Exploring The Olympic Peninsula, A Sweeping Sensory Experience
We set out from our quiet and remote northeastern corner of Washington early in the morning, making our way through hours of desert-like sagebrush, through forests, and then over Snoqualmie Pass, having made the transition to the lush wet forests of the western part of the state.
We hit an unfortunate two-hour-long traffic jam around Seattle (The Curse of The I-5 Corridor), but at least wild foxgloves decorated the side of the Interstate, allowing for some enchantment still to be found.
Finally, we reached the exit for the Olympic Peninsula and things began to slow down and grow wilder. Smells of car exhaust dissipated and marine smells from the Hood Canal drifted into the rolled down windows.
Ah yes, much better.
The traffic jam resulted in us missing the reported Best Oysters on the Peninsula - Hama Hama Oyster Saloon, on the Hood Canal. So we journeyed on to our first destination: Sequim (pronounced Squim, like squeeze + him), where we were pleased to find the Salty Girls Sequim Seafood Company. After a long day of driving, we settled into our seats and grinned silly grins over dozens of delicious local oysters from the Hood Canal.
Thus began our full sensory experience on the Olympic Peninsula.
After we'd had our fill, with one or two daylight hours left, we took to the backroads to explore some of the lavender trail. Of course, the farms would be closed by this hour, but who knew what beauty we might run into that didn't have business hours, so on we drove.
And yes, right into beauty.
Through a bucolic countryside, with well-spaced old farmhouses, and homemade signs urging drivers to be mindful of wildlife...
Right into fields of lavender and poppies.
I think if I was confined to growing only one flower the rest of my life, it'd be poppies. They embody the old Slavic fairytales in my mind - this combination of darkness and intrigue, sultry beauty and sheer joy.
And juxtaposed alongside the poppies were fields of lavender...
You can imagine the sensual raptures, I hope. The vision of these deep rich paper thin poppies. The serene aroma of lavender.
Dear reader, it doesn't stop there.
Out beyond these rapturous fields was the Salish Sea, all aglow in the sunset, golden orange, sparkling, and making its way, via the Strait of Juan de Fuca, out to the Pacific Ocean (the very word pacific means calm and peaceful) and this combination of sensual experiences was almost too much in the way of beauty.
This, I came to find out, was the way of the Olympic Peninsula - just when you were bearing witness to so much intense beauty, more, and then a bit more would get ushered in on top of it all. So, as Mary Oliver puts it, you felt nearly killed with delight. More than once I found myself making pained expressions in the face of beauty - a curious response if you ask me.
We wound our way back through the seaside-countryside to a local lodge where we turned in for the night.
The next day, we woke to a signature overcast day on the peninsula - our favorite kind of weather.
From Sequim, we set out north and parallel to the Salish Sea. Maritime scents filled the air - salt, fish, seaweed - and we dreamed out loud about how we had both always felt a calling to the water, an old-fashioned seaside life where a great deal of our sustenance came from the water, and how we weren't exactly sure where this feeling of northern coastal nostalgia came from. Scandinavian and Irish ancestral memory? Who knew.
Our passion and longing for forest and maritime life were being introduced to a place where the two worlds weren't mutually exclusive but existed side by side.
The dreaming and sighing and sticking our noses out the window carried on as we continued north into more remote parts of the Peninsula.
Hours later, after many pit stops to touch wildflowers, sniff the sea, and get more espresso, we came to Neah Bay - a stormy little fishing village on the Makah Indian Reservation. From there, we made our way to the most northwestern point in the contiguous United States - Cape Flattery. Finally, we would see the Pacific Ocean again, but this would be our first time seeing the Pacific this far north, and the first time seeing our beloved Washington's coastline.
A great deal of Washington's coastline requires a hike to reach the beach. It's really an aesthetic cherry on top - you don't just park and walk out onto a beach, no, you pull on your Muck Boots (take note: you will need Muck boots to enjoy the Olympic Peninsula thoroughly), and you clamber through a rainforest before emerging out onto a coastline that can only be described as mystical. All of it is pure fairytale, I tell you.
This was only our first stop and we were well over halfway into the day, so we took in the view one last time and scurried back up to the trailhead - watching our step on the wet stones and wet roots.
From here, we went off the beaten path to the Shi Shi Beach trailhead. We honestly didn't know what we were in for - the trail was very muddy and longer than we expected (about 3 miles one way) but so enchanting that we didn't mind the mud. Again, I was so very thankful for my Muck boots (which, mind you, I wore with a long black linen dress - Tiffany hiking attire at its finest). We only passed a few other hikers along the way, and I couldn't help but notice how carefully they were having to navigate around the mud, while I was able to stomp right through with wild abandon.
