The Pacific Northwest – it’s difficult to explain how much I had anticipated going there, how many photos I had swooned over on Instagram of grand snowy mountain peaks and glacial mirror lakes; of sparkling sunsets on wild coastlines and dense rainforests filled with a thousand shades of green. It didn’t matter that it was renowned for being overcast and drizzly all year round – I’m English, I’m used to that – I just had to go there, I had to. Have you ever felt like a place is calling you? It becomes an obsession that your mind cannot shake off. The Pacific Northwest was that for me, for a long time. And so I had to go.
Actually, it didn’t end up being the easiest thing to get there. Initially I had planned to fly to Vancouver and spend a few days in the Canadian mountains before making my way south, but as fate (or ignorance) had it I left my bank card in a cash machine somewhere in San Diego, and so I had to stay in Los Angeles a little while longer. It also wasn’t easy for me to say goodbye to California, for a multitude of reasons. But after clambering ungracefully over a few hurdles (metaphorically), drying away too may nights worth of tears (literally) and dragging a fully-loaded North Face duffel bag through Seattle-Tacoma Airport, I was finally there. This was it. It’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey – or something equally cliché, but completely valid.
I wandered around Seattle for a couple of days, doing all the touristy things you have to do like waiting for the sun to set up the Space Needle, reading a book in Gasworks Park, sitting in coffee shops watching the world go by – I did that one a lot. I climbed the stairs to the top of the Public Library, wandered the halls of the Public Market, took a cheap ferry across to Bainbridge Island and ate ice cream sat on a bench overlooking an idyllic little port. Seattle was lovely, it really was, but I craved mountains and silence – I needed it.
My hire car was a white Prius I named Patty. It was a girls’ trip, Patty and I. First stop: Mount Rainier National Park – to the mountains. By this point, I had become obsessed with a Podcast series named Serial. I’d highly recommend listening to podcasts if you’re travelling alone – though I’m not sure I’d recommend a murder trial to every female solo traveller… It worked for me, anyhow. Memories of driving into Mount Rainier National Park are filled with pine trees and dappled sunlight (and who killed Hae Min Lee); sweeping down the roads catching glimpses of that big, old mountain through the trees. I couldn’t help but gape at her, so tall and mighty yet so very welcoming. It was the way I was starting to feel about all of America; vast and terrifying, yet inviting and warm.
Mount Rainier is a rather iconic mountain that can be seen all the way from Seattle, remaining snow-covered throughout the year. The forests surrounding her are filled with pine: Pacific silver fir, western hemlock, mountain hemlock, Douglas fir, Alaska yellow cedar, and western white pine. I love pine. Just the smell of it is enough to drive me a little wild, skipping and singing and collecting pine cones like I’m five years old again.
I found a hike I knew I wanted to do, ascending through the forest to what are supposed to be some of the best mountain views. Having grown up in a country with no particularly dangerous animals, in America I became terrified of bears. As a result, I often didn’t carry much food. Or if I did, it was small cereal bars I could eat as quickly as possible, stuffing into my face all in one go so no food scents followed me around. I’m not sure if there is any logic behind this, but that’s what I did. I also used to take heavy, stomping footsteps on the trail – they say you need to be loud to scare the bears away. Perhaps this is a Parent Trap-esque myth, but it settled my mind a little anyhow.
Up through the trees my hiking boots carried me. Up to the top of the treeline, looking out onto a sea of pine; I was in my heaven. I remember thinking the trees were like a peaceful army standing in order. But not one tree is the same; the shade of their leaves or the texture of their bark. Each is unique and nature is extraordinary. Once at the top of this seemingly never-ending forest, Mount Rainier comes into sight. That view of a tree-framed mountain will always come to the forefront my mind whenever I think of this place.
I remember the hike was virtually deserted, I saw only two or three other hikers over three hours or so. I skipped onto fallen trees and sang loudly (something else I did to scare away the bears), then I realised I had run out of food and practically ran down the mountain and straight to the little wooden food-hut where I bought some Twinkies, sat on the trunk of my car, kicked off my boots and shovelled that creamy, golden-syrupy goodness into my mouth. In America, I was addicted to pine trees and Twinkies.
After a night up on the Puget Sound, I made my way towards the Olympic Peninsula. I knew exactly where my first destination would be, just not exactly how to get there – well, not at all really. All I had was an Instagram photo and a dropped pin on Google Maps, and the knowledge that the place I was so adamant to visit was technically illegal (being located on private property)… Vance Creek Bridge, also known as #ThatPNWBridge, is an abandoned railway viaduct high above a densely forested valley, 347ft high to be exact. And that’s 347ft of pure fear and wobbly knees. I didn’t make it very far across, probably less than a quarter of the way. Enough to have to crawl back to safety, but to have felt the thrill so many people seek by going there – well, that and to get the Instagram photo anyway. Which I also did, naturally.
When packing for this trip, I had expected rain and wind, grey days and dark nights – something like England. As a result, my duffel was loaded with hats and gloves, probably four jumpers, two coats and far too many pairs of woolly socks. What did I get instead? 100 degree weather! It was 100 degrees every. single. day when I was in Seattle, and Mr. Blue Sky was adamant to stay as long as possible. “I only have two t-shirts”, I told him, as a wisp of cloud block the sun for 0.1 seconds.
Fortunately I didn’t care that every day was a question of whether to wear the plain white t-shirt or the other plain white t-shirt with Levi’s branded on the front. Oh the joys of solo travel. I’m saying this now, because the next place I headed was Lake Cushman and I just remember how hot it was and how much I craved to jump into that deep, blue water. Instead, I sat on the banks of the lake, nestled between pine trees, looking across to the quiet, green hills and at the gently lapping blue beneath me. It was stunningly peaceful, and for a moment I remember thinking that no one in the whole world knew where I was right then. I was invisible… but for the trees watching over me. Exhilaratingly and terrifyingly alone.
Next stop was Port Angeles, to load up on groceries and pay a visit to the sandwich bar in Safeway – where I’d recently discovered I could get a great chicken-mozzarella-pesto sandwich on focaccia for something like $3. Safe to say it revolutionised my American road trip experience. Then I was heading into Olympic National Park, with high hopes and even higher (post-sandwich) spirits.
The day was still clear blue as I drove the winding road up to Hurricane Ridge. Windows down, Carole King, pine upon pine and the Olympic Mountain range framed in my window. This was bliss. Pure, mountainous bliss. And it only got better, it always gets better when you swap your driving shoes for walking boots and set out on a trail. This particular walk is one I won’t forget. The kind of scenery you think only exists in the imagined world of Walt Disney; snow-capped peaks and rich, green forest, deer grazing on lush grassy meadows and butterflies fluttering in fields of wild flowers. Yes, really. The cartoons of my childhood transformed into something resembling real-life, or the alternate reality I was currently living while on the road, anyhow.
That evening I drove along the shores of Lake Crescent and arrived at camp as light leaked through the trees, creating glowing ferns and sparkling mosses. A golden haven of flora and fauna; the place I got to pitch my tent and eat my dinner, lounging under the green canvas of my tent as the soft yellow hues grew dimmer and darkness descended. Until tomorrow. The Pacific Northwest was already exceeding every expectation.