I came to the bridge above the river, the one described in the guidebook. I’d taken a picture of it last time but it was only a green braid in the gray canyon rock, reduced down to that. The canyon rock had the look of Tiki gods in silhouette, stern, with eyebrows made out of moss tufts, carved cheekbones.
I got to camp by early afternoon but all the good spots were taken. The river was too cold for bathing, a slurry of glacial silt, solemn gray. There was another party pulling water out of it, but it seemed unnatural to see others in the rainforest like this.
I tied my tarp over the bivy sack and sat on my bear canister with my shirt off swatting flies, drinking beer, realizing how close I was to the two women in the camp one over: wondering what they thought of me sitting there, looking at them.
I moved camp across the meadow beneath an old tree. A family had five horses in the stock camp and were feeding them grass in the open field. They had the horses on leashes and sometimes the leashes got tangled the way they do walking a number of dogs all at once.
More parties came through, looking hungry and desperate. The camp is 11 miles up the Hoh river valley and most come for the glacier at the end, 18 miles in. But most also camp, and make a few days out of it.
I’d made remarkable time, goaded on by my ego and repressed tension, anger. A couple times I got behind someone on the trail who wouldn’t get out of my way and had to ask them to move and wasn’t pleasant about it.
In the night I thought I heard the rain start but couldn’t get my bivy sack open and became claustrophobic, had to tell myself to breathe. In the morning the tree I was under changed overnight, had grown exaggerated, with puffy arms for limbs, a Jim Henson puppet, spidery and ape-like. It was Saturday, day two of six, and I only had five miles to go to my next camp, then on to the glacier a few more.
It was supposed to rain Saturday night, the first time in 50-some days, the longest stretch in Seattle since 1951. At first just the dried pine needles came down, and sounded like snow—but then it was definitely rain, I could smell it.
I was 15 miles up the valley at Elk Lake, with only three or four camps. The ranger gave me props for my tarp system, how I jerry-rigged it with my trekking poles and some rock and wood to keep it taut, to allow the rain to pool off systematically.
The rain formed a mist that turned to fog, yet the sky was still gray-pink from the sunset, and in the morning the forest smelled alive with new scents. I walked out 15 miles to the trailhead where I started, stopping every 5 miles to rest.
At my last stop I saw the gray wolf juvenile before it saw me, in a clearing at a sad camp they call Five Mile Island, a gravel bar with just a few fire rings and log benches. The wolf gave me the chills—and I told the next few parties about it but it wasn’t plausible, they said: there were no sanctioned gray wolf reintroductions out here, only by the Cascades.
There’d been the black bear I saw just 45 minutes from the trailhead, but no one seemed interested in hearing stories about bear. Plenty of frogs and heron, a mountain goat by the glacier, some snakes. Sulfur polypore mushrooms growing out of the trees like elk antlers, bright orange.
I decided to forgo plans to camp a third night in the river valley and carry on to the coast instead, to make camp at Oil City and get a good breakfast in the morning, to try to reach Loren, who was coming up from Portland to meet me at Mosquito Creek.
It was high tide when I got to the beach and the river (the same one that comes off the glacier) made for good late afternoon swimming. I gathered cans of beer from my car and started a fire, boiled water for dinner, set my bivy sack on a ledge, photographed the sunset, made bird sounds at passing gulls and crows.
On Monday I had time to kill so I drove to the Hoh Indian res and took pictures of abandoned shacks and cars. There was no one anywhere. I drove to Forks for supplies, sat at a gas station Subway, ate a footlong sandwich.
I thought back to the times I’d come here with my friends when we were in our 20s and would just drive around, exploring. How it seemed we only had time then. And about my kids now, with all the riches of the internet and its fake gold glitter, how they’re trapped in caves and disconnected from the real world, from just roaming.
When Loren arrived we hugged, and I gave him a fake slap but it was too hard and broke his lip; he spit blood in the sand and looked upset, but we soon got beyond that. A drunk Canadian appeared near dusk: he owned a cabin you could access by rope off the trail and was going through a bad divorce, the first time he’d been there without his kids, he missed them. But he stayed too long by our fire and we worried about his safety walking back to his cabin in the dark—and then we stopped worrying, and started looking for meteors instead.
In the morning Loren and I hiked a good six miles to Toleak Point where we made camp and tried to find drinking water. I slipped on a log in my bare feet and went down hard, had to put my foot in the water to stop the swelling. In the morning the bruise resembled a planet, blue-purple and striated, and I wondered at my safety having to go another 11 miles, to end at the rock scramble. Loren rubbed my foot and gave me Tiger Balm, I ate aspirin and energy gels. At Mosquito Creek we swam and estimated we could get to Jefferson Cove a couple hours past low tide with enough time to safely cross the rock scramble, but we were wrong.
The hike from Third Beach to Oil City is 17 miles one way, with rope ladders leading from the beach to overland trails, through forest. The crux (the rock scramble) comes either at the end (if you do the north to south route) or the beginning, if you start from Oil City.
If you hit the rock scramble at high tide the ocean can pin you against the cliffs and make it untenable. The rocks are conglomerates with lichens, barnacles, and crunchy lifeforms growing there. Over time, I’ve come to fear the scramble to where it’s become something larger, more ominous (mortality itself?). When Loren and I arrived the cove was socked in and the waves looked bigger than they should have been by the tide table, and the spray was forming that seaside mist that brings a chill, that makes everything really wet really fast.
We decided we’d have to camp at the cove and try again at 3 AM at low tide, in the dark. Loren gathered wood and I nursed my heel, took some whiskey. We tied the tarp to a log and strung it against the ocean spray. Loren got out his harmonica and I sung what I could from a few Dylan songs.
In the dark of morning we had no depth of vision but could hear the tide had gone out and knew we had more beach to walk upon. I asked Loren to stay near me but he went on ahead. We had our lamps to keep track of one another and sometimes grunted and cursed. When we got back to the car and changed, there was a crescent moon still out and we were the first customers at the Kalaloch for breakfast; they were starting a wood fire in the lobby and we sat by it and told our story, got some coffee, washed up, said goodbye.
We took the 12 out of Aberdeen for Centralia along the railway tracks and were able to check in to a room above a bar a few hours early, get showers (my first in a week). I still had a limp that was more of a lope, a funny clip-clop cadence that made me think of Billy Pilgrim’s character, from Slaughterhouse-Five. Loren and I ordered cocktails at the bar, a six-pack of fresh oyster shooters: dark enough for candles at noon. I tried to nap but couldn’t.
In the morning I did a lap around Centralia’s historic downtown looking for coffee—hadn’t noticed they had some in the hallway just outside our hotel room. And I discovered a mural on the wall in the WC, someone who founded a band Sam Shepard played drums with, the Holy Modal Rounders.
And I thought back to that side porch at our cabin in Montana where I’d read Patti Smith’s memoir, dreaming about my time in the Alps to follow, though I was nervous about getting my passport renewed in time, nervous about the capability of the expediting service I hired, and on the phone with them every day checking status: and in the end they failed me, I had to cancel my trip to Germany and plan something else as a consolation, to not let it upset me or get sentimental about the times we didn’t have—there were so many more we did.