A month into freshman year at Portland's Reed College in 1974, my life was a lost cause. Frank Lloyd, my lab rat in Intro Psych, had just bloodied my thumb and sent my grade-point average plummeting. (We were graded on how fast our rodent learned to press a bar to get food pellets; Frank Lloyd was a punk nihilist.)
Worse, my girlfriend, a student of abstract sculpture and the great-great-granddaughter of Brigham Young, had just dumped me for an upperclassman. I couldn't understand. Hadn't she and I bonded for life on the sands of the Oregon coast at a site so spectacular it was immortalized on the cover of the Rand McNally Road Atlas?
Inconsolable over the Sculptress and lacking Frank Lloyd's principled refusal to play the game of positive reinforcement, I spent the next decade courting my next sweetheart, the Musician. She and I soon found a beach of our own: the equally picturesque, still-more-remote strands of the Olympic Peninsula, in the extreme northwest corner of Washington state.
What a place! Though scarcely farther than Anaheim is from Burbank, the Olympic Peninsula is worlds away from the Seattle megalopolis, which has achieved a daily traffic jam on par with L.A.'s.
Hold out your left hand, palm up, fold your fingers into a fist and extend your thumb slightly. You're looking at a rough map of Washington. Your thumb represents the Olympic Peninsula. Along the interior are the Olympics, crowned by 7,965-foot Mt. Olympus. Mild clouds borne by the Japanese current are lifted by the Olympics, creating a rain forest on the western side of the peninsula, the only one in the contiguous United States. To the north, in the rain shadow of the mountains, is a semi-desert where cacti sometimes grow.
You can't simply drive across this busy ecosystem. To get from Seattle to the 57-mile-long beach on the peninsula's west coast, you must make a day's circumnavigation around the interior mountains on U.S. 101. But once there, you will find a seascape pristine enough to leave even the loquacious Frasier, the sitcom Seattleite, speechless.
The mountains and seemingly endless beach form one of the most unspoiled, even otherworldly, shores on the West Coast. Each spring, trees torn from the soil by the snowmelt-swollen mountain rivers are methodically turned on the waters' lathe and deposited by the thousands, stripped of bark, on the beach. Bleached white by the sun, they look like pickup sticks fashioned for giants.
Between the beach on the west and Mt. Olympus in the center lie the rain forests of the peninsula's river valleys--the Hoh, the Queets, the Quinalt. They're like a particularly luxe hallucination: Draperies of mosses drip from trees as if poured from vats on high and arrested in mid-melt. There's an art group on the peninsula that calls itself the Messy Palette Art League, and evidently the artist of the rain forest is a member in good standing.
Each tree--some 1,000 years old--is said to exert the cooling power of five air conditioners, and the emerald canopy is so thick that in some places the snows of midwinter never touch the ground. If you seize the chance to kiss a close acquaintance in such a setting, I can say from personal experience that you are unlikely to get a slap in the face.
Alas, the Musician composed a finale to our relationship a while after our Olympic idyll. A few years went by. Then, by improbable chance, I collided with my first love, the Sculptress. She and I connected as we had failed to do as inept teen-agers at Reed. And where do you suppose we went to celebrate our renewed romance? The Olympic Peninsula, of course--in the same 1980 Honda Civic in which I'd toured the coast before. After 238,000 miles, that car is still purring. (My advice: Always change the oil every 1,500 miles, and never bitterly write off an ex-girlfriend, no matter how many miles have gone by. You never know.)
Though much of the peninsula's interior and the upper third of its west coast are under the protective aegis of the Olympic National Park, it's necessary to drive through a profusion of clear-cut forests along the peripheries to get to them. The clear-cuts, the legacy of Washington's logging-friendly legislators, aren't exactly uplifting, but once you enter the park there are still a million-odd acres of forest primeval in which to conduct a romantic rapprochement.
The thing about a rain forest, though, is that it rains. Buckets. Like, 140 inches a year in some sodden spots. Some folks just don rain gear and bliss out on the drizzle, but for some Olympic visitors this may be too much of a good thing. On the other hand, in late autumn the first frost has probably killed off the mosquitoes that bedevil summer tourists, the hordes of RV campers have decamped, and the truly serious Noah-esque downpours of midwinter haven't arrived. Establishments booked solid in summer months--the Kalaloch Lodge, for example, on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific between the Queets and Hoh valleys--are eager for business.
The Kalaloch is a comfortably Spartan, old-timey retreat with wood cabins strung along a ridge facing the ocean and grounds kept as spruce as a recruit's haircut. The bar in the lodge, with its cinematic view of the Pacific, is just the place for a hot toddy on a rain-swept afternoon. The Sculptress, bummed by the chainsaw sculpture of the clear-cuts glimpsed on the drive in, recovered instantly as a quarter clinked into the Kalaloch jukebox and a suitably damp tune--"The Sky Is Crying," I believe--kicked in.
After sampling the west coast of the peninsula, a sojourn east and northward will place you in the more reliably dry rain shadow cast by the Olympics. In the transitional zone between the drippy west and drier north, the Sculptress and I found a wonderful place called Sol Duc Hot Springs, in the old-growth forest in the northwest corner of the national park.
Good environmentalists are supposed to loathe Sol Duc, because this is where concrete was poured all over what used to be a natural, undeveloped hot springs you had to hike to. The Sculptress and I are embarrassed to admit that now that Sol Duc is a resort, its bubbling sulfuric waters tamed by pipes and cement ponds, we loved it. Not the least because, like everywhere else in the Pacific Northwest, it boasts good, citified, Starbucks espresso. (Unfortunately, the resort closes for the season at October's end.)
