A Weekend in Washington I

Hi. I hope you had a nice weekend. I’m sure I’ll hear about it on Facebook.

I had a nice time. I finished the dragon banner for my nephew Solomon’s eleventh birthday party, then drove up to Seattle to deliver it and help with the party. Kite-themed party, with about twenty kids from Solo and his dad James’ apartment complex. They bought twenty kites from the dollar store, threaded them with fishing line, and proceeded to watch as everything became a tangled mess. Good grief.

I had also brought my own kite, a monster of a thing, this huge red-with-white rectangular thing about six feet wide by two feet deep. Well, and I would have flown it, too. The kids would have totally loved it. It can really get you airborne if you’re not careful! As the kids ran to the field across the street, I was still in the party room at the apartment cabana, untangling a Gordian knot for a girl whose parents had already come to pick her up. Why did I do this impossible and thankless task? To be honest, I thought some kid would inevitably get their kite tangled or stuck in a tree, and I would have then this nice new one that they could use, left behind by the little girl with pigtails.

For nearly an hour I sat there untangling one knot at a time as my sister Rebecca—Rebz—busied herself the way a dervish might, and monologuing all the while (“—because that’s just it, you can doctor any cake mix, but you can’t fix the frosting, you have to make that from scratch, there’s no fooling that one—weight loss is so important, but it’s all about how much and what kind of calories you eat, going to the gym has no real effect, I keep trying to tell Darryl because let’s face it, he sits around the house all day in front of that computer and—this whole kite party idea was ill-conceived, I mean, you can’t just buy a bunch of kites and, c’mon, fishing line?, and expect the kids to know how to get them up, three quarters of them—no, okay, you’re right, maybe two-thirds—won’t even get them up in the air, and we have to go through all THIS—here, you might try untangling it one knot at a time, give me that—”).

By the time I got the thing untangled—I actually just gave up near the end and cut the string and tied the two loose ends together, what kid will notice? Two-thirds of them won’t even get it up!—and brought it with my big kite across the street, the kids were winding down. Ha, literally I guess. I methodically set out my big kite, unfolding and unfurling with great delicacy, and laying out the strings and nylon tethers so as not to get them tangled themselves or confused as to which side goes where. I figured out the knot that I needed to tie, a sort of cinched loop, and voila! Just like that, my big kite after a two year hiatus was finally ready to fly and James and Darryl were rounding up the kids to bring them back in for cake and ice cream and the pool party phase of the day.

I was left sitting there in the field by myself with a ready-to-fly monster of a kite and the kids all gone, having taken the wind with them.

“C’mon Uncle Zak!” called Solo from across the street. “Cake and ice cream!” Good grief.

Other kids I didn’t know joined in—one of those fleeting things you do as a kid, the involuntary echoing of the masses—”C’mon Uncle Zak! Cake! Ice cream!”

I had one of those cartoon wisps of smoky frustration frizzle above my big round head. I proceeded to untie the cinched loops, rewind the nylon tethers, refurl the red-with-white kite, stuff it all back into the long red nylon pouch that it came in, and trudge back across the street.

The rest of the party was better planned and more seamlessly executed, in that it lacked a real plan and just required us adults to sit around poolside and make sure the horseplay wasn’t excessive and that no one drowned. Depending on who you asked, splashing an adult was either an offense worthy of a stern rebuke and warning to be careful, or else an innocent and acceptable by-product of the classic experiment where you try to dissolve kids in pools.

Angie was on call until seven a.m. Though she didn’t get called back in that night, she didn’t sleep much, but in the morning she slept a lot. I made coffee at eight and read a graphic novel in bed. I’ve been readingh the series Y: The Last Man by Brian Vaughan and Pia Guerrera and I am hooked. It’s about a mysterious plague that suddenly and irrevocably wipes out every last mammal with a Y chromosome. Except for two: a wise-ass slacker named Yorick and his Capuchin monkey, Ampersand. Neither are traditional heroes, and neither have powers, unless you count Yorick’s obsession with escape tricks, and Ampersand’s poo-flinging ability. I might go into more detail about this series another time (though as a reviewer I know I’m behind the curve on this one, as the last issue was published a couple years ago). Suffice it to say, it is thoroughly engrossing and mildly thought-provoking, with plenty of English major-y references to keep me loyal.

