Olympia, Washington—An Endless Procession of the Species

Come as You Are: Procession of the Species and One of the Most Eclectic Towns You’ll Ever Find

Being the capital of Washington state, Olympia’s downtown sports a lot of political and business types. Mixed into them, however, is an even larger group of oddballs, outcasts, and freaks—basically, my kind of people.

When I first moved to Olympia years ago, my first thought was that it was a sort of elephant graveyard for hippies, but that isn’t really accurate. Not fully, anyway. You’ve got exiles of the grunge era and the Heavy Metal days along with hipsters galore, intellectuals, anarchists, Baptists, all manner of people crammed together in this beautiful tie-dyed mess.

Olympia is one of the most literate cities I’ve ever been in. It’s common for me to find myself having conversations about books with waiters and baristas and any other service person I may encounter while visiting. It’s a city where intellectuals can feel at home.

But most importantly, there are simply so many different kinds of people in Olympia that anyone there can feel comfortable blending into the static.

State Capital and a Pretty Little City

Even in its most densely populated downtown areas, Olympia feels distinctly like a small town. Everything in the town is relaxed and calm. It’s a nice respite from Tacoma, Seattle, and the bigger Washington State cities.

Capitol Lake has a walking trail around its perimeter. It’s a nice stroll on a sunny day and is surprisingly full of wildlife. I’ve seen otters, seals, cranes, pelicans, and ducks in its water. I also once saw a falcon snatch a seagull out of the air over the lake. It was a stunning, if somewhat brutal, sight, which I will never forget.

Olympia, Washington’s Endless Procession of the Species

Every year, in celebration of Earth Month, Olympia holds the Procession of the Species parade. It is, by far, the quirkiest— sometimes outright bizarre, and always fun—parade I have ever beheld. To me, the event encapsulates the city itself. It’s as if the Procession never really stops, as if it’s always going on and the parade day is simply the one day a year when everyone takes off their normal-person costume and dresses as they really are.

The city has an independent, creative spirit that has always stuck in my heart. I lived here and in neighboring Lacey for over a decade. I had to move for a job, but Olympia has never truly left my heart.

Waterfront Outperforms Its Size

Olympia’s waterfront walk isn’t something you often see advertised, but it’s a nice trek full of good viewing of the water, sail boats, mountainous horizon, and the works of art scattered around the docks like secret magic.

Some of the exhibits, such as the “Kissing Statue” featured on the main page this article, are permanent, but some of the other installments change every year with new contest entries.

Underrated Foodie Scene

I’m not sure how well known Olympia is for its food scene, but I know that I personally love driving down there to eat. Like everything else in the city, the restaurants are marked by uniqueness. South Bay Dickerson’s BBQ‘s decor mixes a refurbished garage with old farming equipment and…reggae. The odd combination creates a relaxed vibe. Their BBQ, by the way, is awesome.

Old School Pizzeria is the “most Oly” restaurant in Olympia. The pizza is brick oven and reminds me of the pizza I grew up eating on the east coast. The restaurant itself is decorated with a seemingly random assortment of 80s and 90s posters, fish tanks, Millennium Falcons, blasting punk and metal music, and much more. It also has the single gnarliest bathroom I’ve ever been in—and I mean that in a really good way. They have vegan and gluten free options galore, as well.

If you’re more up for a full dinner and conversation type of place, I don’t think the Iron Rabbit can be beat. The food is fresh, high quality, healthy, and delicious.

Olympia’s a Little City With a Big Heart

There’s just something about Olympia. I’ve never really been able to put my finger on it, but if you asked many of the people who choose to live there and make a long commute to work in Seattle or Tacoma, they’ll tell you the same thing.

They have a saying in Olympia: “It’s in the water.” This was once used by Olympia Beer as their official slogan, but the saying is more than a sales pitch. Olympia sits over a natural aquifer. If you go to downtown you can find a metal spout from which the water runs all day, every day. Locals go there to fill up jugs for drinking water. People congregate around the area and sip at will on hot days. The old story, and one which some people still hold to as true, was that the water had magical healing properties. I don’t know about all of that, of course, but I do know that there is something magical about the spirit of the city. It’s hard to even describe, exactly.

