Olympic Peninsula Redux

Last June I spent a few days driving around the Olympic Peninsula. I made it up to Hurricane Ridge, to the Hoh Rainforest, and the beaches, and even though the weather wasn’t always great, I enjoyed it immensely.

Later, relaying the details of the trip to my Dad on the phone, I mentioned that it would be a good place for us to go exploring and hiking for a few days. Dad and I have made plenty of similar trips before– in 2003, we went hiking in Wales, and in 2008, we spent a week together in Europe, taking the train from London to Berlin and stopping in Normandy for a few days to pay our respects at the D-Day sites. Not to mention all the trips we took when I was growing up.

Dad and I don’t get to see each other much these days– we live in opposite corners of America, and Dad’s work and travel schedule have kept him busy. So last Friday, May 3, when we met up to go exploring the Olympic Peninsula, it was the first time we’d actually seen each other in over 2 years. Not due to avoidance or anything…. just due to life. (Side note: one really shouldn’t let life do that.)

Anyway, our trip consisted of lots of driving, lots of hiking through the woods (and in snow, and over sand), lots of eating in greasy spoons, lots of talking and catching up, and (perhaps most surprisingly for the Olympic Peninsula) lots of sunlight. There were snow-capped mountaintops, clear views across the Strait of Juan de Fuca and deep into Canada, vibrant sunsets over the Pacific, and warm sunlit beaches bearing more resemblance to the South Pacific than Washington state– at least until you stuck your foot in the water.

I’m really pleased with the entire set of photos I got from the trip (the full set can be seen here on Flickr), but here’s a few of my favorites:

Looking from the Dungeness Spit across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with Mt. Baker in the distance:

Seagulls nesting on a rocky stack off Cape Flattery, at the very Northwest corner of the United States:

A Coast Guard cutter crossing La Push Harbor at sunset:

The Visitor Center at Hurricane Ridge:

Deer along the road near Hurricane Ridge:

The stacks at Rialto Beach (with my Dad in the foreground for comparison), with the famous hole-in-the-wall in the distance:

A sea anemone surrounded by pink lichen:

Starfish in the intertidal zone:

Ferns (and a spider) in the Hoh Rainforest:

An oceanside waterfall, at Third Beach near La Push:

Looking south from Third Beach toward The Giants’ Graveyard:

Marymere Falls:

A bald eagle high up in a treetop, overlooking the beach:

Looking from Port Angeles toward the Olympic Mountains:

I’m sorry, did I say “a few?” I meant fourteen. It’s just that the number of environments and ecosystems we crossed was so huge– from the ocean (above and below the water), to the coastal forest, to the inland rainforest, to the snow-capped mountaintops and everything in between– that it’s difficult to capture the range of what we saw in just a few pictures. And we had perfect weather the whole way, which is pretty extraordinary, given that most of the Olympic Peninsula is absolutely inundated with rain (the Hoh rainforest gets 140 inches a year).

And to get to spend four days catching up with Dad in the midst of all this cool wildlife and weather and scenery? Made it just about the best trip ever.

Advertisements

Podcast Up At Every Day Fiction

The first story I ever got accepted, From Here to the Sargasso, is now available as a podcast on Every Day Fiction. The podcast is produced and narrated by the inimitable Folly Blaine, who has my sincerest gratitude and thanks.

From Here to the Sargasso is special to me because even though it appeared on Every Day Fiction, it’s not really fiction at all. One evening in August 2006, my mother, my aunt, and I went walking at dusk on a Florida beach, shortly after my brother had left home for Los Angeles. And we watched the sea turtles hatch.

I wrote the first draft of this story that same evening in a paper notebook. It was the first story I had written since college, and it was the first tiny little snowball that started rolling down a hill, until I ended up where I am today as far as my writing. Given that I moved to Seattle at least partly to focus more on my writing, it’s safe to say that Freddy the Sea Turtle may have drastically changed the course of events in my life.

