You’ve got a friend in me
You’ve got a friend in me
When the road looks rough ahead
And you’re miles and miles
From your nice warm bed
You just remember what your old pal said
Boy, you’ve got a friend in me
Yeah, you’ve got a friend in me – Randy Newman, Toy Story
Mount Bailey’s rock strewn slopes, look down on Diamond Lake. Snow streaked, its white cover disappears into the blue-green treeline with near perfect symmetry. Bracketing Diamond Lake to the east, Mount Thielsen sits glacier scoured, spires of basalt laced with the uneven scars of countless lightning strikes. Oregon Highway 138, skirts the reticent lake, before turning west into the evergreen heart of Umpqua National Forest and the mirroring current of the North Umpqua River. Cirrus clouds lightly streak the morning sky as I pass the small town of Glide, where Little River, flowing south from Yaska Falls, gives herself to the North Umpqua, so together they can journey westward to the sea.
Three hours north on I-5, Portland International Airport sits on the banks of the Columbia River, bordering Government Island and the State of Washington. I’m picking up my youngest son’s best friend Braden, who is flying out from Michigan, so we can spend a few days hiking Olympic and Mt. Rainier National Parks. I’ve known Braden since he was a kid in grade school. During several summers, I coached him and Preston in baseball. He was a constant presence in our house, our pool and our refrigerator. I can’t begin to count the number of times I sat with Braden and the boys watching baseball, or came home to find Braden watching MLB Network by himself, something from the fridge on his lap. “Hey, Mr. Smith.” “Hey, Braden.” On several occasions, I have joked that he was my fourth son. Braden never objected.
He comes bouncing out of the terminal, a toothy smile below gold rimmed aviators, a full backpack slung over the shoulder of his Eddie Bauer coat. Braden has grown into a taller, slimmer, bearded version of his younger self. He slings his gear into the van and climbs in.
“Hey Mr. Smith. Thanks for having me. I’m stoked!”
“Hey Braden. Thanks for coming out.” I reach over and give him a hug. This is a great kid. I’m excited and grateful that a 21 year old would fly across the country to spend time hiking with an old coot like me.
“Bray, have you ever seen the Pacific Ocean? I know you came out to ski camp at Mount Hood several times, but did you make it to the ocean?”
“Nope. Never seen the Pacific,” shaking his head.
“You will in a couple of hours.” I extend my knuckles and he taps them with his own. We are such guys.
“Sweet. Hey, before I forget, my parents said to say hi.” He sits back in his seat and as we head west, everything from baseball to girlfriends becomes a topic of animated conversation. It’s the first taste of my old life that I’ve had in months and it transports me back to Walnut Lake Road in seconds.
Highway 26 cuts northwest through suburban Portland. Beaverton and Hillsboro, spill out of the city, before reaching North Plains and the patched farmlands of Willamette Valley. Neatly rowed apple orchards and wheat fields color the landscape. Near the coast, Christmas tree farms and nurseries lay to the side, protected by splintered wooden rails and a row of motionless crows. White shingled farmhouses with makeshift stands, sell blueberries, cherries and fresh eggs. An old woman sits in the back of a Ford pickup, eyes down, waiting. A few miles west, the road loops south toward Highway 101 and the seaside town of Cannon Beach.
A cool mist hung in the air as we walked the three or four blocks toward the ocean. Stepping onto the broad beach, sea stacks and ancient rocks loom just offshore to the south. Haystack Rock, one of Oregon’s iconic landmarks, juts 235 feets above the tide. Formed of lava flow from the Blue Mountains, she sits separated from the coastline. A nesting site for terns and puffins, the upper reaches of the copper-black rock brims with life and unending motion. Tidepools, flush with sea anemone, crabs, chitons and limpets, sluggishly wash over lime green algae at her feet. Braden and I snap photo after photo, trying to define a wonderful moment in time. A man on a bicycle crosses into frame directly behind Braden and we suddenly can’t stop laughing at the incongruity of a man riding a bike on the beach at the exact wrong moment.
