When my husband’s childhood friend invited us to his wedding, we didn’t think we could make it. We were rebuilding our home. We had other plans. The time off from work felt daunting. Slowly, those reasons evaporated. We’d never been to Seattle or the Pacific Northwest and this was the perfect opportunity.
We landed just after Seattle’s heatwave and met our friends for dim sum at Jade Garden, which was every bit as amazing as promised. Then we poked around at the Space Needle and Pike Place and stood outside the oldest operating Starbucks like every tourist who’s ever been to Seattle. I’m embarrassed to say that most of what I knew about Washington state, I’d read about in the Twilight series (don’t judge me), but I’m always intrigued by beautiful, wild places that inspire a writer’s imagination. That was the part I wanted to see for myself, so we left Seattle after one night and headed for the Olympic Peninsula.
We drove to Second Beach for the tidal pools and camped on the beach, stringing our hammocks across driftwood. It was one of the few places that didn’t have a burn-ban, so we spent a good part of the evening collecting driftwood for a fire. I’d read once that driftwood burns blue because it’s releasing trapped saltwater, which may or may not be true from a scientific standpoint, but it did burn blue. Or a gray-lavender. It was a highlight of our trip. I’ve since read that driftwood fumes are toxic. Again, I’m not scientifically sure if that’s true either, but it wouldn’t stop me from burning driftwood in the future. A campfire on the beach is pretty special.
Next, we went to the Hoh Rainforest and hiked to Five Mile Island along the Hoh River trail. We initially had some pretty big plans to hike to Blue Glacier, a three day trek, but opted not to in favor of seeing more of the Olympic Peninsula in our limited timeframe. Five Mile Island sits on a sky-blue stretch of the ice-cold, glacial runoff of the Hoh River. We strung our hammocks on Red Alders and walked the pebble path along the river at night. At dusk, the striations and mineral bands in the rocks took on a life of their own. Black mineral bands were curved like orcas. A white stripe of quartz, a feather. Garnet, a bear paw. Life was trapped in those rocks, evolution recorded in geologic moments. Then night came and everything we’d seen was gone by morning.
We hiked out the way we came, past moss covered trees and camped the next night at Rialto Beach under a tree with a pair of nesting bald eagles. There was only one other tent in the distance, hidden in a driftwood cove. La Push, by day, was a ramshackle town of small homes and boats on trailers. At night, it was a string of lights across the water, few and far between. There was something so peaceful about feeling so far removed from the nearest town, when it wasn’t very far away at all. We heard there was a meteor shower that night, but only stayed awake long enough to see Jupiter and Saturn, the first bright stars of the evening.
After Rialto, we stopped at Sol Duc Hot Springs, then Hurricane Ridge, where we could see the Blue Glacier we’d almost hiked to in the distance. You can see most of the glaciers from Hurricane Ridge, slowly retreating, a little faster each year as snowpack becomes less and less, but it seems impossible when you’re watching from the meadow that those white thumbprints in the mountains are really moving at all.
And then we drove through Port Angeles and Port Townsend and took the ferry to Coupville, where Practical Magic was filmed. The town was almost exactly as I remembered the movie, only without Sally Owens’ apothecary. We stayed one night in Anacortes where the sunset was purple and orange and filled the whole sky over boats on land and sea, and the next day we woke to a pink sunrise for the San Juan Islands.
The ferries were down. There were less than usual because one was being repaired and the other was slowed by reports of orcas in the harbor. We didn’t see any whales on our trip from Anacortes to Orcas Island, but we did see two seals and one cold water dolphin. When we got to Orcas Island, we tried to get on a whale watching boat, but they were full, so we moseyed through the town and stopped at Buck Bay Shellfish Farms, an oyster spot that’s been around since the 1940s. They taught us how to shuck our own oysters, and on the first one, we spotted the start of a pearl, a rare and unusual find.
And it prompted our spontaneous splurge. We couldn’t get on a whale watching boat, but there was a biplane ride, an open-air, airplane for three. For someone who isn’t particularly fond of flying, the thought of lifting off in an oversized toy plane with a jacket meant to deploy as a float if needed should have been terrifying, but Stu McPherson, our dentist turned pilot put us at ease. I asked if he’d ever seen whales from the plane and he said it was rare. At most, he’d seen them twice in the past few months and he flies every day. He strapped us into our goggles and flying gear, fully equipped with barf bags and a small leather hat, and had us climb onto the wing of the plane in order to slide into the side by side seat behind a plexiglass shield.
The anxiety-ridden part of my brain checked the time at take-off so I could count down the 45 minutes until touch-down, but I didn’t need to. From the sky, the San Juan Islands are all evergreens and ink-water, full of long lines of sunlight and deep shadows. Kayakers waved to us from the water. The wind made it hard to talk and filled my head with a whirling sound, a little like being underwater, and the whole experience was a mix of feeling awake and asleep. And then we saw the line of boats in the water and Stu circled the plane around and around until we saw it: an orca, flashing above the water and below, over and over again. I’ve never seen an orca in the wild. I’ve never seen one from a plane and probably never will again, but watching that orca thread the water made the entire trip worth it. Every reason I’d ever been curious about the Pacific Northwest was summed up in one moment.
The next day we headed back to Seattle for Dash Point State park where our friends were getting married. We were officially camped out and tired from being damp and chilled to the bone at night, but thrilled to have covered as much ground as we did. The drive into Seattle is an industrial skyline, factories and cranes and shipping ports, so unlike the evergreen space we’d been in for the rest of the week, and smelled like a can of black olives. That’s the only way I can describe it. Under all that industry, tents dotted the side of the highway, full of the invisible people who lived inside. There were so many. It was a world of its own.
On our last morning, I walked to our rented pickup truck to feed the meter. It was a surprisingly clear day. Mount Rainier sat in the background with its grandparent-like presence. I fed the meter. The ticket blew on the dashboard. Someone had broken the back window. Glass littered the street. The bag with our camping gear was gone.
After our year of loss and being displaced from our home for six months, it stung to be stolen from. I thought of all the things in the bag: the sleeping bags and tents we’d called home for a week after spending an afternoon putting silicone on the seams to keep us warm and dry, the water purifier I’d saved up for to buy Rob one Christmas, our warmest clothes, the backpack we’d taken on so many trips. It was just gone.
I wasn’t really upset about the bag, moreso that something else had been taken from us, but as I walked away from the car, I found myself hoping that the sleeping bags would keep someone warm, that someone would wear the fleece layers and use our water filter to make clean water. Losing a bag wasn’t the same as losing our house and had nothing to do with the fire, even if the thought of something had, something suddenly lost, without an explanation, was the same. I let it go.
That morning, the sky stayed clear enough to see the solar eclipse. It made half moons on the sidewalk. We took turns sharing glasses and watched the sun disappear, but it never got dark. I always thought it would, but I was wrong, and I learned that it only takes a little bit of sun to light the whole earth, at least where we were, for just a few moments.