In the intervening six years, a lot has happened:

My brother, Charlie Williams, has taken roles in two major Broadway Productions, Memphis and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, where he performed alongside Daniel Radcliffe and John Larrouqette. He’s also been in numerous other productions and events (including the Tony Awards and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular), and has done some choreography work as well.

My mother took ill with breast cancer in 2009, and after a masectomy and chemotherapy, the cancer went into remission. A year ago, she had a seizure, at which point it became clear the cancer had metastasized into her brain and lungs. Surgery and radiation appear to have successfully removed the cancer from her brain, but the tumors in her lungs have so far resisted chemotherapy. The cancer also manifested in the form of two cysts under her skin, and she’s undergoing radiation treatment for those. Her cancer appears to be very aggressive, and we will be extraordinarily lucky if we achieve remission again.

As for me, I’ve moved across the country, had some stories published, dabbled in various hobbies, and probably fallen in love, though I wasn’t willing to admit it at the time. Of the three of us, I’ve lived the most mundane life, although perhaps I should be grateful for that.

So when Folly asked me about doing From Here to the Sargasso as a podcast, I readily said yes, and then didn’t think too much about it afterward. I went home to North Carolina over Thanksgiving, where I had Thanksgiving Dinner with both my Mom and my brother for the first time in several years. I spent ten days at home, accompanying Mom to doctor visits and catching up with Charlie; going to see Lincoln; decorating the Christmas tree. For the first time in a while, I wished I didn’t live in Seattle.

A few days after I got back, Folly sent me the mp3 of the podcast. I was staying late at work that evening, and I played it over my headphones as I worked. And everything cracked. I work in a large, wide-open room, and I found myself shaking quietly, suppressing sobs, as Folly read back to me the words I had first written six years ago. When it was over, I had to go to the restroom and shut the door, where I could cry without drawing questions from co-workers.

I suppose it goes without saying that I’m emotionally fragile these days. You only had to see my reaction to the Newtown shootings, both on Twitter and on this blog, to realize that. I don’t hold any illusions that other folks will have the same emotional reaction to this story as I did; it’s pretty much impossible to get across years of context in a few hundred words, and the fact that the story is so dependent on context and knowledge of my family is, in fact, one of its objective weaknesses.

But still, even if nobody else has even a tenth of the same emotional reaction I did, I’m glad it’s out there. It almost seems like an emotional disorder these days, that I feel this compulsion to vent my emotions in the form of public stories and blog entries and letters and tweets. I suppose it’s called “being a writer.”

Thanks for listening.

Mountains and Forests and Beaches, Oh My

There were a lot of events going on in Seattle last Saturday: the presentation of the Locus Awards (congrats, winners!). The Seattle Solstice Parade (which I took part in last year). My bi-weekly writing group. Throw in other interesting-sounding events like the Seattle Iranian-American festival and there was simply going to be no way to do everything I wanted to do.

Sometimes, the only way to win is not to play.

So instead of picking between various events in Seattle, I went on a road trip. I hadn’t been a good road trip since September of last year, and besides, I had a long weekend coming thanks to my night-to-day shift change at work. So on Thursday I packed up clothes, hiking gear, and camera, and caught the ferry, heading to Bainbridge Island and the Olympic Peninsula.

The Olympic Peninsula, for those of you unfamiliar with Washington state geography, is the huge chunk of land between Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean. It’s surprisingly remote, despite its size and proximity to Seattle. The Olympic Mountains take up the vast majority of the interior, and pretty much prevent travel through the middle of the peninsula– except for forest service roads, all the roads circle the perimeter.

When I set out, I didn’t have a specific plan in mind. There were a couple famous spots I wanted to see, but other than that, my plan was how my travel plans usually go: get there, explore, and see what there is to see.

My plan paid off almost right away, when I happened upon Dungeness, home to a rather stunning spit of land that juts out five and a half miles from the coast, steep oceanside bluffs, and some spectacular ocean views:

I spent the night at a little motel in the town of Port Angeles, and then on Friday headed into the mountains. Deep in the Olympics, almost twenty miles away from the highway turnoff along a winding, uphill road, lies the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center, at 5,242 feet. It’s high enough that my ears popped plenty of times on the way up from sea level, but still well below the tallest mountains, which top out near 8,000 feet and are covered in snow 12 months a year. Even at the Visitor Center, there was still plenty of snow around the parking lot.

