Friday, October 31, 2008

Renewal and Pain in Aberdeen

At the end of our anniversary trip, Camille surprised me with a flight up to Washington to visit my best friend and brother in all but blood, Jeff. He and Tina and their two girls met me at SeaTac, just outside the terminal. Natalie (4) spotted me first, and ran over to give me a big hug. Alanna (2), once she saw it was safe, decided to imitate big sister. Arms spread, she ran directly into my legs -- and headbutted me in the balls. Thankfully, there was zero force behind the collision, else Tina would have had to explain while Unca Matt was writhing on the airport floor.
Jeff is an avid hiker. And if you lived as close as they do to the Olympic National Forest, with its miles and miles of crisscrossing trails through old growth rain forests and knife-edged peaks, you would be as well. He also lives a barefoot lifestyle, and does these hikes -- over dry streambeds and fields of gravel -- sans shoes. He's always arranged a progressively more difficult hike when I visit. This time, we'd be trekking up the most oddly-named mountain in the Olympics, Colonel Bob. The Colonel was a strenuous, five-star hike, an 8-mile round trip up switchbacks at a near 45-degree incline. Tina said the hike would kill me. It didn't, but the next day I was wishing it had.
. Captain Murder McCrazy-Hike
We started up the trail late in the morning, and ascended slowly but steadily all afternoon. It was a perfect day for a hike, nice and cool and overcast. As we climbed, the maples went from gold to orange and crimson, in stark contrast to the deep gray-green of the douglas firs and hemlock. A couple of miles up, we ran into a few late-season mountain hucklberry bushes in full bloom. Haven't had wild huckleberries ever, far as I can remember. The pace was backbreaking and exhausting, but I managed to keep up with Jeff for most of it. Not gonna let the barefoot monk outpace me.
About a half-mile from the summit, with Colonel Bob's rocky back in sight. we had to stop. We were running out of daylight -- we still had a bout two hours worth, but the final push would put us on the summit right as the sun disappeared. And if we hadn't made it back to Moonshine Flats -- an open flat break in the climb, maybe a mile-wide -- we would lose the trail back down the mountain. So we turned around. And that's where the pain really began. On the way up, my legs hurt, but it was that good, "you're getting exercise" kind of hurt. On the way down, it was that bad, stabbing "your legs are broken, kill me now, there is no God" kind of pain.
The view from about as high as we got
We made it past Moonshine Flats before sundown. The sun finally disappeared after we'd crossed the scree field and plunged back into the forest. And then it got dark. We walked the final two miles in near-total darkness. Once we passed Pete's Creek, it was inky-dark, and we brought out the flashlights. We got back to the car at about a quarter to eight, having just spent the last nine hours working out. The next day, my legs were in so much pain that I couldn't walk a downward slope without bracing myself.

And the next day we went out with the family. To a creamery to get some cheese, a smokehouse to get some sausage, and a farm to get some preserves. I picked out jars of apple butter and pumpkin butter for Camille. Those didn't make it through security -- had to check the bag. And it's a good thing, too, because if the TSA hadn't stopped me, I might have had access to my Terrorist Apple Butter on the plane. Good on you, Homeland Security.

We finished the day on Washaway Beach, south of Aberdeen on the Washington 101. It's the most rapidly-eroding spot on the Pacific Coast. The currents circling out of Willapa Bay keep eating away the coast of Cape Shoalwater; the beach has lost about two miles of land since the 1920s. I'd been there with Jeff before, to a spot where the highway juts out and abruptly ends, pointing out towards the ocean. It was a surreal spot, the literal place where the sidewalk (highway) ends. That point was gone on this visit -- the beach lost another 150 feet or so in a bad winter storm last year. We parked next to the "Danger: Eroding Beach and Tumbling Boulders" sign and picked our way down to the beach.

Best warning sign ever

Out on the beach, we spotted foundations of old homes, plumbing sticking up from the surf in several places. Found a crushed van buried in sand. A whale's spine, with vertebrae as big as dinner plates. The cab of a truck, the only part of it above the water, looking out towards the sea. And that's where my camera died, running around snapping pics. Jeff and I finished the night around a campfire in his back yard. My clothes came away smelling of soot and pine needles.

Cab of an abandoned truck on Washaway Beach

Jeff drove me to my folks' the next day. They'd just finished a service with some members of the Bach Choir, and were having a little get-together. Mom knew I was coming; Dad didn't, and it was a delightful surprise. My last few hours in Washington we spent on the deck, laughing and telling stories, with Mount Rainier in full view (he hides most days). Dad dropped me at the airport later, after a hour of dedicated Vancil Man time. A better way to finish the trip, I can't think of.

This unexpected trip was exactly what I needed. Relaxing it wasn't, not exactly. I'd describe it as centering, focusing. By the time it was over, I was ready to come back, ready to start up work again. It felt more like a pilgrimage than a vacation, a visit to a site of renewal. And I came away feeling refreshed, crippled, and sooty.

Thank you Jeff, thank you Tina, thank you Natalie and Alanna. Thank you Camille for setting this up, and Mom and Dad. And most of all, thank you Richard for giving me time with my best friend, in my favorite place in the world. I love you all.

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