FOCUS, THEY SAY. Focus on what matters.
That’s the task awaiting all of us as we march forward through the virus tunnel and at some point emerge, we hope, squinting in all-new light, on the other side.
Before that Great Rebooting, which could come suddenly, but more likely, in a gradual, protracted, frustratingly slow manner (with apologies to our friends in Redmond, think: your desktop hard drive after a big, fat Windows update), this focus on the essential seems critical.
When you put a society back together, which puzzle pieces get snapped in place first? Or, to put it simply, what really matters?
For most Americans, the top of the list is easy: family, friends, health, community, pizza, microbrews, unlimited broadband, extra-sharp cheddar …
I kid, just a bit. For many Northwesterners, the second level of import will be self-evident: refinding our place in a natural world that we have inarguably soiled by our sheer numbers.
This will not be some preachy treatise about that last part. Rather, it is a first-steps celebration of the former.
People in the nation’s upper-left quadrant have always considered themselves fortunate to live in a place with worldly conveniences literally within sight of otherworldly environs. This natural nearness defines the spirit with which local people have walked around, kicking mud off their boots, for millennia.
To a lot of us, a sense of place is basic sensibility — such a given that it seems off-putting to have to explain.
So what happens when we are literally walled off from those natural places that have always cleansed our lungs and soothed our souls?
We’re still learning, struggling and coping.
But at this writing, in early April 2020, that wall looks tall, and shore-to-shore. Not only are we all working to stay put (largely successfully, at least at the moment); we also are grappling with the long-term extension of same: a summer without a summer. The possibility of a necessary, virus-imposed pox of closed trailheads, shuttered campgrounds and visitor centers, and padlocked gates. (Go ahead and insert profanity here.)
The fact that it’s a small sacrifice for the greater good does little to salve the wounds of Cloister Despair as many of us cope, for the first time in our lives, with the unusual contrast of rising snow levels and closures “until further notice.”
The outdoors has always been our charging station, and spiritual batteries already are running low. It’s easy to forget that, for many people, the biggest loss in “social distancing” and unprecedented lockdown rules is not social interplay but the de facto caging — locking lovers of the infinite into finite boxes where the “sky” more than ever is a slab of plaster 3 feet above our heads.
It adds up, more than you think.
So we all must deal. And we shall. Think of the virus closures as a once-in-a-lifetime blanket of snow sealing our favorite places for long-term healing and, presumably, a glorious thaw. (Is that working? I didn’t think so, but try we must.)
With all that in mind, I offer up from the home office a mind’s-eye reminder of ways and means to reconnect to our favorite natural places, once it’s safe to venture back out.
That time, very likely, is not now. Please don’t take this as a go-do guide, or as any hint of a license to spread the virus by traveling when public health requires the opposite. Think of it, rather, as a to-do list: a remembrance of natural touchstones to keep alive in your soul, and to file away in your brain for eventual reimmersion.
Come along with this Northwest native in a stroll through the photo files, for a mental vacation from housebound mundanity. By category:
Sorry (not sorry) to go all Harvey Manning on you here. The late, legendary guidebook scribe used to love to mystify newbies with that term, a Lushootseed name for the local saltchuck, or the jewellike body of water we now call the Salish Sea.
Call it what you will; just don’t dump stuff into it. These waters, and the shorelines that call us to them, are the aquamarine touchstones that make most of us who consider moving to cheaper, less-congested climes eventually shut down that Zillow tab, sigh and admit: “I’d miss the water.”
Who among us hasn’t made a trip in haste, in joy, in despair or in simple escape, to the one closest to our home or even to our hearts? (If you just raised your hand, please go to the back of the Zoom chat line.)
These saltwater escapes lie literally at our feet; they comprise beaches and natural areas from Blaine to Olympia that range from desolate to (once) hyper-crowded. As a North Sound resident, many of my lifetime favorites are within an hour’s-drive circle of Admiralty Inlet — the gravelly shores of Whidbey Island; smooth beaches of Jefferson County; and isolated pockets of shoreline splendor that, divulged here, would prompt some of my friends to publicly shame me — or worse. (Sorry.)
Your task: Find your own place! Go there, once the coast is clear, midweek, offseason, away from the humanity flood. Sit on a log. Clear your head.
Close your eyes.
Breathe, deeply. Repeat as necessary.
It’s mostly brown, and for many of us smug we(s) t-siders, that is a big problem. No time like the near future to solve it.
The fact is that the average Western Washingtonian has been stuck too long in (now demonstrably unnecessary) meetings to spend sufficient time wandering, either in person or via telepathy, the topographical tossed salad of our state’s magical southeast corner, a world leader in production of wheat, legumes and holy-cow vistas.
Over the decades, whether conducting “research” for outdoor guides, reporting newspaper stories, or just visiting friends and family, I’ve tried to punch my lentil card more often than most. Not once have I returned with regrets, lack of memorable photographs — or, in full disclosure, socks free of infuriating, thorny seed pods (no single place is perfect).
Washington’s southeast corner — defined in my mind’s eye by a triangle of unique lands between the Tri-Cities, the Blue Mountains and Spokane — is a treasure oft bathed in God light. Here, there are highways that intersect in junctions so lonely that the only sound for minutes at a time will be a rusted-out gas station sign creaking in the wind.
Follow the rivers. Climb to the caves. Huff in the summer wind from sprawling fields of amber grain. All the genuine article. Ride the roads with the sort of banked curves and whoop-de-do rises that attract scouts for car ads. Respect and wonder at the traces of ancient people, and the generally delightful absence of modern ones.
Explore it from bottom to top, and while perched on the latter — at Steptoe Butte, or something else that passes for high altitude — stare into the endless horizon and feel the warm breeze of eternity.
