something chewing up there?

I carefully sat on the bed, hoping I wouldn’t fall through. From where I sat I could almost reach out and touch the old sink mounted to the wall. The mirror hanging above it revealed a slight wash of concern on my face. I stared at my reflection for a moment and considered my options.

1. Find a hotel, stay a few nights, then leave town.
2. Rent an apartment instead of a hotel room if anyone’s willing to only do a 30 day rental.
3. Catch the next bus back to Portland in the morning.
4. Stay here and see what happens.

At this point I had propped my feet up and was leaning back against the iron headboard, so apparently the bed will hold me up. Placing my hands behind my head I weighed those four options and that little voice inside came to the conclusion that I’ve been through a lot worse in life, so this will be easy. Hey, just relax and see what happens. It’s only going to be for 30 days.

July 10th 2012 was the day this all took place. My plan was to stay for 30 days and move on to a new location after that. Well, 30 became 60, then 90, then six months…and now it’s officially been a year that I arrived and I haven’t left.

This town. It peels the layers off a person given the opportunity. There’s been this odd synchronistic dance of development between the town, the Norblad, and myself.

The town, searching for it’s new identity and role, has made some strides in this past year. A solid music scene is forming, the food is amazing and accessible, and tourism is growing.

The hotel has undergone it’s own major transformations this year. My old room has been renovated along with all the others and now they certainly do resemble if not surpass the photo I first saw online. It’s a comfortable old/modern feel that Mr. Hemingway would be pleased to call home.

The historic Norblad is now playing host to artists, musicians, authors, and people looking for a quiet simple place to do great work while enjoying this town. The vibe there is infectious and somehow nurturing.

And myself? Well, thanks to the local fresh food, I’ve shed over 50 lbs. That alone feels amazing. But it’s the other layers shed that have brought the most freedom. Like the town, I came here searching, wondering, hoping for a new start. A hard reset on identity. And I got it. The renovations at the hotel seemed to coincide with my own. Old paradigms clinging too long to the frame were stripped and replaced with superior ones.

What a difference a year can make when you invite it to. Thankfully, my 30 Days At The Norblad became 365. Turns out I needed the other 335 as bad or more than I needed the original 30. And for that I’m grateful.

Now, let’s see what year two will bring.