American Road Trip: Washington

When you are raised in an island nation in the middle of the ocean you usually cross borders at an airport after at least a 3-hour flight.  It feels like a physical thing because you actually take off from your own country, cross a lot of water then land in a whole other country.  So the whole concept of land borders where crossing an invisible line takes you into a totally different place seems a bit crazier to us islanders than it perhaps does to the rest of the world.

I’ll never forget standing on the White Cliffs of Dover at the tender age of 12 and seeing France across the English Channel.  It seemed unreal that you could see another country from the country you were in.  Since then I’ve done more land border crossings than I can count (some by accident I might add) and they never fail to fascinate me.  What changes?  How do you know you are somewhere different?  Does someone hand you a brochure to explain the local laws and customs?  Sadly they don’t but that is a great idea if I do say so myself.

But what I’ve realised is that you always do know you’ve entered a new realm even if you are only crossing a state line in the USA.  I was reminded of this when I crossed from Oregon into California last week.  All the sudden there was a ton of signs sternly yet helpfully reminding me how to stay alive.  They covered every topic from turning my headlights on in tunnels to not letting dogs crap in rest areas.  The roads seemed to be paved with extra-smooth concrete yet when I crossed back into bouncy Oregon it was like ‘just have fun and we trust you to sort out your dog’s crap’.

Sometimes the geographical differences are so stark it seems like someone specifically drew the line based on that fact and it certainly felt that way when I crossed the Astoria-Megler bridge from Oregon into Washington.  I’ll admit that it coincided with a change to overcast weather but it still was obvious I’d crossed into a new place where brooding and dramatic scenery replaced the blue and green Oregon coast and things seemed to get more serious.

I spent the next 4 days driving US-101 and whilst the route appears to follow the coast much of it is in fact through magical forests that are just like the ones you imagine in fairy tales.  There were a few parts that involved winding mountain drives but mostly the route meanders gently through these forests and occasionally along the coastline offering beautiful ocean vistas.

On the first day I headed through Willapa Bay and logging country to Ocean Shores where I checked into one of the cutest motels I’ve ever seen.  I spent 2 nights there and the next day was cold with a blustering gale so I decided to take a break from driving to enjoy my cosy room whilst catching up on writing and sorting through the hundreds of photos I’d already taken.  I was in danger of experiencing my trip through a camera lens which is something I often warn people against so I resolved to spend less time taking photos and more time soaking things up with my own eyes.  If it is worth remembering I will remember it with or without a photo.

The next morning dawned warm and sunny so I struck north for a day I will never forget.  There were sun-dappled roads through the forest, beautiful stretches of coastline and I was just in a very happy mood.  I finally got round to plugging in my iPod and will always remember meandering up the stunning highway south of Forks with Simple Minds blaring and a huge smile on my face.

After checking into my slightly depressing motel around noon I decided to head for Neah Bay and Cape Flattery, the western most point of the contiguous United States.  The route leaves US-101 a little north of Forks, climbs over some ranges and then down onto the North Coast.  This is a low, narrow and winding road that hugs a beautiful coastline with views over the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Canada pretty much the whole way.  It is not uncommon to spot a few species of whale from various waypoints marked along the route.  Soon I was entering the Makah Reservation and the town of Neah Bay. The road passes through river estuary wetlands then makes a steep climb through beautiful rain forest to the Cape Flattery parking lot where you can take a short trail to the actual Cape.

I packed up my valuables into my purse and headed onto the trail where my spidey sense kicked into overdrive.  The forest was silent and foreboding, I was totally alone and it just didn’t feel right.  I decided to backtrack to read some posted information to check how long the walk would take however the only thing I noticed was a sign that casually mentioned cougar sightings on the path with a warning to keep children close.


As I was alone and didn’t have any children to throw as a diversion to any hungry cougars or bears, I decided that I’d pretty much got to the western most point of the contiguous US.  I was only about 300 feet away so my work here was done.  So just like that time I spent all day traveling from Delhi to the Taj Mahal then couldn’t be bothered going inside the Taj Mahal, I hopped back in my car, cranked up the music and headed contentedly back to Forks without bothering myself with those extra 300 steps to the Cape.  This is why I need to travel alone…nobody else would put up with that crap.

I had a bizarre night in Forks that involved teenagers who looked nothing like Bella, Edward or Jacob from Twilight drag-racing their cars up and down the main street.  I also had to listen to a woman talk for a very long time about how she likes her gravy on the side of her grits not on top, a fact that ‘dem city folk just don’t understand’ and was then kept awake by a guy snoring in the room next door.  Despite all this I woke refreshed and spent my last day in Washington driving to the very end of US-101 around Olympic National Park all the way to Olympia.  I then took I-5 north to Gig Harbor where I spent the afternoon catching up with a friend in this very pretty town.  After a short drive up to the airport I caught a midnight flight to Dallas-Fort Worth Airport then onto Little Rock where I’ll start my odyssey through The South.

Highlights:  Willapa Bay  |  The drive between Sunset Beach and Forks  |  Neah Bay & the Strait of Juan de Fuca

Best accommodation find:  Oasis Motel, Ocean Shores

Something I didn’t know last week:  I have cougar spidey sense.  Also that there are dry Native American Reservations and the Makah Reservation is one of them.  For those outside the US that means that the sale and consumption of alcohol is outlawed.

My biggest regret:  Not having more time for the interior of Washington however I may try to squeeze that in at the end of my trip.

Songs I played the loudest:  Alive & Kicking, Simple Minds  |  A&E, Goldfrapp  |  Ace of Spades, Motorhead  |  Adagio for Strings, both the DJ Tiesto and NZ Symphony Orchestra versions  |  Africa, Toto   |  All Along the Watchtower, Jimi Hendrix  |  All the Lovers, Kylie Minogue  |  Amityville, Eminem  (I’m working my way through all songs on my iPod alphabetically, thus why these all start with A)


Washington Slideshow

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