The Round Years: 50

A signature story.

In retrospect, I should not have been surprised. It was a rain forest, after all, the only temperate rain forest in the contiguous U.S. You expect certain kinds of behavior from a rain forest, at least you should, but I was lured by bright sunlight on a glorious day in Forks, Washington. Only later did I come to realize that Forks and sunlight were oxymoronic.

“That, of course, was before Forks became a spaceport.”

The town of Forks lies on the edge of the Hoh Rainforest. It’s a town carved from primeval wilderness that has been undone by a small, spotted owl. Not much happens in Forks these days.

There’s a novel about a young girl who moved from Phoenix to Forks and fell in love with a vampire. It’s an oddly appropriate storyline for a town with empty, echoing streets and a liquor store that sells shotgun shells. (They seem to have identified a market opportunity in drunken hunters.)

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Maybe the only thing currently thriving in Forks.

That, of course, was before Forks became a space port. The Rubicon, an entry in the X-Prize competition, was launched from Forks, exploded spectacularly mid-air, and littered the Pacific Ocean with bits of mangled mannequin. The bits later washed up on the beach, puzzling tourists. Since its failure in sub-orbital tourism, Forks has again descended into an unquiet stupor.

Forks was roundly condemned as “a festering wound of a town” by Dave Gilmartin in his book The Absolutely Worst Places to Live in America. That seems harsh; Gilmartin’s attitude was likely soured by his subject matter. The research must have been tiresome.

We came to Forks initially to survey a plot of land for a campsite. The land on the Bogachiel River was owned by friends. Since their property was buried in thick forest several hundred yards from the access road, they guided us to the place the week before my 50th birthday.

“How do you explain to an insurance adjuster that your windshield was shattered by a dead fish?”

It was a glorious day. Sunlight glinted from the rivers. The air smelled of pine and cedar. When we pulled off the highway onto a dirt road, the car flushed a bald eagle. The eagle was in the middle of the road dismembering a salmon. It was a large salmon, almost too heavy for the eagle to lift. As it struggled to gain altitude, we were closing the distance between us at 30 miles per hour. I braked hard and the eagle swept overhead, its wings laboring, dragging the dead salmon through the air, barely clearing our windshield. (How do you explain to an insurance adjuster that your windshield was shattered by a dead fish?)

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We found an ideal campsite on a bend of the Bogachiel, a sand bar backed by towering trees. We scrambled over river stones, ate peanut butter sandwiches, got sunburned—a good day. As it turned out, not a typical day.

My wife, Linda, tends to pack for a camping trip as if it were an invasion. I agree entirely with her preparedness; it’s humping all that gear through the woods that’s my problem. It was already late in the day and the light was failing before we finished the dozen trips required to move our gear from car to campsite. And it was raining.

Apparently it had been raining since we left the week before. The Bogachiel had inundated our intended campsite—the pleasant sand bar at the bend in the river. Our alternative was a patch of sword ferns beneath Western red cedar dripping with moss. The cedar and Douglas-fir created a canopy that utterly blocked the sky.

By the time we had erected a tent large enough to accommodate a squad of soldiers with battle gear and crawled into our cots (camping with cots is part of preparedness), the dogs were sodden and shivering. Sharing a camp cot with a wet Portuguese Water Dog is an experience I no longer recommend.

“The romantic days of a man and his chainsaw are gone, replaced by a monstrous machine with an awkward name.”

Next day was similar, and the day after that, and the day after that… It rained. It rained hard or soft or sometimes like gossamer but it rained. And for several hours the next day military aircraft streaked across the sky. There were fast attack aircraft, bombers and cargo planes. It went on for hours. A military exercise, likely, but we had no radio, no cell phone coverage, no news of the world. It  was disquieting. And then they began dismembering the forest around us.

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The ominous Feller Buncher. 

The romantic days of a man and his chainsaw are gone, replaced by a monstrous machine with the awkward name of Feller Buncher. The machine began felling and bunching around 8:00 am next morning. The forest echoed with the sound of its circular saw and the crack of trees tossed callously aside by the man in an air-conditioned cab. Like the rain, it continued day after day after…

On the fourth day of a vacation intended to last a week, I broke. It happened after attempting to shower from a black bag suspended from a mossy branch. The blackness of the bag was intended to absorb the warmth of the sun. Unfortunately, there is precious little sunlight in a rain forest. Next day we broke camp and bought a trailer.

Signature stories are those we continue to tell throughout our lives, the stories that define our history and shape our future.

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