This ocean size

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.

Categories: Memoir, writing

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25 replies

  1. Bravo, Bill. The trek and the words that describe it. Shell cuts. All over rawness. I want to give you a big hug. Tx

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It sounds like this was a cleansing trip in many ways, and so rich with real experiences that could be read as metaphors. You made the trip sober and yet there are so many images of consumption–the eagle, the raccoon, even the partly stripped whale.
    I’ve never been to the Pacific Northwest. I hope to someday but the combination of sea and forest sounds like some parts of the coast of Wales, so your bad-ass wizardry was especially appropriate.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah! That’s really insightful about the consumption Christopher, I hadn’t thought about that. You’ll have to let me know if you venture to the PNW one day! And my friend Tish whom I share blogs with lives not far from Wales and often posts photos from there. I was thinking about her when I was trying to capture some of the extraterrestrial images she often does on her ventures…to Wales! We’ve only been through there once, around New Year’s, and all we could say was how awesome it would be to get a hand like that playing Scrabble and dump some of those high-valued consonants on those Welsh names, that often have more Ys than you’d think possible.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Ah, yes! Coastal hillsides and the glories of glacial till!

    Your description of the beached whale reminded me of the occasional seal carcasses I’ve come across on my beach journeys. In particular the stench of death. One sensory experience I do not need to revisit.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. How do you keep your phone charged?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jeff, good question. I keep it on low battery mode and have a power bank for back up. When I came off the trail after about 40 hours it was still at 40%! And I didn’t use it much, and turned it off at night (kept it in my sleeping bag too so the battery didn’t get cold).

      Liked by 1 person

    • Also keep it in airplane mode and it seems to go forever like that

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Have never hiked solo any distance … certainly not for multiple days … bravo to you (and others, like my husband) who have the confidence and stamina for such. I DO know the mental clarity that floats in & out when all other human interruptions vanish for several days. Re photos … I find focusing camera/iPhone at something helps me notice details in-the-moment … whether I do anything with the image later or not. Maybe it’s the deliberate pausing to focus? Getting close to shark teeth would be a memorable encounter!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know, the solo thing can be edgy especially when you’re remote and there’s no one else in the area. First time I think I kept the door on the privy wide open and that was nice! It’s the small things, you know…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I was drawn to the idea of you being with Lilly on a parallel trip. That thought led me to focus on the faintness of the signs and pathways on your map, and in reality, and to think of this journey as a way of charting and reinvigorating two souls.

    Thank you Bill.


    Liked by 2 people

  7. What a vivid depiction of this majestic place. And you have me laughing out loud with the image of “a bad-ass wizard wielding [the walking staff] dramatically, muttering curses and spells, vaguely Welsh.” Yes indeed!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. “The the idea of you being with Lilly on a parallel trip…” that’s a brilliant observation there. I just kind of saw you as a Tom Bombadil type, singing your way through the trails, sometimes clothed, sometimes not, wizard staff at the ready. Bombadil didn’t carry a staff and likely wouldn’t need one but you never know. Always good to have one handy.

    Best wishes to you and the family as you navigate through this chapter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I appreciate that note deeply Walt…thank you. We should catch up sometime soon when you can, too…would love that! And I dig the Tom Bombadil ref, thank you for that 😝

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I really appreciate the sharing in this piece, Bill, in addition to the poetic components. It ate just the heart.
    Ripples of reflection spread out from your trek, recalling past journeys I’ve taken with you on this very trail, and on solitude and synapses.

    Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • What a heartfelt note Bruce, thank you! I remember a few years ago or more when I posted every day for a month you were there every day reading and offering encouragement, it meant so much for me and cool that you read this one too, because it’s written about the same general area. Looking forward to connecting again this week! Be well.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. I would be totally panicked at the first wrong turn. How’s that for a life metaphor.

    Liked by 2 people

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