Yurt

It was like wakening in a miniature circus tent, though with just the one clown stirring from an overnight slumber. Through a plastic window daylight was seeping into the octagonal space, the hard wooden floor radiating sunshine upwards into the plastic dome, like flame rising into a hot air balloon. Through the plastic glare the gentle sheen of the sea glimmered out in the distance, a view broken by dark pine forest and rounded headlands. One or two female deer lazily munched on the green grass in the foreground, as I set to joining them for breakfast.

It is hard to say if this was exactly what I was expecting when I came across an entry for this place in a guidebook many months before. Certainly what transpired captured the atmospheric appeal that came to my imagination back then. It was moving towards winter in Australia and times were spent in windowless offices and pointless meetings as I trudged slowly towards the date when I finally left my job. The sound of a place tucked away on an island in the pristine Pacific Northwest of the US where you could sleep in a yurt had instant allure. It seemed I had become what I never wanted to become and seeking clichéd escapes from ‘executive stress’.

And so, several months later, after visiting Hong Kong and Europe and New York City on my big time out, I landed in Seattle. Initial experiences were far from chilled. By time I had picked up a hire car it was rush hour on the I-5 and there I was in an unfamiliar car in an unfamiliar place on an unfamiliar side of the road. Sweeping through the heart of downtown Seattle I was able to avert my gaze from the weaving cars and merging lanes for just the briefest of moments. To my left, the Space Needle pierced the low cloud, affirming that I was heading in the right direction, north through the fading suburbs and fading light to a place where you can breathe again.

I slept that night under solid roof in one of those steady, unspectacular motels that permeate the highways and byways of the United States. They have beige carpets and brick walls and sturdy wooden sideboards with built in radio alarm clocks and light switches [1]. They have an included breakfast with a choice of three types of cereal dispensed from what were pretty revolutionary cereal dispensers back in the 60s. A choice of crushed cornflake, soggy rice puffs or the contents of the vacuum cleaner bag. Alternatively, you can have some undercooked toast with impossible to spread butter.

They have a laundry with tokens and powder available from the front desk, so that you can put your world-weary clothes through an expensive and time-consuming process in which they become sodden as Bangladesh during the monsoon and then undergo ten minute stints in a huge dryer and eventually come out with only a very incremental change in cleanliness and a lingering damp dog smell. Still, you put one of the clean-ish jumpers on and head out into the fresh air with the hope that at least this one will dry out in the next few hours.

The huge consolation is that Bellingham seems to possess its fair share of fresh, laundry-drying air. Beside the steely waters of Puget Sound, a pleasing boardwalk leads to a pleasing place for coffee with a pleasing-on-the-eye person making it. Elsewhere in town, the occasional deer grazes on someone’s perfectly coloured Y_whatcomprecision cut front lawn. Other deer poke their heads out of the undergrowth in Whatcom Park – named after the dotcom boom which failed to materialise this far north. Maybe. Amazingly, this is like a national park in the middle of the town, with some pretty waterfalls disturbing the peace of the forest.

Close to the border, the vibe feels more Canadian than anywhere else in America, which is a good thing for any executive stress you may have. Actually, Bellingham reminds me more than anywhere of Cypress Creek, the fictional town in The Simpsons acting as the secret base for the fantastical megalomaniac Hank Scorpio. I admit to failing to spot Put-Your-Butt-There on third in the hammock complex in the hammock district. But other than that – mountains and pine forests, chipmunks, lakeside houses and picket fences, secret underground missiles armed and aimed at France – Bellingham ticked all the boxes [2].

Another night under a solid roof led to another included breakfast, though this time with the surprise bonus of slightly stale miniature croissants. They must have been leftover from the annual general meeting of the American-Franco Dwarf Association of Washington State that took place in the conference room the previous evening. Still, I pocketed a few for the journey on what was a sublimely sunny day, warm and clear heading down to Anacortes for a ferry ride.

