A local relaxes at Nifty Fifty's, a soda fountain in historic Port Townsend
A local relaxes at Nifty Fifty's, a soda fountain in historic Port Townsend.

Photograph by Macduff Everton
In Search of the Authentic, On the Road

By Andrew Nelson

Finding Middle-earth

Whenever I visited Seattle, and the weather was good, I'd be captivated by a mountain range dominating the western horizon. The snow-topped peaks were a mercurial vista, vanishing in fog and rain only to reappear again when the skies cleared. They were aloof and apart from the kinetic city wired on espresso and MSN, and they intrigued me. I grew to think of them as the nearest I'd come to finding the Misty Mountains of Middle-earth—and perhaps an errant Hobbit.

These were the Olympics. First explored by non-natives only in 1890, when a Seattle newspaper sent over an expedition to do so, the Olympics and their peninsula of 3,600 square miles are still surprisingly, romantically wild. Even now no roads traverse the interior, which remains a redoubt of elk and old-growth forest, protected by Olympic National Park and the rugged, saw-toothed peaks of the Olympic Range.

They now offered me a challenge. If I could not drive through them, I would drive around them. I wanted to discover if their heart remained truly wild. I hoped so. The Olympics could not be, like the Misty Mountains themselves, only a popular bit of fiction.

I expected a photogenic coastline and a green landscape that smelled like Christmas. But crossing the Hood Canal Bridge I see and smell nothing. A dense fog renders everything a smoky, sodden gray. As I approach Sequim, a hole of blue appears in the sky, warming the retirees' RVs and lavender farms that cluster around the small town. I'm inside the peninsula's rain shadow—an effect created by the mountains, which drain the Pacific storms. As if cued by a stage manager, the clouds retract, and the Olympics materialize: an alpine watercolor framed by my windshield.

I continue, moving counterclockwise around the northeast corner of the peninsula. At Port Angeles, a logging town (and on the peninsula they are all logging towns), I meet Michele and Kurt Laubenheimer. Both are biologists. Both work in the woods (could they be Hobbits?), she for the national park and he for the forest service. It is all they want.

"Living on the Olympic Peninsula doesn't resemble living anywhere else," Kurt says. "Where else in the world do you have this beautiful coastline, mountains, and glaciers? We like being at the ends of the Earth here."

I ask their advice about my route. Should I follow the 112? That highway takes me to Neah Bay, the westernmost point reachable by car in Washington. Or should I stay true to the 101?

"Stay on the 101 to see Lake Crescent; it's the most beautiful lake in the United States," Michele recommends. "You won't regret it."

I heed her advice. Each bend opens another vista more transcendent than the last. Reaching the lake, under sunny skies, I trace its southern shore, dipping inside the park boundary. The views rival anything in the Alps.

Continuing west I begin seeing roadside ghosts. Titanic stumps, now gray and bleached by the years, dot the fields and forests. Like the ruins of a Roman temple, they are reminders of a golden age when huge hemlocks, spruce, and cedar grew here. Now timber company billboards chart the dates these acres were logged and replanted to remind drivers of industry productivity and jobs—but the ghostly stumps in the middle of smaller pines chill me. Is there anything left from before? I press on to the town of Forks.

Here I meet Dennis Chastain. The good-natured ex-logger uses a chain saw to carve animated figures from Olympic timber. Wood shavings cling to his flannel shirt. In the course of our conversation I learn a few things: that the best wood to carve is western red cedar; that the best tool for detail work is a 12-inch custom-made carving bar; and that $10,000 in logs out back and a stack of commissions in your studio means your life is full.

After admiring his sinuous grouping of salmon and sea otters fashioned from an old cedar stump, I tell Chastain that I should be leaving. My mistake, he says, is my hurry.

"There's more here than meets the eye," he says. "People spend a weekend here and find out it should have been two weeks."

I find that out the next day in the Hoh Rain Forest within the national park. Here is the untouched forest I was hoping for—moss-covered giants drenched by 133 inches of rainfall a year. The Hoh isn't a stand-in for Middle-earth—it is Middle-earth, a supernatural world of fantastic shapes and creatures. Like laser beams, shafts of sunlight pierce the wet air, causing steam to rise wherever they strike the soggy forest floor. The curling mist tugs at a primal sleeve somewhere inside me. A twig snap raises the hair on my neck.

