On The Road: Pacific Northwest, Part II

I am in love with Northern California. Have been ever since I went there on honeymoon. On this trip we were only one night in the state, just a dozen miles or so across the border from Oregon, in Crescent City. But it was far enough south for what mattered: the Redwoods.

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We hiked a trail in Jedediah Smith Redwood State Forest. I’ve seen Redwoods before, but they always make me catch my breath. They’re my favourite tree (I can’t believe that you don’t have a favourite tree). Trees as wide as buses towered into the canopy above. We saw others on the trail, but for the most part we  were alone. At one point we stopped, and BKC whispered to me: “I’ve never heard such silence.” The forest seemed to soak up sound. For a while we couldn’t even hear birdcalls; there was just the overbearing presence of trees, looming upwards as they did yesterday, they will tomorrow, and they will long after I’m dead. That stillness, when we just stopped and listened – I tried to fold it away inside myself.

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Edge of the Pacific

The Oregon coast. Famed, apparently, in the US for its wild beauty. In the UK its reputation is unfairly overshadowed by California – to my mind the coast just stopped at the state border, like when segments of google maps are slow to load and you just have blocks of grey. But no. It is wild, remote and rugged, and in a few places teeming with tourists. Yet in the five days that we spent hopping north from California on the 101 we didn’t encounter any other Europeans.

We visited and stayed in a succession of small towns – Brookings, Port Orford, Bandon, Yachats – stopping off inbetween at beaches and overlooks. On a beach whose name I don’t remember someone had built a driftwood fort, still standing despite the wind whipping in off the Pacific. We were the only people there. We poked around in rock pools and watched the waves crash against volcanic rocks. I picked up a smooth, black stone speckled with green crystals that I took home and later kept on my desk at work as a reminder that deadlines and emails aren’t everything.

Perhaps it was because I was jaded from spending too long behind the wheel, but I was disappointed by the Oregon Dunes. It’s allegedly the place that inspired Frank Herbert to pen the novel Dune. I’ll let you into a secret: it’s just a lot of sand.

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Hint: the best thing about this is running down the dune really quickly. The worst thing is then having to walk back up the Giant Hill of Sand.

In the small town of Yachats (pronounced ya-hots) we indulged ourselves by spending two nights rather than our usual hurried one. It was a relief to have a day off driving; I spent the day reading and writing, whilst BKC tried to soak up some of the weak spring sunshine. In the evening I spent a long time on the beach, watching the churning waves crash against the rocks.

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Eventually we made our way to Astoria, at the northernmost end of the Oregon coast. On our journey north we had acquired: one damascus steel penknife; a vintage (read “in bad condition”) US flag; a cardboard NRA-approved shooting target; several interestingly shaped rocks; an old road map of California; two mugs, one featuring pelicans, the other pigs; a 1950s dress; and one pound of beef jerky. I should note that we did legitimately purchase these (except the rocks), we weren’t on some kind of small-time crime spree targeting only junk stores.

Astoria sits at the mouth of the Colombia River, the same river that we had earlier in our journey, further east, witnessed so many waterfalls joining. It is a wide, great volume of water that flows so strongly into the Pacific that the first European explorers to discover it could not land nearby due to the strong currents. Huge shipping vessels now moor there.

But let me tell you a story.

In 1824, in what is now Astoria, a son was born to a Hudson Bay Company trader and a local Chinook chief’s daughter. They named him Ranald MacDonald, and as he grew up and sought a profession he faced discrimination for his mixed race, struggling to progress as a bank clerk. He was restless, and became interested in Japan – possibly through the tale of three Japanese fisherman who had drifted across the Pacific and been shipwrecked nearby. At the time Japan was little known and closed off to all foreigners.

Ranald quit his job and signed on as a sailor on a whaling vessel. After three years onboard, he convinced the captain to set him adrift off the coast of Hokkaido in a small boat, which he deliberately shipwrecked. He was rescued by the indigenous Ainu people, who turned him over to the authorities.

