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The Olympic Peninsula at the Vernal Equinox [2014]

Too much winter? Too much rain? Two words: “Road Trip”

THE FIRST THING YOU LEARN IS you don’t go “into” the Olympic Peninsula. You go around it. Although Seattle has the feel of being on a coast, it’s really an interior city protected from the lashing storms of the Northwest Pacific by a vast up-welling of mountains, as much as it is protected from the cutting edge of our political storms by its removal to the far corner of the nation. One of the advantages of the city is that it sits at the bottom of a vast bowl of straits, lakes, and mountains. When the rain clears out and you take in the western view from the top of Queen Anne Hill (the highest hill in Seattle) you see the barrier of the Olympic Mountains that seem to wrap around half the horizon. After seeing this a number of times, two words appear in the mind: Road Trip.

So it was with Spring a day away and, for once, a promising weather forecast I set out for a short trip to the Olympic Peninsula since I had had enough, for a few days at least of:

But, as I said, there is no “into” when it comes to the Olympic Peninsula, only “around.”

It was not promising when, in my effort to get to the ferry that would take me out to the jumping-off point, I ran afoul of three detours and two Sunday afternoon traffic jams. What should have been a fifteen-minute drive to the ferry turned into an hour and a half. Enough time to take me off my original plan of staying at the Kalaloch Lodge. Instead, I only managed to make the town of Forks in time to participate in the town’s annual scholarship auction. You had no choice but to participate since every sound system in every store and restaurant was tuned to the broadcast of the auction and turned up loud. I took shelter by going to the auction itself.

It was one of those small-town events that puts your faith in the essential goodness of people back into your soul. Everyone in this town of some 1,300 souls had evidently donated something (From a $1600 Alaskan Fishing Trip to a plate of 6 brownies baked by the Brownies — $22 and delicious). And everyone in the town was buying something. Furniture, art, baked goods, embroidered guest towels, exercise equipment… a hodgepodge of a town-wide garage sale. The purpose? A fund to send some kids from Forks to college. And in Forks getting to college was very, very important because it meant those kids that made it had a chance to get out of Forks.

Not that it is a bad town. Not at all. It is just that it is a dying town. The curtailing of logging and fishing in the Olympic Peninsula may have gone over well in Seattle where people are concerned that they won’t have any natural, unspoiled environments in which to ride their horses and mossy woods to hike about in. In Seattle, the only thing more popular for a politician to say than “It’s for the children” is “It’s for the environment.” Some of the brighter politicians have taken to working in the phrase, “It’s for the children’s environment!” This always plays to rousing ovations and cheers, especially from the childless.

Things are not so happy in Forks which has had to deal with the loss of thousands of jobs as a result of various “popular” [in the cities] measures. Forks, by any measure, is struggling to keep its head above water. You can feel it in the forced cheer and the determined pride shown at this one small auction where, against all odds, they have managed to raise more than $50,000 for the Forks Escape Fund.

One of my local correspondents, much more knowledgeable about the shameful political history that killed Forks related this small tale that pretty much sums up the relationship of city and town in Washington state:

Our US Senators, Patty Murray (D) who we rightfully detest and Slade Gorton (Republican and now defeated by Maria Cantwell) were on opposite sides of a timber debate on the floor of the senate. Listening to the floor action on the squawk box, we heard Patty nattering about how she was totally in tune with the people of Washington on timber issues, why in fact the lumbermen of Forks were some of her best sources of information and strongest supporters, The staffer turned to me and said “Seattle liberal greenies may love Patty, but not the good folks in Forks. She’s cost hundreds, maybe thousands of timber people their jobs. If you handcuffed her to the stop sign in the middle of Forks at 3 AM, come morning she’d be gone and they would never be able to find her body.”

True enough. I looked. And she wasn’t there. There are many hungry crab pots in these waters.

After an amazingly indifferent meal, I put up at the Pacific Inn Motel to wait for dawn and pray for sun.

