Olympic Coast in a shiny white van

It’s very hard to get a pre-dawn start in Seattle during the summer. As Paula and I put together our loose plan during the week, this is what I was envisioning: rolling out of town with the pre-dawn mist rising off of the water surrounding Seattle.  The actual departure is slower… I’ve forgotten coffee and we forget the America The Beautiful pass and have to turn around and by the time we’re finally on 5 it’s the full grey of a Seattle summer morning. I have a map in my lap and a book tucked in to the dash.  My phone is stashed away—we’re doing this the old fashioned way, without an agenda beyond “let’s go to the coast” and a general idea of towns. La Push. Aberdeen. Port Angeles.

South of Olympia we get on to 101 N and it takes an embarrassingly long time for me to realize that we’ve made our first minor mistake. 101 runs along the coast and from what I can tell, we’re supposed to have water on our left side. The water is, resolutely, on our right.  There are signs for Hood Canal themed shops and restaurants, but we should be near Humptulips. “Funny how things are named for places that aren’t actually close,” I say, and turn the map to another angle, as if this will right the orientation. I can’t figure it out, but it doesn’t help that my map has 101 streaking in to view with an arrow “To Olympia” but cuts off before showing anything I can use for reference.  We’re on 101 N. We should be driving UP the coast, not down, but if the water is on the right….. and when did we pass through Humptulips?

Whoops. Turns out things are named after the Hood Canal when, shocking, you’re actually located there. North. We’re cutting up and down the coast rather than over and up like we’d planned. I find us on the map and start calling out towns and landmarks. We pull in to Seal Rock campground to stretch our legs and a man comes over to talk with Paula about her van. At first it’s clear that he assumes she doesn’t know about the guts of the thing and by the end of the conversation he’s nodding with that “yup yup” satisfied look as she explains her plans and points to what she’s built out.  He’s been living in his RV with his wife for over 15 years—it feels like Paula’s getting a symbolic patch to sew on to her van-living jacket.

Photo Jul 16, 11 41 28 AMAs we get close to Sequim traffic slows down— on our left is a lavender farm with tents and music and traffic grinds to a halt as people cut across and in to park in the fields. We join them, grab some Honey Vanilla Lavender ice-cream and hightail it out. On to the coast!

We stop in the Forks Visitor Center. It’s very quiet and the two folks working are super friendly. I want to browse postcards but feel awkward. We find out that there’s a festival in La Push and are handed a flier with schedules for the tribal dances and poker games. There’s a red pickup truck parked outside with a plate that says Bella and a gauge marking how much rain has fallen so far this year. The Twilight swag is still there but a bit faded and worn. As we drive towards La Push we see more signs for Werewolves. The sky is a moody gray and trees tower along the road—it’s easy to see why this place was used for vampire novels.

Photo Jul 16, 4 28 56 PM

The main street of La Push is blocked off and stands and food trucks line the sides selling a combination of festival things and blankets with geometric patterns. We park and head over to River’s Edge. My book tells us it’s an old Coast Guard station and it’s was recommended to us by one of Paula’s friends. We’re there between the lunch rush and dinner rush—it’s just us, a few tired servers and a handful of other customers. We sit in a booth with a view of the Quileute Marina. An otter plays on the dock outside and a man zooms around what looks like an outrigger canoe outfitted with a motor. The peninsula jutting from Rialto Beach is a shroud of shadows with silhouettes of three hikers and a dog picking their way along the rocks.

We head back through Forks and inland through massive forests that alternate with newer patches that show the results of clear cutting. Another time we’ll hike down to Shi Shi, but that’s not this trip. Pretty soon we signs for Ruby Beach and begin our slow meander down through the Olympic National Park towards Kalaloch and Queets.  We walk Riley down to the beach and I take out my nice camera, only to realize I don’t have a memory card. The waterline is full of crab shells and Riley alternates between enjoying the surf and looking longingly at the crabs. We walk along the water and find a dead harbor porpoise on its side. The coast is grey but beautiful and dramatic—rocks are dark hulking shadows in the mist and despite the sea breeze it’s warm.

We pull the van to the shoulder where we can see the road and I dig around my bags and find the card I was missing earlier. Riley settles down on the grass in front of us and we drink beer watching the waves. It’s getting late and it’s time to either find another place to eat or to make sandwiches and find a place to park the van for the night. We get back on the road, turning inland towards Amanda Park. I can’t find much in the book but it looks like there are a bunch of campsites and lodges and this is a good indicator of someplace to eat. Turns out I was looking at the wrong part of the book and there’s a whole section on Amanda Park and Lake Quinault. We take the South Shore Road in past the lake and find the Salmon House. Inside it feels like summer camp—the carpet is a dark utility green and the tables are square with forest green Formica.  We are seated near the window and the table is placed at an angle so we can both see out on to the lake. The lawn is well manicured and it feels strange after the tangle of pacific rainforest.  Hummingbird feeders hang at each window and throughout dinner a hopeful bird flits from feeder to feeder. Dinner is scallops, trout and oysters. We pull in to a trail head and set up the van for the night.

Photo Jul 16, 7 49 17 PM

I should take a quick moment to talk about Paula’s van. She bought a Sprinter earlier this summer with the plan to build it out and dove head first in to tutorials ranging from carpentry to wiring. With the help of her neighbor Leo she’s built a platform for the bed, wired in solar panels, installed a window and two new fans… this is the first trip with the bed platform and working fans and we’re testing out to see how it all works. And—she did a great job. That night the fans whir peacefully and we wake up without a drop of moisture from our breath.

In the morning we drive back in to Amanda Park and get breakfast at IC, the Internet Café. It’s not a café so much as a diner with a few postcards, a single computer and an empty fireplace. We head to the North Shore road to find the trail to one of the largest Red Spruce trees and find what we think must be the trailhead, but there aren’t any signs and the path is kind of abandoned. A quarter mile in we find out why—the tree has fallen and instead of a looming hollow spruce we find shattered wood and an open clearing.

We head south and inland. Humptulips is a town of three buildings and we’re past it in a flash—so much for a tourist stop because of a strange name. I was expecting at least one tacky stand with postcards but it’s just a Post Office and general store and back to forest.  Houses start to appear again as we get close to Aberdeen. Compared to what we’ve been driving through this feels positively flourishing. We stop and look at my map—it’s either loop down to drive along Grays Harbor or we call it a trip and head back home through Olympia and Renton with a quick stop to IKEA to pick up the official van mattress to replace the inflatable. IKEA wins and we’re off—heading home.

Despite driving along the coast, there’s so much we didn’t see. Miles of beach, miles of rainforest trails. My guidebook is dog-earred and ball point scrawls in the margins. The map is no longer neatly creased but folded and refolded along makeshift lines. Pretty much the perfect road trip—I get back happy to be home and with dreams for the next journey.

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