I can imagine, in this weather-laden extremity of America, that the ferry ride across to Orcas Island is rarely as serene as it was on this particular day. Slicing through high definition crystal calm, the ferry’s wake rippled the reflections of the many pine topped isles scattered upon the sound. Secluded bays hosted the occasional rustic dwelling, where the kayak appeared to be vehicle of choice. Between island views the mainland drifted away, but all the while the snowy volcanic peak of Mount Baker gleamed, a blinding white cone penetrating the upper atmosphere.

Disembarkation was a low key affair on Orcas Island, which is the largest of the many San Juan Islands peppering Puget Sound. Given some land mass to play with, the island offers a patchwork of working farmland and wild forest, a contoured landscape of hills and lakes, punctuated by a handful of small but serviceable towns. There is one main road linking the ferry drop off and the towns, with a few side diversions of note. So, after tucking into a pulled pork sandwich at the biggest town, Eastsound, the car took me up and up on a detour to the island’s highest point.

Mount Constitution sounds like somewhere that belongs in the United States, like Capitol Hill and Liberty City and Freedom Fries and Gun-toting Redneck Hill. The name feels solid and a little serious, denoting something which is of grand importance albeit a little dour in the detail. I don’t think any major pieces of legislature would have been signed up here, but I did spot a few written etchings professing Randy’s love for Mary-Jane.

It turns out the peak was in fact named after the USS Constitution which I am assuming plied the waters far down below in the distant past. The waters today are becalmed, a smooth sapphire sheet dotted with emerald islands, lapping at the shores of the mainland, where mammoth mountains rise to form snowy domes suspended in the sky. I can see Canada. I can see the entire Cascade Range sweeping down Washington and even into Oregon. I can see the Olympic Peninsula and its equally lofty heights, perhaps hiding Japan over its lumpy bulk. Above, the sky is as blue as blue sky strategic thinking gets, and far more credible.

Y_const

And so, from such gargantuan immensity I end up in a little yurt on the shores of Doe Bay, on the eastern side of the island. I may well be staying in some place that has the word ‘retreat’ in its name. One or two of the staff have longish hair, and I think they are serving vegetarian food in the cafe. There may be a spiritual yoga class tomorrow morning. But there is no pressure to non-conform. Simply do as you will. Meander the land and come across other yurts or cabins or swags set amongst the trees and cosy glades. Take a book and sit on a rundown bench under a fragrant pine branch, the sound of gently lapping water occasionally pierced by seals or other marine life or a guitar being strummed on some other bench over the bay. Potter about in such a complete carefree daze that you lock yourself out of your yurt and have to call out someone to help you after hours who looks very pregnant and was probably in the middle of eating their dinner but is still absolutely delighted to be of assistance.

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Wake up on your birthday in the middle of a structure resembling a giant birthday cake, scattering opened envelopes on the radiant wood floor. Say good morning to the deer munching away on the green grass, shading your eyes from the morning sea glare. Hear the sound of soothing humming coming from the yoga shack. And revel in an absolutely delicious vegetarian breakfast burrito served with approachable charm and humour. The milestone of another year reached and, strangely, I feel ten years younger.


[1] There is always a switch which never seems to operate anything. (Meanwhile, across town, the lights at the ballpark flicker on and off as an unassuming tourist twiddles with knobs in a beige motel).

[2] Unfamiliar to your far too cultured brain? See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Only_Move_Twice

Links

Scorpio: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QEsjd1WZuY

Cypress Creek…I mean…Bellingham, WA: http://www.bellingham.org/

The San Juans: http://www.visitsanjuans.com/

Doe Bay Resort and, yes, Retreat: http://doebay.com/

Specifically, pacifically, northwest: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2011/10/specific-pacific-northwest-blogfest.html

A to Z Driving Food & Drink Photography USA & Canada Walking

Elements

The problem with travelling around the Pacific Northwest, at any time of year, is the range of gear you need to have on hand ‘just in case’. October especially is the most transformational of months, where one summer day can cling on with a happy warmth and calm, only to be usurped the following dawn by the approach of tempestuous rain fronts delivering the first mountain snows. Shorts and sunhats become wellies and waterproofs.