Which, amazingly, arrived with the dawn. I wanted to go south towards the Hoh Rain Forest, but since La Push was nearby I decided to head there. Big mistake. Even though my correspondent, who had been so prescient about Forks, declared that she “grew up hiking, camping, trying to drown myself and poaching salmon, crabs, and clams off all these beaches and I love every stinking piece of seaweed on every slippery barnacle befouled rock, ” I found that I could not share the love enough to find it in La Push. La Push is an Indian village and like most of these sad places, seems determined not to let money from casinos work against decades of squalor. Whenever I find myself in these towns I always have to wonder where all those millions are going. Certainly not for paint or decent housing. I beat a quick retreat.

La Push, the only scenic view

About an hour later, I took a left and came to one of the roads I was looking for.

This let me know that I was well on my way to what is probably the greatest collection of moss in the Northern Hemisphere, the Hoh Rain Forest.

I stopped in a small store on the way in where the woman behind the counter had been waiting patiently for at least a week to sell something to somebody. She sold me a raincoat. “You’ll probably need it seeing that you are going to a rain forest.” What could I do but agree? Besides, it was lined with the holy fabric of the Pacific Northwest, fleece, and it doubled my holdings.

Correctly attired, waterproof, I pushed on up the road past local inhabitants —

— and signage betraying local attitudes that seemed as eager to say “Goodbye” as “Howdy tourista!”

But it was worth it because, once beyond the mysteriously deserted entrance to the Hoh Rain Forest, —

— I found myself alone in the location where they will shoot the Freddy Kruger epic, Nightmare in the National Parks.

Walking the Hall of Mosses trail alone on a Monday morning brings you quickly in touch with the overwhelming beauty of this carefully preserved and presented part of the forest. The signs along the way and the slow rise into deeper and deeper groves of moss obliterated trees is like walking through a live Powerpoint slide show on “the value of preserving our national parks at all costs. No matter who has to pay.”

At the same time, this particular show, by the time you get to the core of it, starts to present your subconscious mind with all sorts of disturbing back chatter. For all the beauty of it, you still understand that you are also seeing a parasite run wild across a very large chunk of forest. And you see, time and again, how a very small organism such as a spore of moss can topple very large forms of life such as a 300-foot tall spruce. I’ve always liked moss but I have noticed that various treatments to kill it are quite popular at the local Home Depots. Perhaps, just perhaps, even a good thing can get a little out of hand.

From the Hoh Rain Forest I finally found my way to Kalaloch Lodge. I’d made this my destination since it seemed to promise all the things I need in the way of a retreat from the world, that vision of Edna St. Vincent Millay of:

…. a little shanty on the sand

In such a way that the extremest band

Of brittle seaweed shall escape my door

But by a yard or two …

and closer still to an acceptable restaurant

serving three meals a day

compete with an adequate wine list

and a nearby store fully stocked

with a vast assortment of

classic American snack foods.

And so I was forced to hunker down with plank-grilled salmon and a few glasses of crisp Riesling. And there I sat until, as it will, the last light came and got me.

It not only fetched me out of the cabin, but it also fetched the entire lodge as if a lodestone had, on the very cusp of the vernal equinox, of Spring, taken hold of our rain-soaked, mossy souls and dragged us out of our pastoral stupor, back into the world dimensional.

All along the cabins strung down the bluff doors opened and men, women, children, and dogs came tumbling out onto the wet lawn to hover and stare as far out to sea as they could while the sun came down from beneath the curtain of cloud and lit the world and made it new.

It was only about five hours steady drive back to Seattle, but nobody was leaving. Behind us, you had the impenetrable escarpment of the Olympic Peninsula.

In front of us, you had the slow Pacific swell illuminated by the hand of God.

Tomorrow would be the first full day of Spring. It would rain again. It would always rain again.

For now, nobody was going anywhere.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ghostsniper March 19, 2020, 7:59 AM

    Well that’ll fill yer eyeballz up for awhile.

  • TwoDogs March 19, 2020, 9:52 AM

    Spent most of an obscenely glorious fall week there a decade ago. Your photos capture it well, it appears nothing much has changed.