After crossing the Columbia River at Astoria and hugging a rugged Washington coast for three hours, we turned east on South Shore Road toward Falls Creek Campground. Embracing Lake Quinault’s glacially clawed shoreline in Olympic National Forest, near the southern edge of Olympic National Park, home for the next two nights sat deep among Sitka spruce, Douglas fir and western hemlock. Our site was carved from a dense rainforest floor of ferns, false lily-of-the-valley and draping trees wrapped in yellow tinged lichen. Thick humidity hung in the air as we set up the tent and prepared to settle in for the evening. We agreed that we were camping in Jurassic Park. Later we agreed that the Detroit Tigers were a bad baseball team.
When I woke up the next morning, Braden was missing. I had momentarily forgotten that he was an exceptionally early riser. Which I should have remembered, since he would occasionally text me at 6:30 AM Michigan time when I was on Mountain or West Coast time. In those instances I would mutter a few expletives and try to go back to sleep. I found him a couple of campsites over, coffee in hand, standing by the lake.
“Jesus, what time is it Bray?”
“No idea, why?” he says as clueless to the ungodly hour as ever. “I walked up to the little store by the lodge to grab a coffee,” extending the cup as proof.
“Sorry,” he says with a slight grin. He didn’t think I would be awake any time soon.
“Turd,” I said jokingly. “Hey, we have a bit of a drive up the coast before we duck back into the rainforest for our first hike. The trailhead is behind the Hoh Rain Forest Visitors Center. Since we’re up, let’s get crackin’.” We pause to take some photos of steel clouds moving across the lake, then head back to camp to make a fresh cup of coffee before hitting the road.
Once you leave Highway 101, Upper Hoh Road twists through lush forest while tracing the Hoh River to the south. Behind the visitor center, Hoh River Trail dives into the river valley along the Hoh River shoreline. Green immediately overwhelms your senses. Every angle holds myriad shades and textures that leap in contrast to the smooth golden brown path and clear, white choked streams. Emerald, jade and olive lurk in the deep shadows. True, pure green ferns reach from every corner, beneath a sea of conifer and big leaf maple. Where sun bashfully pierces the canopy, light slants onto limb-draped mosses so delicate you have to squeeze tightly to register their presence. Fallen cedars with hollow trunks lie across the undergrowth, the fresh smell of earth lending an air of decay, a marked point in time. We hiked 8-9 miles out and back, mostly in reverential silence, before heading back to the Pacific, then inland to Lake Quinault.
Morning came with cool air and billowy white clouds against an azure sky. After pulling up stakes at Falls Creek, we drove west to the Pacific. South Beach Campground rests at the edge of a 25 foot bluff overlooking the ocean. Hurricane Ridge was still a solid three hour drive north and we didn’t want to take the chance of perhaps having to set up camp in the dark after a long day of hiking. We found a spot only a few feet from where the bluff falls to the sand, put up the tent and jumped in the van.
Highway 101 leaves the ocean and cuts east just south of Hoh Indian Reservation and the mouth of the Hoh River. Born 50 miles west on Mount Olympus, she descends 7,000 feet to the Pacific, carving into the rainforest, leaving fallen conifers in logjams and deep salmon filled pools. In eddies she runs dark denim blue. Away from the rocks and white of the breaks, she appears a transparent Coke bottle green, stunning against burnt orange rock. We cross the Hoh on a peeling metal bridge, precisely spotted in round rivets. As we enter the small town of Forks, Braden spots a roadside drive-thru coffee hut, so we pull in and grab a couple cups. I make fun of Braden for his cream and sugar, telling him “real men drink it black, like my heart.” He smiles and calls me an old man.
Near the town of Beaver, the 101 makes an abrupt turn east, as it begins to parallel the Sol Duc River to the south and Strait of Juan de Luca to the north. Further east, the narrow, eroding road hugs the southern shore of nitrogen starved, brilliant blue Lake Crescent, before entering Port Angeles and the 18-mile slender strip of blacktop to Olympic National Park Visitor Center. Climbing toward Klahhane Ridge, the two lane road moves in and out of deep forest, crossing Lake Creek, before passing through a series of mountain carved tunnels. Looking north from the ridge, several thousand feet below, a ferry soundlessly moves through the strait toward a wrinkled grey horizon and Victoria, Canada. Ahead the road begins to fold into itself, winding further skyward with each turn. Thin waterfalls appear, sliding down a narrow field of rock, a trickle finding its way across the road. As we near the road’s summit, heavy clouds remove the tops of the inner Olympic range. Stepping from the van, a cold wind rustles out of the north.
