05 Sep CATCHING THE SOLO-TRAVEL BUG
Picture this: You’re at the front desk of the Port Angeles Visitor Center a day after hearing that one of your favorite coworkers, Ashley, is leaving in two weeks to go back to school.
You feel it then, the impending doom of summer is ending. You’ve spent most of your summer not in the national park you’re working at, ironically enough, but instead driving back and forth from Seattle (where you live for most of the year) for various errand-related reasons, or working on program scripts, or going to festivals, or playing tour guide, or just about anything else. Summer is ending and you’ve caught the existential dread that is the reason for what your supervisor Jared has dubbed “Angry August”–it’s the same affliction tormenting the thousands of tourists your poor visitor center sees every day, who are grumpy summer is ending and grumpy they’re in a national park instead of Paris but are making themselves pretend they like the outdoors because that’s the American Summer Experience. Or something.
There are quite a few hikes you want to do. The first one starts a 15 min drive away, but it’s a long haul: the road is closed forever due to the nearby river choosing vengeance over peace, so it’s 8 miles of former-road followed by 2.5 miles of forest to the forgotten Olympic hot springs. Because you don’t hate yourself, you’ve decided you’d like to bike that first 8 miles instead of walk, and because you have yet to catch the solo-hiking bug, you feel the strange need to do it with someone else.
“Let’s go to the hot springs,” you tell Ashley (right). But it turns out Ashley’s already done it, and the road is actually pretty steep, and renting an e-bike (which you learned about a few hours ago–what a wild concept) is expensive.
No worries, there are a bajillion other hikes you want to do, and the next one suddenly sounds a lot more fun. It’s a 9-mile triangle, 3 miles on each side, with the far side being 3 miles over beach. The main appeal is that on the beach there’s 43 ancient petroglyphs carved onto the rocks by the tribe that once resided there. Some people know where each petroglyph is, but the tribe who carved them doesn’t like giving their locations away due to vandalism, and in any case finding them is half the fun. In other words, it’s a built-in ancient history scavenger hunt.
You can see it in that moment: spending hours looking for petroglyphs before the tide rolls in and makes the headland impassible, followed by an evening of roasting hotdogs by a little bonfire on the sand (your imagination neglected to consider that bonfires are currently banned on the beach). You go so far as to search up data on the weather forecast the night of your day off (cleardarksky.com is the most superior website) and find that it will be a rare clear night. You just bought a full-frame camera that you’ve been dying to try on the night sky. The stars had, quite literally, aligned for the perfect Wednesday night.
You tell Ashley this. She’s along for the ride. Jared is relieved that someone will be with you on your first backpacking trip, as he was apparently worried by your overeager previous (and still simmering) desire to go solo-backpacking through a 23-mile valley when you’ve never backpacked before. You run over to the Wilderness Information Center, get a permit, a bear can, and find a random propane tank in the box of free stuff in the staff room. Ashley has a stove. You call one of the people at the volunteer cache and they give you free reign to grab all the supplies you need. It’s a go.
That night, she cancels.
You look at all your stuff sprawled on the living room floor. You remember there’s a stove at the volunteer cache you didn’t grab. Besides that, you have everything you need.
You decide to go solo.
And that’s how it begins.
It’s after I’m done packing that I hit my first problem:
My pack is too heavy.
I google how to recognize when a pack is too heavy and everything confirms it. I almost can’t breathe when I put it on. Half of my stuff is hooked to the outside of my pack, so it makes sense. What in the world did I put in it, you ask?
A bear can.
(And a camera, but that isn’t up for discussion)
I’m pretty dejected by this point. My roommate Lauren finds me on the ground surrounded by a hurricane of things, looking despondently at the pack that dares betray me. She makes the face she does when she feels bad–a sort of half-smile thing–and silently looks at the pack with me. Solidarity.
Linda, a volunteer for the astronomy program, texts that she’s here to pick me up. It’s 8:30 pm. The astronomy program starts at 9:30 pm. I shove my sad feelings into my not-ranger pants (interns aren’t allowed to wear the actual ranger uniform so I got green cargo pants that look a lot like the ranger uniform) and go to work.
Deux Ex Machina/Conflict Resolution
Naturally, I complain about my dilemma to Linda on the 45-min drive up to Hurricane Ridge, where the program is, and she exclaims that she wished she’d known because she has a ton of backpacking equipment she isn’t using. The main things: she has a one-person tent (as opposed to the two-person tent I borrowed from the volunteer cache), a bear can half the size of mine, and an inflatable sleeping pad and pillow. The amount of space and weight that would free up was enormous, but her stuff is all in storage in a town 20 mins away.
