I went back to Forks, the small logging town on the Washington coast, back to the gas station with the sandwich shop and the formica booth out front beneath the mossy overhang, the old sign with 1960s font that says Welcome to Forks, and took a selfie and sent it to a friend, because we sat in the same spot together four years ago and it still looks the same.
You can go to Forks as a final pit stop before disappearing on a coastal hike for days, past the Indian reservation and through the tall trees, where cell service ends and you can wander the rocky beaches and forest trails forever.
This time I went alone because I had to see what that was like; even though I’d done it many times I’d never gone without something to drink or smoke for 25 years now, and that was a long time. I wanted to see what it felt like sober, if I could start rebuilding those connections in my brain. And with all there was to consider in our lives now that we’d sent Lily off to a wilderness therapy program, it seemed fitting that I try something similar myself.
Hiking the Washington coast is a mix of beach travel and overland trails with creeks to ford, creeks that are tidally influenced and harder to cross at high tide. I love the combination of beach walks and rain forest, the dramatic bluffs and headlands and the look of the cliffside trees in that forever frozen pose, the ancient rock formations jutting out from the sea with tufts of tall grass and moss and eagles perched on top, the crashing waves and volcanic rocks and intertidal zones full of life. The look of the low-hanging clouds and far-away hills and the constant smells and sounds of the beach. The cry of eagles and gulls, the sound of the waves like thunder, the strange way it bounces off the bluffs and cliffs like it’s coming from all around.
It’s a great place to take stock, to reconcile your life amid all this. Your place and station. And for all the years I’ve come here it seems the same. And yet it is always different too, parts familiar and foreign. And everywhere, metaphor. The sea, an endless layering of seas from my past coming in, going out. The seeming connection we can make with our own lives and past selves.
My map wasn’t great but I didn’t think I needed a better one because I’d done the route so many times, the trick is knowing when the beach route ends and you have to climb up to the overland trail. You climb up a rope ladder and they are usually pretty obvious. And there’s a sign nailed to a tree indicating where to access the overland trails, a sign that looks like an orange and black shooting target. But many of the trees with those signs are now toppled over, or the signs are so old and damaged they’re easy to overlook. The signs are made of two circular disks glued together, the colored symbol on top and the other one as a mount. The mount has a circular glue pattern that ironically resembles a sand dollar’s design once the top falls off. So I missed the first sign and got frustrated and confused but soon learned to study the map more closely and look harder for the ropes.
Climbing up and down the bluffs with the ropes can be difficult because the cliff trails are crumbling in places in a messy state of mud and rock and sand soup. It’s easy to flail around and get frustrated, but I tried to keep my cool. I prefer using a found walking stick over trekking poles because you’re often using your hands more and the poles get cumbersome. With a walking staff I could slide it behind my pack, toss it down the cliff and retrieve it later, or pretend I was a bad-ass wizard wielding it dramatically, muttering curses and spells, vaguely Welsh.
In three days I saw only one other party, and a few day hikers near the trail head, but that’s it. And that sounds good, but it was also lonesome and I wound up cutting my trip short by a day. I read a little book and did all the hiking I had energy for. I listened to some music on my phone and piddled around camp with my gear. I took walks to refill my water from freshwater streams and study the beach from different angles, the way the rocks looked at low tide. I sat on my portable camp chair and filmed an eagle eating a cormorant, was close enough I could see the crazed look in its eye and the blood on its beak, was able to discern it ate just the heart. I came upon a beached whale whose skin had decomposed to reveal the next layer down, a strange color like rust and beige, a desert camouflage pattern. And I got close enough to its teeth to take detailed photographs. I caught a hunchbacked raccoon loping into my camp after I left and walked back to tighten the lid on my bear canister so it couldn’t get my food. I stripped down for a swim in the ocean after a long hike but it was still close enough to high tide I got thrown down by the waves and dragged like a plaything, sliced my arms and legs on some shells. I sang a lot at the top of my lungs. I thought about Lily and Dawn and Charlotte, my mom and my dad and my friends, and myself. The question of who I am hasn’t gotten any easier to answer but is still a good question to ask.