In the Far Top Corner of the Pacific Northwest
Lies Washington State's Land of Fits and Misfits
Water Street in Port Townsend exudes the aura of a once-grand Northwestern seaport.
Victorian storefronts garnished with flowers line its wide sidewalks. Along them lies an array of cafes, restaurants and espresso shops flanked by boutique hotels, art galleries and souvenir emporiums. Such business fit the tourist-friendly community. What appears unusual is the large number of bookstores found here.
"That's because we have so many poets and writers who reside in Port Townsend," explains Mary Hewitt at the Waterstreet Hotel. "Did you know Frank Herbert lived here when he wrote Dune?"
A coastal town atop Washington's rainy Olympic Peninsula seems a locational misfit for inspiring a desert sci-fi novel, but this far corner of the Pacific Northwest harbors its share of the unusual. I'll find more as I explore the back roads that cap this stubby thumb on the left hand of America. The journey begins on the peninsula's northeastern tip.
Port Townsend claims roots of farming, logging and shipping. By the late 1800s, Washington State's second oldest city had developed into a thriving port, but the prosperity tumbled overnight when the railroad chose Seattle as the northern terminus for a link to the Columbia River.
Perhaps saved by the snubbing, the picturesque town now claims to be one of only three Victorian seaports listed on the National Historic Register. Following a self-guided city tour, I drive past scores of century-old buildings and homes displaying the grandeur of the gilded era. Many of the massive mansions have been converted into bed and breakfasts, any of which would be more appealing than the chain motel I reserved farther up the highway.
Exiting town southbound, I follow Discovery Bay to the main highway. Where most traffic continues southeast toward Puget Sound, I turn northwest. The John Wayne Marina lies ahead.
After seeing his classic Westerns filmed in prairies and deserts, it's hard to think of a boat moorage as John Wayne country. But this is where the actor loved to sail his converted minesweeper, and his family donated land for a facility that now bears his name. A bronze statue of the six-gun toting actor graces the area.
In the marina supply store, I spot a postcard showing the statue with nothing but sky showing behind. It reads, "The 24-foot bronze sculpture...stands proudly in the entrance hall at the John Wayne Marina." I wonder how I could have missed something over two stories high. Two guys, who could have been the inspiration for Hollywood's Dumb and Dumber, work behind the counter.
"Where is this 24-foot John Wayne statue," I ask the Jim Carrey character.
"I don't think they've got that up yet," he says.
"Must be. Here's a postcard of it."
He examines the photo with eyebrows contracting. "Well, hummm..."
His Jeff Daniels-like buddy comes over to help. "I can only think of the statue that's in the case downstairs. But gee, that's probably only 24 inches high."
"That's it!" the Carrey character blurts in a sudden epiphany of enlightenment. "They musta screwed up. That's supposed to be 24 INCHES!"
They direct me to the bantam bronze protected in a glass enclosure. It's a nice tribute to the American icon, but still, I leave disappointed at not finding a duke-size Duke.
In nearby Sequim, I escape the main highway for a looping bypass through the Dungeness Valley. My first stop is the Olympic Game Farm, a drive-through zoo where animals roam freely and visitors remain caged in their cars.
This inverted animal park began when a dairy farming misfit named Lloyd Beebe found he loved photographing wildlife more than he did milking cows. Beebe became so good behind the lens, he eventually began shooting nature films for Disney Studios. His former cow pastures became a repository for critters to be used when scenes could not be shot in the wild.
"A lot of the animals are free-roaming," says assistant manager Paul Jones at the entry gate. "There are llamas, zebras, elk, deer, and buffalo. Except at the overlook, you must stay inside your vehicle at all times."
I buy a few loaves of bread to feed the beasts and drive slowly through the gate. When a zebra blocks the road ahead, I stop. The striped equine approaches and takes the slice of bread I offer. Not satisfied, he then thrusts his head in the window, making a grab for the whole bag. I rip it back just in time.
Geese stand beside the roadside watching. When I fail to toss them food, they start rapping the car with their beaks. It sounds like an attack of siding salesmen.
The Kodiak bears, which fortunately do not roam uncaged, are pros at inducing folks to fling food their way. From open pens, some sit on their haunches and waive outstretched paws. Others curl both arms and beg like Fido at the table. They look so cute, one forgets they are world's largest living land carnivores, and they are confined here by little more than a strand of electric wire.
With everyone feeding the animals, I wondered what keeps these zoo residents from fattening into furry versions of John Madden. A staff member assures me that overfeeding is not a problem. Unlike humans, when the animals get full, they stop eating.
