By Steve Guntli
We round a rocky switchback on the narrow trail and nature’s splendor unfurls before us. Treetops so tall they block the sun. Crystalline drops of dew cascading down from the mossy branches like manna from heaven. A glorious waterfall carving its way through the centuries-old limestone and falling, gracefully yet ferociously, into the chasm below. The Olympic National Forest, in its pure sylvan splendor, is putting on a show.
And once again, I’m stuck out here, forced to look at it.
You’d think my wife Nicole would have learned her lesson by now. Four years we’ve been together, and I’ve made every outdoor excursion insufferable. Why would this one be any different? Sure, we were touring the Olympic Peninsula to celebrate our one-year wedding anniversary, but hey, she knew what she was getting into, so why put on airs?
But I suppose she did go out of her way to be accommodating. She chose a bed and breakfast in nearby Sequim that boasted a huge collection of classic movies we could rent free of charge in our downtime. She promised only two relatively short excursions into the dreaded wilderness: one to Sol Duc Falls and another to Hurricane Hill, with the caveat that we may take occasional detours if the mood struck. She let me choose the restaurants and dictate the music/podcasts we listened to on the drive. And she let me bring my crankiness pillow, into which I could bury my face and scream when the whole of God’s creation proved to have too few screens and inadequate Wi-Fi.
We started our day early, which was the first sign it was going to be terrible. It’s a well-documented fact that nothing worth doing ever started before 8 a.m. We left the cozy confines of our lovely seaside bungalow (from which we witnessed a seagull successfully battle a bald eagle) and headed for the visitor center to pick up some maps and vital information before heading to Sol Duc Falls, a good hour and a half away.
About an hour into the journey, Nicole exercised her right to convince me to pull off at Lake Crescent, a huge and almost unbelievably clean and clear body of water. My wife is convinced this will make an excellent photo opportunity for the article she knows I’ll eventually write about this trip. And despite my protestations, the universe seemed determined to throw photo ops my way.
First we walked to the end of a jetty to take in the (and I really can’t emphasize this enough) ridiculously clear water in the lake. As if on cue, a family of ducks, including three or four calendar-worthy babies just learning to swim, paddled by. And then a rambunctious and photogenic teenage boy ran down the dock and dove headfirst into the water. And just in case I and the other random photographers out that day missed it the first time, he did it three more times for us.
So OK, I grudgingly had to give Nicole points for that one. That was pretty cool. But then we got to Sol Duc and my mood turned sour once again. Yes, the park is beautiful, but I grew up in Colorado, very literally in the middle of the forest. My childhood home was 20 miles from the nearest gas station, and each bus ride to school was a two-and-a-half hour ordeal both ways. I spent my formative years surrounded by the best that Mother Nature had to offer, and I grew inured to big trees decades ago.
I mentally checked my grouchiness gauge and found the needle had tipped past “curmudgeon” and was approaching “Andy Rooney,” so I made an effort to tone it down as Nicole and I headed up the trail. Nicole promised this wouldn’t be a long hike, but she’s a marathon runner; her perception of “long” is about 26 miles more than mine. I tried to lock her in to a specific number, but she remained noncommittal. I think her hope was the majesty of the trail would overwhelm me and I’d finally decide to be a trooper before she had to set a deadline. No such luck.
The trail was nice as trails go. Lots of rocks, lots of trees, lots of rain. Somewhere along the way, the thought entered my mind that perhaps I’m the problem. Maybe the reason I get like this has nothing to do with the exercise or the changes in elevation and everything to do with the fact that being out here heightens the disconnect between myself and my perception of “normal.” “Normal” people seek out activities like this, take great solace and enjoyment from hiking and snowshoeing and running half-marathons. Maybe I get upset because trips like this just emphasize how alien I can feel at times, how removed I am from the norm, and that upsets me more than anything else.
And then I think, “Nah. This is just dumb. Let’s go home.”
The next day’s excursion to Hurricane Hill was much more fruitful. The drive was less arduous and the trail guide Nicole had snagged from the visitor’s center promised views of the ocean from our destination. Since the ocean still held some novelty for my landlocked heart, I set out on this hike with a forced positive attitude.
Hurricane Hill was the polar opposite of Sol Duc: wide open spaces as opposed to claustrophobic foliage, high elevations compared to gentle slopes.
And marmots. Oh, the marmots. There were so many marmots on this trail I just about lost my mind. I made it my goal to photograph as many of them as possible. I worked out names and elaborate backstories for each of them. I determined who would win in fights between these fabricated marmots and my favorite superheroes (Wolverine would beat Murray the Marmot, but Mortimer would triumph over Captain America, due to his marmot powers).
I was so engrossed with the Marmot Expanded Universe that I almost didn’t notice when we reached the top of the hill and saw the beautiful, endless expanse of… fog. No ocean, no vistas, just lots and lots of fog. We trudged back down the mountain, poor in eye candy but rich in marmot-related shenanigans.
On the way back home, as we considered the value of making reservations while waiting for hours to catch our ferry, Nicole asked if there would ever be a point that I would enjoy doing stuff like this. Like, really enjoy it, beyond my innate desire to turn everything I do into an opportunity for sarcasm.
And I didn’t really know how to answer that question. I very much want to enjoy these activities, because my wife enjoys them and I enjoy my wife. I want to make her happy, but I have to wonder if going along on these trips and being super annoying is working towards that end.
In answer to her question, I told her that I’m trying, and in the meantime, I’ll let my sarcasm guide me. Even when there are no marmots to fuel my imagination.