  • Casey Klahn March 19, 2020, 11:18 AM

    I’ve told the story many times here, but context compels me to repeat it. That is the beach my grandpappy, who immigrated from Germany, hiked to get to work in the Great Depression. The road did not come in till FDR’s time, and so he hiked the hundred plus a small handful of miles, fording the streams and rivers, rafting where the indians had concessions for it, and subsisting. The tide is treacherous, and the water is deadly. How deadly? Even the Coast Guards storm boats that are designed to roll in shit weather scuttle off the Olympic coast. So, he walked it, from his homestead to Hoquiam and Grays Harbor, from near Forks. He worked at the docks, and went back home to raise 13 children, and all of the boys (7) went to war. Back and forth he travelled to work.

    My dad also logged the peninsula, as did granddad. Giant timber harvested by steam donkey in pouring down rain all of the time. Dad didn’t believe in rain gear nor hypothermia. That was for pussies.

    Seattlites enjoy verbally disrespecting the loggers from Forks and Hoquiam. These are the guys who eat 5-7,000 calories a day and run chokers up hill, over stumpage and logs, and then run like hell to avoid snapping trees when they are yarded up the hill. A log will whip when it is sprung by an upright tree or a stump; also cables break and fly around like cutting whips. Fuhk Seattle. Those quiche-eating sonsabitches, anyway. A logger can break their necks with pretty much no effort.

    Okay. Calming down now…breath in…breath out.

    The Olympics a beautiful, rugged and remote. I have climbed many of the remote peaks, and crossed the interior once solo.

    It’s worth a visit, but stay several paces away from loggers, especially in their local watering holes.

  • Vanderleun March 19, 2020, 12:56 PM

    I’m with your when if comes to those parts of Seattle that are essentially open sewers.

  • Casey Klahn March 19, 2020, 2:14 PM

    Gerard, like you, I am an ex-denizen of Seattle.
    It breaks my heart to visit there anymore. I want to call it CuckSaddle.

  • captflee March 19, 2020, 3:29 PM

    Thank you, sir, for this gem.

    Wandering through the fog of memories stored four decades and more ago conjures up my considerably more svelte young self hiking several sunny days along the Dosewallips with a couple of topless Portland hippie chicks of my acquaintance, the whistling of the marmots our serenade, and a night as black as any I’ve experienced mid-ocean when we, sated with Mountain House turkey tetrazzini and a little high on co-op chardonnay cooled in one of those glacial runoff streams, sat in mute awe as a gang of elk, visible only by their rumps, slowly grazed through our campsite, before the following days of biblical rains eventually drove us back across to Seattle, seeking Meskin food at Mama’s.

    There are worlds contained within that peninsula,many as fantastic as anything dreamt of by Tolkien or Lewis. Like Sequim, with an annual rainfall like LA’s,and cacti…

    GVDL & Casey,
    I gather I did well to experience Seattle when I did. Having done a few months dragging a barge loaded with yuuuuge timber betwixt Icy Bay and Homer, I naturally identify with the loggers, and mourn the loss of those logging jobs and the ruinous consequences thereof to so many communities.

  • Susan in Seattle March 19, 2020, 4:32 PM

    I see the Olympics from my dining room and they are a sight in the early morning sunrise, awash in pink, violet, and indigo. I am reminded of many hikes in the foothills, in the rain forest, and a climb up one of the mountains proper. I prefer this range for its beauty to the Cascade range to my east. Born here (I can also see the hospital where I was born from another window in my dining room), there is profound natural beauty, however, the city I was raised in is no longer. We stay for many reasons, the primary being aging family.

  • ghostsniper March 19, 2020, 5:24 PM

    I did the Seattle to LA stomp 40 years ago next month. It was cold and mostly wet. And gorgeous. As Hump famously said, “That’s the stuff dreams are made of.”

  • BillH March 20, 2020, 7:53 AM

    We circumnavigated the Olympic peninsula in the ’90s, after motoring-railroading-boating Glacier-Banff-Jasper-Prince Rupert-Port Hardy-Victoria-Port Angeles. Stayed overnight in a lightly remodeled tribal fisherman’s cottage on the La Push beach. The Olympic as a little anti-climatic after all that Canadian majesty.