I wake before the alarm.
Car first. Then check out. But Enterprise doesn’t open till 7:30, so I get some breakfast and arrange a pickup closer to 8.
They give me a Chevy Aveo and I don’t get out of there till 8:15. It’s gonna be close. Rush to the hotel, hike my stuff down the back stairs since the elevator is painfully slow, and the tourists clog it up with their roll-ons; nearly decapitate the cleaning lady with the axe; then nearly ding the red paint job on the walls of the world’s smallest parking lot turning around.
Now the Blackberry GPS comes out, trying to type in directions to the ferry while navigating a city with lots of one-way streets, bike and trolley lanes, and crazy five-way intersections. It’s now 8:30 when I finally get pointed towards the sound, gunning it through Pikes Market. The signs say to continue on Western for the ferry but Andrew’s txt said it was on Alaskan and Marion, so I cut right down a steep hill and over some railroad tracks, startling some tourists.
Gun it down the stretch, I still I don’t see the ferry pier, the restaurants and aquarium scrolling past. There it is, within reach! And…yellow light. I sit and tap my foot. Time waits for no man.
Pull in just in time, get a 15 dollar ticket, and the ferry doors shut moments after I pull on board.
Then the car is in park but we’re still moving, just slowly and smoothly over the water, the wake frothing up the morning mist.
Andrew and Norm are up on the passenger deck and I say hi and we watch Seattle recede into a gray cloud. We talk about the trip and plans. Norm is going to hike Mt St. Helens, skirting the crater.
Bainbridge Island is a small residential town with two streets in the center of town. We walk on a little paved path that skirts the little marina and the playground and various eateries that are closed, at least till lunch time. We wander into a bakery for coffee and some pastries. I remark that I’ve been in Seattle for four days now and have only had crappy hotel coffee. The latte is tasty, nothing spectacular, but the scone is buttery. It’s a bit chilly this morning and we talk about living out west, that I’d love to but my wife couldn’t stand it. Maybe northern Cal. Andrew agrees North Cal is nice.
A few minutes later we head off, Norm and Andrew to the ferry, me to the car. They promise to keep in touch.
The drive is easy enough, aided by the phone GPS. That little black piece of plastic has saved my ass so many times.
But the Aveo is probably the shittiest car I’ve ever driven. The design of the dash and mid board is completely non-functional (no room for stuff: drinks, iPods etc) the car has no pickup and both the locks and windows are manual! It even has the words “airbag” on the steering wheel and glove box, as if it was a feature instead of a government mandate. What is this, 1985? It’s almost as if Chevy makes the car so shitty and barebones so the rental companies have a baseline model so painful to drive that customers vow to never low ball it again and upgrade to the mid-level model or the SUV. Why you would aim for such poor merchandise is beyond me; and people wonder why GM does so poorly.
I reach Port Angeles about mid day. The ranger station is packed. I have vague memories of being here five years earlier with Steph and Neeraj. The ranger to check me in is Stephen Colbert’s clone without any of the tongue-in-cheek jocularity, only the stern right-winger’s gaze. Turns out the guy is an ex-marine – at least owing to the Semper Fi sticker on his 4wd.
But he’s nice enough and I’m all checked in with a backcountry pass and bear canister, tide chart and topo of the coast.
At the Safeway I get a loaf of sour dough bread, turkey, salami, cheese, apples, granola bars and hummus for 20 bucks. I was never able to find fuel canisters for my exotic European stove, so it will be cold meals for the next few days.
The road winds into the mountains, from four lanes to two, just the hint of snow-capped mountains ahead, rolling stretches of evergreens for miles around. The sun is out now and golden light filters down onto a lake beside the road, and there’s a thin strip between the two of long golden grass and white birch trees, which lean over the water in picturesque angles.
Further still the mountains level out and I’m actually out of the park. There are residences of locals with mailboxes leaning out of the foliage. Most of these settlements are Native American: the distinctive script and lettering of their tribal words reminds me a bit of Tolkien’s elvish.
