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TRAVELING IN STYLE : Rhapsody in Green : The Ethereal Beauty of Washington's Olympic Peninsula Is the Perfect Place to Rekindle a Romance or Fire Up a New One

October 15, 1995|Tim Appelo | Pacific Northwest native Tim Appelo, a former senior writer at Entertainment Weekly, is the film critic of the Portland Oregonian. and

A month into freshman year at Portland's Reed College in 1974, my life was a lost cause. Frank Lloyd, my lab rat in Intro Psych, had just bloodied my thumb and sent my grade-point average plummeting. (We were graded on how fast our rodent learned to press a bar to get food pellets; Frank Lloyd was a punk nihilist.)

Worse, my girlfriend, a student of abstract sculpture and the great-great-granddaughter of Brigham Young, had just dumped me for an upperclassman. I couldn't understand. Hadn't she and I bonded for life on the sands of the Oregon coast at a site so spectacular it was immortalized on the cover of the Rand McNally Road Atlas?

Inconsolable over the Sculptress and lacking Frank Lloyd's principled refusal to play the game of positive reinforcement, I spent the next decade courting my next sweetheart, the Musician. She and I soon found a beach of our own: the equally picturesque, still-more-remote strands of the Olympic Peninsula, in the extreme northwest corner of Washington state.

What a place! Though scarcely farther than Anaheim is from Burbank, the Olympic Peninsula is worlds away from the Seattle megalopolis, which has achieved a daily traffic jam on par with L.A.'s.

Hold out your left hand, palm up, fold your fingers into a fist and extend your thumb slightly. You're looking at a rough map of Washington. Your thumb represents the Olympic Peninsula. Along the interior are the Olympics, crowned by 7,965-foot Mt. Olympus. Mild clouds borne by the Japanese current are lifted by the Olympics, creating a rain forest on the western side of the peninsula, the only one in the contiguous United States. To the north, in the rain shadow of the mountains, is a semi-desert where cacti sometimes grow.

You can't simply drive across this busy ecosystem. To get from Seattle to the 57-mile-long beach on the peninsula's west coast, you must make a day's circumnavigation around the interior mountains on U.S. 101. But once there, you will find a seascape pristine enough to leave even the loquacious Frasier, the sitcom Seattleite, speechless.

The mountains and seemingly endless beach form one of the most unspoiled, even otherworldly, shores on the West Coast. Each spring, trees torn from the soil by the snowmelt-swollen mountain rivers are methodically turned on the waters' lathe and deposited by the thousands, stripped of bark, on the beach. Bleached white by the sun, they look like pickup sticks fashioned for giants.

Between the beach on the west and Mt. Olympus in the center lie the rain forests of the peninsula's river valleys--the Hoh, the Queets, the Quinalt. They're like a particularly luxe hallucination: Draperies of mosses drip from trees as if poured from vats on high and arrested in mid-melt. There's an art group on the peninsula that calls itself the Messy Palette Art League, and evidently the artist of the rain forest is a member in good standing.

Each tree--some 1,000 years old--is said to exert the cooling power of five air conditioners, and the emerald canopy is so thick that in some places the snows of midwinter never touch the ground. If you seize the chance to kiss a close acquaintance in such a setting, I can say from personal experience that you are unlikely to get a slap in the face.

Alas, the Musician composed a finale to our relationship a while after our Olympic idyll. A few years went by. Then, by improbable chance, I collided with my first love, the Sculptress. She and I connected as we had failed to do as inept teen-agers at Reed. And where do you suppose we went to celebrate our renewed romance? The Olympic Peninsula, of course--in the same 1980 Honda Civic in which I'd toured the coast before. After 238,000 miles, that car is still purring. (My advice: Always change the oil every 1,500 miles, and never bitterly write off an ex-girlfriend, no matter how many miles have gone by. You never know.)

Though much of the peninsula's interior and the upper third of its west coast are under the protective aegis of the Olympic National Park, it's necessary to drive through a profusion of clear-cut forests along the peripheries to get to them. The clear-cuts, the legacy of Washington's logging-friendly legislators, aren't exactly uplifting, but once you enter the park there are still a million-odd acres of forest primeval in which to conduct a romantic rapprochement.

The thing about a rain forest, though, is that it rains. Buckets. Like, 140 inches a year in some sodden spots. Some folks just don rain gear and bliss out on the drizzle, but for some Olympic visitors this may be too much of a good thing. On the other hand, in late autumn the first frost has probably killed off the mosquitoes that bedevil summer tourists, the hordes of RV campers have decamped, and the truly serious Noah-esque downpours of midwinter haven't arrived. Establishments booked solid in summer months--the Kalaloch Lodge, for example, on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific between the Queets and Hoh valleys--are eager for business.

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