Author’s note: This is Chapter 6 of a somewhat sporadic, ongoing series I’ve been writing called ‘Close-Hauled Into The Squamish, Heading North By Northwest. It details my trip to coastal Washington in November of 2014. Scroll down on the main page to find past entries. –cn
“What do we leave behind when we cross each frontier? Every moment seems split in two: melancholy for what was left behind, and the excitement of entering a new land.”—Che Guevara
“All my life, my heart has sought a thing I cannot name.” –Hunter S. Thompson
“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-nine pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”—Ernest Hemingway
Another day has come and gone without news from the apartment manager. After dinner, the family has settled like motes of dust at sundown in Frank’s living room to watch the local news, and later, some Magnum P.I.
On the couch, Don’s oxygen clacks away as it pushes gas through the long, curled plastic tube and up toward his nostrils. My mother is asleep in the recliner, snoring with her head thrown back and covered by an open senior travel magazine. This is her habit.
“We should go to the ocean tomorrow.” says Frank.
“The ocean? Oh!” Muffled exclamation from under my mother’s issue of Sunset.
“Oh, I don’t want to distract you with driving me around. I’m perfectly happy to hang out here and make sure my mom and Don get settled in.” I say.
“We aren’t going anywhere. They said it’d be a few days, bud. You should go.” Don, from his nook on the couch.
“You might as well. I would be remiss if I didn’t show you around while you’re out here.” Frank munches on a cookie and glances at me.
“Remiss. Indeed.” I say.
“Remiss.” Frank affirms.
“Well, alrighty then. What time we getting up?” I ask.
“Pretty long drive. We should leave by six.”
At 5am I smear my fingers across my phone to silence the alarm. It’s still dark. The rain is again pittering on the roof–has it ever stopped? I feel as if I’ve been here a lifetime already. I try to think when the last time the sun was out as I throw on clothes and shove gear in my backpack. Soon I’m downstairs munching on toast and drinking lukewarm coffee. Frank retrieves one of the smoked salmon and wraps it in a wad of paper towel before stuffing into a small cooler with a few drinks and other snacks. At 5:45 we are easing his pickup out of the garage and into the pre-dawn mist.
The city streets are smothered in heavy fog and deserted save for occasional pools of light from the streetlamps. Dark buildings and a few glimpses of Budd Inlet pass as we exit the west end of town. Look–there is the sign, the one I’ve ever only seen in pictures. State Highway 101. Frank merges, but my excitement is short-lived when we again turn west, onto Highway 8. I can barely read the sign in the dark and in the fog. West. Montesano. Aberdeen.
The wet road hums beneath us while we ply our way westward. Outside my window I watch as convenience stores and the occasional farm supply store emerge from the nothingness, only to disappear again in a few seconds.
As we drive, little is revealed except for thick stands of trees at the edge of visibility or an oncoming car now and then. In the lightening sky I see signs for the Capitol State Forest, somewhere lost in the fog off to the south. We curve around it and drop into a shallow valley, tracing the route of the Chehalis River as it flows towards Grays Harbor. Past the shrouded, sodden towns of Elma, Satsop, and Montesano we go, and over the dual drawbridges in Aberdeen and Hoquiam, where unemployed fishermen and mermaids play, skirting the harbor until we turn north.
There is an old saying in aviation that states there is nothing more useless than altitude above you and runway behind you. In a sense, the same is true of the road. It is a comparison and contrast of past and future. You can anticipate the future. Look forward to or dread it. But you can’t take stories from it. When is the last time someone thrilled to a story of what you planned to do?
In the past is where we must mine our nuggets of laughter and tragedy. This is where our stories bear fruit, as if from a seed buried in the ground long ago and forgotten. And we take comfort in the dredging of them, the thin, watery silt of loss and joy that slips through our fingers with the passage of time. Frank and I, we voyagers, besworded Argonauts of Highway 101, forge ahead to write our own story. We drive on to fill the road behind us with grand remembrances.
North, now. North. Toward Alaska, somewhere out beyond the trees and my dreams. Forging down that narrow black strip flanked by sentinel conifers. Occasionally the highway changes headings, dodging sometimes left, sometimes right, but always northward. Past New London and up through Neilton. Flashes-in-the-pan-and-if-you-blink-you-miss-them-but-souls-precious-souls-still-live-there. Through the ridiculously named Humptulips with its single, tiny convenience store at a ‘Y’ intersection. And coming up, Lake Quinault. Sapphire jewel in a bed of emerald at the southwestern corner of Olympic National Park. Fed by the Quinault River and Graves Creek. Wet. Green. Lush. Arresting.
