My dad spent many years of his youth hitchhiking, train hopping, and sleeping in open fields. He would occasionally impart travel advice. "Boys," he said, "when I was traveling, there were a number of bad situations where I got out of it by hitting someone very hard in the head."
"Really?" my brother asked. "How often?"
"Maybe 18 percent. Twenty."
"Yeah, one time we were sleeping on a beach with some other hoboes, and this guy was hassling my friend Pete, so I hit him in the neck with a piece of driftwood."
As you can imagine, I always daydreamed about a life in which I'd have adventure stories to rival my dad's. His stories always sounded like weird shreds from other universes. Like the truck driver who took him on a shortcut through Louisiana swamps once at midnight, keeping up a low incantation that went something like "We're goin' past Mars, goin' past Venus, we're leavin' the whole universe behind..." Or the lady who just got out of prison and was going "somewhere" with a gun and a dozen bags of sunflower seeds and for whatever reason decided to pick up a hitchhiker. Or the couple in a Ford Pinto with hand-drawn racing decals and stripes drawn in black magic marker whose wheel fell off while the car was in motion, to which the driver responded by calmly telling Dad that his "pit crew would take care of it." The car's number was "420," which dad thought was an awful high number for a race car. (I know, I promised never to speak of these—SORRY, DAD.)
I guess it's because of my dad that I find most travel guides completely useless, because they don't prepare you for these sorts of scenarios. They tell you where to find clamshells the size of your hand. What they don't tell you is how to get chased out of a bungalow at midnight, naked, pursued by an angry patriarch.
It is my belief that readers of The Stranger need such instruction—maybe a couple learned-the-hard-way tips, courtesy of yours truly, but mostly just a shove in the right direction. The right direction, as far as I'm concerned, is the rugged, underplanned, "Who the fuck knows?" direction. Considering it's absurdly easy to just drive somewhere weird on the weekend as a form of entertainment, there's really no excuse not to. I drove to five weird, wonderful places within the state of Washington recently, planned almost nothing ahead of time, spent very little money, and had a really excellent time. If you're willing to spend more money than I did, you could have an even more excellent-y time. Travel for me is most fun if it's low-expectation and dirty and off-the-grid—but don't worry, if you prefer a standard of living above that of apes or weevils, just fire up the old internet and find a nice B&B with "nice meals" and "beds." I found a few here and there for you, and even stayed in one in Walla Walla, but I heartily encourage you to embrace the adventure and find your own. The only real rules are (1) be flexible, and (2) ask the locals. Oh yeah, and (3) buy a Discover Pass. Used to be you didn't need a Discover Pass for the right to park on all state lands, but then the legislature decided state parks should have no taxpayer funding, so be a bro and toss them the 30 bucks.
Here, without further ado, are some trips I took which will inspire you to either grab a rucksack and hit the road like a latter-day beat poet, or never leave your house again.
My buddy Ian studied fluvial geomorphology, which is really fun to say, and so for our Port Townsend adventure he suggested we go by way of Deception Pass to see Puget Sound tidewaters swirling around as they mix with the Strait of Juan de Fuca. To get to Deception Pass, we drove north on I-5 from Seattle and had breakfast and coffee in Mount Vernon at Ristretto (416 S First St, 360-336-0951), which had a killer bagel sandwich. Then we kept pressing on toward Anacortes on Highway 20 and turned left at the big "Port Townsend Ferry" sign.
Deception Pass, the strait separating Fidalgo Island from Whidbey Island, apparently gets its name from tricking the fuck out of Joseph Whidbey. "Sorry, Captain Vancouver," he said, "I mapped this as a peninsula, but there's a little pass in between these landmasses! They're totally islands!" And then George Vancouver shook his fists at the sky-gods (i.e., God) and cursed. "DECEPTION PAAAAAAASSSSSSS!!!!"