No worries, she says. If I’m willing to come with her at the end of the program–around midnight–she would drive me to the storage unit, drive me back to Port Angeles, and then drive herself back home afterward. All-in-all, it’s about an hour and a half out of her way. She would be getting back home at 2 am. I’m too selfish to put a ton of effort into dissuading her, I really want to go on this trip, but… wow. Some people, you know?
After the program, she takes me to her storage unit and then drives me back home. I repack everything in the morning and guess what? It all fits.
Cheers to new friends and unexpected saviors!
I leave at ~9:30 am and get to Ozette at ~11:30 am. It’s my first time not only backpacking but carrying a pack this heavy. I learned from Ellie down in Kalaloch at the beginning of the summer how to fit a backpack and how to tell whether it’s your correct size and I know instantly this one isn’t. As far as I can tell, it was built for a 6 ft man who had never heard of a waist.
Beggars can’t be choosers–I got this pack from the free stash in the staff room–so I have to make it work, and I do so by tying a knot in the waist strap to make it tight enough to hold onto my hips. I’m pretty sure most men have narrower hips than me, so I honestly don’t know who owned this pack before. This might be why they didn’t want it anymore.
After all that’s said and done, I’m shocked at how manageable it is. Sure, it’s heavy. But it’s heavy in a way that makes my body feel like it gained 60 lbs in fat, not like I’m carrying 60 lbs on my shoulders the way it usually feels at school.
I have mild scoliosis that affects every part of my body in inconvenient ways–my lower spine is twisted inward, making it so my hips are rarely aligned and I have limited mobility in my left leg, causing my knees and ankles to hurt (thankfully now mitigated by insoles); my upper spine is curved to the right, causing limited mobility in both my arms, incredibly sharp left shoulder pain, and occasional pain in my right ribs; meanwhile, I barely have any kind of natural S-shape bend, so I’m lacking the surprising amount of support such a shape affords. I was slightly optimistic because, since learning how to properly wear a backpack, my daypack hasn’t given me any pain. But a whole load of camping equipment?
I can’t begin to describe the freedom I felt, carrying this equipment without pain through the woods. Yes, it was only 3 miles to my campsite. Yes, the trail was relatively flat. But I had everything I needed to survive for two days strapped to my back. I could go anywhere and not rely on anyone. If I can carry this much on my back, what else can I do? What else am I capable of?
After you live with chronic pain for long enough, you resign yourself to it. Even when doctors tell you that you can make changes that mitigate it, there’s a disconnect–you don’t know what it’s like to live without it, or it’s been so long that you can’t remember the feeling, and so the idea of it being gone or even less just doesn’t make sense. And with it, the concept of just how much you could do without it doesn’t register, because you’ve never thought you could do these things, and so you’ve never considered them. You’ve never pictured yourself on a snow-capped mountain, on a death-defying cliff-face, playing a basketball game, running a marathon.
Now? Now I know better. And having felt that freedom for the first time, I can never let it go. I suddenly want to do everything–especially the things I don’t think I’ll like.
I set up camp close–but not too close–to the privy at Cape Alava and have a moment of shame where I can’t find the stakes for my borrowed tent. I pile rocks onto the corners inside because I’m one foot away from open beach and I don’t know what the wind will be like tonight, and it’s only after I’ve gotten the inside of my tent properly covered in dirt that I find the stakes inside my jacket. I redo everything, flop down inside, eat a gas station sandwich, flop down back outside, head to the beach, and start walking south.
(I like to think that my summer here has given me an amazing sense of direction, but in reality it’s probably the fact that, well, it’s hard to forget where west is when you’re looking at the Pacific Ocean from North America)
I’m walking towards Wedding Rocks, which is about a mile south, but I don’t know what Wedding Rocks looks like and I don’t know what a mile feels like. Distance is a nebulous concept to me on the best of days. Why I didn’t take out my phone and open up the NPS app, which has the offline version of the OLYM map I downloaded, I can’t say. Instead I figure “I’ll know it when I see it,” which definitely isn’t true when you’re on the Pacific Coast and the only description you have is “a big pile of rocks.” Anyone who’s been to the Pacific Coast knows that everything is a pile of rocks. I thought sandy shores were a myth until I was a preteen.
I end up walking maybe about half a mile to a particularly big sea stack and think that it looks kind of like a rock someone might have a wedding on, except for the slight problem of it being surrounded entirely by water. I get it in my head that I must only be able to access it, and therefore find petroglyphs, during the negative tide at 6:30 am the next morning, so I promptly give up on finding petroglyphs and sit down on an oddly comfortable rock. I have my camera, binoculars, and the world’s tiniest tripod, so I set up my camera and take some very “mist”-ic photos for a few minutes until the sun-warmed rocks make me too lazy.