Frank slows the truck and turns right, onto a narrow, roughly paved path. “Quinault Lodge, 1/4mi” says the sign.
“You hungry?” he asks.
“Hell, yes.” I answer.
The pickup surges forward on a wave of assent and appetite. Soon we are parked in a tight corner off the side of the lodge.
The lodge is an icon. Three stories, log, oversized windows with thin strips framing them into panes a foot or so square. Entering through heavy wood doors, a large hallway stretches left and right. Center, the restrooms. Right, the gift shop, where I’ll find a plethora of Bigfoot memorabilia. I have yet to hunt him down. And left, the lodge great room and restaurant.
Pancakes and eggs. Crystal water glasses and cloth napkins are entirely too fancy for us. Outside isolated rays of sun sparkle in the lake we see across a large grass yard. Thick frost punctuated by footprints and trackways. All lead to the center, where tourists have turned around to photograph the lodge.
We make a quick meal of it, wander out for our own photographs, then back to the truck. Soon we are at speed again, tires wailing while we push through the Quinault reservation on our west side. Angling towards Queets and Kalaloch (clay-lock). Still, the trees.
Frank fumbles in the center console. When I glance down, I notice he’s searching for a CD. Eyes shifting from road to the cubby and back, he flips one out and pushes it into the player.
“You like opera?” He asks.
“I actually do, but I hardly ever get to listen to it. Who is it?”
The first few notes of Con Te Partiro waft into the cab. (the author suggests you spin this up on YouTube right now for full dramatic effect )
The tires hum and we drive on, muted by the music. But only for a mile or two.
“We played this song at my wife’s funeral. It’s called Time To Say Goodbye. Con Te Partiro in Italian.” Frank, stares down the road, one hand on the shifter, left elbow propped on the door with left thumb guiding the wheel.
“I’m sorry. You were married before?” I ask.
“Jane’s my second.”
The road curves to the southwest, and we climb a low rise. At its crest, the aisle of trees reveals a glimpse of the horizon. Fat, puffy clouds float low, seeming to hover on the edge of the highway. And….is that…..?
“This is usually where you’ll first get a look at the ocean.” Says Frank.
And so it is. In 2008 I’d seen the Atlantic during a trip to Massachusetts. She is cold, and gray, with rocky shores that make for hard walking. In 2003 I waded in the Pacific at my wedding in Hawaii. This one is a completely different personality. Blue and tranquil. Understanding. Peaceful. It must have been an easy name to give her, so long ago.
Now, here she is again, at the same task she’s ever always done. Chewing at the shore with tidal swipes and hosting lavish aquatic parties for fish of every kind deep below her rolling surface. Life-giver. Soul-saver.
Time to say goodbye
To countries I never
Saw and shared with you,
now, yes, I shall experience them.
I’ll take you with me,
On ships across seas
which, I know, exist no longer,
The music reaches a crescendo while we draw closer. Again the road curves, this time to the north again, and we lose sight of her behind a thick row of pine that parallels the beach. At Kalaloch lodge, Frank slows and turns left toward a row of rental cottages. Engine stop. Swing a door open. That gushing, throaty roar and the sweet breeze.
I bound down wood steps to the beach. The early morning sun glares off wet sand while I traipse through the surf kicking rocks, wet leather boots be damned. Marching up and down I go, startling the gulls. Quick picture with Frank. And then, into the truck again and ever northward, up to Ruby Beach, the same again, exploring. Scrabbling over huge driftwood logs, the pickup sticks of giants. Watching a wedding sprout from the sand a hundred yards away. Groom, bride, guitar. They’ll listen to a few chords and the rest of their lives unfold there, may they ever be blessed. And out farther still, two miles away on Destruction Island, broods the old lighthouse, forlorn and inconsolable in its disuse. No longer a guide-just a monument, if it’s lucky enough to be left alone. And here, now, Frank and I, on this spread of silica specks, tiny in our own cosmic right, yet knowing someday a boot will kick us into the spray, too.
“C’mon. Let’s go to Hoh.” says Frank.
I follow after him, climbing the low hill past the whispering grass, into the truck and on up Kerouac’s mad road toward the rainforest.