I’m sitting in a dingy hotel room in Clallam Bay, across the strait from Canada. I can see the southern coast of Vancouver Island beyond the docks where men anchor boats after a long day in search of Halibut and other big commercial fish. My day started unassuming enough, with a drive up 101 (an amazing road worthy of its own post) towards the northwestern coast of the Olympic Peninsula. I was planning on taking the day off, as it was pouring and I was in serious need of a shower and a warm, dry bed. After securing my room in Sekiu, I decided that seeing the tribal lands of the Makah would be important, and perhaps I could see the coast from the west as well.
I started at the Makah Tribal museum, and I read about the plight of the Makah, which read like the narrative of every North American tribe: White people came, natives died, white people took land, natives died, often horribly. White people forced treaty, tried their best to wipe out culture by forced assimilation of native peoples, who kind of went along, but eventually gave them a well-deserved middle finger. I saw the bones of whale and saw how the people of this land were similar to the people of my land: different fish, different water, same people. Warriors, fighters, survivors.
The woman at the counter and I began talking and she told me that the small tribal community that resides on Neah Bay had lost one of it’s youngest and brightest stars. A kid, only 19, who died while diving for shellfish for food, just a week ago. The community was already reeling from the suicide of a tourist a few weeks back, and then this happens. This community, which consists of a gas station, a minuscule marina, the museum, and a handful of sea-battered houses. So much pain on the shoulders of such a small population.
The boy was a leader at the age of 19. “He had such a voice,” she said, and she played me his singing at a recent tribal dance. She was right, he emitted a power in his voice that seemed to come from the might of the sea itself. He was deeply rooted in his culture and spoke at other tribal councils about the need to preserve hunting and fishing traditions. He was attending university and studying biology, and was known to walk into his classes still smelling of whatever dead, beached sea creature he had just been dissecting. “The professors told him he had to stop doing that,” she smiled.
She said he died out at Cape Flattery, at Hole in the Wall, a dangerous cove at the westernmost point of the contiguous United States. A wave came in and swept him out to sea. There was a trail that led there, she told me, and it was important that I go there. “It’s a spiritual place, you will feel it, I know you will feel it.”
She directed me out of the village, which now looked tired with grief, soaked to the bone, and looking for simple rest. It was raining steadily as I took the sharp curve that put me on the Cape road. I first climbed, then descended the winding two-lane that follows the Sekiu River. Great, white trees tunneled the road, and jade-green clubmoss clung to bare, skeletal branches that still awaited a Spring awakening. Further back I saw the ever-present Douglas Fir trees towering in the temperate, rain-drenched hills. The road began to climb again towards the trailhead, the rain continued to fall.
At the trailhead, I saw few cars, which wasn’t a surprise on a Monday like this at the end of the country. This really was the end of the road, I thought to myself, as I struggled to pull my rain pants on while sitting in the driver’s seat. Snug in my rain gear I began the descent, which was steep, wet, and shimmering a glorious green. I could feel something stirring in this place. The trail was muddy, and soon my shoes were covered and I was thankful for choosing the waterproof sneakers for this trip. The rain beat staccato against my raincoat and I walked with the syncopation. Every ten hits or so I would get bombed by a fat drop falling from one of the trees rather than the sky. It was fun to anticipate them when I walked under the canopy.
After about half a mile, the trail leveled off and a boardwalk came into view. As I approached I saw that it sat about three to four feet above the ground cover, which was a litter of giant ferns, tangled roots, and various flotsam that has collected over years of heavy storms. As I walked on these boardwalks, I saw huge, yellow lilies bursting from the forest floor. Everything was covered in clubmoss and the earth smelled rich with life. Mixed in was the oily aroma of the railroad ties that constructed the board walk. Eventually, I heard the roar of waves crashing against the rocky Washington coast mingling with the tap-tap-tap of rain on my hood. I approached a clearing in the rocks, the haze parted and I saw it. Cape Flattery.
“I didn’t know,” I whispered to the sky, the rain, the trees, anything around me. I didn’t know something could look this beautiful. This powerful, yet fragile. I walked to the clearing and the carved coast came closer into view.The turbulent northern Pacific waters raged on to the west, smashing against two green islands about 1/8 mile off the coast. The water flowed into a deep gouge in the coastline, the Hole in the Wall. The blue-green waves moved in and out of the cove, like deep breaths, in-out, in-out. The water towards the center of the inlet was a deep navy, sighing up and down like the belly of the Earth softly sleeping. It could wake up in a rage with no notice, filling the hole and carving further into the rocks. This is where it happened, where the sea took him, I thought. I listened.
