The name of the ferry was “Whatcom.” We bought two coffees at the snack bar and ate egg-salad sandwiches. It was a rather uneventful trip across Admiralty Inlet but enough to scare up small rafts of Marbled Murrelets that took flight and skimmed across the water with rapid wing beats. Surf Scoters dived away in the strong current. The seagull tribe made its full appearance: Mews, and Glaucous, and Franklin’s and Bonaparte’s under full sail trailing aft along the wash of the ferry in a light wind as the Victorian styled homes of Port Townsend loomed up on the opposite shore.
Alex drove the car off the ferry ramp and then made a hard left turn onto the Olympic Peninsula and Highway 20. If felt like we had passed across to another realm or crossed the border into another country but without passports, customs, or baggage checks. That was the Olympic for you, cut off from the civilized east side of Puget Sound it was all about the wild backward frontier here.
“Tell me something Tommy, what is this place?” Alex asked.
She stretched back into the driver’s seat to get comfortable. There was nothing but a long stretch of road ahead.
“James Swan”, I said, looking at her hands on the steering wheel. Alex had beautiful hands, piano playing hands. She kept her finger-nails short and never painted them. For that matter she seldom wore any kind of makeup at all. A few tubes of neglected lipstick in the bath room, a barely used stick of eyeliner, a small bottle of Chanel No. 5, that was about it. She wore no jewelry except in her pierced ears and occasionally she would sew up from pieces of old silk she had saved from Okinawa her own omamori with Shinto prayers inside. I focused on her hands on the steering wheel. Determined hands. Hands that were driving us to the ocean.
“James Swan”, I began, “James Swan was something of a character. Back in the pioneer days he hunted oysters, worked for the government, lived with the Indians, hung out with the Makah, and Quileute, was an all-in-one school teacher-lawyer-judge, and promoted the railroad. I read his book called the NorthwestCoast. His fiefdom covered the entire coast of Washington from Cape Flattery to the Columbia River. There’s a hotel called “The Swan” in Port Townsend and some sort of museum with all the junk he collected you can visit. I’ve never been there.”
“Swan? Uh-huh. What else?”
“Ah, the town of Sequim. Supposed to be the driest place along the west coast north of San Diego; people store their musical instruments there, violins, cellos, guitars, whatever. There are oak trees about, prairies, and cactus. It’s the rain shadow effect or something like that. One of the driest places on the coast hard-by temperate rain forests and rain, rain, rain. They grown lavender there. Then there is the Makah, the Indians Swan hung out with, they hunted North Pacific gray whales from cedar canoes. There is also a kind of cactus that grows out here in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains. In fact the town of Sequim is the driest place on the west coast north of San Diego. Hard to believe it given the rainfall along the Hoh River. I heard musicians store their violins and cellos there. “
I kept watching her hands and took in the scenery now and then. Alex had the ocean in mind.
We arrived at the junction at Highway 20 and Highway 101 just below Discovery Bay where we turned right on to Highway 101. Highway 101 looped the Olympic. On Highway 101, you could drive all the way down the coast to Oregon then all the way through California past the redwoods and San Francisco and then all the way to Mexico if you liked and past that I had no idea where it went. It might go as far a Tierra del Fuego as far as I knew. And that would be something. I mentioned this to Alex and she smiled and then I thought the Volkswagen would probably survive it if we decided to make the leap to drive ourselves out of pavement somewhere on another continent.
I turned on the radio. Static. We looped around Sequim Bay and zipped through the town without a second thought then over the Dungeness River when it happened. I knew it would happen but was not sure when it would. Chekhov or someone once said that if you bring a gun on stage in the first act of a play by the third act it will be sure to go off, or it should go off if the playwright is any good. So, you put two birdwatchers in a 1973 Volkswagen station wagon traveling down the highway at a relatively high-speed and the brakes will be slammed on. It is a fact. It is almost some kind of “bird watching law” if there were such a thing. Slam on the brakes and backup which is just what Alex did. And there they were. I think we spotted them at the same time about 100 yards past the Dungeness River bridge sitting in a small Shore Pine about five feet tall thirty-feet off the right shoulder of the road in a scruffy looking “prairie” with a few scattered oaks about. The shore pine was laden in bright yellow it looked like some overdressed Christmas tree; you could barely tell it was a shore pine at all really. Then – one, two, and before three I turned and looked Alex directly in her eyes and saw reflected her glasses all that yellow bursting away like arrows shot from bows into a now scattered flock of American Goldfinches. She lifted her foot off the brake, put the car into gear and headed down the long straight shot to Port Angeles, commenting, “Well, there you go.” And there you go.
We were finally cruising through the Port of Angels when mid-way Alex broke from her driving-trance-combination-goldfinch-reverie and blurted out:
“Holy-Jesus-Tommy, look at that!”
