A couple weekends ago, I was part of an unlikely trio. I’ll let you finish the joke yourself: a Frenchman, a Chinese student, and a former Midwesterner are in an Audi, speeding through the Washington peninsula on a fine sunny Saturday.
I maybe sort of regret not shelling out the $18… although the all-caps sign by the door insisting that ALL GUNS MUST BE ZIP TIED did not have the reassuring effect the organizers may have hoped for.
I grew up in the middle of farms and fields in southern Illinois. One of the weird cultural imprints this has left on my brain is that I find other rural areas absolutely fascinating. It’s like the alternate reality version of where I’m from. Things rural Illinois and Washington have in common: lots of flags, lots of cigarettes for sale. Where they diverge: the beer is better here, Washington has self-serve flower stands.
I was last this deep in the peninsula in June, when a friend and I took a hilariously intense one-day trip to the Hoh Rain Forest.* We drove by Lake Crescent, and I found myself experiencing an unfamiliar feeling: it was fun. I have a very pragmatic relationship with driving – I’m good enough at it, but I don’t really get any pleasure from it. I haven’t had my own car since 2007, and with the exception of not getting to take many of these little trips out of the city unless I mooch off friends, I’m cool with that.
But the wiggly road that runs along the almost painfully gorgeous edge of the almost painfully gorgeous Lake Crescent? Fun.
This time, I was able to sit back and stare at the water as we drove. It was a fine preview for this:
I did not touch the color on this photo. This is just how it is – this casually glacier-fed lake that just has to be all gorgeous all over the place. You get to hiking the trail, lost in your own thoughts, and then you look over and are almost assaulted by how vividly colored the water is. I’ve lived on the Gulf of Mexico – I know from turquoise. But this – this made me stop and stare and smile and feel an enveloping gratitude to be where I am. It’s a feeling sometimes in short supply for me these days, so I welcomed it.
We hiked the Spruce Railroad Trail, which runs along the path of what was once a World War I railroad line.** The bones of the railroad are almost entirely gone, but there are remnants. We’ll get to those.
Me? I know I’m a mortal meatbag, and so I just pause on the bridge and take in what I can. Maybe you want to jump off a cliff, I don’t know. I won’t judge your choices if you don’t judge mine.***
We stopped for a snack of wine****, Brie, cheddar, some kind of lunchmeat I didn’t eat, and baguette over the next ridge.
And we got to watch this dude use the lake in the best way possible.
There were a few dogs along the trail, and a few people, but not so many for a Saturday afternoon in the last bits of summer. Apparently if you drive three-plus hours away from the nearest metropolitan area, shit thins out.
I grew up in the woods, but I don’t see them often these days. In my day-to-day life, I try to downplay this. “I choose the city, it is the habitat for me,” etc. But then there’s this. A path and relative solitude and not a shrieking siren or a shrieking person in earshot. Yes, we need this too.
After this, walk a little ways further down the trail. Then stop here:
Or, if you’re my neighbor…
Standard Deviation prefers water to be at least 90 degrees. It can’t be helped.
Take another break. Stare out at the scenery. Have some more cheese – cheese tastes better in the woods for some reason. Everything kind of does.
Then, once you get walking again, turn and admire this once more:
And here it is! About two-thirds of the way down the trail, if you leave from the eastern trailhead. This is the other place to take pictures – test your balance, act like a goofball. It’s history! Stand on it! Pretend you’re a sitka spruce. You know how it goes.
So: walk as far as you care to down this increasingly paved road before turning around. But turn around you should, because on the way back, you’ll be at the right angle to see this:
Yes, I did miss this giant-ass railroad tunnel entrance on the way past. It’s just parallel to the trail, so if you don’t turn all the way around for some reason, you won’t see this. I’m going to disagree with the WTA here – while it’s a bit crumbly inside, it’s pretty easy walking. Go on, go in. Pretend to be more daring than you are.
Just inside the entrance, you’ll be greeted by this friendly fellow. Usually I loathe evidence of humans in places like this, but it turns out that cephalopod graffiti goes a long way toward making me forgive oddly placed artistic overtures.
Clamor up a little and look down. It’s a pretty easy climb, and I am confident saying this, because I’m a bit of a weenie about these kinds of things. I do not feel compelled to scale tall things, generally******, but this was good.
You’ll be rewarded with this. And, if you’re like us, you may have kayakers come by and beseech you to tell them how you got allllll the way up there. Lie to them and tell them you rappelled but left your gear out of sight.
Now you can trundle back to your car. September is, of course, spider season in Washington – something I still find kind of adorable, as I grew up with spiders who were casually the size of saucers and loved hiding behind clocks, under the edges of pools, and in your dreams.
However, ours were not as architecturally ambitious.
And then, on the way back to Seattle, there’s this. Just south of Port Angeles, like a beacon.
A Frenchman, a Chinese student, and a very confused American lady walk into the Frenchest restaurant that ever did French in this region.
It’s a very personally created place. Does that make sense? I hope so. It’s just one of those places that’s clearly designed to make the owners happy; fortunately, it’ll work for you too. I also recommend bringing a gregarious, well-traveled French person with you, because then that person may get in very animated conversation with Norbert and Michéle, the owners, and you’ll get to come along, and you may end up in the bar after hours, sipping cognac and talking cats, travel, and their very storied past. If you’re lucky. We were. I was. I am.
And that was true before the creme brulee arrived.
*Pro tip: do not do this in one day. We did it because he was leaving the country, time was short, and we had never been to a rainforest in the Pacific Northwest. It was a fine day and I have no regrets, but you, my friend… To you, I say: take at least two days. Stay overnight, maybe camp. Do not drive four hours there and an additional four hours back in a 24-hour period. You deserve better.
**Man, people use such beautiful places for such prosaic needs sometimes, huh? But if you need to ship your sitka spruce, well, a line’s a line.
***Well, I’ll try.
****Frenchman, right? Also: recently minted francophile who’s still not quite sure of what to do with herself.
*****I feel compelled to point out here that I am a writer of prose, not poetry. Did you guess? Contact the author to collect your prize!
******Recent exception: the Arc de Triomphe. Thing I will suggest Seattle tourists skip: the Space Needle. If you need a tall thing, go up the water tower at Volunteer Park instead. It’s free, it’s far less crowded, and the view is actually better. Also, go to Volunteer Park. Sit on the camel, kiss your sweetheart through the Black Sun, tour the Conservatory, have a wander. Totally underrated, and total deja vu for anyone who’s been to Forest Park in St. Louis or Central Park, because they all share a designer.