Anyway, spanning the pass is a bridge that belongs somewhere in Middle-Earth. We got out of the car and walked the length of the bridge and saw some cool pipes wrapped in wood planks, I guess to protect the pipes from falling trees/dingoes. We saw a cliff face whose patterns of fungus and shadow made it look like a drawing out of one of those Magic Eye books, and we kept crossing our eyes to see if a "666" or something would loom out in 3-D block letters. Ian pointed out where the ebb tide gets squashed between the two islands and makes a bunch of enormous temporary whirlpools. If you want to see this, you have to go at peak ebb time, and in order to figure out peak ebb time you no longer have to call the coast guard; just visit your local library to look up tide tables on the "internet."
We drove the rest of Whidbey Island down to Coupeville, where we saw gargantuan heaps of driftwood on the beach next to the dock. After a very pleasant foggy ride (about $12 on WSDOT Ferries), we hopped off and headed for the Port Townsend Brewing Company (330 10th St, 360-385-9967), whose bar looks like the inside of a tree. A crusty sea captain and his Aussie friend sat together working on a crossword ("Five letters for drunk," the sea captain said), and Ian and I introduced ourselves and asked about somewhere nice to go hike and camp. The captain, who said his name was Frank the Tank, instructed us to visit some abandoned military bunkers. Our bartender chimed in that we should visit a "nude beach at the end of the world," and she drew us a map.
We loaded up Ian's trusty Honda Insight, nicknamed Pandora (for it is full of evil), and made for the nude beach. We navigated to the end of a one-lane road, to a dirt circle with concrete roadblocks to prevent wayward drivers from falling off the cliff. It was hella windy. We could see the trees flailing. We had to yell to talk to each other. A matted-grass path followed the cliff side and continued almost straight down the clay slope—someone thoughtful (and naked, I guess) had tied a line from the top tree all the way down to the beach. I bit my camera strap between my teeth and rappelled down. It was all clay, mud, and yet: no naked people. (Visit nudehiker.blogspot.com for a directory of actual nude beaches in the PNW and pictures of naked guys with backpacks! That particular hiker recommends Olympic Hot Springs for a fun and natural time!)
So then we took Frank the Tank's advice about the abandoned military bunkers, but not before we hit the hardware store. After acquiring some solid flashlights, we made for the bunkers. After a brief hike up a field and through a forest, we came to Battery Kinzie, a huge complex with rusted iron doors locked with an arcane mechanism (probably used to keep out ghosts or gnomes).
What followed was two hours of the Hardy Boys giggling around in empty corridors and dark concrete rooms where our boys in uniform had slept, stored artillery, or eaten soldier gruel defending America from angry Canadians around 1912. We saw elevator shafts and tunnels and black widow spiders that built their nests in torn-out fuse boxes. We entered narrow passageways full of graffiti and dirt and broken glass. It felt like Rivendell, if Rivendell were also a prison. Then we found a nice grassy spot on top of the battery and camped. I don't think you're allowed to camp here, but we did it anyway. It was cold, and we hunched inside the tent and ate bitter chocolate and drank whiskey from a tin cup.
Also, the town was really nice. Totally Victorian. You should check that out, too, I guess.
Neah Bay is the end of the world. The tip of America. The northwesternmost spot on the West Coast. Where dinosaurs used to crush pathetic human underlings.
On our way there, during a coffee stop in Tacoma, an old guy noticed my camera at a cafe, and produced two books cataloging the work of one Darius Kinsey, who was the Indiana Jones of the Pacific Northwest. Kinsey visited logging camps around the turn of the 20th century and took spectacular pictures of the loggers and the logs—trees wider than your dad and older than Jesus. Super-giganto-enormo trees. Wooooooooo.
Anyways, Highway 101 wraps around the Olympic Peninsula, starting in Olympia (duh) and skirting the Pacific all the way to San Diego. We started up in Port Townsend, but you can definitely make the entire 330-mile state loop and check that one off the ol' bucket list. I slipped into a catatonic state watching the Pacific beaches. Angular boulders. Weird tide-pool creatures. Beaches the color of dog.
Important dietary side note: If you love terrible diner food, which is often great in its way, you can stop at any restaurant in any town you find along 101. We instead decided to "rough it" and packed elk jerky, a fancy loaf of raisin bread, and organic white cheddar from a co-op. We were quite happy with our choices.