The joy of travelling around the Pacific Northwest, at any time of year, is the range of weather and landscapes you can enjoy. There appear a seemingly endless combination of elements to experience, even in a compacted space and time. There may be clear calm days on the placid sounds around the San Juan Islands, only a distant whale shattering the glassy surface of water. Further down the coast, chilling winds and squally storms may be thrashing at the sweeping Oregon beaches, delivering driftwood with the salty foam, and sandblasting stooped figures that mingle amongst the shores. Rainforests are shrouded in misty cloud, soaking up like a sponge the contents of the Pacific Ocean, while woodlands of toilet fresh pine offer up sunny glades of grazing deer and dappled riverbanks. Rising up, alpine lakes and meadows of flowers glow in the sun, shadowed by the sky-scraping volcanic peaks of the Cascades, whose heights can quickly draw clouds like a magnet and absorb massive dumps of snow. Beyond their reach, barren desert lands carved with rocky canyons and dusty plateaus stretch away into the east.

E_pumpkinIt was rain that was on the cards one early October morning in Sammamish, a pleasant surburban satellite town east of Seattle. Thoughts of Halloween were emerging, as pumpkins peppered manicured gardens and witches brooms disturbed the wholesome air. The previous day’s joyously warm sunshine was rapidly fading and indoor activity was sensible, hence I headed towards Paine Field, where some of man’s achievements can be marvelled at in the Boeing factory [1]. Here, colossal sheds and colossal gift shops house incredible components and machines and plastic cups with curly straws. Huge underground service channels burrow their way through the complex, sheltered from the fickle elements that are a part of life in Washington State.

A short plane ride or, in my case, a circuitous journey west of here lies the Olympic Peninsula. If Paine Field provides an impressive depiction of what can be done by humans, the Olympic Peninsula is a reminder that nature is equally as showy. At its southerly end, the state capital Olympia has that gracious, fading air of autumn. Grey clouds hover but rain abates; instead leaves fall from the sky like paper planes zigzagging silently on the breeze, congregating into quivering puddles of red, green and yellow. Trench coats and trilbies are not out of place around the parliament, a domed building so reminiscent of capitol hills across the land. Despite being the capital of Washington, it feels like a town on the fringes, out of the way and barely featuring on the national consciousness. An outpost from Seattle and a staging post for the wilderness to the north.

Daylight seems to have barely greeted us as it disappears in the evening, and a night stop close to Lake Quinault beckons. A composite of faded green shades cloaked in mist, raindrops rippling on the water, people and animals in temporary hibernation. A pleasant riverside motel appears somewhat more foreboding in this atmosphere, but it is a refuge in which to shelter under blankets and be thankful that you have a roof over your head and pizza around the corner. A roof that amplifies every raindrop that sweeps in throughout the night, thrown around by the wind and launched onto surfaces with incessant force.

The next day begins no better, as water continues to permeate deep dark spruce forests and transform walking tracks into haphazardly sculpted rivulets. The car now is the refuge, pushing through one final heavy squall on its way to the coast. Here, things are clearer, the wind whipping clouds at great speed away from the sun. But dampness remains the theme, mighty waves of the Pacific driving up the sand and coating endless piles of driftwood with a tidal surge. My feet, caught up between a rock and a hard place, are not escapable from the water at Second Beach, but the sun is now warming and consoling, and a change of shoes is but a short trek away. The end of the world feel at La Push is now contradicted by the bright and breezy elements around.

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Back inland, the light fades and mists once more mingle in between trees. The Hoh Rainforest is a rainforest by name and a rainy forest by nature. I did not see any Hohs. I would imagine it would feel unnatural here on a dry and sunny day. Sponges of moss stifle trees and grow bloated with water. Beards hang down from their branches, and the trees take on a life of their own, like some terrifying monster from a Scooby Doo cartoon [2]. The air has an edge of intimidation to it, a slight feeling that you are trespassing on a very ancient, primeval world. You should take a few photos and leave things be. Otherwise the trees may come and get you.