Go check it out and discover some of the city’ odd charm for yourself.

Hospitality and Relaxation at the Quinault River Inn in Amanda Park, Washington, Just a Stone’s Throw Away from Lake Quinault

 

The Uncommonly Welcoming Quinault River Inn

I arrived fifteen minutes after closing time to find the hosts at the Quinault River Inn still awake and waiting for my arrival. I’d called a couple hours earlier for an impromptu weekend getaway but hadn’t actually paid for the room yet. Despite this lack of financial or legal obligation, the hosts—Georgia’s own Jim and Angela Sowards—stayed late to make sure I got into my room. The wind and rain had been heavy that night, and they figured I might run a bit late. That’s hospitality that you can’t find just anywhere.

When people think of staying in the Lake Quinault area, they tend to think of the Lake Quinault Lodge. While that’s a nice establishment and one I’ve also enjoyed staying at, I just don’t think the Quinault River Inn can be beat for sheer character. It’s my “go-to” place when I want to visit the area but don’t want to camp. I go the area mostly for the hiking, but for those who want to see the lake specifically, the inn is conveniently located less than 3 miles away.

A Great Location for Relaxing or Exploring the Lake Quinault Area

As the name suggests, the hotel sits right on the bank of the Quinault River. It’s popular with fishermen, but it’s also a great little hideaway for any vacationer. The river’s always there, rolling slowly, its easy-going spirit infusing the whole area.

The inn is located more-or-less halfway between the Lake Quinault’s South and North Shore Roads. Down those two paths lies that all the outdoors magic, which makes the Quinault River Inn a convenient launching point for adventure.

Far as I’m concerned, Lake Quinault is the best kept secret of the Olympic Peninsula. In addition to the lake itself, which is beautiful, the area’s also got miles and miles of rain forest hiking, waterfall and elk viewing, and camping. I’ll be doing a full rundown of the area soon enough, but for now I’m focusing on the inn.

The gazebo and the Quinault River just beyond it are right outside your front door. Mountains and forest all around. (Photographs courtesy of Angela Sowards.)

Peaceful and Quiet, but Close to All the Comforts You Need

I’ve stayed at the Quinault River Inn multiple times over the years. The rooms are always clean and the beds are comfortable. This last visit, I had one of the best nights of sleep in my life.

A couple hundred yards up the hill from the inn is the Quinault River Village Internet Cafe and Visitor Information Center, which serves my favorite breakfast in town. Not far from that is Dino’s Pizza and Grill. The last time I ate there I had one of the best Philly cheese steaks I’ve ever had…and I was born and raised in Pennsylvania.

I spend a great deal of time in the Lake Quinault area. In the spring and summer, I generally like to camp. But, when I do stay in a hotel, there’s no place I’d rather stay than the Quinault River Inn. The lengths the innkeepers went to for me on this last trip were the proverbial cherry atop the sundae, but this has my home run hotel for a while. The innkeepers’ personalities also seem to act like magnet drawing in equally kicked back, friendly guests. I’ve met some great people at the inn and had some memorable conversations, especially in the summer when people gather outside around the gazebo.

I’m tempted to say the Quinault River Inn is a great alternative to Lake Quinault Lodge, but that’s not really true. For me, it’s the best choice there is.

Strange Conversation at Irely Lake, Olympic National Park

So it was I found myself on the shore of Irely Lake, talking out loud to a tree…and I’ll be damned if the tree didn’t talk back.

It was one of those days of common desperation. Common for me, anyway, the man who never outgrows his existential angst. No matter how old I get, the nagging doubt remains. What am I supposed to be doing here? Why do the answers fade as fast as they arrive? Is there a reason or isn’t there a reason for anything and everything, and what am I supposed to do with either of those possibilities?

Christ, man, I’m tired of this shit.

Just like every other time my head gets too loud, I felt the need to get away from the commotion of modernity and into the woods, so I hopped in my car and drove three hours to the Irely Lake trail.