After more than an hour of hiking, we fumbled our way down steep switchbacks and emerged from old-growth forest, past a watchful raven, onto a northern beach that felt full of story.
Someone got a little rowdy with the bull kelp, but we won't name names.
And in the wake, about 30 feet from where I stood, a seal bobbed around, her deep dark eyes penetrating to some tender part in me. If you've read any of the old Selkie folktales, you'll know what I mean.
By this time, we were well into early evening with the same hike back still ahead of us and a decent amount of driving to reach our destination for the night.
So with much hesitation, we left the beach and became consumed again by the forest, talking about how we would come back and spend a lot more time. Soon.
We headed toward the small town of Forks where we'd be staying for the next two nights while we explored more of the coast and the rainforest.
A bit of context for this next little portion of the tale:
Many years and what seems like a lifetime ago, I lived in a little log cabin on 30 acres which was landlocked inside of 300 acres belonging to a Zen monastery in northern Kentucky. Zen Forest, it was called. My neighbors were Amish families, Vietnamese monks, and Wendell Berry.
During this span of time, I began blogging. These were the good old blog days of old, with list style layouts that you had to scroll all the way through before reaching the next post. Most of us back then used Blogspot.
I established online friendships back then with several other bloggers that endure to this day. One of them was Forest Lass (that was her name at the time, now she goes by __wolf_queen__ on Instagram). Sara is her name and back in the blog days of old she lived on a quaint farmstead in Turkey where she raised turkeys, gardened, and shared bits and pieces of her rural life, much like I did.
Years ago, Sara and her family moved to America. She's now married and living in Vermont, but where did she happen to be this particular weekend? The Olympic Peninsula.
We didn't arrange a meeting because we were both only there for a limited amount of time and trying to squeeze in plenty of adventures I assumed. I had no idea where I would be when, whether or not I'd have cell service, I didn't want to intrude on her time, I'm introverted anyway, and all that. So before leaving home, we simply grinned (via emojis online) and said Wouldn't it be funny if we ran into one another? and Have a great time exploring! and that was it really.
End of context.
Back to the evening after we'd been exploring the coast all day, having just arrived into Forks.
By this time I was looking like a proper hooligan - all drenched in rain and salty sea air, hair hanging down in strings, wet sand-covered dress, mud-covered Muck boots, and a goofy elated grin from the day's adventures.
We were tired and rather hungry but Forks offered few options in the way of dining. There was a pizza place, the hotel receptionist told us, but that's about all at this hour. So off to the pizza place we went!
I went in to order while Eric stayed at the car to switch into dry socks and organize the car. As I stood in line carefully thinking out the 5 toppings I'd choose - spinach, garlic, pepperoni, black olives, jalapenos - a fellow walked through the line on his way to the bathroom. This fellow was unmistakably Sara's husband who I'd seen in Instagram photos. I had a few seconds of the confusion a tired brain feels when it's somewhere very unfamiliar but recognizes a face, then I began to look around the restaurant, deeply humored at the irony and happenstance that was taking place. This huge peninsula, and here we both are, unplanned. How perfect. My eyes drifted over all the tables full of people before spotting a solo person in a booth, with dark thick hair. I left my place in line and slid right into the booth with Sara, who looked at me shocked for a couple of seconds before realization set in and we both laughed and embraced. Zen Forest and Forest Lass meet in the flesh, and the odds! It was wonderful.
Sara oozed a sincerity and a sweetness that bolstered my affection immediately, and I'm sure if we lived near enough, we'd become the greatest of friends.
Isn't that a great story though? I loved this chance encounter so much, and the organic way it worked itself out, free of control.
That evening, bellies full of pizza, and deeper in love with the peninsula, we enjoyed the deepest sleep, despite being full of excitement for what lay ahead tomorrow.
The next day, and the sunniest one yet, we made our way to the coast again. Rialto Beach this time, and our minds were on one thing: tide pools.
Rialto Beach had two things really going for it in our book: 1.) no extensive hike to reach the beach (which was important only because this was our last full day on the peninsula and we planned to venture into the Hoh Rainforest that afternoon) and 2.) tide pools that were reknown amongst marine biologists.
It sounded promising.
We walked about a quarter mile down the beach, en route to a large rock formation that seemed appealing. It looked like a place where maybe we'd find a few tide pools?
And folks, the following is an example of what I mean when I say the Olympic Peninsula delivers waves of beauty, and just when all is perfect in the world, another element sweeps through and knocks you off your feet a little more...
