The last time that Congress shut down the government I headed to the coast–to the Olympic National Park. It was Thanksgiving weekend 1995. I went with E, the guy I was seeing at the time. We rented a dingy hotel room in Forks because it was past camping season. This was before Twilight fame, when Forks was just a depressing former logging town. We drove out to Rialto Beach before 5pm sunset. Luckily the park service hadn’t closed the road. The sun was fading and the wind cold, but the sea stacks and headlands stood proud. This was my favorite coastline in the world: miles of undisturbed forest, rock and sand. The Olympic National Park has 60 miles of undeveloped coastline, one of the longest stretches in the Lower 48. Buckets of rain came down that night and I wondered how people stayed sane in a place like this that gets over 100 inches of rain a year.
This year the Congress shut down the government again. I was invited on another trip to the Olympic National Park with some other friends. My friend A had been trying to get me out on his retro 1970s campervan which he calls “The Mothership” for a long time. “The damned Republicans have shut down the government and the park is closed,” he told me a week before we left. “But we’ll find somewhere else to park the Mother.”
This time the park service had barricaded the road to Rialto Beach. There was probably enough room to drive around them, but we retreated south to the La Push reservation. The trailheads for Second and Third Beaches, technically part of the park, had cars parked at them. Obviously people were not taking the park closure seriously. We parked our car and headed to Second Beach in an act of civil disobedience.
I remembered coming to Second Beach with my dad in about ’81 or ‘82. I was 14 or 15. We had taken Amtrak from the Twin Cities to Seattle to do go backpacking on the Olympic Peninsula. In my opinion there was no more exotic place in the Lower 48 than here–mountains, rainforest and ocean all within a few miles of each other. First we hiked up the Sol Duc River valley. It poured down rain on us. When we got to the pass it was snowing and we were wet, tired and borderline hypothermic. Dad thought it was best for us to head back instead of spending the night on the pass in those conditions.
The next day, however, was magic. We parked the car on the La Push road and packed in to Second Beach through a grove of old growth. Douglas Fir and Cedar towered above us. We didn’t have trees this big in Minnesota. And while I had seen the ocean before, it was still a thrill every time I saw it again. The first glimpses of the Pacific were pure joy. Sea stacks lumbered off shore like dinosaurs. Giant logs littered the shoreline. We camped on the beach, above what we thought was high tide. We didn’t know much about tides and after dinner we had to mover our tents above the high tide line.
This year the beach was magical again. The October sun was out in full force. The waves crashed against the sea stacks. We walked in the surf barefooted, ate lunch, drank a bottle of wine and took naps on the drift logs. In the 23 years I’ve lived in Washington I have made many trips the Olympic Peninsula: Ozette, Quinault, Copalis, Klalaloch, Hoh, Hurricane Ridge. It is my happy place. But I had never returned to this beach until today. I fell in love on that day over 30 years ago. The sea, the trees, the mountains represented the ultimate freedom to me. The sound of the waves in my ears and the wind and sun in my face were my witnesses.