At 5,000 feet, Hurricane Ridge trailhead sits at the end of Hurricane Road. A stormfront is moving in. Braden and I are both wearing winter coats and baseball caps. We briefly discuss what we might find at the top of the ridge, some 700 feet in elevation gain.
“It’s only about 3 or 4 miles up and back,” says Braden. “If it turns, we can get back pretty quick.”
“We’re good. It’s still in the low 50’s and we are going to generate some heat on the climb. Are you good? Do you have water?”
“Yep and yep.” The ever present smile.
Spring flowers, precariously balanced near the edge of the trail, ardently bloom violet and lust. As we climb the ridge, dingy charcoal clouds begin to fill the hollows below, quietly moving across the valley, swallowing everything in their path. Entire mountain ranges disappear into vague, shifting shapes. Where forest shade hides the trail from sunlight, ankle deep slushy snow lays pristine white, dented with footprints. Rising steeply into a series of switchbacks, we ascend into the clouds. When we reach the summit, wind funnels up from the valley floor and whips our faces. My ears are frozen. I tie my scarf around my head to break the wind.
“It’s cold as hell Mr. Smith.”
“I can’t feel my ears.” I’m pretty sure I’m speaking out loud. My lips are frozen.
“Should we think about heading back down? With the wind it has to be below zero up here.” He’s shifting from one foot to the other, blowing on his hands.
“Not yet. Look over there.” I point toward the Olympic range. “Every minute or so the clouds break and you can see mountains. Let’s wait a bit longer and see if this begins to break.” Said the man with a scarf tied over his ears and a spare pair of socks he found in his backpack on his hands.
Slowly, miraculously, the dull clouds began to part, allowing a sliver of blue to peek through. White shoulders of jagged toothed mountains emerged, as valleys turned softly to green. A shy sun glinted against a single red pine. We stood and watched in awe as the sweeping symphony of color and movement, orchestrated by an unseen hand, played across the staggered glaciers and the blue forest below. Neither of us spoke.
As we descended, silent and shivering, each turn presented a new form of glory, as if the clouds knew we were watching. Languidly dancing in and out of swales, moving above summits, a baby blue backdrop perfect between cloud and land. Sweeping across valleys, teasing green into pearl, shadow into light, creating detail on the landscape as they rise and fall. It was a magnificent display of nature’s power and beauty. One we will carry forever.
By the time we stopped for dinner it was about 8:00 PM. A tiny bar and grill tucked into the trees on the east side of Highway 101. We plopped into a wooden booth. Bray ordered something green and I ordered fish and chips. We are still cold and windswept, making the food delicious. The bar owner strolls over, sits and provides us with a bit of history and local color. We’re so tired we can only nod. He wishes us safe travels, we thank him for the great meal. Thirty minutes later we’re building a fire on a grassy bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, as a blood orange sun drops into the water at the edge of the world.
Camping out in the open, the morning sun is unforgiving. Get up, it screams. I want some eggs and salsa damn it! Put some coffee in the french press, slacker! I roll out from under the covers and walk outside to a cool, bright menacing sky.
“Bray, you want some eggs?”
“Grab the skillet and french press from the Thule. I’ll start the stove and heat some water for coffee.”
As we are cleaning up after breakfast and finishing our recap of yesterday’s hike, a middle-aged man stops by our picnic table and asks if we’ve seen the beached whale.
“No. Where is it?” I ask.
“Down the beach about a quarter mile.” He points south. “You’ll smell it before you see it.”
“Is it dead?” Asks Braden.
“Oh yeah. Been dead for quite some time. Take care.” He abruptly turns and walks away. Perhaps he’s a mortician back home.
“Let’s go take a look before we head to Sol Duc,” I said to Braden.
We slide down the sandy bluff and walk along the beach. The waves are loud, crashing the beach. Another front is moving in. In the distance, a brownish horizontal lump lies at a 90-degree angle to the water, growing larger with each step we take. Then the smell hits us like a slap.
“Holy shit,” says Braden, covering his nose.
“This is not going to be pretty,” as I raise a bandanna to my mouth.