There’s a new phenomenon about town – Twilight. I pass through Mora and see a sign proclaiming “no vampires beyond this point”. A preteen girl is snapping a photo, her compliant Mom a foot away, watching. I know next to nothing about the series, but I guess it’s set here, in these misty forests and coastlines of the Pacific Northwest, as fitting a setting for the restless undead and lycanthropes as any.
When I step into the forest, I’m reminded of another Tolkien allusion – Legolas saying the trees are old. Many of the hulks are dead and rotting where they stand, coated in a green fur of moss, strong new trees growing from the established bases and root system. The forest floor is a mess of rot and deadwood and brush, but above all that are ferns, their delicate fronds giving the fen a feathered and soft demeanor. The last of the morning mists seep away into the distant unknowable wood, and the gaps between the great trees are gray and haunted.
I also think Endor, imagining the zwoooong sound of speeder bikes racing just feet above the ferns, the various obstacles that would prompt fiery explosions; even a furry Ewok emerging from a fern to poke at me with a stone spear.
Then the sound of waves. The beach opens up, a gray expanse of sand littered with the refuse of the ocean – the floatation buoys of kelp like long spermatic whips, brown and puffy with rot. Bits of plastic discarded from ships and campers. Shells and polished rocks of all colors. And in the distance beyond some cliffs, like the hint of a world more dreamy and mystical than our own: sea stacks silhouetted against the haze.
The beach continues on for a quarter mile, then the trail moves up the steep eroding cliff with the aid of ropes and ladders. Sharp cliffs prevent any further travel along the shore.
It’s getting late and the tide chart says the tide will be high till early the next morning, and I have no idea how far I’ll be able to lug my pack over the headlands. So I set up my tent between a large white block of carved rock and a bleached deadwood log.
But there’s time for exploration. I grab my camera and hip pack with some water and start the ascent. It’s a jungle up there, ferns clinging to the craggy rock faces, enormous trees draped in moss, roots entwined with the rock and the dirt of the trail and rotten hulks.
And the trail is steep. Rough nylon rope is required to pull up the slick muddy path, and there are ladders of wire-laced wood at 50 and 60 degree angles.
The forest is even deeper and quieter here, and when I stop moving, a beautiful silence permeates. There’s just the faintest movement, a bird, or the breeze against a fern leaf. The place feels very alive, but alive on a level entirely different from human life with it’s unknowable interplays and messy complexities. Things move more concerted here, with a momentum that sustains for decades, centuries. Not the viral boomlets of human towns and cities – more like a constant hum of earthy persistence.
I try to think what these trees have “seen” – especially the ones overlooking the cliffs down to the ocean, the sea stacks and craggy islands. They don’t “see” in the form of light reflection, but the intensity of moisture and the length of day, the power the unveiled sun gives them when the mist breaks for a few summer days of blue sky.
Unfortunately I’ll not get those blue sky days, but there’s a sort of fantastical edge to the perpetual fog.
In a mile the trail returns to the beach – this one with half a dozen little tree-topped islands out in the surf. The trail exists onto a small cove guarded by cliffs, lapped by gentle waves on a gravel shore.
Two young lovers sit on a dead log and embrace. They’re both in navy blue hoodie sweatshirts. She has flowing blood red hair, he has emo-spiked blonde hair and a pale sullen face. They look just like those young leads from Twilight, and for all I know they are, or at least two locals acting the part. Her face hardly leaves his, swooning and weepy, and the one look he gives me was timeless, too-cool, verging on the dead eyes of an immortal.
I leave them be and continue on, ascending another headland cliff and scrambling back down the other side. It’s high tide and the surf pounds a jumble of black rocks mercilessly, and I can see when things start to get impassible. The only way through is to hug the cliff face and climb over jumbles of rocks – not too viable with a 40 lb backpack.
Tomorrow I’ll check it all out, when the tide is low, and this place reveals a few more of its secrets.
Tiny dramas of life work themselves out in the tide pools: two small hermit crabs squabbling over the same prime real-estate strand of seaweed. Starfish crawling over each other for the same trough of refreshed sea water. Anemones pulsating in the residual currents.