I walked further toward land’s end. My steps felt light on the spongy earth, it gave the vague sensation that I was hovering rather than walking. I saw the trail lead first down, then up towards the final lookout. The trees towered above me, the rain continued to pour down, and the wind pounding the Strait of Juan de Fuca began picking up. My heart felt like it was floating on those last steps. I felt the spirit of the cape flowing from the ocean, the rocks, the ground, the trees. The echo of its voice reverberated in the sea caves that littered the northern side of the cape. I went to the very end, Tatoosh Island floated about a mile off into the sea, a green stalwart against the pounding surf, with a small, white lighthouse adorning the highest point. I looked again towards the Hole. I thought of the young man whose spirit departed him when the wave took him while he was diving there. It was a violent looking place, only a very brave person would be able to navigate those waters, and he and his people have been doing it for millennia. They fought back the Spanish who raped tribal women and tried to steal their lands. They fought for the right to hunt and fish as they have done for centuries when the US forced them to sign treaties. They retained their culture even when Americanization did it’s best to take it from them. Their spirit lingers here in this place. I sat in the rain and let it pass through me. I let the water clean my heart and mind. I could smell the salt in the air, mixed with the deep, rich loam.
I spent the previous weekend camping with my friend at Kalaloch Beaches to the south. We had a perfect spot: trees shading us from the bleating sun, the roar of the waves to the west, and a grand view of the ocean just beyond the bluff that dropped off to the beach. We spent Sunday morning hiking Ruby Beach and intellectualizing about this and that. We went to college together, studied religion, and both came out on the other end more than jaded with the faith of our upbringing. My friend was now trying to reconcile his core ethics, which remained the same as they were when he espoused his former faith. He wanted to know what made him tick, and why. It was an illuminating conversation for me, to hear someone going through a crisis of faith in such an intellectual way.
As I hiked around the Cape, going down this dangerously slick path to the next one, mere feet from falling to my death (and happy to be doing so), I applied my friend’s question to my own life. What made me tick? Why do I do what I do? What matters most to me? The answer came easily: I don’t want people to suffer. Almost everything I do runs through this filter and has since I was young. I’m not perfect, and I cause suffering, too, but trust me when I say the resulting shame has been crippling. Why don’t I want people to suffer? Because I know how much life can hurt, how that hurt can change a person, can damage a person. I know and I don’t want other people to feel that. It’s why I studied religion and philosophy, it’s why I became a therapist, and it’s a driving force behind why I play music. It also directs a central passion, or locus of control of mine: environmental awareness.
Trying to think like my friend, I questioned why in the world I care about the environment. I mean, I don’t think the most drastic and cataclysmic damage will be seen on Earth until after I’m dead when It won’t really bother me ( because I’ll be dead). I don’t have children, I don’t plan on having children, and even if I did, again, I’d be dead and wouldn’t really care either way. So what’s the point? I’m going to get to enjoy this planet, then I’m going to die and anything else is pretty much immaterial to me.
It comes back to what makes me tick: I don’t want people to suffer. I have suffered a great deal in my life and I don’t want anyone else to feel that way. I have also found there are things that help me get through this painful life. Connecting with this Earth is one of the main ones. I want to show people that they can heal themselves with this connection. We can become better because of this connection: better physically, emotionally, and yes, spiritually. There is so much respite and life to be found in the natural world; I want to save it because I know that it can help people get through the suffering. Its song is so sweet, and I firmly believe that everyone who truly hears it will be changed. This is why I want conservation. This is why I do everything I do. I feel it deep within my soul. My heart explodes with its truth.
After a long time perching myself on various dangerous ledges, I began making my way back up through the forest on the steep trail. My body felt hot under my rubbery rain gear, and the trail climbed ever steep. My feet slipped on the muddy slopes, slick as ice. While each step took effort, I still retained that euphoric feeling, like I was gliding up the hill. My heart felt peace, even as it beat ever harder within my chest. When I finally reached my car I stripped down to my tank in the pouring rain and let it wash the sweat off. I breathed in the spirit of that place, something so old yet so fresh. I got in my car and drove towards the village. The Strait of Juan de Fuca, a memorial to the Spanish that tried and failed to take this land from the Makah, loomed gray on the horizon.
As I navigated the streets I saw that the faces of those I passed wore the badge of grief that the woman at the museum did. May you feel peace, I chanted as I made my way past the totem poles that marked the entrance to Neah Bay. This place gave me something more valuable that I could have imagined. It gave me more than just an amazing picture, even more than an amazing feeling. It gave me reason, meaning, and purpose. I am grateful for the story of the young man that compelled me to see his sacred place. And I am forever grateful for this, the most important hike of my life.