He was imprisoned in Nagasaki, where he learnt Japanese and became the first teacher of English in Japan. After ten months in Japan he was handed over to a US warship, and once home made a statement to the US congress about Japan and its society. Ranald’s students in Japan later became instrumental to the negotiating of the trade deal with the US that opened the country up to foreigners.

Ranald MacDonald was a man with a foot in different worlds, at the edges of things. And Astoria, at the northernmost tip of the Oregon coast with the Pacific stretching out to the west, does feel like its on the edge of something – ocean, continent, culture, state line. Ranald’s forebears had travelled to the new world, headed west and hit the ocean, but he carried on travelling west, and there’s something about that story of new and old cultures, promise and failure that seems for me to embody the Pacific Northwest. It’s one of my favourite stories that I collected on this journey.

Not Just The Sound of Rain

The next day we crossed the bridge into Washington, hulking tankers slipping by beneath us, and hit a wall of rain. We had entered the Olympic Peninsular, a wild, sparsely populated area of land cut off from the rest of the state by water on three sides, and home to a temperate rainforest.

During our second day on the Peninsular, we were walking around one of the more popular trails in the Hoh Rainforest. Our walk was dogged by three loud kids with their grandmother, being loud in a way that only Americans can. When we sped up, so did they; when we slowed down, they did the same. We couldn’t seem to get rid of them. “But I just want to enjoy nature in silence,” I fumed to BKC, demonstrating exactly the kind patience I’m sure I’ll be called upon to exhibit if we ever have kids of our own. I tutted under my breath in a very British (and uncharitable) way, then smiled at the family as they walked past. Frankly my reserves of patience had been brought to their limit by our unfailingly enthusiastic waitress the night before, who at one point actually gave us a double thumbs up (“I’d be more than happy to get that drink for you.”). Was she taking the piss? I asked BKC. She thought no – our waitress was just naturally infuriatingly cheerful.

So these kids the next day pushed me over the edge. “We’re going a different way!” I declared, and took us down the overnight hiking trail.

Immediately the people-noises fell away, and we were left with just bird song and the sound of the rain. The path was bedecked with moss a thousand shades of green, and we cut off the main path to reach the nearby riverbank. There we could look out across a wide, rocky, flood plain at a misty bank opposite. Pine trees snagged holes in the clouds. There was the sound of running water. It was completely tranquil.

Or at least it was until I sat down and screamed like a girl, because I’d sat on a thorn bush.

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That’s a Hoh lotta moss…

That night we stayed in La Push, a tiny town at the north west of the Peninsular, known principally for being where the Twilight novels are set. It’s a Native American reservation, and signs on its beach warn visitors not take anything away with them as the place is sacred to the local peoples.

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We stayed in a hotel just next to the beach, and we were able to climb over the accumulated drift wood to walk down to the sea and watch the whales gathered just offshore. We saw both Grey Whales and Orcas – mainly as fins and spouts popping up from the water now and again. It felt very special and very far away from anywhere. That night I lay in bed for a long time listening to just the hum of the motel fridge and the crashing of the waves.

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We were nearing the end of our journey. But for our final slice of the wild, we stayed at a little AirBnB place near Elwha River, on the northern side of the peninsular. It was a rambling looking house on several acres of land, with a horse paddock and chicken coops. As we were talking to the owner a bald eagle drifted above overhead, and all the chickens ran for cover. “The rooster’s a mean old bird,” she told us, “but he keeps the chickens safe from the Eagles, so we keep him. I’d stay away from him, though.” Then she added, as an afterthought: “and don’t touch the electric fence. It’s so hot it’ll make you pee your pants.”

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We were just a short drive from another entrance to the Olympic National Park that took in the Elwha River. When we got there, however, the roads were closed because the river had flooded recently. So we parked up and set off on foot instead, walking down the middle of the road. Mountains poked up above the trees, and debris from the flooding was strewed along the tarmac. The campsites that we came across were all trashed, the water having left silt and fallen trees everywhere it’d been. It felt like the end of the world.