Hoh rainforest     E_hoh1

Contrast elevates the small town of Port Angeles to a thriving metropolis. Traffic lights and a small city block, supermarkets and docks, a place to feel comfortable for the night. And awaken to a dry start where the sun rises from the east, illuminating Vancouver Island across the Strait. The rising sun does not take long to be swallowed up by a leaden sky, and rainbows form somewhere between the US and Canada, like some symbolic hand-holding hippy statement of peace and free trade. Mountains behind me reach into the clouds, their height cannot be fathomed as they vanish into the sky. But there is a road you can follow that will take you there to find out.

On days of dubious looking weather, Hurricane Ridge does not sound the most appealing place in the world by name alone. But rising from sea level to 5000 feet certainly offers an uplifting experience and one in which you finally come head to head with the elements that have been your friend and foe on the peninsula. Of course, the change in altitude also brings change in vegetation and landscape; mildly undulating pine valleys become steeper and barer, clinging to rocky cliff tops and giving way to alpine meadows. Just after 4000 feet, as life becomes sparser and bleaker, so too does the weather and it is not long, as you climb at a steady gradient, before the car roof kisses the bottom of cloud, and then disappears into it altogether. One less Toyota Prius on view to the world.

I imagine the views from here are tremendous, the ecosystem rare and unique and blessed, a pinnacle within a peninsula so raggedly variedly beautiful. But the elements have indeed been fickle and today, as days deepen into October, there is one final affront: snow. A whiteout of gentle proportions that is at least recompense for the murky vista. A scene from Christmas come two months early, dusted icing covering fir trees, icicles forming at their edges, the satisfying crunch of virgin snow underfoot.

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A visitor’s centre offers shelter from the cold and all the amusement that a 3D contour map and short video film can provide. Which is, for me, actually quite a lot of amusement. The map a chance to at least imagine what it might look like outside, and which peaks lie in which direction. The film a chance to see what it looks like outside, on a far superior summer’s day, where marmots prance amongst the flowers and lucky tourists come to admire the peaks in all directions. But today no magical transformation upon leaving the small cinema, a transformation that had happened a couple of weeks earlier in similar circumstances around Mount St Helens, when the landscape emerged out of the clouds as the curtains wound back to reveal a ravaged peak. Here still nothing.

It did not take long to descend to be in the clear again, but the very tops of mountains stubbornly refused to separate themselves from the layer of cloud. With typically grudging optimism I gave it one more shot, ascended again, and was amazed that things had improved. You could now see about 20 metres into the distance rather than 10. But this was an improvement, and a trend was setting in. Suddenly you could sense cloud formation and movement rather than a uniform whiteness. Elements were changing again. And while the vista did not exactly become cinematographic, gaps formed and meadows appeared, snow started to fade and drip from trees, peaks became visible through the windows of clarity. It was enough to send you off back to Seattle content, pleased that the elements had at least offered up some compromise.

Of course the next day was beautifully sunny again and, from downtown Seattle, across Puget Sound, the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula shone bright. This was not the first dalliance with mountain sightings that had come back to taunt me the next day: Mount Baker, Mount Rainier, Mount Hood and, now, Mount Olympus all giving up little in my presence but shining out from further afield. There was warmth back in the air and the need to discard of a sweater. The elements were once again dictating the terms in this corner of the world. Setting moods and scenes and sartorial choices. Making every hour of every day different. Shaping the variation, colouring the land, enriching the environment. And continuing to make packing a conundrum for those who have the good fortune to visit it.


[1] Where some of the first Dreamliners were coming towards the end of the production line. I had nothing to do with it.

Links

Olympic Peninsula Info: http://www.olympicpeninsula.org/

Olympic National Park: http://www.nps.gov/olym/index.htm

Hoh Rainforest: http://www.nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/visiting-the-hoh.htm

Quiluete Nation La Push: http://www.quileutenation.org/

Hurricane Ridge webcam: http://www.nps.gov/olym/photosmultimedia/hurricane-ridge-webcam.htm

Specific Pacific Northwest Blogfest:

http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2011/10/specific-pacific-northwest-blogfest.html

A to Z Driving Photography USA & Canada Walking