Washington State and Vancouver
This has been a summer of difficult plane flights, ours included. Of course our flight got rescheduled like so many others. A one-hour layover became four hours, making for a twelve hour trip from Baltimore to Seattle including the driving. What's more, the layover made us late enough that the hotel shuttle didn't run (although it was advertised as "all day" meaning, apparently, about two-thirds of a day). Our flight savings from an off-hours trip were eaten by the taxi fare to the hotel.
The hotel gave us the wrong-sized bed (although we had paid extra for a king bed) and that needed straightened out at two a.m.. There were other hotel problems, too, but they were all small ones. We weren't staying except to wake up and get our rental car.
The rental car pickup went well (yay, Alamo) and we hit the road at rush hour but we were headed out of town, the right direction to take. In a couple hours, we arrived in Sequim. The place is pronounced “squim” by locals as far as we heard. The town is a nice one, too, with good people and enough choices about things to do. Our AirBNB hosts were friendly and had a handful of recommendations for us. One of them was to eat at the Oasis. It didn't look like much on the outside and, inside, was clearly a local hang-out with pool tables and a bar, but the food was on target. We would recommend it.
On top of the good food, the owner saw us struggling to pack up our leftovers. He swung by to help. He proved to be friendly and interested in our opinions. Then he said,
"I couldn't help noticing you two with maps and guides to Sequim. Are you thinking of hiking in the Olympic park?"
"So you like nature trails? How do you feel about mountains?"
"We say yes to both," I laughed. His smile broadened. He relaxed and spread his arms.
"Okay, there's kind of a local secret." His head bobbed with a nod. "It's the Blue Mountain trail. It's part of the park system but hardly anyone knows about it."
"To get there, just get on Deer Park road headed west and keep going." He paused to think. "Now, it's a pretty long drive. The road narrows. And it's a long ways up. But when you get to the top, you can see the Cascades. It's pretty amazing. Most folks say it's worth it."
I glanced at Diane. She was smiling, chin resting on her hands. "I think we're sold."
Instead of heading to Olympic National Park in the morning, we turned northwest and started our drive up Blue Mountain.
First, Deer Park road started as a regular two-lane strip of asphalt for a couple miles. Then it narrowed and lost its divider line. A half mile later, it turned into a 'road,' if you know what I mean, a pressing of dirt and gravel about wide enough for a car and a half. Ruts and drainage rivulets pitted the surface. We hadn't even started up the mountain yet. I didn't want to meet another car on this trailway coming around a turn with trees on either side. My mind drifted back to the Oasis owner saying the phrase 'local secret.' That gave me hope.
Soon, the grade of gravel sloped upward. In places, it swept straight skyward. In others, it twisted horizontally around switchbacks. Diane grabbed my shoulder as the trees parted for a moment and she caught a glimpse of the path ahead. She knew what was coming, now. The road was turning into a roller coaster, the kind that slant toward the ground as if they're going to throw you. In this case, the slopes of the road off led sheer cliffs. You wouldn't want to be in a car that skidded. There was no rail, no border of any sort, just dirt that dribbled away from the tires and bounced down the slopes into the treetops a hundred feet down. Plus the road was eroding and trying to lead the car downward.
"Local secret," I said. Diane giggled nervously. The back right tire spit gravel around a turn and tried to slip off the cliff. I steered into the other half of the tilted road.
"What if someone's coming the other way?" she said.
"Fuck 'em." I meant it wholeheartedly. We weren't getting onto the fallen-away side for sure.
The mountain pass deserved its designation as an open secret. Technically, it would take us to part of the park system but you wouldn’t want many people to know. You don’t want to meet other cars. Parts of the switchbacks felt like taking a truck up onto an abandoned railroad bridge. You can sense the unsteadiness of things falling apart under you and there's a gut sensation you're not supposed to be there.
We had an hour to discuss how many people we know would not be allowed to drive up this road. We eliminated all the people who wouldn’t want to, first, and that was a good handful. And we added more. Not everyone would enjoy an hour of crumbling switchbacks or the prospect of a local headline like “tourist dummies drive off the side of a mountain.”
We never met an opposing car on the way up.
At the top, oh, even before the top, Diane gasped. As we climbed out of the treeline, she could see the Cascades. We were looking down on the clouds, down at many of the neighboring mountains. Directly across from us, the peaks were capped with snow. In July. Finally, after an hour of delicate switchbacks, the trail of gravel and ash came to an end in a parking lot big enough for eight cars. It was empty. This place was so inaccessible that we were the only ones. A glance up the slopes showed we were no more than forty feet from the southern peak, maybe two hundred feet from the northern one. If it was possible to climb, I knew I was going to do it.
Immediately, we hit an obstacle. As we parked, a white-tailed mountain deer stepped over to the edge of the lot. It spent about five minutes blinking at us and trying to will us out of existence. It was not intimidated. It seemed to be thinking about chasing us off.
But I got out. Diane got out.
We had come to hike and we persisted. The mountain deer stopped inching forward and started moving sideways. After a minute, it gave up and cantered downslope. We explored the south peak. As we descended from the southern heights, the rest of the deer herd came down from the north. The largest deer paused to stare us down for a while but it, too, gave up and conceded the frozen slopes to us stupid humans.
That left the north peak to us and we started exploring it. There were animal trails, human trails, and plenty of tracks to indicate that both were in use by the deer. We discovered a dozen varieties of mountain flowers. Higher up, I noticed cat tracks. The paws looked too big for a house cat and too small for a cougar.
"Is there anything for a cat this size to eat?" I asked Diane after pointing out the tracks.
"I saw plenty of squirrels and chipmunks on the drive up."
"Oh, I didn't notice."
"I'll bet you didn't." She rolled her eyes about the state of the road. "Anyway, there was a chipmunk near the top of a tree just behind you a few minutes ago. Sorry I didn't point it out. But you know, you've seen chipmunks before."
We climbed over snowbanks where they still blocked the trails. At one point, Diane had to battle vertigo. We gazed down a natural, green half-pipe the size of a soccer field carved into the north face. Only the fact that I'd climbed to the top of the peak forced her to steady herself and march on. From the top, we looked down at the clouds together. Diane pointed out several different, small herds of mountain deer all with the same light brown shade of fur and off-white tail.
During our hour of hiking, we never saw anyone else on the mountain or a car below us trying to drive up along the switchbacks below. We did see a weather station on the east side of the Blue, though. We witnessed fallen branches that had been moved and others signs of trail repairs made by the forest rangers, wherever they were.
A tiny songbird chattered to us on the way down.
As we descended, Diane noticed a single, muddy print in the trail that was neither a deer nor a wildcat. It had pointed claws like a dog. No dogs are permitted on Blue Mountain. Park staff posted signs about it all around. I don’t know if there are mountain canids aside from wolves, but it could not have been a very big wolf and it seemed to be travelling alone so a dog violation seems more likely.
We paused at the car to sigh once more at the views. I removed my jacket.
On the way down, we met a car. The driver, a twenty-something man gawked at me in disbelief. The young woman next to him seemed fit and cheerful, but tired. The driver looked thin himself, in good shape, dressed for hiking, pale, and exhausted by his drive. I wanted to roll down my window and yell, "Keep going! You won't believe this but it's worth it!" Instead, I had to settle for driving my car up against the edge of the mountain and waving to him as he waved to me, our hands a few inches apart as he drove onward.