On the northern side of the peninsula, we broke away from 101 to follow the 112 toward Neah Bay. As we entered the Makah reservation, we saw little signs, hand- illustrated, bearing singsong messages like "stay ALIVE don't drink and DRIVE." These signs could be found every 30 seconds of driving, and the collective effect was something like seeing a cute little girl in a pink Hello Kitty raincoat waving by the side of the road, and when you roll down the window to hear her, she leans over, cups her hand to her mouth, and yells, "METH IS DEATH!!!!" It made us uncomfortable.
The 112 meanders out of town and into a sloping forest road that terminates at a dirty trailhead. This trail was about a half mile and would take us to the northwest corner of the peninsula (and thus the furthest northwest point in Washington State, and thus also in CONTIGUOUS AMERICA WOOOOOO). The trail would require moderate exertion. I know this because we read the warning at the trailhead that said as much. The further we got, the more exerting it became. We walked. It got more exertive. We kept walking. It got still more exertive. Finally, we were so tired we had to stop exerting and look at the scenery. Progressively more breathtaking forms of cancer had warped the trees to the point where they less resembled "trees" than "hideous alien wood golems."
We kept walking. The trail became a wooden boardwalk, which led down to a viewing platform full of bored tourists and signs that nobody was reading, signs that probably nobody ever has read. It's hard to focus on reading signs when the view is so majestic. There really is no other word for it. We were standing on the northwesternmost point of America watching waves slam into big fucked-up caves beneath us. The entire country was behind us in the most literal way possible.
Afterward we tooled around the entire Olympic Peninsula. The trip was enormously beautiful and would be enormously boring for you to read about, so just go do it. There are 10 zillion hikes you can take here and ALL OF THEM are great. Hot springs, climbing, killer nature time. It's just unbelievably beautiful. I have it on some heavy authority (Susan Elderkin of the Washington Trails Association) that during the spring, the Olympic beaches are almost unoccupied, and for a small fee (like $5/person/night) you can camp on the beach. (Sadly, since the Olympic National Park is federal land, a Discover Pass won't help you.)
Then we drove south back to Olympia and went to the Fish Tale Brew Pub for dinner (515 Jefferson St SE, 360-943-3650), where we ate killer fish tacos. If beach camping isn't your thing, even legal beach camping, you should hit up the Olympic Lodge (360-452-2993) in Port Angeles, or the Misty Valley Inn (360-374-9389) in Forks. I crashed on Ian's geofluvial futon (not a euphemism).
As you probably know, to get to Spokane you just drive east on I-90 forever. It is a glorious drive. It contains some spectacular views for spectacularly lazy people who want to see beautiful nature things but don't want to hike or any of that bullshit. Keechelus Lake, which is one-fourth of the way to Spokane from Seattle and which looks like the alpine setting for a Swiss sanatorium, is right next to the fucking road. Halfway to Spokane is the Columbia River and you drive through the Columbcvncncckmnfmk- jyfj—have you seriously not been here?! I'm banging my head on the keyboard here. Do it. Do it before you croak, you miserable bastard. Go there on a really nice day and be reminded that you are a small and weak creature, and that rocks are big. While a friend drove—Bruce, if you must know, father of my friend Heather—I hung out of the window and snapped terrible iPhone pics at 60 fuel-efficient miles per hour. If you're feeling really weird, go check out the Ginkgo Petrified Forest on the west side of the gap. Bunch of cool wildflowers and old trees in cages, and petroglyphs! We had an agenda, though. We had to get to Spokane and pick up Heather and a couple other friends.
Point of historical interest, turtle edition! Stop in Easton after the pass at the Parkside Cafe (2560 W Sparks Rd) to refuel. An ENORMOUS STONE TURTLE wearing a SOMBRERO guards the fireplace! Well, more like he is the fireplace. A turtle made of masonry. This is the famous Turtle Burger Bar, closed and resold many times over its long history as roadside art—and besides, the food is perfectly serviceable.