Overindulgence may not be a problem for them, but then they do not drive past the 3 Crabs Restaurant, a simple discovery off the beaten path. In an area that shares its name with the West's most famous crustaceans, the house specialty is clear.
"Do all Dungeness crabs come from around here?" I ask.
"When explorers first put ashore, they found the crabs everywhere, so they named them after our Dungeness Valley," says hostess Dawn Storseth. "They actually range from southern Alaska through Canada, Washington, Oregon into Northern California."
No doubt some of them crawl around the Dungeness Spit, a 100-yard wide strand of sand curving into the Juan de Fuca Strait. Stretching five miles in length, it is the longest sand spit in the United States or perhaps the world. Waves pile ashore on its northwest side while a sglassy calm water lagoon borders the other. Mt. Baker, lit by the setting sun, quietly blushes in the distance. A trail leads to a lighthouse at spit's tip, but stuffed with seafood, I lack the ambition to walk there.
Looping back to the main highway, I continue westward. Ahead lies Port Angeles, the north shore's largest city, which seems crammed with car dealerships, muffler shops and strip malls. Only the Hurricane Ridge jutting from the Olympic Mountains to the south tells me I'm still on the scenic peninsula.
"The 72-mile road to Neah Bay is sometimes closed by landslides," Betty Warder warns me at the town's visitor center. "But it's a pretty drive, and you'll end up at the farthest northwest point in the contiguous United States."
Leaving in the morning, I stop for fuel in tiny Joyce. There, hiding behind 21st century gas pumps stands the Joyce General Store and Post Office, a false-front relic from the 19th century. Oiled wood covers its floors, mail boxes are cast bronze and its shelves are packed with an eclectic assortment of goods ranging from spark plugs to hamburger helper.
"The store was brought up in pieces from Port Crescent," says Leonard Pierce. "This counter was from the old Olympic Park Hotel. It's probably 150 years old. The post office in the back, that's from before Lincoln was president. My father-in-law was the fourth owner of the store."
Passing a sign urging me to "come back and re-Joyce," I continue down the road. The blacktop twists and turns with the landscape, winding through forest and past beaches littered with driftwood and seaweed. The feeling is of peaceful remoteness.
Unfortunately, the scenic glades are interspersed with patches of clear cutting, a forestry practice where entire hillsides are denuded. Reduced to slash and stumps, the harvested remains resemble something filmmakers like Lloyd Beebe could use to depict nuclear ground zero.
"But, I like clear cutting! Quite frankly, I find sky scrapers and concrete ugly," exclaims Tammy Lee, an employee of the Merrill & Ring tree farm in Pysht. "I've lived here all my life, and I know it will grow back."
She is right. Roadside signs tell when various tracts of second-growth seedlings were planted. In one dating to 1986, the regenerated forest already reaches more than 20 feet skyward.
The highway's final miles hug the Juan de Fuca Strait, in places traversing terrain so wild that even the burley Big Foot would need a chain saw to cut his way through. Civilization returns at Ray's Place, which signs warn is the last chance for beer and wine before reaching the Makah Reservation.
Entering Indian land, I pass a forlorn cemetery that looks to be neither well kept nor well used. Beyond, derelict houses sit near others that seem proudly maintained. Spray-painted vandalism appears everywhere. It seems so out of place on these native lands.
A clerk at the Makah Museum explains that in his opinion, the problem began when tribal families moved to the population centers around Seattle. When they returned, some city-corrupted misfits brought back the youthful urban problems of graffiti, guns and crime.
Fortunately, the museum displays Indian life untainted by the 21st century. With Makah chants playing in the background, I wander past canoes hollowed from cedar trees, examine primitive fishing, whaling and sealing tools, and study artifacts recovered from a Makah village buried by a mudslide 500 years ago.
Only a few miles separates Neah Bay from Cape Flattery, the northwestern corner of the lower 48 states. While the actual shoreline point can be reached by a foot trail, I'm content to take in the view from a hilltop overlook.
Below lies Tatoosh Island, a flat-topped slab rising a half-mile offshore. A 65-foot-tall brick lighthouse, now automated and unmanned, sets on it. Below, Pacific waves crash the cliffs and a pride of sea lions bask on shoreline rocks. Across the strait looms the dark, distant mass of Vancouver Island.
I smile. Here atop the farthest corner of the Pacific Northwest, I have finally reached land's end. It's time to turn back.