I came downstairs finally at nine-thirty and farted around. I wrote. Added two more pages to Wayward Sister. Still haven’t figured out how or when to explain the title. I figure it’ll either happen naturally or it won’t, and if it doesn’t I’ll change the title.

An explanation then. When Orange County seceded (amicably) from Los Angles in 1889, on account of its growing wealth from the citrus industry—to say nothing of an already evident cultural drift—the headline of the major paper, the Los Angeles Express, read “Wayward Sister, Depart in Peace.” So there it is. Wayward Sister refers to Orange County.

And the send-off, I think, is both oddly funny and somewhat telling. For a state that constantly reinvents itself, and invites its citizens to do the same, the overtly cheery, straight-laced, predominantly conservative Orange County is no different. Its conservatism and bucolic suburbanism are no less an invention, and no less real, than any other culture superimposed on a landscape. But what amuses me in that is the interplay—occasional, fleeting and pervasive—of those cultural ideals with the concept of the West.

If Northern California’s mythos is that of the Gold Rush, then Southern California’s is that of the missions. But ask anyone in America if California is a Western state, you might get a response like, “Well, it’s west.” Think of the bumper stickers that refer to the “Left Coast.” The West—as an idea, a mythos, a culture—stops at the California border. It stops at Yuma, Carson City, and Coeur d’Alene (though up north, the line blurs as Idaho and parts of Montana lay claim to the Sasquatch-and-volcano territory of the Northwest). I worked with an author at Heyday Books, Gerald Haslam, who is a modern-day Twain and a scholar of such things, and he had even written an essay once asking if California was “the West.” Sure there are many subcategories of West in this country. But in my mind, something is “Western” in the broad, cultural sense if it satisfies two criteria: (1) it should be west of the Mississippi River, and (2) it is the Wet if people think it is.

I won’t go into a long discourse on defining the cultural traits of the West and Western culture (as in, cowboys and such?—there, I did it. Real couth.) but anyway, this is the milieu that my graphic novel inhabits. It is as much about the identity of a place and how that identity is formed as it is about its characters. Of course, I leave such theorizin’ and postulatin’ to the blog and to sundry drunken conversations, and generally try to keep the story just a story. Rollickin’ is the only adjective I’d like to nail there.

So: upon rising from her epic slumber, my wife suggested we go for a Sunday drive. The meandering kind, typically aimless and often frustrating to other drivers to the rear of us. A splendid idea, sez I. Though I already had a destination in mind: the high steel bridge in Mason County, on the Olympic Peninsula.

I had found it one time as I was poring over a map of Washington in Google Maps. You know how you can toggle a button and photos pop up that were taken by random people, geotagged and uploaded to Google for your viewing pleasure? I use it to find interesting places to visit. If I see an unusual photo or a cluster of photos in the same location, chances are it’s a good spot to visit. Especially if that cluster shows up on a map in an otherwise empty area. Like the southeast corner of Olympic National Park, near Hood Canal.

When you click on the location, a little box pops up onscreen with the Wikipedia entry for High Steel Bridge: “High Steel Bridge is a truss arch bridge that spans the south fork of the Skokomish River in Mason County, Washington. It was built in 1929 by Simpson…” The ellipses are right there, and you can click to read more, but I find it to be the perfect length. Who needs more? It’s a high, steel bridge over a deep, dark gorge in a lush, green rainforest. Let’s go!

It rained all day. Sometimes no more than a vindictive drizzle, other times a wailing downpour. We drove south from Tacoma through Olympia then up Highway 101 along the fecund green crotch of Puget Sound, through farmland and past Indian casinos up towards Hood Canal and the Skokomish River. It is a byzantine landscape, the warp and weave of which make absolutely no sense whatsoever. It’s the sort of place that nature invented to lose any primates that get too uppity. It’s the sort of place for which God invented GPS.