The trail head is a few miles outside Lake Quinault, down a couple dirt roads rough enough to turn most the city cars away. Quinault’s one of my favorite places in Washington state. It’s got elk and cougar and bear, rain forest, mountains, miles and miles of trails…and silence. The people there pretty much leave you well enough alone, unless you’re up for a brief and friendly chat.

It’s a short walk along the trail to the lake. Only a little over a mile, I believe. But this was still the winter season. Winds had blown two enormous trees over the trail and water flooded some other parts. This made for some fun obstacles, and even better it meant the trail was mine, so that only a mile from the road I felt completely alone in the rain forest.

Reaching the shore of the lake, which has trees and brush encroaching all along its bank, I saw a duck and its ducklings fly down and splash into the water. A moment later a pair of grown ducks flew side by side over the surface of the lake and away. Right after them, like a glitch in the matrix, two more identical ones followed in seemingly the exact same flight path.

I sat down next to a big old spruce and found myself thinking in the rain. My mind felt like a rabbit getting chewed up by a rabid dog…ugly and haggard.

So I turned aside and look at this big old spruce tree beside me and I said, “Hey, old man, I know this is kind of crazy, but there’s no one around other than you and me and I’m wondering if you can tell me what I’m supposed to do with my life.”

I sat there looking at the tree, not really expecting an answer. Hell, I’m crazy enough to talk to a tree, but not crazy enough to expect it to talk back.

But, as I sat there staring at this thing, I began to notice some details I’d previously glossed over. Multiple species of moss grew on its bark. The bark itself was incredibly thick and the cracks in it were deep; it undoubtedly gave home to all kinds of insects and worms. Up in the branches, birds and squirrels might have nested. If not, they at least certainly stopped there for some time now and then. In the warmer season, I bet that tree was crawling with life.

That’s when it hit me, so clear that it was like the tree was talking directly to me.

What I realized was that that tree had never done anything with its life other than stay rooted on that lake shore, yet in doing so it had given home to a multitude of living things. In staying motionlessly true to itself, it had became a home for life. Zen moment. Bam.

“Thanks old man,” I said.

I stood up, patted the tree’s side, and headed back, feeling lighter as I went.

What’s my purpose? It is to give my absolute best at the things that come most naturally to me. It’s to write and think deeply and create, and to laugh at the absurd things that strike me funny and to read obscure history and study things I’ll never actually use. It’s to explore and to give and to find magic in the world so I can write about it for others. It’s to be selfless and fearless. It’s to be my true self.

At least, that’s the answer I’m toying with now. Here’s to hoping it lasts, because this one feels good and right.

(In “Wandering Around With a Notebook” entries I share the poetic or philosophical side of my travels. A more utilitarian entry will be made for this location.)

Introvert’s Getaway Series: Packwood, Washington and the La Wis Wis Campground

A Perfect Escape into Quietude

If you’re a Washington state introvert looking for a quick weekend escape into relative solitude (as much as you can get without actually going into the back country), then I’ve got a place for you.

Near the southern entrance into Mount Rainier National Park, there’s a little town named Packwood. A few miles beyond that, a National Forest Service campground named Las Wis Wis.

 

Packwood, as you can see above, isn’t Las Vegas. It’s a mellow place, even by Washington mountain-town standards—especially in the fall and winter off season, which is precisely the time I recommend people go.

There’s nothing intrusive about the town. Packwood takes your money for the basics and then leaves you alone, asking and tempting you with nothing more. The town just sits there meditating amidst the mountains, as ready for you to be driving away as driving in.

For folks who are looking for a silent escape from the rat race but not in the mood to head into the back country or leave civilization entirely, it’s a great town to visit.

Amazing Drive

Like the Interstate 90 route through Snoqualmie Pass and the 101 Olympic Peninsula Loop, the White Pass drive is a spectacular scenic excursion. Packwood, which is just off this route, is an ideal base camp for those looking to explore the road’s full length.

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La Wis Wis Campground—A Gem of Silence

About 8 miles north of Packwood, located just off US 12 as you’re heading into that White Pass Scenic Byway, is the U.S. Forest Service’s La Wis Wis campground. It’s located on the shore of the Cowlitz River.

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Some of the sites are located right alongside the water, while others are tucked inland amidst Douglas fir, hemlock, and cedar. The pic below is an example of the latter.

