Antiquer treasures a surprising discovery

Times Staff Writer

Never mind "The Da Vinci Code." Antiques are my Holy Grail. The ultimate piece and the ensuing fulfillment of my quest always lie in the next shop or the next stop.

So it was with that thrill of anticipation that I set out for Centralia late last month. I found a couple of treasures, but the real find wasn't at all what or where I expected.

Business had taken me to Seattle for a Saturday seminar, and my Saturday stay-over enabled me to snag a flight for $168.20 (and also gave me a chance to get a quick look at the city's new Rem Koolhaas-designed library, which opened last week).

On a Sunday morning, now pinching pennies with more gusto, I took the Gray Line bus back to the airport ($8.50 versus the $21.25 a shuttle van cost me two nights before), picked up a rental car ($12.89 a day, plus tax, from Enterprise) and began the 100-mile drive south to Centralia, just off Interstate 5. Along the way, I stopped at Ivar's Seafood Bar, in Tacoma, for a quick but tasty $8.02 lunch of scallops and chips.)

Among antiquers, Centralia is touted as a mecca of sorts, boasting 350 vendors in various antiques malls along Tower Avenue. I especially enjoyed Duffy's and Shannon's and the soon-to-expand Apron Pocket, among others, but I was more intrigued by the train depot, which was rededicated in 2002. It was as quiet as a tomb on the Sunday afternoon I strolled around, the only soul in the place as I admired the oak benches inside and the red brick outside. As I made my way back to the antiques district, the train whistle confirmed that there was, indeed, Amtrak service to Portland and Seattle.

The other thing that captured my fancy in Centralia was the Olympic Club Hotel and Theater, which dates to the early 1900s. Its 27 rooms, which don't have private baths, are cozy in a funky, Wild West kind of way, a blend of modern amenities (bathrobes are provided) at motel-like prices -- $55 for a queen room, which includes breakfast and movie tickets.

I had booked a room at a bed-and-breakfast in Salkum, so I contented myself with a peek at the rooms and dinner with a former colleague at the Olympic Club. We started with a couple of house microbrews, a raspberry-tinged ruby ale, segued to a spinach-artichoke dip and finished with a couple of steaks, hers a flatiron and mine a sirloin with jalapeno butter. We sipped coffee before I took off for the Shepherd's Inn, about 30 miles southeast.

What nature wrought

I might be tempted to stay in Centralia next time. Salkum is little more than a wide spot in the road, and the bed-and-breakfast may not be everybody's cup of tea. But if I had, I would have missed the half-mile drive up to the inn along a hidden road, which the owners carved through a tangle of Pacific Northwest woods and which spits you out in front of the pin-neat inn owned by Richard and Ellen Berdan.

The five-room inn was to have been the Berdans' home, but after positive experiences at bed-and-breakfasts in their own travels, they decided to try their hand at running an inn, which opened in 1991. My room was a queen with its own bath, comfortable although a bit frilly for my tastes, and quiet. That's partly because the house sits alone on 60 acres, partly because shoes are not allowed in the house. (Think of it as a sort of white-glove test with your feet; the bottoms of my white socks showed not one speck of dirt.)

Breakfast showed the same kind of attention to detail. The centerpiece was divine huckleberry crepes, with a potato and egg casserole and freshly brewed coffee plus fruit juice.

Thus fortified, I set off for Mt. St. Helens, where the biggest surprise awaited.

It has been two dozen years since the north side of the mountain exploded in a fit of geologic rage just after 8:30 a.m. on May 18. The explosion and ensuing landslide killed 57 people and every large mammal in the area -- some small mammals survived because they were burrowed underground -- and swept away 200 homes. Ash from the lateral blast circled the globe.

You wouldn't suspect this driving east along Washington Highway 504, until you reach Hoffstadt Creek Bridge, the edge of the blast zone about 12 miles from the mountain. Winds that reached as much as 700 mph and temperatures of more than 500 degrees destroyed everything in the blast's path.

Last month, the mountain and its collapsed summit still wore a cloak of snow that made it look deceptively peaceful. The signs of destruction, even now, from the splintered trees to the large rivers of slurry that scarred the landscape, are equal parts sinister and sorrow.

But there are signs of regrowth. Elk have returned to these 110,000 acres, declared a volcanic monument in 1982. Insects hummed at the Hoffstadt Creek Bridge, and at the path around the Weyerhauser Learning Center, I saw sword ferns, elderberry and flowering courant and alder. At Coldwater Lake, two geese and their goslings swam across the remarkably green waters, and at a lookout near Johnston Ridge Observatory, a ground squirrel played hide and seek in the midday sun.

Time heals, and life goes on against the odds. And that, for me, was the real treasure of Southwest Washington.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Budget for one

Expenses for this trip:

Airfare

LAX-Seattle $168.20

Airport shuttle

Gray Line bus $8.50

Rental car

Three days plus gas $63.23

Lunch

Ivar's $8.02

Dinner

Olympic Club $24.95

Lodging

Shepherd's Inn,

two nights $159.06

Admission

Mt. St. Helens $3.00

Other meals, snacks

Dinner, drinks $26.28

Final tab $461.24

CONTACT:

The Shepherd's Inn, 168 Autumn Heights Drive, Salkum, WA 98582; (800) 985-2434 or (360) 985-2434, www.theshepherdsinn.com.

Olympic Club & Hotel, 112 N. Tower Ave., Centralia, WA 98531; (360) 736-5164, www.mcmenamins.com.

Lewis County Convention & Visitor Bureau, 328 N. Tower Ave., Centralia, WA 98531; (360) 330-7598 or (800) 525-3323; www.tourlewiscounty.com

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