After picking up our compatriots in Spokane, we drove about an hour outside of town toward Mount Spokane (north on Highway 206, 509-238-2220). We met a dude with some chubby huskies and ate ski nachos with that acrid cheese everyone loves so dearly. Skiing at Mount Spokane is pretty cheap, too: I spent 50 bucks for rentals and a night-skiing lift ticket and skied until my calves had become cows ("lol!").
The next morning, we went to a coffee shop called Atticus (coffee so strong it could kill a mockingbird [this is not their real slogan, this is just me being dumb]—222 N Howard St, 509-747-0336), to collect insider information about other things we could do in Spokane. Also to drink giant bowls of coffee. The baristas at Atticus, and the retailers at the next-door shop Boo Radley's (a Spokane version of Archie McPhee's), informed us that Spokane is twice cursed. First, some white folks moved into the Spokane lands and invited Chief Qualchan down to the river, then hung him. So, they told me, the Spokane Indians cursed their own land. Second, it is cursed by gypsies. A prominent Gypsy family had $2 million dollars in Gypsy gold illegally seized by the Spokane Police Department, and while they eventually got it all back and sued the city for damages, the young Jimmy Marks stopped his own father's funeral procession, threw open the doors of the hearse, and invited Grover to haunt Spokane forever. So Spokane is cursed by Gypsies and Indians. That was one story we heard.
Also, something about a haunted abortion clinic. Reportedly, a mad doctor around the turn of the century had a secret tunnel leading to an underground lair where he performed illegal abortions to supplement his income.
Oh, and something about a former zoo at Manito Park that apparently had to be shut down after a girl was EATEN by polar bears.
"Holy shit," we all said. "Sounds great!"
For you, dear reader, I tried to find this haunted abortion clinic, but it turns out it's in a house that is occupied and inaccessible and there are no tunnels—if there ever were tunnels, they've been filled in. Manito Park, however, turned out to be glorious, a bunch of lovely paths and a botanical cactus garden, but later research revealed, alas, that nobody had ever been eaten by bears. A girl did get her arm pulled off, but she apparently loved the animals so much she asked that their lives be spared.
At least the view of the river was nice. Head to the second floor of the library and look down.
And as for camping, I seriously recommend going to Riverside State Park to camp at the Bowl and Pitcher Campground (509-465-5064, $23 after May 15). Make sure to call for reservations and directions. Though it is CRUSHED by humans, it looks like Jesus and/or a glacier unrolled a glorious nature-carpet made of boulders and crystal and coniferous trees. Just ignore the RVs. Jesus/a glacier will punish those people in the afterlife.
You know those weird natural male-enhancement pills for sale in gas stations? The ones with names like Triple Gold Zen Male Enhancement with a bunch of questionable herbal inclusions? I figured the only way a wine tour could be better was if I had consumed an under-the-counter boner pill. I do this for you because I love you. It was about $10 in a Cle Elum gas station.
The idea for this particular trip was to pretend we were civilized humans—tour around Eastern Washington, sample fancy wines, stay in a bed and breakfast. Ian and I drove Pandora on I-90 east toward Walla Walla and the rest of wine country. After we got through Snoqualmie Pass, the scenery flattened out to super-American bucolia like green pastures and smiling farmers and their cattle, and windmills rose from the horizon like the mute cyclopean artifacts of an alien civilization, waiting for the radio signal from their overlords to revolt and destroy us. Uh, anyways. We took the scenic route, which means we splintered off from I-90 at the Columbia River (you already know my feelings on this road) and traveled alongside the gorge on Highway 240.
Once you are over the gorge, just keep an eye out for wineries. We would pull off the highway toward whichever "WINERY" billboard caught our eye, and then sample whatever was inside, saying things like, "This one's a trifle oaky." This is a lot of fun. Ginkgo Forest Winery (509-831-6432), for instance, is an indie operation alongside Highway 243, and Mike let us try four really tasty reds for free. (Though the winery has produced several award-winning wines, Mike says, "I have yet to write myself a paycheck." His orchard writes the paychecks. Nice guy.) Another recommendation: Long Shadows Winery (509-526-0905) had wines from several different vineyards and vintners, and charged us $15 to sample eight wines (and they refund your tasting fee if you buy anything).
