Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

August 5, 2005 The Olympic Peninsula.

For all that I’m not much into traveling at the moment, the Olympic Peninsula is a stunning place. Phil and I camped one night at a county park on the shore of the Strait of San Juan de Fuca. It was a captivating place, the campground on a bluff overlooking a rocky cove and a broad beach. The sea had eaten away at the sand, but left a high rocky island that was fully exposed at low tide, soaring thirty feet above the cove and the shimmering water. We clambered over rocks covered with mussels and barnacles, and waded

through pools and soft waves to get to the exposed sand. Phil, who was an oceanogra- pher in a previous existence (since then he’s been an Anglican minister and a counselor, and now he’s looking to become a chaplain in the Canadian military), identified seaweeds and tiny crabs scuttling in the water and soft sea anemones covering the rocks.

As we ambled across the sand, fog drifted slowly in across the sea, blocking the crisp line of the horizon and blanketing the water. The sun was strong on the beach, and steam rose from the wet sand in the cool air. The fog came in closer, wisps of it tangling in the branches of the trees on the bluff surrounding the beach and lazily drifting above us. When you're within the fog, it hides everything from view including itself, but we were outside watching, and this fog was visible. We could see around it, watch it hanging over the beach, surrounding the island in the sand, and sliding up from the water to the bluffs.

After Phil left, I drove along the Strait to the end, at Cape Flattery, the northwest corner of the United States. The first part of the drive was on a peaceful road that wound among the hills, through lush forests and meadows filled with flowers of yellow, white, and purple. The sun was warm and the sky a brilliant blue. As I drove further, sun disappeared, trees were smudged with a mist that turned the world into a watercolor painting in shades of

black, gray, and white. The road ran along the water, but it was almost invisible, the world disappearing beyond the trees. Occasionally the fog broke, the sun jumped back into place, and the world reappeared, warm in shades of blue and green dotted with flowers, only to disappear again moments later.

The beach came into view on my right, and I spotted a bald eagle perched in a tree high above it. I pulled into a turnout and followed a narrow path between purple flowered bushes to the broad stretch of sand. The beaches here are pebbly, the sand littered with fine, smooth stones that I long to collect in big glass bowls. I ambled up the beach, watching the eagle as he watched me, and picking up stones to inspect them, searching for a perfectly round one that might be worth pocketing. The eagle flew to a distant tree, so I followed. The view was closed in by fog, the water blending into the sky not far from the beach in a light façade of gray. The beach is beautiful in the fog. The water is a steely gray, and the horizon invisible. It's an exercise in geometry, the brownish-gray beach angled against the flat gray water, encircled by the almost-black curve of the shoreline and the trees on the horizon. The beach in sunlight is easier to appreciate, but it has its own poetry in the fog.

Down the road, the sun was out again, and the sea gleamed and sparkled in a brilliant shade of blue. I stopped in the small town of Clallam Bay and rummaged through the books in a thrift shop run by two elderly ladies. Everything cost a quarter, they told me, and the proceeds went to pay for the town’s fireworks fund. An eminently worthy cause, I thought, so I bought a few books – Thomas Wolfe, John O’Hara, and a murder mystery about the Harvard Business School. The ladies said that lots of people camp at the turnouts along the road by the beach, so as I continued on my way I considered them, looking for a good one to spend the night.

Neah Bay, the last town on the road, is on the Makah Indian Reservation. I stopped for a bowl of halibut chowder, a local specialty, and tried to chat with the shop owner. He wasn’t too chatty, though; maybe it wasn’t my fault that I hadn’t been able to draw out the man in the laundromat in Port Angeles. I

remarked that he wasn’t on the canoe journey, and he sounded unhappy about it. He had to stay in Neah Bay to run his shop – he depends on the tourists, and couldn’t close up at the busiest season. The whole town was at Elwha with the paddlers, he told me. Later I stopped to buy some smoked salmon at wonderful place past the marina, and the shop owner said the same thing, he had to stay in town when the tourists were around so he couldn’t go on the canoe journey. I felt bad for them both.

Cape Flattery is the very end of the land, where a short hike through the forest leads to a series of overlooks above the sea. The forest is unlike anything in the east. It's thick and lush as a jungle, tall ferns filling the ground, mosses hanging off the branches, trunks rising out of cut stumps as whole trees were reborn out of the remains of others, cut down decades before. The forest was dark and gloomy, the fog and the dense trees combining to keep out the sunlight. But it was rich and verdant, crammed with plants growing one on top of another in heaps and masses. At the end of the path a series of overlooks provide a view of the sea below. It’s a land of bluffs and promontories and gaping caves with the sea surging in and rushing out in sliding pools of bubbling foam. A few birds danced on the surface, cormorants and some kind of ducks that I couldn’t

identify and a tufted puffin with a massive orange bill, white face, and black body. The island opposite Cape Flattery was shrouded in mist, but I could just see flocks of gulls roosting on its shores. A few fishing boats emerged from the fog, crossed past us, and disappeared again. I waited hopefully for the sun to come out, but it never did.

The next day I took a hike from Ozette Lake down to the beach, along the beach, and back to the lake by another trail, three miles on each leg of the journey. The walk to the beach was dark and cool through the forest, on cedar boardwalks that have been there at least half a century. The forest was logged once, by pioneers, and the stumps of trees that they cut are now richly overgrown with ferns and moss and bushes and whole new trees. The roots grow right into the rotting wood, the new plants sucking up the carcass of the old one to create dozens of burgeoning lives. The plants grow on the edges of the boardwalk, too, eventually rotting the boards so they break through and have to be replaced. But when they are overgrown they are the best to walk on, ever so slightly spongy, making a deep thumping sound underfoot. And the forest smells delightful, like old wood and rich soil, cool and wet.

At the beach the sky was gray and the ground rocky. A broad expanse of rocks covered with seaweed and shellfish stretched out to the sea, where pillars of stone topped with scrub and trees rose out of the water. From the shore it seemed bleak, but when I pulled out my binoculars I spotted bald eagles perched on the pillars, great blue herons, cormorants, ducks, and best of all, harbor seals balanced on the rocks with their heads and tails in the air and the waves lapping at their stomachs. The air

was cool and windy, the smells of the forest replaced with salt spray and occasionally the pungent odor of rotted seaweed. The constant sound of the water and the gulls was a change from silence of the walk along the boardwalk, punctuated only by the thumping of my feet.

On the way back, the sun came out for a bit, just as the forest opened into a meadow and the boardwalk widened enough to allow room to sit down. Suddenly the world was golden and blue and bright instead of deep green and cool and dark. It was so warm and quiet that I stopped in my tracks, just to feel the sun and listen to breeze in the meadow. I stretched out on the edge of the boardwalk with a book and spent an hour reading, nodding greetings to the startled hikers as they passed. But then it got cold, and I realized that the fog had slid back in and the sun was gone, so I packed up and thumped back through the forest to my van.

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Unless otherwise indicated all text and photos on this site ©Joy E. Hecht.