“Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather, a room where I could retreat to who I really was.”
– Cheryl Strayed
Being alone is essential to me. Besides the fact that I’m socially awkward, overly earnest, usually serious, and generally not great company, I simply prefer to be able to hear myself think. My batteries wear down faster than an old iPhone in roaming mode, and they need long stretches of silence to recharge. I rarely pass up the chance to go to that place, that room.
As a woman, however, there are circumstances in which it seems impossible for me to feel comfortable alone. Anywhere at night, for example. Even if I’m in my own house (say my boyfriend went on his own weekend trip), I am hypervigilant, attuned to every tiny noise or flutter of light outside, real or imagined.
So why the hell would I want to go camp by myself, out of cell range in Gifford Pinchot National Forest — for two whole days? My dad, who’s spent many a night alone in the woods, always says “there’s nothing in the woods at night that isn’t there during the day.” Which may be true (though I did recently come across this article in the Atlantic), but it’s what isn’t there at night, namely, sunlight with which to see.
There’s a little corner of the United States, the upper left one, that is a conundrum of precipitation. This corner (the Olympic Peninsula) is the part of Washington that looks like it’s being torn away from the mainland. Mount Olympus sits astride this peninsula like the queen that she is, watching the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Salish Sea to the north, and the Sound to the East. She is one of the rainiest places in the entire US, getting about 220 inches of precipitation per year. A few miles west, the town of Forks, WA (of Twilight fame) gets about a hundred inches fewer. Seattle, for comparison, gets an average of 38 inches of rain per year.
Tucked in the midst of all this drizzle, sits the town of Sequim. Pronounced more like a tentacled sea creature than a shiny adornment, Sequim gets a meager 16 inches of rain per year (Los Angeles gets about 15!) The reason for this is a rain shadow.
A rain shadow occurs when a mountain(s) blocks moisture from its leeward side. This is kind of what happens between the western and eastern sides of the Cascade mountain range, making one side a lush, mossy paradise full of magic and wonder, and the other side a hot, dry, dusty wasteland that’s baked or frozen brown three-quarters of the year (but I digress).
Sweep the house with blossomed broom in May; sweep the head of the household away…
~ traditional rhyme of Sussex
It’s a familiar sight here at the threshold of June: driving along I-5, watching the bright spots of yellow burst out, a patch here, a dot there, until blam! The entire hillsides radiate sunshine hues. It can be mesmerizing, almost pretty, if you didn’t know better. On my latest drive from Portland to Seattle, the sky was dark and moody, with giant banks of clouds jutting across in thick lines. The darkness reached almost to the horizon, leaving just enough of a gap for the late evening sun to strain through. Burnt gold sunlight lit up massive patches of Scotch Broom against the sky.
I remember the first time I read the word “licorice fern.” It was stamped clearly into the stone wall of one of the staircases at Multnomah Falls.
I had recently emigrated to the west side of Oregon from the high desert of the east side of the state, for school, so I was taking every opportunity of exploring the lush green land of my fantasies. The licorice fern was to become a major staple in my life, though I hardly knew it at the time. On this particular trip to Multnomah Falls I was accompanied by my dad, who was also glad for a change of scenery and came to visit me at school fairly often.
In 2018, it’s pretty difficult to imagine that there’s any chance in being unique. Most of the places on earth have been thoroughly scoured and studied and most of the species on earth have had names slapped on them.
I think I realized this as a kid, because I used to play a game with myself, which was trying to imagine who else had stood on the spot that I was standing. The more lonely the spot, the more fun the game, of course. Out in Eastern Oregon, it would be some pioneer woman on the Oregon Trail. On the coast, some explorer or cartographer.
In reading my journal and looking back on our trip, one theme jumps out at me: how colorful the Lofoten Islands were. One of the main attractions for us were the beaches: gleaming white crescents sandwiched between turquoise water and verdant stony mountains jutting into the sky. They were beaches fit to grace tropical islands, though the water was chilly, and the wind chillier. They were so quiet — the bays filled up at high tide, and snuck out at low, with nary a wave to announce it. I had a good observation deck from my perch on some boulders while we took photos of the purple sky on our first proper night in Lofoten. The light was different on every surface that night: easter egg in the sky, rose gold on the rocks, aquamarine in the water, until it got too dark to tell.
Sitting in our campervan in row number one waiting for the Gryllefjord ferry afforded plenty of time for contemplation about time and place. We were taking the last outbound ferry of the season, according to the owner of the local supermarket.
I had the day to myself. Jim had gone off on another boat trip, but I elected to stay behind today. The boat yesterday didn’t agree with me, and after days of travel, hiking, and boat-tripping, I needed a day to just… be.
When Svalbard was young and verdant, he left his home below the equator to go explore the northern seas. He made his way past other floating continents, and then he met Greenland, and things did not go well. He left a piece of his heart with her, and she a particularly jagged, pointy piece of hers with him. He subsequently traveled almost as far north as a continent could get, but his youth and lush beauty didn’t last. The leafy ferns and trees that had thrived in his hometown began to wither in the cold, and eventually they turned to stone, covered with blankets of silt and soil and then ice and snow, until they were hidden from view. Then the icy chill receded, as did the snow, and the rocky remnants began tumbling down the mountainside, just south of Longyearbyen.
From the top of Platåberget, Longyearbyen looks small. In the late summer evening fog, a few lights are on, but the sun won’t “set” for at least a few more hours. The bare, greenish hills and mountains close in around the village, and we can hear the ships horns and a helicopter somewhere, but the only vehicles we can spot are a few trucks and beater cars far below us.