Walking along a short path and cresting the ridge, you could look north, all the way across the Salish Sea to Victoria, Canada, and even further, to the San Juan Islands and the British Columbia coast range many miles beyond.

Here’s a panorama of the view south from the Visitors Center (click for much larger):

Afterward, I headed all the back down out of the mountains and continued my loop around the perimeter of the peninsula. The whole area is rainy, especially the west side, which gets 140+ inches of rain a year. But even the dry side of the peninsula is still wet and lush, and all around the base and valleys of the mountains is dense, green rainforest. At the Sol Duc River, I stopped and hiked about a mile in to see Sol Duc Falls.

Afterward, I headed back out of the rainforest and drove all the way out to Cape Flattery, which is the Northwestern tip of the continental United States. Once again, utterly spectacular, albeit in a totally different way.

There’s a lot of Native American history on the peninsula as well, and several reservations, including the Makah Reservation, which consists of about forty square miles around Cape Flattery. The major town on the reservation is Neah Bay, and there’s a really good cultural museum there, although it was too late in the day to pay a visit. But I wish I had. There’s a tremendous amount of history on the peninsula, but unfortunately it’s easily lost in the current day poverty. Neah Bay was one of the most impoverished places I’ve ever seen, and the signs placed every hundred feet along the road saying things like “Meth equals Death” and “Drugs are not the Makah way” suggested that there are a lot of modern-day struggles that threaten to destroy a proud and ancient culture. It did, indeed, make me sad, although it also made me want to come back and learn more.

Here’s a panorama of Cape Flattery, and the view from the far Northwestern corner of the continental U.S:

I spent the night in a little motel along the north shore road, and on Saturday woke to a dreary, misty day. My plan had to do some beach hiking on the Pacific Coast, but the dramatic sea stacks that line the coast were barely visible in the mist, and the wind was fierce. Plus, the water was too high to see any of the area’s famous tidal pools (starfish and other such critters are apparently a common sight, when the tides are right). Alas, because of the weather, I didn’t stay long.

Instead I drove through the town of Forks. The town’s biggest claim to fame these days it that it’s where the Twilight books/movies take place, and it’s exploited that to boost its tourism industry, although it’s really too isolated to take great advantage of it. It’s a five-hour drive from Seattle, and the fact that it’s gained fame through a book series doesn’t change the fact that it’s a rainy, dreary place.

Clearly not all the residents feel the Twilight love, as seen in the window of one particular trailer:

Stopping at Forks just long enough for lunch, I made my way further south to the Hoh Rainforest, which is probably the rainiest place in Washington state (that’s saying a lot) at almost 150 inches of rain a year. It’s in a valley on the western side of the mountains, where all the Pacific weather gets trapped, and the result is a lot of rain, and an incredibly dense forest. There’s not a square inch of ground that doesn’t have something growing on it, and the air is so rich with nutrients and moisture that certain mosses are able to subsist directly off the air. In the second picture below, there are Hemlock trees that have grown so dense that they’ve actually fused together.

After about an hour hiking through the rainforest, I headed back out to the beach to see how things looked at low tide, but still didn’t have much luck. Not surprisingly, the coast was as rainy and windy as ever.

I had been planning to stay on the peninsula one more night and head back, but it was early. Thanks to the poor conditions on the beach, I hadn’t stayed long, so I headed back to Seattle early. I definitely want to come back, though. There’s all sorts of cool day hikes and multi-day hikes out there, and I want to give the beaches another shot later in the summer.

For those interested, here’s the full photo set from the trip.

Now I’m back in Seattle, back at work (on the day shift now, yay!), and shifting gears to focus on the Clarion West Write-a-thon. Life goes on, but pictures remain… and, I hope, hint at more adventures to come.