I am not aware, however, of any place to get really great food on the peninsula until you get to Port Angeles, a harbor town of 17,000 midway along the northern coast, famous for Dungeness crab, available year round (and the delectable literature of Raymond Carver, whose widow, Tess Gallagher, still lives here). That's why the Sculptress and I were relieved that Port Angeles' mainstay, C'est Si Bon, is still in business. "We used to live in Malibu," said C'est Si Bon's Norbert Juhasz, a man with a thick Gallic accent who runs the place with his wife, Michele. "We used to cook for Janet Leigh, Robert Wise, Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand."
Celebrity clients could not compensate for an apparently intolerable Angeleno lifestyle, though. and the Juhaszes fled to the Olympic Peninsula, where rain forests filter the air and everybody has the leisure to linger over escargot and fine wine.
Port Angeles itself is undistinguished, but just a few miles south of town, in the foothills of the Olympics, is the primeval Heart O' the Hills. Like most easily accessible campgrounds, in the summer it's a jam-packed insta-suburbia, but in fall we scarcely saw a soul as we wandered between the titanic Douglas fir trees down the steep, needle-carpeted slope toward a river we kept hearing but never seemed to find. Not that we minded the meandering search. My five favorite New Year's Eve parties were held at Heart O' the Hills but the place is at its best when you are two, and alone, and standing in a vast, hushed green cathedral shot through with histrionic diagonal shafts of sunlight.
A 15-minute drive south of Heart O' the Hills is mile-high Hurricane Ridge, just inside Olympic National Park. There, the ridge-top hiking trails offer views clear across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to British Columbia, 30 miles to the north.
Port Angeles is also the place to drive your car onto the Black Ball ferry to Victoria, B.C., for a quick hit of quaint Anglophile charm. Should downtown Victoria's veddy-ersatz-British tchotchke shops begin to wear, respite and repast are available at the Sooke Harbour House, 2.3 miles down the Whiffen Spit Road.
The establishment comprises a two-story, white clapboard 1920s house, faintly Cape Cod-like, and a newer, more boxy guest house. Both buildings boast a hallelujah-inducing view across the strait to the Olympics. Proprietor Sinclair Philip monitors the marine radio for boats with fresh catch. Then he hops into his speedboat, buys the fish and plops them into an aquarium standing in his giant herb and flower garden. An exquisite, fresh-caught dinner, a Jacuzzi, a night by the fire contemplating the Olympic range--a couple could do worse.
On either side of the strait--in Victoria or in the Port Angeles-Sequim vicinity--you should also curl up by the fire and read something by Raymond Carver, the late poet laureate of the place. Carver was labeled, much to his profit but also to his unjust limitation, a "minimalist" writer, but I prefer his own term: "precisionist." He sure captured the ambience of the Olympics in precise terms. He celebrated:
The places where water comes together with other water.
Those places stand out in my mind like holy places.
But those coastal rivers!
I love them the way some men love horses or glamorous women.
Without trivializing the trouble Carver faced--years of drinking, which he conquered, and smoking, which he didn't--I wonder whether his famous late-in-life renaissance wasn't partly inspired by the rejuvenating landscape that surrounded him. "It's good to live near the water," he wrote. "It's the kind of night that brings men and rivers close."
Men and rivers, and men and women. The Sculptress and I agree.
Guidebook: The Autumn Olympics
Telephone numbers and prices: The area code for the peninsula is 360. Hotel prices are for a double room for one night. Restaurant prices are for dinner for two, food only.
Getting there: Alaska, Delta and United airlines have nonstop flights from Los Angeles to Seattle. Alaska flies directly to Port Angeles, saving over an hour's drive. The Black Ball ferry makes the 90-minute trip from Port Angeles to Victoria, B.C., twice daily. The fare is $26 per car and driver and $6.50 per passenger, each way.
Where to stay: The James House, 1238 Washington St., Port Townsend, Wash., (800) 385-1238. Victorian bed-and-breakfast in this 1890s boom town, where "An Officer and a Gentleman" was filmed. Splurge on the $150 master suite (No. 5), with sitting room, porch and fireplace. Kalaloch Lodge, 157151 U.S. 101, Forks, (360) 962-2271. Spartan log cabins with cliff-side views in the heart of the Olympic rain forest. Rates: $80-$150. Sol Duc Hot Springs Resorts, P.O. Box 2169, Port Angeles, Wash. 98362;(360) 327-3583, fax (360) 327-3398. (Twelve miles inside Olympic National Park.) One-room cabins with two double beds and full bath; three hot springs pools and heated swimming pool. Restaurant serves breakfast and dinner; $30. Open mid-May through September. Rates: $78-$88. (Hot springs pools open weekends from Sept. 25 to Oct. 29; admission $5.90.) Heart O' the Hills Campground, at the Heart O' the Hills entrance to Olympic National Park, (360) 452-2713. The campground has 103 sites that primarily accommodate tents, no RV hookups. Open year-round, weather permitting. Rates: $10 per car site per night.
Where to eat: C'est Si Bon, 23 Cedar Park Drive, Port Angeles, 452-8888. Splendid French cuisine; $45. Sooke Harbour House, 1528 Whiffen Spit Road, Sooke, BC VOS 1NO; (604) 642-3421. Outstanding fresh seafood; $85.
For more information: Olympic National Park, 452-0330; Washington State Tourism Division, P.O. Box 2500, Olympia, Wash., 98504-2500; (800) 544-1800.