As the ability to travel becomes more possible after a year of lockdowns and isolation, people are anxious to hop on planes and pack up their cars to scratch that wanderlust itch again. Although I’m a native Washingtonian, I was recently reminded that there are still so many things I don’t know about my home state, and I have a renewed excitement about merging my love of history and my need for a nature connection in my own “backyard”!
A couple of weeks ago, I faced the daunting task of sorting through a storage locker which contained items that belonged to my grandmother and great aunt, who was a voracious reader. As a lover of literature myself, several old books caught my eye, and I decided to give them a read. One book in particular stood out to me, with its charming yet unassuming illustration on the cover. The snippets on the dog-eared dust jacket described in poetic language one woman’s soulful connection to the desolate and beguiling beach at Ocean City and I was hooked.
I soon realized that this was an honest, raw, true story about a fascinating woman, Norah Berg, her husband, Gunnery Sargeant (“Old Sarge”) Berg, and their life on a particularly remote and wild stretch of ocean beach in Washington state in the 1940’s. I am familiar with those beaches, their moods ranging powerfully from raging storms to serene sunset, matched in splendor by the ancient, mossy rainforests and towering majestic mountains that define the Olympic coast. Against this dramatic backdrop, I knew the story would be intriguing!
The book is titled, “Lady on the Beach,” and it’s written by Norah Berg with help from Charles Samuels. I had never heard of this book, but I soon found that not only is it highly sought after, but Norah Berg is one of three famous women residents who shaped Ocean City.
Her story is a recounting of a life of struggle, loss, courage and finding oneself in a place where most would dare not put down roots. It’s a celebration of simplicity and the power of living life on one’s own terms. Both Norah and Old Sarge met at a time when their lives were bobbing aimlessly in a sea of life that had proven heartbreakingly rocky. Struggles with alcoholism were a constant challenge. After a long career with the marines, Old Sarge outwardly bragged of his retirement, which came just as World War II broke out, but inwardly it left him feeling useless and without purpose. After the death of her first husband, Norah went to work, and met with some success, but a troubled childhood and subsequent discontent left her soul uneasy and untethered. Still, they met a cast of characters who looked out for them, and one connection led Norah and Sarge to leave Seattle and take a position as caretakers of a resort in Ocean City, Washington. Their job was to repair the cabins, which were in exceedingly rough shape, and prepare them for the upcoming tourist season. Little did they know that this would set them on the path to finding their peace in the most unlikely of places.
Learning about the history of the wild and remote ocean beaches of Grays Harbor County, and the colorful and courageous cast of characters who made it their home, was fascinating! Rustic is too kind a description for their accommodations! Norah and Old Sarge moved several times within the “shack” community of beachcombers, fruit tramps (who followed the fruit crop harvests in eastern Washington but always returned to the beach), and bluebills (locally based migrant workers), who gladly and willingly traded the comforts of traditional society for a life far from civilization.
The beachcombers like Norah and Old Sarge, built their shacks from driftwood and lumber that washed up on the shore, and daily trips to search for treasures was a much anticipated part of a beachcombers day. During wartime in particular, the tides brought in scores of useful items that this ragtag community made good use of, including cans of paint in an unpleasant green that humorously soon adorned many of the shacks. These hardy folks made money digging the prized razor clams for which their beach was famous, and brush pickers earned cash collecting fern fronds to sell to florists in the cities. They lived off the land, far from “civilization” – far from running water, electricity and passable roads. In fact, the beaches were routinely traveled by cars as the only way to reach their destination.
This area was, of course, inhabited long before by the Quinault Indians who were relegated to a reservation. As thoughtful stewards of this sacred land, their story is not told here, though Norah mentioned the great respect the beachcombers had for an elderly Quinault woman, who even into her 80’s demonstrated her legendary and much envied razor clam digging skills. There were also spirited baseball games organized between the bluebills and the local Indian tribe, which boasted some very fine players on both sides.
With today’s environmental concerns in mind, it was eye-opening to read about the prevailing attitudes of the time. The plastics and trash that pollute our oceans is a serious concern today, but back then, the sea was viewed as a convenient dumping ground. Those who quite literally built a life from the “treasures” that washed up on their beaches, scoured the rugged shoreline with great anticipation of what the day’s tides would bring. Items that were no longer useful, like furniture, housewares, machinery and even cars, were routinely discarded into lakes and swamps, and the practice of driving cars up and down the shoreline, disrupting environmentally sensitive areas, was commonplace. Those who made a living digging the prized razor clams famous in that region, balked when limits were placed on their daily hauls, irritated by efforts to preserve them.
As uncomfortable as these realities were to read, this book tells of a time over 70 years ago in a rugged yet breathtaking part of our state, and the hardy, self-proclaimed misfits who craved the solitude and serenity of their desolate and primitive homes. It’s about the struggle to find their place in the world, even if it existed at the wild and windswept edge of a continent.
The men and women who lived in this beautiful but often bleak place, were the outcasts of society, people broken by the world and relishing their isolation. This resource-rich area, before this region began the transformation to a vacation destination, provided sustenance for it’s residents, and was notable for its abundant fish, wildlife, and lush forests. The prevailing attitude was that nature was there for the taking, and it was duly exploited for the appetites of those in cities far away.
Lady on the Beach so captivated me that I want to find out more about the men, women and children who called the shack communities home. Some of the cabins still exist, and the gravesites of Norah and Old Sarge Berg are located in nearby Hoquiam. I think a road trip to the ocean and a few museum stops are in order! Travel + history = a perfect getaway!
This summer, wishing you happy travels and the delicious magic of a good book!
Tracy Strandness, Owner/Founder