All the while, I could feel a churning warmth around my crotch. I found I was unable to stop staring at the beautiful women who were pouring our tasting samples, and I felt maybe I needed to have some alone time. Then things got really weird, and the tingling migrated from my crotch to my hands, and then to my shoulders, and then to my head. I petitioned Ian we stop tasting wine and find our bed and breakfast to recoup before hitting downtown Walla Walla.
We checked into A Room With A View (28 Roland Ct) just outside of town. Imagine you could pay a strange woman to be your grandmother for a few nights (two minimum at most places). Eileen, the innkeeper, had lots of little clocks, and gold embellishments, and a tiny white dog named Sassy, and was just a dear. Call 509-529-1194 to rent-a-grandma.
Then we had an unbelievable dinner at Public House 124 (124 E Main St, 509-876-4511). We sat at the chef's bar and watched them concoct row after row of INCREDIBLE food. Ian got a Pub Burger, a bacon cheeseburger that came with pickled onion and arugula on ciabatta and just KILLED IT. I got mushroom-stuffed quail with a side of bacon. There were at least four good-looking restaurants on Main Street. (Ask your grandma for recommendations.) Then we met some locals, and they took us around to Vintage Cellars Wine Bar (10 N Second Ave, 509-529-9340) and Sapolil Cellars (15 East Main St, 509-520-5258), both of which had hoppin' house bands and were a total blast. I expected this particular trip would be a weird upper-class tour of Eastern Washington, and instead I day-drank a lot of wine and danced and had a fabulous dinner and took non-FDA-approved pills. In the morning, after a civilized breakfast of German pancakes and scrambled eggs, I may have left the empty packaging for the Triple Gold Zen Male Enhancement Pill under a pile of sheets and let Eileen draw her own conclusions.
We went by car to Orcas Island— hopped on the ferry from Anacortes direct to Orcas (about $45). Although, if you have a hundred bucks to burn, for the love of God, take a seaplane. Humans, as a species, can neither fly nor spend their lives upon the open water, and something about telling evolution to suck it leaves you with such primordial joy. Some have reported a slight sexual arousal aboard seaplanes, owing to the thrum of the engine and the visual appeal of pilots' uniforms. Also, on Kenmore Air, sometimes you get to sit in the cockpit. Kenmore Air takes off from Lake Union, and the flight to Orcas Island is an hour.
Once on Orcas, we ate terrible dockside fried fish and drove through Eastsound— the local hamlet on the way to the park, which looked like it had a couple cool galleries, bookstores, and restaurants—and then into Moran State Park, past the "Environmental Learning Center," which through some cruel twist of irony was the only area where heavy machines had logged away a clearing. Several cool trails sprouted off the road. We were heading to the top of the island, with the idea of climbing Mount Constitution, although it turns out this is absurd: Climbing Mount Constitution involves driving to the top of Mount Constitution. The road takes several switchbacks, your car whines into lower and lower gears, and you can see progressively farther into the sky and the clouds and wow is that like a bird and holy shit those are real mountains and nature is ALL OVER US WE ARE WEAK AND FRAGILE APES (dies).
We climbed the stone watchtower at the top and oohed and aahed and for reals, this view kicks all views in their viewass, please go see it. And then, staggering up the tower, breathless, appeared Ian's cousin Ben, who lives in Salem. They started laughing in surprise, and the two bearded dudes of the PNW explained to me that they see each other maybe annually. "I don't know what you guys are doing," he said—we didn't either—"but you guys are welcome to come down to my campsite for dinner."
We accompanied him to a really gorgeous spot off by a lake—a quiet lump that sloped into the water, dotted with spruce and pine (Mountain Lake Campsite, just off Mount Constitution Rd). We started a fire and roasted bacon on sticks. We drank lake-cooled beer and posed like mountain men. We had no plans, saw no historical sites, learned no things. It was glorious.