Photography at Mukilteo Lighthouse Park

It wasn’t my intention to do two photo-heavy blog entries in a row, but I ended up spending most of the afternoon with the Seattle Flickrite Meetup Group at Mukilteo Lighthouse Park, about half an hour’s drive north of Seattle, and wanted to post some of my better results. As in the last post, I’ll be linking the pictures to their super-huge original versions on Flickr.

I’ve been teaching myself photography in much the same way I explore new cities: I get lost and see where I end up. I start with some basic knowledge and then spend a lot of time seeing what works and what doesn’t.

This probably isn’t the most efficient way to learn photography, but it’s fun, and it prevents me from taking things too seriously. Writing is what I want to do for a living– photography is what I do for fun. (Although, come to think of it, this is largely how people learn to write, too.)

I’m much more of a nature photographer than a people photographer, and generally I prefer close-up shots to long distance. Mountains looming in the distance have a certain majesty that I’ve never seen recreated in a photo… not that this stops me from trying.

At Mukilteo, my favorite subjects were the birds and the waves. Since this was Puget Sound, and not the Pacific Ocean itself, the waves weren’t that high, but still– where a rock or a piece of driftwood jutted out of the water, there was a chance for some decent action shots.

Catching waves at the right moment is largely a matter of luck; I kept the shutter snapping through the action and hoped I got the exact moment when the splash was at its peak. Without a digital camera, I would have had to try and manually time it… egads!

Catching birds in flight worked on basically the same principle as the waves– keep the shutter snapping.

There was other wildlife, too, but it was harder to spot.

Looking in the opposite direction, the sky was an unusual color for February in Seattle, but nevertheless welcome:

Between Mukilteo Park today and downtown Seattle yesterday, it was a rather photography-intensive weekend. But it’s been a very writing-intensive week (and next week promises more of the same), so it’s been a nice change of pace.

If you’re interested in seeing the whole Flickr set from Mukilteo, here it is.

From Here to Florida and Back

Last weekend I took a road trip to Jacksonville, Florida (driving time: 8 hours) to spend a few days with my Dad, who moved there earlier this year. The purpose of the trip was many fold: to see family, to take some time off work, to see part of Florida that I had never seen, and also just to have a few days of relative quiet, a break from the hubbub of day-to-day life.

Our family lived in Tampa for two years when I was about ten years old, and much of my Mom’s family lives in the Orlando area, so I have a history with the state of Florida. That said, I don’t have any particular fondness for the state: it’s hot and humid, there are only three seasons (“early summer”, “dear god I am going to die”, and “late summer”), and so much of the state seems, well, artificial.

It’s tough to explain what I mean. When I drive through rural North Carolina, particularly the central and western parts of the state, I pass through series of individual towns and villages, each one with its own character, and each one usually containing a town center with a distinct history. In Florida, each town is indistinguishable from the other (often, it feels like there’s really one city in Florida, just with parts that are more and less dense), and no building that predates 1950, which the exception of certain parts like St. Augustine. In fact, most of rural Florida seems to be frozen in the 1950s, and I can’t help but wonder if most of the people who live there commute to the coastal cities and spend their days selling T-shirts to sunburned tourists and rich elderly retirees.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. But on this most recent trip, these impressions were reinforced when my Dad and I took a day to drive inland along the St. Johns River, to see what we could see. Dad had recently read a book overflowing with ornate language about the beauty and history of the river, and we were excited to explore and see what there was to see. The St. Johns is a massive river, up to three miles wide in places, fed by numerous springs along its length which are in turn fed by the massive underground Floridan Aquifer.

We found one such spring in a little green cove in a town creatively named Green Cove Springs. It flows at a rate of something like 1500 gallons a minute, which sounds impressive until you read the guidebook and discover that it’s less than half of what the rate was when the area was first settled. (Humans, it seems, are taking a toll on the Aquifer.) The water flowed about a hundred feet along a clear, peaceful creek that smelled strongly of natural sulfur, then emptied into the massive river.