What remained of the whale, rested on a bed of small stones. The skin was leathery in spots and almost liquid in others. An intact jawbone provided orientation and scale, otherwise it was somewhat featureless, nature exacting its toll. Both of us have seen far too many deer and dogs laying roadside in Michigan. On this trip I have seen moose and elk, both massive even in death, lifeless on the shoulder. But this was a first and it was disturbing. We took a photo, but didn’t linger. It seemed disrespectful. We walked back down the beach asking each other how an animal so alive and one with the ocean, ends up lifeless on a beach. The smell stayed on my bandana until I finally sealed it in a ziplock.
Driving back up Highway 101, the skies darkened. Light rain began to fall, before morphing into visible mist. We were heading to Sol Duc Road, just west of Crescent Lake, on the park’s northern border park. Park rangers had told us that the hike to Deer Lake was tough, but worth it. A small mountain lake with snow-capped mountains as a backdrop sounded perfect. “A wooded basin in the transition zone from montane to subalpine forest,” according to the trail map. This was our last day in Olympic and we wanted a memorable hike before heading to Mount Rainier in the morning.
It has long been my contention that you can dress for every type of weather, no matter how extreme, if you have the right gear. Every type of weather except cold rain. You can have the finest rain gear and perfect weatherproof boots. Layers of every technical piece of clothing Patagonia has to offer. Doesn’t matter. Cold rain seeps into your bones. It rolls down your spine in slow, methodical waves. You simply can’t dress for the type of day that we were hiking straight into. As soon as we set foot on the heavily rooted trail, the temperature dropped and it began to rain. Light, but steady. Being who we are, we lowered our heads and kept moving.
Thick old growth fir acted as an umbrella until we crossed a wide bridge spanning the three pronged Sol Duc Falls, just before it plunges into the canyon directly below. When the path splits at Lovers Lane Trail, we began a steep, rocky climb and the rain began to lash our backs. Huckleberry dominated the undergrowth as we approach Canyon Creek Bridge. After three miles we’ve gained 1,500 feet in elevation. almost all of that in the last mile and a half. With the exception of exploring Sol Duc Falls, rain and an unstable trail have forced us to take each step with our head and eyes down. One wrong placement, your ankle twists and it’s a long painful hobble back to the van. Several times we each slipped on a loose stone, the other always stopping to see if his hiking partner was okay.
“You okay Bray,” I shout to his back after an ugly looking slip.
Neither of us would admit to being miserable. They’d have to amputate my legs before I let Braden out-hike me. My guess is he would rather be shot than let me out-hike him. Cold rain trickling down our backs, in fact miserable, we keep climbing.
“How many miles is this trail?” Braden asks over his shoulder, his head still bowed against the rain.
“Only 5 more miles to go Bray.”
I start laughing and the movement causes a small line of rain that had been cupped around my hood to find its way down my neck.
“God damn it!” I say to no one in particular. To myself.
We both stop in the middle of the trail, where it takes yet another uphill turn and look at each other.
“You good?” I ask.
“I’m good. You good?” Braden replies to the ground.
We switch leads and keep climbing. We’re good. It’s amazing I’ve survived life this long.
Near the end, the trail becomes even steeper, serpentining through huckleberry and streams cutting new routes down the mountain. As you brush against the dense foliage, rain drips into crevices of your clothes and finds its way to skin, leaving a path of damp shivers. I’m near my limit of misery when the trail reaches a wooden footbridge over a smoothly running stream. An outlet from Deer Lake. We stop and look up through the rain. The lake is small. Ordinary. Snow capped mountains are merely hills on a hazy horizon. Fog hangs in the trees. Heavy raindrops, millions loud as they enter the water, paint radiating circles.
“You’ve gotta be shittin me,” I say.
“That was a hard hike for this pay-off Mr. Smith.”
“You’ve gotta be shittin me.”
“Hey, is that snow?”
We’ve gained over 2,000 feet of elevation in the cold and rain, on a loose, demanding trail. We’re soaked and exhausted as we watch large flakes of snow drift from the sky, landing on rippled, bouncing water. We stand on the bridge and stare at a dark, simple lake. A small, elegant lake. We look at each other before turning and beginning our descent.