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La Wis Wis campground is nice any time of year, but for the quiet introvert getaway I’m recommending here, the ideal time is late in the tourist season when it’s already begun to get a little colder at night. The campground closes on Labor Day, so the window I’m recommending is late August into early September.

Last time I went, on Labor Day weekend 2016, I was the only camper within earshot. There were a few other visitors alongside the river, but I felt like I had the run of the place. At night, it felt as silent and remote as actually being deep in the woods.

Up the Cowlitz Lies the Blue Hole

At the end of a very short La Wis Wis hiking trail is the Blue Hole, a swimming hole with pristine blue water.

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It was too cold for swimming in early September, but I had a great view of a few salmon making their fall run. The water was so clear that every detail of the fish and the river floor was visible. I sat on the rocks for a solid hour watching the fish go about their business.

On the beach, which is rocky but sandy enough to walk comfortably barefoot, someone left the heart shown above. It was rather beautiful, and its artists nowhere to be found. Beauty in solitude—exactly what I’d gone in looking for. If that sounds appealing to you, as well, then I highly recommend La Wis Wis in early fall.

P.S. Even in the peak season, this area isn’t as highly trafficked as many other Washington destinations and is good to ditch the crowds to some extent, but I’ll be writing a more general post about that this summer.

Tacoma, Washington: Just the Right Combination of Glitz and Grit

In Tacoma, History and Innovation Blend Seamlessly

Come to Tacoma for beautiful historic landmarks standing right beside newly constructed museums and restaurants. Feel free to wear your best dress or your favorite pair of blue jeans. This city doesn’t ask anyone to put on any airs.

As anybody who has lived in the Puget Sound Basin will attest, Tacoma has a bit of a reputation around these parts. Many see it as the Gotham City of the Pacific Northwest. In that aspect, the city has attained a kind of mythical status, a steam-painted town in a black and white movie that will never be colorized.

Some of this reputation was earned in the city’s past. This place was was built by the blistered hands of longshoreman, fishermen, and the men of the train yard. Later, particularly in the 80s and 90s, the city became synonymous with gang violence.

Those days are gone, though, and downtown Tacoma is a thriving place full of culture and energy.

The rebirth initiated by the construction of the University of Washington, Tacoma’s campus has brought all kinds of worthwhile sites to this city. Yet, underneath these renovations, Tacoma still maintains its gritty character. Amidst the museums and theaters and galleries, there is also the remnant of the industrial heart of this city, still beating, and still beautiful in its rusted, corrugated way.

The City’s Got Soul

This is the kind of city that I appreciate. It’s got its best Sunday dress on, but there’s a bit of dirt underneath those fingernails to show that this place still has a soul. Its daddy didn’t put it through art school. No, it had to work nights at the packing yard to get through.

Stand at the corner of Market and South 11th and you’ll see art murals painted on building fronts, Mount Rainier, and the cranes and boats of a working waterfront, all in one sweep of the eye. Tacoma probably wouldn’t appear in a Beatles song, but it could be the star of a Tom Waits album. Springsteen would appreciate the heart of this place, too, I think.

For all its new culture and energy, Tacoma still is not a city that puts on airs. You can sit in bar and meet real human beings. Far as I’m concerned, it’s got the perfect balance of glamour and grit.

The City’s Better than just Pretty and Nice—It’s Straight Up Poetic

I love this city, and this post comes from the ragged guts of my poetic sensibility, I know. I can’t help it. But there’s a more businesslike introduction to Tacoma, as well, that I wrote for the fantastic folks of Travelicious.

That introduction catalogs all the sites for you potential tourists. It shows you how you can see the Tacoma Museum of Glass, the Tacoma Art Museum, the Chihuly Bride of Glass, and the Washington State History Museum all in one day, entirely on foot. The trip would also have you around the shops, restaurants, and taverns that surround the University of Washington, Tacoma campus.

Follow the link below, adventurer, and see what Tacoma has to offer. All poetic sentimentality aside, this is a great city to visit for a day, a weekend, or longer.

http://travelicious.world/tacoma-washington-a-city-reborn/