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The next day we were sad to be heading back towards civilisation. It was a bright, cloudless day with temperatures pushing up towards a place where short wearing becomes legitimate. So to cap our journey, we drove up the very long and winding mountain road to Hurricane Ridge, where we could look out across the miles to see the mountains of British Colombia.

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Not shorts wearing weather here…

In the car park, a JCB with chains on its wheels was clearing the snow, pushing it up into huge, twice-person-size drifts. There was a restaurant, but the season hadn’t really started yet and it was closed. All there was to do was sink up to our knees in snow and take in the view.

Soon all this snow would be gone, melted and run off into waterfalls and rivers, before travelling out to sea, perhaps some finding its way out through the mouth of the Colombia River, where we’d been earlier in our trip.

It filled me, strangely, with hope.

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***

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On The Road: Pacific Northwest

WE WERE GOING to the Deep South. We bought a guide book, spent time looking at maps, planned routes – even got a quote from a travel company for flights and some sadly unimaginative accommodation. Then we booked to go the Pacific Northwest instead.

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This was our first foreign holiday since our year of travel in 2014. We had two weeks. We once spent that long staying on one beach in Malaysia. It seemed like a ridiculously short amount of time. We wanted epic landscapes around every corner, not desert, swamps and long straight roads (I’ve never been to the Deep South, but I’ve seen True Detective, I know what it’s like…). This was travel for the Instagram generation.

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Remember the days before filters? Me neither.

We were also seeking an instant relief from others things: my job was stressful, perhaps doubly so because I was trying to balance it with a part time MA – the anxiety curled up tightly inside me, and, it seemed, around both our lives. In hindsight, it was one of those times in life where you need reminding that you are not, in fact, pivotal to the continued existence of the universe, despite everything seeming previously to have been arranged for you – right down to the stranger who bags the last empty seat on the tube having been sent to thwart you, personally, and having no other purpose on Earth.

To gain perspective from travel, from nature, from the unexpected, and thus to lose the chagrin of the lost-seat-on-the-tube: this is to be free.

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***

WE PEERED AT Mt Rainier from the highway, jammed amongst rush hour traffic on our journey south from Seattle-Tacoma airport, bound for a cheap hotel. The snowy peak hulked over everything, pushing through the gaps in trees and billboards. That night, after a fatigued dinner at Denny’s, I dreamt that we climbed it.

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The next morning, amidst the waffles and fruit loops of the Comfort Inn complimentary breakfast, I thought that perhaps some of our fellow guests may have consumed Mt Rainier whole. An enormously fat family of four crowded a table, shovelling cereal into their mouths. We squeezed past them to the buffet, vainly searching for the low sugar, dairy and gluten-free dietary options. The coffee was bad. I don’t even want to talk about the tea. There was only one solution to these first world problems:

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No single origin beans? No organics? You KNOW who to call…

Organic Everything

Four hours later, I was sat on the steps amongst the other lunchers outside the Portland Saturday market, eating empanadas, scalding hot juices running down my chin. The lady on the step next to me was knitting. I watched a homeless woman colouring her obligatory cardboard sign with felt tip pens.

The next few days passed in a caffeine fuelled blur of locally-sourced, ethically-produced, craft-brewed hedonism. Basically like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, except with Triple Echinacea Green Tea instead of mescaline.

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Stay off that echinacea, kids…

For a pair of bibliofiends, Powell’s  City of Books was a highlight. This is the only place in the world where I’ve come across secondhand books mixed in with new, so you stumble upon an untouched edition sitting next to three used. It’s inspired, and it obviously worked: I left with a bag full of books. All other bookshops, please take note.

Frankly, if this doesn’t set your heart racing, I don’t know what will.

But as glorious as beer, caffeine and books are, it’s not what we travelled for. Consuming is fun for a while (quite a while – we spent 3 hours in the REI store), but shopping bags, beer flights and fancy meals all have diminishing returns*. We went for this:

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Nature. Accessible via a carefully maintained series of manmade trails.

