We sit on giant driftwood bleachers in the morning sun, peanut butter and rice cakes in hand and the protruding cliff face of Taylor Point rising in the distance a mile in front of us, up from the Pacific Ocean at the south end of Third Beach, space and fog lazily obscuring the sea stacks of Giants Graveyard. I am on the Pacific Northwest Trail at the western edge of the Olympic National Park at my older sister’s urging, and though she intends a three-day hike from Third Beach to the Hoh River to be bonding for her and her oldest son, it is quiet therapy for me, an opportunity to perhaps accomplish something visceral and palpable after fifteen months of spinning my cubicled professional wheels.
We drove up from Reno the day prior, my sister, oldest niece, and oldest nephew, leaving hours too late but not feeling particularly pressed, as I have embraced my pending retirement. Or am trying to. Shifting, on a dime, from twenty years of Army service and a largely feigned laissez faire commitment to schedule to actually living The Attitude of Meh is no simple task. I’ve started the transition by not shaving, committing (or not. Whatever!) to developing a personal beard style I call “Spanish Moss,” which looks exactly like you think it might. So we leave a few hours late? Not to worry. We turn a ten-hour drive into a twelve-hour one and, still well shy of our start point, are consoled with an extended trip to a Portland-area Wal-Mart to pick up last minute supplies. We overnight at the Lewis and Clark State Park near Winlock, Washington, hours short of our target but exposed to a view of the indomitable Mount St. Helens to the north. The volcano looms large both in front of us and in my older sister’s and my memory. Though it is recently active, it most spectacularly erupted in May of 1980, exactly a month before my sister’s eleventh birthday and a year before our mother’s third divorce and our repatriation to Nevada. We lived in northwest Washington when the mountain blew, winds carrying volcanic ash the 250 miles north to our small town of Sedro Woolley and depositing it on our family’s cream-colored Ford Galaxy 500. The car had a big back seat and a wide, gently sloping rear window with an apartment-sized shelf above the seat that served naturally as a bed, fort, or escape pod for any road trip of longer than an hour.
We sit around the campfire, old-growth Douglas Firs towering over us, my sister and my niece and nephew, the latter two now far more adult than child so they can share in the jokes as we talk about our lives as kids. Wistful and meandering is the conversation chain that flows around family and a campfire; a late morning start and a long drive turning from a discussion on volcanoes and ash to a Galaxy 500 and rear windows and road trips to remember that time a storm blew your bedroom windows out in the middle of the night and there was glass all over your bed and mom and dad couldn’t find you? Though nature can be powerful, the supernatural is inexplicable and whether through the banality of chance or the magic of fortune, a storm neither sucked me out of second-floor windows nor peppered me with glass shards, as I was snug asleep at the foot of my sister’s bed in the next room, a place I frequently went as a child, driven there by nightmares.
We get up early the next morning and pack like professionals, driving three more hours through the Scrabbler’s-delight towns of Hoquiam and Quinault and Queets; stopping for coffee at one of the Northwest’s ubiquitous drive-thru coffee bars; then north along the 101 and certainly one of the prettiest stretches of road in America. We just make our pre-arranged pick-up time at the Oil City Road trailhead. Though most people hike from the Hoh River north, we’re doing it in the reverse, and Seth from Forks has agreed to pick us up here and drop us off an hour north at the Third Beach trailhead. Seth is a college student in Boise, but lives here in Forks, and though he appears to be about twenty, the interior of his truck, with its coffee mugs and backpacks and work gloves and climbing gear, gives the impression that he’s already living a full life. He shares his local knowledge, elating my sister with the good news that the coastal black bears are timid (“the inland bears are another story”); titillating her with the insider information that the town of Forks, though the literary locus for Twilight, was simply copied and reproduced en masse in British Columbia for the film because it “was cheaper and Kristen Stewart would have been bored out of her mind if she had to live here for three months” (she would have been); and entertaining all of us by calling Aberdeen, home of Kurt Cobain, may he rest in peace, “Methlaberdeen.”
Seth drops us at the start of a canopied trail leading a mile and a half from a parking lot down through the Hoh River Rainforest, and after passively-aggressively-unsuccessfully suggesting that my sister, niece, and nephew remove their rain gear (“it’s not raining, and you’ll get hypothermia”), we head for the beach. Google reviews of this hike promise ankle-deep mud; knee-deep and fast-water river crossings; boulder-scrambling that requires properly timing the tide; and a trail that is “more obstacle course than hike.” So, after a peanut butter and rice cake fueling, and a second passive-aggressive-unsuccessful rain gear removal suggestion, we begin. I have nominally prepped for the hike, my only concern with negotiating boulders around a blind corner, so I naturally assume that the first stop – Taylor Point – is where we must cross boulders only during the outgoing tide. It is not. It is, rather, the impetus for the first of our two “group discussions.”
Not having children is both boon and bane. I am free to come and go as I please, and am not burdened with the demands of responsibility for a living, breathing, DNA-sharing thing. I need not exert the inefficiencies of, to be blunt, caring. This, of course, is theory; in practice I would be perpetually panic-stricken if I were a parent. A scraped-knee would likely induce in me barely concealable tears and a minor case of hyperventilation. My niece and nephew are now 17 and 19, but it is hard to look at them in any manner other than as objects to be hurled wide-eyed and giggling into the air or as face-painted children ready for an “Uncle Jay Day”, something I surely looked forward to more than they did. So as I venture fifty yards or so onto the boulders around Taylor Point, and realize that I cannot see anything but cliffs and more rocks and an incoming tide and that this might cause some problems for my traveling companions, I, as my older sister might say, lose my shit. I look back at my sister gingerly negotiating the boulders and my niece absorbed in her vain search for tide pool creatures, and say “turn around.” My sister freezes, pauses, looks at me, then asks, “turn around?”