Besides Hobbits, Middle-earth bred orcs and goblins, but here I find only a nature photographer from Kansas City. He's adjusting a tripod, intent on capturing the image of a towering spruce.

Leaving the park is like leaving a good party too soon. When the 101 drops me in Aberdeen, at Gray's Harbor on the peninsula's southern end, I feel sad. The old logging town's downtown is deserted, shabby. These days Aberdeen's claim to fame is native son Kurt Cobain, whose grunge band Nirvana achieved superstardom before he killed himself in 1994. But the town still denies its own a memorial. There must be room somewhere, I think. Perhaps renaming a forest in the musician's honor would be fitting. Trees form an unbroken circle of growth, death, and renewal.

The Olympics are not without their own controversies. Indeed, few landscapes are as politicized. For a long time there was no middle ground in my Middle-earth, as loggers and environmentalists fought each other to a standstill. I don't live here. I can't judge who will win, but it appears tourism and not logging is the future. People don't pay money to see tree stumps.

My journey ends the way all good road trips should: with pie. I'm in Shelton, and I stop a man on the main street to ask: "Where's a good place to eat?"

"Next door," he replies. "Nita's has been there for 40 years."

The café's lunch rush is over, and only one slice survives from the two wild blackberry pies Nita baked that morning. It's mine, and it's delicious. Nita's husband, Jim, is washing dishes behind the counter. He tells me the world's best blackberries come from the Olympics. "The small ones," he says, "they're the sweetest."

You could say that about the roads around here, too.

Olympic Peninsula, Washington

The Route

330 miles. Enter Highway 101 at its junction with Highway 104 (leading from Seattle), then follow it around the peninsula counterclockwise via Port Angeles to Aberdeen; take Highway 12 inland to just west of Olympia, then follow 101 north to complete the loop along the Hood Canal.


Port Townsend is "the most sophisticated place west of Seattle," known for its Victorian architecture, art galleries, and wine bars, says resident Kurt Laubenheimer. The Dungeness Spit near Sequim is a bird-watcher’s paradise. In Olympic National Park: drive to Hurricane Ridge for a panoramic view of snowy peaks; Sol Duc Hot Springs (+1 360 327 3583) offers hot soaks; the Hoh Rain Forest is grand, but many locals prefer the Quinault Rain Forest. “In the summer it sees fewer tourists,” says one.

Recommended Rooms

I loved the five-course gourmet breakfast at the Domaine Madeleine (146 Wildflower La., Port Angeles; 888 811 8376 [U.S. and Canada]; $155–235 U.S.), an elegant B&B. A more rustic choice is Lake Crescent Lodge (416 Lake Crescent Rd., Port Angeles; +1 360 928 3211; $85-142 U.S.); ask for a lakeside cottage with fireplace ($180 U.S.). For views of the Pacific surf and nearby sea stacks, stay at La Push Ocean Park Resort (770 Main St., La Push; +1 360 374 5267; $80-175 U.S.), owned and run by the Quileute tribe. Ask for one of the new cottages. The romantic Lake Quinault Lodge (345 South Shore Road, Quinault; +1 360 288 2571; $78-250 U.S.) is a favorite for weddings.

Good Eating

The new Sawadee Thai Cuisine (271 S. 7th St., Sequim; +1 360 683 8188; $10 U.S.) bustles with locals hungering for fresh curries. At the River’s Edge (41 Main St., La Push; +1 360 374 5777; $20 U.S.) on the Quileute Reservation, order the salmon or halibut. The lively Mercado (111 Market Street N.E., Olympia; +1 360 528 3663; $25 U.S.) serves contemporary Italian dishes. Nita’s Restaurant and Gallery (325 W. Railroad, Shelton; +1 360 426 6143; $7 U.S.) has good diner fare, including berry milk shakes.

Road Kit

North Olympic Visitors and Convention Bureau (800 942 4042 [U.S. and Canada], www.olympicpeninsula.org); Olympic National Park (600 East Park Ave., Port Angeles; +1 360 565 3130, www.nps.gov/olym).



Click here to go to National Geographic Traveler Online Click here to subscribe to National Geographic Traveler