Alex was right. It was nothing new really; we saw this kind of thing even from the apartment on Garden St. except here it carried its own peculiar monumental aspect. You couldn’t go far in the Pacific Northwest without running into (or smelling) a lumber mill or pulp mill; you couldn’t get away from it: Puget Sound Mill & Timber Co, Bloedel-Donovan, Washington Pulp and Paper Company, Paraffine and Crown Zellerbach, Weyerhauser, Boise Cascade, and a hundred others small and big. The mills went in and out of business, would resurrect themselves in new economic entities or form up in new manifestations backed with foreign capital. Here in Port Angeles it was the log yards of Rayonier (an entirely owned subsidiary of the ITT Corporation) and Simpson Lumber Company. They just didn’t cut trees down; they cut and removed entire forests. For over a century, the axe and the chainsaw had cultivated a devil’s garden on the Olympic. People ran around the valleys and hills with dollar signs in their eyes. It was at its essence all about how fast and how much could they tear apart, rip out, sell off, and never look back. Just cut, run, cut, and run again. And there, along the waterfront of Port Angeles the logs were stacked high, laid out end-to-end and side-by-side under roiling smokestacks then fed one-by-one into the maw of the machine leaving behind shattered landscapes of stumps, landslides, destroyed streams and rivers. At Port Angeles it was all a set piece and simply off the scale.
As we cruised slowly out of out-of-town and set this behind us Alex sang her raspy version of the Hendrix song If 6 was 9:
“If the sun refused to shine,
I don’t mind, I don’t mind.
If the mountains fell in the sea,
Let it be, it ain’t me.
Got my own world to live through
And I ain’t gonna copy you.
Now, if 6 turned up to be 9,
I don’t mind, I don’t mind.
If all the hippies cut off their hair,
I don’t care, I don’t care.
Dig, ‘cos I got my own world to live through
And I ain’t gonna copy you…”
Finally, we exited out into the rolling farmlands west of Port Angeles where Alex gave up her final verdict, “what a messed up place.”
“Uh-ha”, I nodded.
Highway 101 unrolled itself past Lake Crescent, fully loaded logging trucks whipped by in groups of twos and threes at paced intervals shaking the Volkswagen with gusts of road wind until we arrived at the road junction at Sappho and turned off Highway 101 on to Highway 112 down through the Pysht River valley to Clallam Bay and Seiku and the fresh salt air of the Straits of Juan de Fuca. Not far past Seiku lay the last stretch of road along the Hoko River to Lake Ozette. We could almost smell the ocean. We had the road and our thoughts to ourselves.
The pavement ended at the north end of Lake Ozette within the safety of the Olympic National Park. This section of the Park was a long narrow strip of coastline bracketed by the Quinault Indian Reservation in the south and the Makah Indian Reservation to the north where the Pacific coast terminated at Cape Flattery at the entrance to the Straits of Juan de Fuca. With a sense of relief and accomplishment, Alex pulled the car to a stop near the boat launch ramp where an information kiosk was located. We got out, stretched, and walked off the stiffness of a long drive. The Ranger Station was closed and no Park staff appeared to be around. There was only one vehicle parked near the boat launch ramp, a blue Ford Ranger pickup with a white canopy. Alex and I walked over to look at the lake. We saw a couple about our age paddling away from the shore in a canoe. Alex smiled and waved and they waved back. “They look like us”, Alex said.
We walked back to the kiosk and looked at the map. We were three miles from the ocean and from here had the choice of two trails; one ran through Booses Prairie to Cape Alava just to the south side of the Ozette Indian Reservation, the other ran from Ahlstroms Prairie to Sand Point. Just to the north, Alex pointed her finger at Manny’s Prairie and the Ozette River that she traced to its entrance at the ocean. Scouting around we walked out toward the trailhead and then noticed a dirt road leading north. “We should take that road”, Alex said. I agreed and we got back into Volkswagen and drove up the dirt track out of the Park and into an old clear-cut full of stumps, scruffy saplings of cedar, spruce, and hemlock, salmon berry, flowering red current, and vine maple. We drove along that road for a few miles until a junction where we turned left toward the ocean. That road ended about two miles out where we stopped, parked the car and got out. We could hear and smell the ocean. From here, we would hike the rest of the way. Alex grabbed her rucksack and a gallon jug of water and I carried the backpack, left the other jug of water in the car, and told Alex that I would come back for later.
It was a warm, bright and sunny afternoon in May. Alex looked good in her jeans and the old Boy Scout shirt I had bought at the Salvation Army for two-dollars. The shirt was too small for me so she appropriated it for herself. There was still an old arm patch on it that read “Troop 39.” She had the Swarovskis slung over her neck. I was wearing my LA Dodgers baseball cap, Hawaiian Aloha shirt and jeans. We both wore old beat up Danner hiking boots. “Leave your watch in the car Tommy, you won’t need it”, Alex said. I took it off and put it in the glove box and locked up the car.
We slung the packs over our shoulders and headed out.