Sure, the roads are generally well-marked and the highways well-paved, but still there’s a meandering, Jurassic feeling to the place that only grows the deeper into the Olympic Peninsula you go. And here we were, leaving the interstate for a smaller highway, then taking a left on Skokomish River Valley Road and wending up a charming little farming valley surrounded by the steep walls of the rising Olympic Mountains and pressed upon by a buttery fog that seemed to trap the light and make for some fantastic photos. This is the what you think of when you think “Pacific Northwest.” Throw in some alderwood smoked Chinook salmon and some Chukar Cherries and you’ve got a vacation package.

Up we went from the valley road along a nominally paved Forest Service road, straight up the side of a cliff, past clear-cut bluffs and vertiginous vistas. From there we took another, smaller logging road, unpaved and generous with spectacular potholes. About three miles in, we abruptly came to it. It doesn’t look like much from the approach: concrete poured into a hidden steel frame. We parked between two car-sized craters on the side of the road and walked out onto the bridge (it was only drizzling passive aggressively now, the water skipping my jacket and going for my t-shirt beneath).

Normally I’m not the one afraid of heights, I don’t get that pit in my stomach, though, truth be told, if I look from a precipice down any distance that would pair with the term “splat,” I literally will feel it in my balls. And I suppose I would, too: brains are relatively dumb—it’s the reproductive organs that have self-preservation in mind 24/7. That tingle I feel? Primitive alarm bells telling me that photos are available for purchase online, and to please terra firma right away.

Angie, the one who freaked out on the sky-tram at the Minnesota State Fair, was doing cartwheels on the aluminum railing six hundred eighty-five feet up.

Just kidding. They were handstands.

Anyway, we got our pictures taken—from a crouch at the railing, camera strap pulled tight, arm extended outward, aiming by looking more or less at where the lens seemed to be pointing—and then packed it in. The trail leading down the gorge for a better view seemed too steep and muddy for such a day, and my loins were telling me that there were some great sights to see closer to sea level.

We got back to the highway just fine, and instead of turning back to Olympia we decided to go the distance. We’d drive up the length of Hood Canal and come back across the Hood Canal Bridge and down Kitsap Peninsula, through Gig Harbor and over the Tacoma Narrows Bridge back home. Seemed totally easy. It was six-forty, but it should only take us a couple hours and it doesn’t actually get dark here now until about eight-thirty (we blessed Washingtonians are quite literally enlightened: this far north in latitude the sun does some trippy things, setting at four in the afternoon in the deepest winter days, and staying up in the sky until ten-thirty at night at the peak of summer).

Of course, traveling along a two-lane road at forty miles an hour along one of the most breathtakingly scenic routes on Earth takes a bit longer in practice. Don’t make the same mistake we made: pack some snacks. It’s only a couple hours, but when it’s eight-thirty and it’s getting dark and you haven’t eaten since two and you are only just reaching the Hood Canal Bridge that signals re-entry to major highways and civilization, a granola bar might be the only thing keeping you from exploring the mysteries of cannibalism.

Seriously though, it was a beautiful drive along Hood Canal—heading north the passenger side gets the primo view—and we kept our hunger pangs and our civility, for the most part, until we reached Poulsbo, the Norwegian town at the north end of Kitsap where Angie and I got married just seven months ago. Unfortunately our two favorite places on Front Street—Sogno diVino and Mor Mor Bistro—had just closed. It being nine o’clock p.m. on a Sunday evening. So we dragged ourselves back to the highway, where the strip malls finally panned out: we found a delightful little Mexican joint that served up some friendly carnitas and enchiladas that we devoured like lost primates.

It was pouring when we left, but the roads were empty and, aside from the excitement of some strong sideways winds and torrential rain, we made it home from Poulsbo in less than an hour. It was eleven p.m. Not bad for a daytrip that didn’t start until about three o’clock. We went straight to bed. We both slept well.



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  1. Zak.
    As an avid and somewhat picky reader……I am totally delighted by your descriptions and am so, so, so happy that you’ve decided to explore this whole “writing” thing further. Your descriptions of the precipitation (passive agressive!) were spot-on.

    Looking forward to it.

  2. The calibre of your writing is impressive, as I’ve already noted. Even more impressive is the fact that you can write faster than I can read.

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