Atop this rock formation, beautiful in and of itself, were bald eagles. We counted about six of them living up there - perched in trees, flying around, and... singing.
Where we live here in the northeast of Washington, it's not unusual to spot a bald eagle or hear one calling in the distance. But I have never heard an eagle sing.
These eagles were singing, in the way a songbird will sing, but in their very eagle way. I looked around on YouTube to find an example of the sound, but couldn't find anything that really captured what we heard.
And then (remember - waves of beauty), a golden eagle flew through and perched on top of the rock formation with the bald eagles!
Just too much.
And then! Walking toward the right of the formation, along the bottom, we stumbled into the richest tide pools we could've imagined. Turquoise sea anemones; purple, orange, pink, and blue starfish clinging to rocks; hermit crabs with their spiral homes on their back, spiral like our golden ratio galaxy.
We could've spent hours, days really, exploring these tide pools, rich with exquisite and unusual life forms.
Full of wonder, we figured we'd better get a move on if we wanted to explore more of the peninsula, so we climbed in the car and traced a line from the coast into another world entirely - the Hoh Rainforest.
And here is where we finally crossed paths with other tourists! The splendor of this place was not lost on us, but it was diminished unfortunately due to the swarms of people all around. For me, a big part of connecting to the natural world is spending quiet time with it. Getting pulled into that ancient rhythm, listening intimately to the soundscape, smelling the smells, getting down on my knees and taking the time to notice the tiny worlds within the grand.
We resolved to visit the Hoh again, but to plan a hike on a more remote trail next time.
Before moving on though, I have to tell you about Taft Creek - which flows right through the crowded Hall of Mosses trail and serves as an important waterway for Coho salmon on the peninsula.
Unfortunately, I don't believe my pictures do it justice, but I tried to capture the clarity. It was the clearest, most pristine, water either of us had ever seen in our lives. Not even the gorgeous turquoise-blue tone so prevalent in Washington rivers, it was just... crystal clear. Like looking through clean glass.
It was late in the afternoon, but we had one more place on our list to visit - Lake Quinalt, surrounded by Quinalt Valley, also known as The Valley of the Rainforest Giants because several of the world's largest trees are rooted in this very valley, some of them for more than a thousand years!
We drove a couple of hours to get there, following the Pacific coastline a great deal of the time, and stopping for clams along the way, until finally we got to stand at the feet of giants.
And inside the world's largest Sitka Spruce, I came across a curious little fellow - I can't help but imagine he has something to do with the workings of this curious valley ;)
As we drove on, past the quaint tiny town of Quinalt, deeper into a more residential (but quiet and private) area with farmsteads, cozy homes with huge wild gardens, smells of nectar-dew saturating the air, surprise waterfalls, encircled on all sides by towering jagged-but-tree-covered mountains... something came over us. A feeling we've gotten once before, in a place nearby where we live now, which I can only describe as home. A feeling that is so strong and emotionally stirring, like a calling. And it still hasn't left us; we've talked about it every day since.
We will return to Quinalt Valley, that much is certain.
That night, upon arriving back in Forks, Eric had a brilliant idea - how about we go watch the sunset? Yes. We should most definitely go watch the sunset.
Back to Rialto Beach, where we had explored tide pools just that morning. We made ourselves cozy atop a large driftwood tree on the beach and watched as the spectacle began.
We, and you reading this, have watched many sunsets no doubt. And they are always, always beautiful. But this sunset was something else - because, it bears repeating, this is truly the way of the Olympic Peninsula.
It began with a pink-orange glow being cast across the ocean, onto the sides of sea stacks on the horizon, illuminating driftwood along the beach in a fiery orange. Minutes later, the tone of the world was washed over in dim lavender as clouds covered most of the sun. Then, as the world spun, and as we bore witness to time itself so underlined in that moment, our giant star slipped out from behind the clouds, beaming bright white light across stunned faces, as it went from round to waning, and in a matter of seconds, disappeared beneath the horizon. Salty tears hung on our salty cheeks and we embraced as alarm clocks in some other part of the world began to go off.
On the way back to the room, we listened to Sigur Ros' Svefn-n-englar and it felt that the land itself was singing this song, or would sing this song if it spoke human and moved in human time.
The Peninsula evoked so much in us - melancholy, reflection, adventure, inspiration, a balance that felt so good. We love this place. Or I guess adore is a better word. Love takes time.
And what do we plan to do with this adoration? That much remains to be seen but may involve wheeled homes and migration patterns? We don't yet know, but time does. Stay tuned.
My husband and I are working to build a Nordic-inspired homestead in the Washington wilderness slowly with cash and no debt. You can follow the journey here!
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