Something in your very DNA will get it.
The Evergreen State’s torso is a topographical freak show of interplanetary proportions. No secret there; many have documented the gaping, exposed ribs of the great Ice Age floods that scoured the broader — much broader — Columbia River drainage of Central Washington 10,000 years ago. We have indulged on multiple occasions, turning over rocks and peering off cliffs from one side of it to the other.
A few years ago, the federal government — remember the federal government? — announced plans to string the eye-popping highlights of this cataclysmic flood-scar drainage (don’t tell your friends, but these include Dry Falls, the Moses Coulee, the Potholes area and Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, just to name a few) into a national park, marked by interpretive sites of a common theme.
That hasn’t happened, and may I now conclude: Thank the gods. Let’s keep it to ourselves.
Those of you who’ve already been there, take a mental trip back right now. Shut off the tube. Go outside. Close your eyes. Imagine picking your way through Volkswagen-size basalt blocks at the base of sheer cliffs, where the greatest deluge in Earth’s history one day rampaged — and where the region’s first peoples thrived on fish, elk and even buffalo.
Let the harsh wind from here blow the clutter from your mind.
Those of you who haven’t: Wait. Just wait. But given the newly temporal world we all suddenly live in, don’t make it too long.
An Alp, Preferably by Any Other Name
It’s sort of a cliché, and it’s always just seemed wrong: Calling Washington’s jagged-edge North Cascades range “America’s Alps” never really did the mountains justice. (Having been deep into them, one will wonder why the Alps are not referred to as “Europe’s North Cascades.”)
This bit of insufferable Euro-centrism aside: The hard truth is that the true wonder of this place is mostly out of sight to most people who are unfamiliar with moleskin purchased by the yard (if you have to ask, you reside in said group).
As soon as State Route 20, the North Cascades Highway, is open for summer travel, and regional leisure driving is deemed OK, you can touch the fringes of this alpine heaven, North Cascades National Park, by driving. But in any year, the true splendor requires at least several hours hoofing it, leaning on a kayak paddle or some other worthy aerobic activity.
All bets are off here for early summer. But when the coast is clear — even if it’s a year off — make a point of venturing into one of the Lower 48’s last, best places on foot. (If you don’t, to quote our friend, the late Warren Miller, you’ll only be another year older when you do.)
Pro tips: You can take in much of the alpine splendor of the truly remote, inner North Cascades by exploring their outer, westerly fringes. Some day hikes and campgrounds in the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest (shut down tight, at this writing, but mostly under snow, anyway) and various wilderness areas in Skagit and Whatcom counties will get you there. Add these to your list.
A few favorite destinations for us, just based on location, are the Highway 542, Highway 530 and winter-shuttered Mountain Loop Highway corridors, where roads, if open, will zip you to places one really shouldn’t be able to drive to, and trails from same put you in heavenly destinations within the reach of most mortals.
The Broken Edge
The coast is not clear. It just isn’t.
Washington’s wild ocean coastal front, the place where the continent literally breaks off and falls into the roiling Pacific Ocean, creating a surf break for elephant seals and people from Wenatchee in microbuses, isn’t likely to be tourist-hungry in the short term. So plan long, far and accordingly.
But meanwhile, pause to treasure past visits and scheme new ones in the deliciously damp climes of the Olympic Peninsula, where trees standing as some of the largest living beings on the planet keep watch of a coastline that reeks of immortality, and wild things shaped like deer or elk or cats or owls — or, on foggy days, something in between — peek from the shadows.
Sitting in a home office, a basement or a dining room turned webcam studio, isn’t it enough to know, and love, that places this magical are out there, right over there, unpeopled, recovering and thriving?
OK; not really. But it’s something.
In the short term, ease your angst and separation pains by planning, down the road, to take in the Olympic Peninsula in a way that you previously have not: a through-hike of the Olympics, roughly following the route of the 1889-90 “Press Expedition,” up the Quinault and down the Elwha, perhaps? A long beach backpack through Olympic National Park’s 57-mile ocean coastal strip? A kayak adventure to Lake Crescent or Ozette Lake? Even just that lifetime-delayed week in a yurt with your bestie and pup at a beachside state park, once they’re back in biz for overnight stays.
They all require advance planning, both for permits and logistics. Use your time, and dream your dreams — and prep your gear for the rainforest. Kiwi Camp Dry is your short-term best friend.
Everybody is familiar with the Northwest outdoor person’s elephants in the room. They’re looming there, right in our sightlines, taunting us on a daily basis to put Alexa into stasis and head to the sweet, subalpine-fir-scented fresh air on the shoulders of our deceptively friendly volcanic companions: Baker, Glacier Peak, Rainier, Adams, Hood and on down the line on the remarkable Pacific Rim of Fire.
They produce environments unique on the planet, period, let alone within reach of a burgeoning population of several million people. Because of deep snowfall, they’re usually out of reach at this time of year. Nothing new now, except for the prospect that they might stay that way for much of the summer.
Don’t despair; just remember. Put on some trunks; take a deep dive into your phone’s photo archive; and relive with some friends the last, best days you spent together on your favorite local (in)active volcano.
You don’t see this kind of stuff in Ohio. You just don’t.
In doing so, keep in mind an abiding principle, likely to become an important ethic for the Northwest nature lover in days to come: Once the gates on outdoor recreation finally reopen — and they will — do your favorite places, and the communities that surround them, a favor by not rushing there, en masse.
Rest your knees and look further down the road, planning to reach for your own favorite touchstones in an offseason period when the coast is clearer.
It’s a passive form of activism, and the least you can do to be more a part of the solution than the problem.
Something none of us chose, but we all must master.