…Dad fumbled in his pockets for the key. At first there was light cursing, then heavy cursing from both of us as we came to the realization that the single key to the room was somewhere between Hurricane ridge and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Between Hoquiam and Forks on Highway 101 is a beach called Ruby. The beach huddles around a creek just south of the Hoh Indian Reservation.
Dad and I pulled off the 101 into a crowded national park lot. Early August, just after noon, every caravan winding its way around the peninsula had stopped here ahead of us.
Behind us, the mists of Oregon crept up the coast. In the parking lot I peered up at the sky and wondered if the fog we’d been trysting with all along the Pacific coast would meet us here. The clouds held a familiar shape.
Ignoring the crowd, we made our way down to the beach. The Washington coast is craggy, marked by volcanic rocks too stubborn to be weathered away by anything short of a millennium.
Hot, sweaty, and buzzing; some summer forests offer little sanctuary or solitude. I melt and cringe under the canopy while bugs land in my eyes and nibble on my ankles. The air burns. The water suspended in the air clogs my lungs and presses down on my shoulders. There is no calm.
Other forests, like the rainforests of the Columbia River Gorge, envelope me in the embrace of gem shadows and cool shade. The air doesn’t sizzle, it simmers. Water doesn’t hang unnaturally in the air, it tumbles down mossy walls. There, I can breathe.
I am always quiet in such forests. I walk purposefully, aware that the crack of every twig under my feet interrupts the deep woods symphony. As the sun moves overhead, the glittering emerald landscape shifts. Shadows bask in sunlight, filtered through the trees. I step lightly, careful not to mar the path too heavily with my passing.
Suddenly the forest is not quiet. A great roaring rises up as the path bends. The giggling of the stream is subsumed by the waterfall crashing down the gorge wall.
And there, surrounded by the primordial green and deafened by the rumble of the falls, I know a deep calmness. It is the kind of serenity reserved for starry nights in empty fields, for deep pools and slow rivers, for the silence between old friends and the breathless beauty of a pleasant afternoon.
Two mountains, not at all alike in dignity.
Mount Rainier is stately, lounging in the lush Washington wilderness surrounded by a courting bevy of roads, vista points, and campsites. The mountain seems peacefully at ease. There’s a calmness to Rainier, at least from a distance. But as you get closer, at every new viewpoint, the scratches of glaciers and fury of avalanches high on the mountain hint at a sleeping danger.
Rainier is a volcano after all. 14,410 feet tall and less than sixty miles from downtown Seattle, the mountain hasn’t erupted in 120 years. It makes the list of the world’s 17 most dangerous volcanoes–mostly because in an eruption those glaciers would turn into massive mudflows (lahars) rushing down the several river valleys radiating out from the mountain. There are more than 150,000 people in the Puyallup River Valley, to the north and west of the mountain.
Further south, down one of the few roads heading to the mountain, St. Helens sits like a broken cup on a shattered plate. While Rainier is flanked by lush forests, St. Helens is ringed by destruction of its own making. Fifty miles north of Portland and almost a hundred sound of Seattle, Mount St. Helens is famous for its 1980 eruption. The May 18, 1980 eruption was presaged by two months of small earthquakes and steam–which also prompted a prudent evacuation of the area. Still, 57 people died in the eruption and the environmental damage was immense. The mountain threw up a fifteen mile high eruption column, spreading ash into the atmosphere and drifting down into eleven states. Mudflows from the mountain reached as far as the Columbia River, fifty miles southwest.
Mount St. Helens is beautiful in a broken, terrifying way. You can see the scars easily, it will take more than a few decades to cover them. Respect me, Mount St. Helens groans, see what I have done.
Mount Rainier is beautiful too, but the terror is more subtle. You can’t see any scars, though they’re there beneath the trees.
Respect me, Mount Rainier whispers, imagine what I will do.
Click on any of the pictures to check out all the photos from my roadtrip. Or click here.
Italian pizza ought to be followed by a warm cannoli. Greek pizza, however, should be seconded by a pair of baklava triangles. West Seattle’s Alki Beach, facing Puget Sound, reminded me of Revere Beach north of Boston (a grand family tradition). The beach goes on longer than you’d want to walk and the water is probably colder than you’d want to swim in.
But, the pizza and the sunshine is worth the time spent hunting for parking. In Alki Beach’s defense, the baklava at Christo’s, is worth waiting for.
My father and I sat in the plastic-seated booth for some time. An older Greek woman poured us water before retreating to a booth with her friends to chat. Having spent my afternoon waiting for a train than never came in Carkeek Park, I was thirsty and downed the water immediately.
“The girl come by yet?”
“Nope,” we answered.
Another glass of water and a few more minutes later our server emerged from the back, all smiles. It did not take long before we had a magnificent pizza steaming before us–pepperoni under the cheese and a perfect pan crust.
The beauty of summer is that the days stretch on for hours, glorious days even more so. We were never going to make it to sunset on Alki Beach so we made our way back around the peninsula to Seacrest Park to see the skyline.
Beneath the immense empty sky and beside the gently shifting sound, the city looks like a miniature of itself. When you’re driving through the city the buildings loom above you, the alleys seem to pull close together and highway 99 rumbles overhead. From across the harbor, it seems small and distant. The Space Needle, over to the north of downtown proper no longer dominates the skyline, except in uniqueness of shape.
Though Seattle’s skyline is diminutive, this is only because the sky is bigger and the water bluer out west. It may be officially nicknamed the Emerald City but from West Seattle the town looks nothing like an emerald and everything like the flicker of light trapped in a sapphire.