Our goal for the day was the town of Welaka, about eighty or ninety miles south of Jacksonville. The guidebook described it as being located on a high bluff which overlooked the river, but when we got there there no evidence of a bluff, except for one place we could see where the ground rose maybe ten feet as it gradually sloped upward away from the river. I suppose ten feet is what counts for a high bluff around here– heck, the highest point in the entire state of Florida is only 345 feet above sea level. Even here, well away from the coast, the river was still a good half-mile wide, and amidst the 1950s architecture and mobile homes were plenty of decaying boats, sitting in old, rusty, broken-down boat docks that had apparently not been visited by humans since Ronald Reagan was president.

Feeling a bit let down, we drove back along the coast road, and consoled ourselves by staring at the miles upon miles of multi-million dollar mansions, immaculately kept but somehow even more devoid of personality that the miles upon miles of identical semi-rural towns that we had passed on the way down. Ah, the two sides of Florida.

Despite our underwhelming attempt at exploration, I still had a good trip. In the evening on the day I arrived, there was a cold snap, which meant the humidity faded and the temperatures were in the upper 70s for the most of the time I was there– perfect weather. I walked along the beach, dipped my feet in the still-cold Atlantic Ocean, had a few days of quiet time, and got to meet my stepsister and her husband, both of whom were great. So all in all, a good trip. I’m even the sort of weird person who can enjoy an 8-hour drive, as long as I have plenty of music and podcasts. But sorry, Florida, I’m still not a fan.

Getting my Feet Wet

Two weeks ago I dusted off my backpacking gear, which has sat unused for over a year, and went backpacking on Shackleford Banks, a little island on the southern edge of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It’s only about nine miles long by half a mile wide (if that), but it’s a cool little island.

Among other things, the island is home to a population of about 130 wild horses. No one knows exactly how they got there, although one of the more popular tales is that they’re descended from horses that survived a Spanish shipwreck, back in the 1600s or earlier.

The plan was to get ferried across to the island, hike along the beach a mile or so, then set up camp and spent the rest of the day exploring. That part went pretty much according to plan; it was a beautiful day, and the temperature was in the 50s. Pretty nice, considering just a couple weeks before we had a really bad cold snap that sent temperatures into the twenties and teens. So we set up camp behind the dunes, in a nice flat area of scrub brush, and set off down the beach.

The beach was almost empty, except for a few fishermen casting their lines from shore, and even they disappeared as we walked further down the island. My favorite part of the whole trip may have been the massive number of sea shells that littered the beach; there were piles of them freshly washed up, and more conch shells than I’ve ever seen. Most of those were broken, although even the broken ones were pretty in their own artistic-looking ways. Inland from the beach, separated from the pounding surf by a line of high dunes, little patches of forest and scrub brush were able to grow. We saw plenty of wild horses roaming here, and as it got late and we began to make our way back to camp, there were dolphins jumping twenty or three feet offshore, seemingly entire pods of them moving down the coastline and accompanying us the whole way back.

Things got more interesting during the night. Rain was expected, but we were prepared for it; what we weren’t prepared for was to wake up the next morning and find that a storm was incoming, with possible lightning and wind gusts of up to 45 miles an hour. Needless to say, it was a long morning; about half the tents didn’t stay up in the wind, and of those that did stay up, at least one had to be moved when about two-thirds of our campsite slowly transformed into marshland. Luckily, this was all around 9 or 10 am, so it was light and we were pretty well awake. My tent is an ultralight tent, and was one of the ones that didn’t survive, so I put on warm clothes, my rain gear and went for a walk. Heading inland, we found a nice area behind some trees that was pretty well sheltered from the wind. In retrospect, it would have made a nice campsite.

Finally, the rain stopped, and not long after, the sky cleared. We had a sunny walk back to the ferry point, where we were picked up about noon, and after lunch in Morehead City, headed home…the trip was sandy and wet, but fun.

I like getting away from civilization, and I don’t mean little day hikes into a patch of forest in the middle of the city (although those can be nice, too). I mean backpacking in and setting up camp, someplace where you can actually see the stars at night (we probably would have been able to on this trip, if not for the rain), and where you’re really out away from civilization and amidst nature. It’s a great way to focus your mind on something different and get a release from the mundanity of day-to-day work (which has been threatening to overwhelm me lately… stupid deadlines). I’ll definitely be doing more of this in the near future.