The seaweed heaps up, the little ballast air pockets popping like bubble wrap. Teenagers climb on the rocks and through caves that become passable for a few short hours a day of lowest tide.
Three sea otters frolic and nibble on the exposed barnacles, their tails and back feet kicking up like happy little dogs. And further down the beach, half a carcass of a sea lion, all sandy blubber and rubbery flippers, a few exposed vertebrae, picked over by gulls and crows. Circle of life and all that.
On the hike back out a green snake crosses the path, so colorful at first I think it’s a strand of nylon cord fallen off a hiker’s pack. My momentum carries me a step too close and the snake rears up and we’re both held in a perilous balance for a second. Then I step back and he slinks away.
Underlying everything: the fact that I’ll soon be a father. I see fathers everywhere today, on the beach and on the trail, even Bainbridge Island, holding the hands of their little sons. I can’t think of a better example than my own Dad. I hope I can live up to his example. He sacrificed so much to be my Dad, and be there. He has no vices that I know of, and his one hobby he shared with me and it’s now my own – hiking.
I drive to La Push. It’s a small Indian settlement of shotgun houses and trailers, a marina of old rusty fishing boats bobbing in front of a mammoth sea stack. Kind of depressing. I stop at a store hoping it has souvenirs but no luck. It’s just a convenience store. I figure I’ll buy a Coke, but the labeling is confusing so I head back out to the car to grab extra change. There are two more people in line when I get back in and the whole operation is painfully slow, so I leave the Coke and jet. There’s a sense of urgency since I don’t know my plan for the night.
Later, I stop at a place called Storm King and walk a nature trail through old giant trees. The light is perfect, golden and slanting through moss and ferns and shaggy bark. I hike up to a waterfall and finish off my memory card. When I get back I can’t find my sunglasses.
I’m paranoid, going through every compartment and bag. I blame it on the Indians, wrongly, thinking they must have swiped them when I went back into the store, that I’d forgotten to lock a door – which are manual. But I doubt that too – since it was pretty misty back in La Push and I wouldn’t have gotten my shades out. Finally I say fuck it and resign to having lost them.
I feel like a bum. It’s my second night camping out, my car is scattered with trash and smelly clothes, I’m down to the change in my pocket to pay for dinner, and for a moment I consider getting a bottle of Wild Turkey or Jack to pass the time. I end up with a fried chicken combo meal from the Safeway deli. Didn’t think I could stomach turkey and cheese on sourdough for another meal…
I do find a great little camping spot on the eastern shore of Bainbridge Island. It’s pricey – but cheaper than a hotel – and five minutes drive to the ferry. The sun sets and the waters of Puget Sound lap the pebble beach, rinsing seaweed and dead crabs. It’s not quite warm enough for just a t-shirt, but it’s pleasant and the skies are mostly clear. A great way to end the trip.
Best of all – my sunglasses show up in the front pocket of my fleece – right where I left them. The Indians were innocent!
I wake in the early light with very light rain and mist on the tent. Pack up and leave my campsite before anyone else is even up.
I catch the morning ferry without any rush and I watch the sun rise behind the skyline of Seattle. I wait till the orange globe is aligned behind the Space Needle and snap a few shots.
I organize my gear on the sidewalk of a side street, take a cappuccino in an upscale café and charge my phone. Then I return the car and ride the light rail to the airport, out of the wilderness and back into the twenty first century.
Looking in the mirror of the airplane bathroom for the first time in a few days, I realize how motherfuckin shaggy I am. It’s time to shave this thing off, buckle down with work and move onto the next stage of my life.
I think about the “trip in the now” versus the “trip as it will be” – in writings and photos and remembrances. I need to remember that the future version of these events will both gain and lose something.
The actual physicality of it will be gone – the six hours of steady trudging up a slope of snow. The feel of the air off the sound or the quiet of the deep old growth forest.
But what will remain? More than anything – the thought that all it takes to gain freedom is a backpack and the stubborn persistence to see it become real. And tossing the razor for a month or two.