I do not like feeling anything but fully in control, and though I am confident that no wave foreseeable could possibly shake me from my perch, even the potential danger of some harm coming to those I see – even erroneously – as ones in need of protection is uncomfortable. So when my sister asks, “turn around?”, it triggers in me something instinctual.
“TURN THE FUCK AROUND.” This is a gross, and, in hindsight, hilarious overreaction, but the self-imposed burdens of leadership are significant and spontaneous, and turnthefuckaround seemed like a pretty good thing to say. My sister moves, quickly. My niece is cooly unconcerned, and my nephew chooses this moment to remove his raingear. But we scramble back across the boulders, our final few steps retracing the original, which were then on dry sand and are now in shin-deep water. The debrief is fairly quick. We agree that in return for moving quickly when there is a hint of urgency in my voice, I won’t swear anymore, which is a fairly reasonable concession on their part. The raingear, however, stays on.
The most dangerous stretches of the Third Beach to Hoh River trail are conspicuously marked by large, black and red circular discs affixed prominently on trees and next to an entry/exit point diverting you away from the beach, and danger, and into the rain forests of the Olympic National Park. They should not be ignored, at any cost, and heeding their warning, after climbing up or down wooden rung-missing ladders and rope assisted inclines, rewards you with silent marches on trails peppered with Pacific banana slugs, looking unmistakably like giant turds; through permanently damp, waist-high skunk cabbage, deer fern, and pick-your-berry (Salmon? Huckle? Black twin?); under soaring Sitka spruce and Western Hemlock. There are obstacles to be negotiated at every turn, cooperation required, and like a corporate sponsored team-building event, we are positively lifted by the time we make it to Toleak Point. Everything seems to converge here. Sea otters, permanently content on their backs, float with the current; Bald eagles projectile-shit from tree branches like expectorant, a county fair participant readying to launch a watermelon seed in reverse; sea lions cruise the channels between rock outcroppings, hunting fish and barking commands to each other like bloodhounds on a chase. It is easy to imagine life here hundreds of years ago, single plumes of campfire smoke rising from the tree line, soft-lit Thomas Kinkade landscapes unobstructed by the noise and tools and trappings of electricity and progress. We find a camping spot, luxuriant, just above the beach and the driftwood piles marking high tide. We hang rope to dry our gear and quickly make the camp ours, pitching our tents and taking forty-five minutes of collective effort and patience to start a fire. My niece and nephew are, literally, without complaint, and I am a bit ashamed that I find it moving. If we can’t start a fire, no biggie, but we did, and that’s pretty cool too.
We’re set up early enough to scour the beach, walking over a thick blanket of dried, shredded paper-like seaweed and finding, among other things, Styrofoam coolers, rope, nets, buoys, bags, and all things plastic. The ocean is an artist, a driftwood sculptor and a gem polisher, but she occasionally does her best Andres Serrano impression, vomiting on her shores the effluence of man far and near. My nephew finds a bleached skull, sans the jawbone but a radiator-like screen in the nasal cavity intact, and we spend twenty minutes debating what this belonged to. Is it a coyote or a wolf? An adolescent saber-toothed cat? A dog? Sea Lion seems badass – it’s a lion of the sea, after all – but I realize that Google will settle this debate and then, as quickly as we gained it, the knowledge will be gone. No need to retain it, the answer is always just a search engine away. I wonder what Google, for all its power, has done to the imagination of a boy.
We spend the night at Toleak Point and head out early the next morning, traversing beach, then rain forest, then beach again. We startle a raccoon and trace the solo steps of a deer, joined briefly by a larger, second set, then solo again as one set of tracks disappears in the woods to the left and another in the ocean to the right. Other than a slight mist the night prior, the weather holds out for three days. Freshwater creeks are shallow but adequate, and with our water filter we could have safely left all water bottles and Camelbacks at home and survived just fine. The warnings of mud and a fast river crossing are false, as the drought has reached the coast as well.
At Jackson Beach we climb down the vertical face using fifty feet of rope ladder, eat the remainder of our dehydrated food (Jamaican Jerk Chicken and Pad Thai) and have our second group discussion. This one concerns whether we stay our last night here, risking setting up camp at what may or may not be the high-water mark, or wait for the tide to go out and skirt the point, crossing what turns out to be the much-anticipated boulder field. The latter wins, and my sister and I kill time talking about life after the Army. I watch my niece and nephew walking in the sun and think about how one experiences life and risk and adversity and beauty relevant to our age. This trip as a twenty-year-old, in possession of a healthy ego and an unearned sense of optimism, would have been a significantly different experience than that of a forty-four-year-old in transition. Articulating the risk of hypothermia from wearing raingear when it’s not raining, for example, is such a pedantic thing to say, but life is easier when someone is there to protect you, no?
The tide starts to go out, so we pack up and start our trip around the last corner, hesitant, not knowing what is on the other side or how far we have to go. But it opens up after a few hundred yards, the beach covered in giant driftwood logs like dropped matchsticks and the flats reflecting the setting sun and the most extraordinary view. Sometimes you just have to take the chance.