Despite the little rocky edge poking at me, this is by far one of the most comfortable perches I’ve ever had. The sun is the temperature of an electric blanket set to medium, there’s no breeze to chill my arms or waft salty fish smells at me, the waves are calm, and I can almost forget about the sea lions that haven’t shut up since before I set up camp. It’s sweeter than a lullaby.
I’m yawning right now just thinking about it (the fact that I’m writing all this in the office and it’s an hour before the end of my shift is obviously irrelevant).
It’s some time before I muster up the curiosity to grab my binoculars and train them on some birds in the far distance that seem to be standing on one leg. My first thought is of course flamingos, except that would require a little more global warming. I eventually ask around and get some potentially more logical possibilities, such as a crane, heron, or stork. Next to them, I find a group of three seals, where one of the seals is mysteriously arched into a crescent shape with its tail and head both arched upwards, which cannot be the least bit comfortable. A baby seal pokes around it, presumably bored and looking irresistibly fluffy.
Finally, two women walk by and I decide to ask where Wedding Rocks is. With their instructions I continue further down the beach, and although there is certainly a very large rock to mark the location, what makes me realize I’ve made it to Wedding Rocks is this staring out at me:
My first petroglyph! I wish I knew how old it is. I’m pretty sure it’s a face, but why is it sideways? Are those feathers on its head? If those are feathers, then what do feathers mean to the tribe that carved them? How does that cultural context change the image? Is this a message, a portrait, both or neither? What alternative purpose might a petroglyph serve?
What about this one?
And why is it positioned high-up, behind but between two large rocks so it has such a nice view of the ocean?
Is it frowning at something? If so, what? Is that something physical, metaphorical, spiritual? If physical, does that physical thing still exist?
On the other side of the rocks, not in its line of sight but below it, is this:
Is this petroglyph exactly what it looks like to the modern observer, a three-masted European ship? Is it and the frowning person connected? Are their positions relative to each other significant? Which rocks are in their original places and which have been moved by storms, waves, people?
Below are the rest of the petroglyphs I saw. Click on one to reveal the image in full-size and quality!
*Notice that two of the petroglyphs are on adjacent rocks and are of similar subjects. I suspect these are meant to be together, so I’ll only count them as one.
In the end, I only found 8. A far cry from 43! Unfortunately, I can’t say I found the orca family or the whale (notice how the rock the whale is on is shaped like a whale!) on my own, as I was directed there by someone also searching. It honestly surprises me how annoyed I felt being given the ‘answers’ of their locations. It was like a scavenger hunt and scavenger hunts are always more fun in teams, but it was also… something else. I don’t want to be told the answers just to mark the location off in my head like a checklist. I want to stumble across each one unsuspectingly. Maybe I just really like surprises.
Another hiker tried to show me a chart of what each petroglyph looks like and I honestly can’t think of anything I’d like less. If there’s anything I learned from my anthropology classes, it’s that the shape itself is only half the picture–where and how it’s drawn is just as important.
One question I would like answered perhaps more than anything is why here? Wedding Rocks is one of two locations (I believe the other location also has petroglyphs) in the Ozette that’s impassable at high tide. Was that a deliberate choice? Or were there many more in equal numbers scattered along the beach that just haven’t survived the test of time? If so, why did these ones survive instead? It’s notable to me that the site of the Ozette Village where so many amazing artifacts were excavated is north of Wedding Rocks, far enough north to not be an easy or convenient walk. Was there another village closer, once? If not, that makes this location even more purposeful.
It’s possible many of these questions already have answers. I bet I could find some via a Google search. But I like wondering more than I like answering, so I think I’ll leave the questions here, all bundled up in my head, to turn back to when I feel wistful.
Finally, the universe
I finished the day with pictures of the sunset and, more importantly, pictures of the night. I spent over a month’s rent (that I’m not paying during this internship thanks to both EFTA and Kristin, the person renting my room in Seattle for the summer) on this camera for the express purpose of night sky photography and the first picture I took right after sunset made me gasp audibly.
That orange you see in this picture (and more clearly in the gallery of photos at the end of this blog) is the center of our galaxy. I knew, in theory, that this is where it was. I pointed it out in so many astronomy programs, especially to anyone who said they were a Saggitarius (to the right I traced Sagittarius–can you see the teapot that makes up most of the constellation in the picture above?). But to the naked-eye, it looks like any other patch of the Milky Way, and not even the most impressive patch. It was my camera that finally allowed me to see the unmistakable evidence of billions of solar systems out there in the deep.
There’s so much you can see in a camera that you can’t see with the naked-eye, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It makes it magical and mysterious, knowing these wonderful things are there and waving hello and the only reason you aren’t waving back is because your biology just never considered how wonderful the ability might be. I only had an hour of the sky, and I didn’t get the north due to the light pollution of Neah Bay, but that hour was more than enough for me. I’m officially addicted.