Fun With Unused Vacation Time

I hope everyone had/is having a good Christmas Break. If you’re in the latter category, I fart in your general direction.

Actually… I can’t complain. Despite my Australia trip earlier this year, I had a lot of vacation time leftover at work, so I took the entire week of Christmas off. I’m just bitter today; having to go back to work after a long break does that to me.

It was a fun break from work, although they always seem too short in retrospect. I didn’t get as much writing done as I had hoped, but that’s mainly because I took a road trip instead. I knew I would have to be back in town for Christmas, but I still had a few days of my own to play with, so I loaded plenty of music onto my new Droid and hit the road. This wasn’t just a spontaneous, random trip: the idea had actually been bouncing around in my head for a few weeks. And I didn’t drive just anywhere; I had a specific destination in mind, namely, the Outer Banks.

For those of you not familiar with North Carolina geography, the Outer Banks are a series of barrier islands that run along the coast. You can access them either via ferry or road bridge (although certain sections, like Ocracoke Island, are only accessible via ferry).

I knew it would be cold, windy, and out of season– the Outer Banks are very much a tourist economy, and the more remote sections pretty much shut down during the winter. But the probable lack of tourists appealed to me, and besides, I had an additional motive for going. The ocean plays a fairly large role in a few key scenes in my novel, and I wanted to refresh my memory of what it was like.

Cape Hatteras National SeashoreDespite living in a coastal state, I haven’t actually made it out to the ocean since a trip to Florida in 2006. I wanted to get re-acquainted with the smell of it, the sound of the waves, the taste of salt in the air, the feel of the sand between my toes… maybe not the feel of the water, though. That would be pretty cold.

I also needed to write a couple poems to use as song lyrics; in one of the scenes, a character from an oceangoing culture sings some songs around a campfire, and in my mind, it’s a great moment that connects the emotions of people from two very disparate cultures. But I haven’t actually written any poetry in years, and it doesn’t flow easily for me. Nevertheless, I hoped that by actually being at the ocean, I could get the ol’ brain cells firing.

It sort of worked. I jotted down occasional bits of imagery or description that came to me; I didn’t get any full poems written, but at least I have some starting points.

I also realized that part of the prologue, which I’m currently editing, rests on an invalid assumption. See, I had this image in my mind of the waves crashing one at a time. Wave crash. Silence. Wave crash. Silence. That repeating sequence of noise and silence was a key part of the scene, but when I stood on the beach, listening to the waves, I remembered that, in reality… the noise is pretty constant. Sure, you can pick out the sound of individual waves if you’re right by the water, but even then it’s really just a constant roar of water, punctuated at irregular intervals by crashing waves.

It’s amazing the sort of things that can slip your mind during the carefree crazy days of NaNoWriMo.

Other than that, I mainly just spent a couple days exploring. I spent the night in an oceanfront hotel that was so quiet I startled the desk clerk, who must have jumped a foot out of her chair when I walked in. After that, it took her a few minutes to figure out which buildings had heat and which didn’t, and she spent several minutes explaining how all the restaurants were closed, except for one greasy pizza and seafood joint. On the bright side, I did find a nice little diner for breakfast that did awesome pancakes.

Cape Hatteras LighthouseThe next morning I visited the iconic Cape Hatteras lighthouse, and from the nearby beach I could see a massive pod of dolphins swimming maybe fifty feet offshore. There were also quite a few crazy surfers catching waves (at least they had wetsuits). After that, I hopped the ferry to Ocracoke Island, found some hiking trails, and went for a walk on a deserted beach. It was fun, albeit cold and windy, and even though I didn’t get much writing done, I don’t regret having a little adventure instead. If you want to see the full set of pics from it, click here. (The Droid’s camera has gotten a bad rap, but I was fairly pleased with it.)

Now that I’m back, and Christmas is over, it’s time to get writing again. More on that in my next post.