*except for fish tacos, obviously.

Falling Water

It was spring, and the waterfalls of Colombia River Gorge were crashing torrents. We spent a long time just standing and staring up at one particular waterfall, close enough for its spuming drizzle to soak us through, close enough to feel utterly insignificant against its urgency. Its roar filled me.

This is what I want from the wild: to feel very small. Other people visit dominatrixes.

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That night we crossed back over the Hood River into Washington and stayed in a hut in the countryside, just outside a place called White Salmon. It was, like all the best places, an AirBnB place. After briefly meeting the owners, we watched the sun sink over trees and a sky full of stars emerge above.

In the morning, following the owners’ advice, we walked down to a little creek, passing on the way bullet-holed shooting targets. We stood on the riverbank, trying to absorb a tiny slice of sunshine, taking stock of our lives and what might be next. Then we bundled our luggage back into the rented gas guzzler and were away.

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Land of the free.

A few hours later we were driving down criss-crossing rural roads, red barns perched atop rolling hills. In the fields we passed were row upon row of young pine trees, each destined to one day be decorated with tinsel – for some reason it had never occurred to me that Christmas trees would be farmed in this way. They seemed oddly incongruous amidst the spring greenery.

After a quick stop off at our accommodation (a lavender farm, no less), we were at Silver Falls State Park, walking the Trail of Ten Falls. These stellar examples of falling water were, in fact, even better than those we witnessed in Colombia River Gorge, helped partly by the fact that it was sunny rather than raining and that for a few of the falls, it was possible to walk behind them. I began to think that I was becoming something of a connoisseur, and looked rather haughtily on some of the lesser examples that, if I’m honest, were just making up the numbers to allow for some easy alliteration in the trail’s name.

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I don’t know about you, but I’d score this about a 4.82.

Back at the lavender farm, we sat outside in the warm spring sun and read. It was quiet, just the sound of birds and occasionally a car from the road below. A helicopter flew above us, and even it seemed to be following a lazy meander through the sky. Rolling hills spread out to the horizon and as the air cooled and the sun dipped, the first stars emerged and we could see the lights of Salem twinkling in the distance.

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The next day was a travel day – a six hour drive south down the I-5 to the northernmost tip of California. We ate a Wendy’s for lunch. I don’t know why. The man behind the till was excited to meet us. I was excited about the fact that they named a burger after me (no one even told me), but he was more interested in our accents. We had the usual “where you guys from?” conversation, I got my Dave Burger, we sat down.

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About midway through my namesake burger, the man from behind the till – let’s call him Joel – approached our table.

“Pardon me for interrupting, but when will Kate be inaugurated? I heard Her Majesty had passed.”

“The Queen’s dead?”” I asked, thinking immediately of my mother, the diehard republican. “We haven’t seen the news. When did it happen?”

“Oh, I saw it on TV,” said Joel. “A few months back.”

BKC and I exchanged a look.

“Are you sure you’re not thinking of Margaret Thatcher?” I asked. “She died a few years ago. There was a big funeral. I don’t think the Queen is dead. We’d know. Someone would’ve noticed.”

“Oh!” said Joel, “Well, that’s a relief to know Her Majesty is still with us.” There was an awkward pause, then he added: “Kate will make a great Queen.”

I picked at my fries. BKC explained about the line of succession.

Joel nodded sympathetically. “Such a shame about Diana,” he lamented, “she would have made a good Queen.” Then, cryptically, he exclaimed: “let’s hope Charles doesn’t get the guillotine out again!” and swished his arms as if swinging a sword.

“Sometimes,” he confided in us, as I struggled to consume my burger as quickly as possible, “I like to push it as far as I can, you know, politically.”

I didn’t ask him about Trump.

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NEXT TIME, in part two of my Pacific Northwest adventure… Redwoods! Whales! Endless pictures of beaches! Don’t miss it.

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