The View From Way Up Here

The winner of Huckberry's third Explorer's Grant muses on the past, her present, and the evergreen future of Olympic National Park
September 1, 2016Words by Aelwen WetherbyPhotos By Andy Best

This past spring, we upped the ante with our third Explorer's Grant by partnering with four of our ambassadors and Outside magazine to bring one lucky Huckberry reader and a friend along on the trip of a lifetime. Of tens of thousands of entrees, historian Aelwen Wetherby was chosen as our winner, and was led by photographer and Huckberry Ambassador Andy Best through the lush rainforests, moody stretches of coastline, and snow-capped peaks of Olympic National Park.

To open a map of the Olympic Peninsula is to reveal a patchwork of place. Spread out across the floor of our living room, my eyes wander across scraps of faded greens and golds and purples and browns, designating each parcel of park and refuge and reservation and town. Following the threads of highways and trails, I see the beginnings of countless stories, stories of the past and stories that have yet to be told.

What did this corner of the world look like one hundred years ago? One thousand years ago?

It is difficult to explore this most northwestern corner of the contiguous United States without marveling at its history. It probably helps that I am, by practice, a historian. But I challenge you to stand at the base of a Sitka spruce reaching nearly 200 feet into the sky and try not to think about the life it took to reach such heights. Or to stare into the rings of a fallen Douglas fir without wondering just how many there are and the events each marked by each circumferential circle. What did this corner of the world look like one hundred years ago? One thousand years ago?   

 

Our own small chapter history of the Olympics began in a Trader Joe’s parking lot in Olympia, Washington, where my boyfriend Ralph and I met Andy Best and his wife, Erica. A perfectly natural thing, we laughed later, to meet up with two strangers and go grocery shopping together. 

The challenge and the skill in seeking beauty is in how we choose to honor it and how we choose to share it.  

The days that follow have already become a blur in my mind of winding roads framed by massive evergreens, forest floors carpeted with seemingly prehistoric ferns, sea air in which we could practically taste the salt, the spitting of rain across our faces, conversations held over the crinkle of raincoat hoods, happy dogs living a life outside. We bounced between Andy’s researched list of sights and places, guided by the weather and the words of wisdom of the locals, seeking beauty. Which took very little skill to find; it was everywhere. The challenge and the skill in seeking beauty is in how we choose to honor it and how we choose to share it.  

In the Olympics, the years leading up to World War II saw a new wave of development in the tradition of wild tourism. Workers completed the Olympic Peninsula Loop highway, modern-day U.S. 101, in August of 1931. More roads and more automobiles brought more people to more places, bringing the beauty of the wild a little closer. Although the National Park Service had been at work for several decades, the 1930s saw a flurry of activity and investment across the country in new parks and monuments.

Olympic National Park became one of these on June 29, 1938, after a visit by President Roosevelt himself. By then, the native peoples of the land had already been committed to reservations and the peninsula had begun to be parceled by other entities. With the forest at its heart, the Olympic Peninsula became a battleground between competing interests, federal agencies, and an even more fundamental clash of philosophies about our relationship to the wild underpinning of it all.  

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Entering nature, we are welcomed by a sense of place that renews our connection to the things that matter most.

Turning off of U.S. 101, we wound our way up into the Hoh Rain Forest, the road steeped in mossy green. We stopped at a small gift shop, promising “ADVENTURES HERE” in big bold letters. We walked inside and spoke to the proprietor, who told us of her favorite trails. I bought a book, and on our way back out to the car, a man approached us and gestured to the cover. “That’s my grandfather,” he said, smiling. Beneath a title promising stories of gods and goblins and a history of names, a strapping young man, shirtless, sits astride a horse on a hillside, looking out across mountains of green. “He had just come back from the war and this photographer came out here and wanted to take some pictures,” his grandson explained. He spoke briefly of time in battle on a distant Pacific island.

As I imagine the contrast he must have found between the brutality of war and the peace of these woods and mountains, I am reminded of why these places will always be important. Entering nature, we are invited back into a community and welcomed by a sense of place that renews our connection to the things that matter most.

 

This year marks the centennial of our national parks. Instagram is filled with snapshots of alpine trails and red rock canyons, and the media reports record-breaking numbers of visitors – 307 million in 2015 alone. To put that number in perspective, when the National Park Service first began collecting data in 1904, there were 120,690 visits across six national parks. Today, Outside magazine cited recent studies estimating the financial might of the outdoor industry – for which our parks offer one of the most popular playgrounds – to exceed that of pharmaceuticals or cars, at $646 billion.  

There is great beauty in our parks, but our access to that beauty dances a fine line between sustaining it and destroying it.

There is great beauty in our parks, but our access to that beauty dances a fine line between sustaining it and destroying it. I am grateful for the Olympic Peninsula Loop highway and the places that it leads. That road opened a magical corner of the world to a public that has benefited from its beauty – and offered popular support for the protection of its still-wild spaces. But, as I can never help thinking on my way to a new adventure, the very means of transport we so often require to navigate to the wild may also threaten the underlying fabric of it. For now, Olympic forests continue to be bathed in green, still isolated from the evergreen beetles that have swept so many western forests with swaths of deadened orange. And the Elwha River, dams dismantled, reminds us of the tremendously restorative power of life when given the chance to be wild.

And here, 8,000 feet in the air, Ralph asks me to marry him and it is here that I say yes.

Our map of the Olympics is a temporary creation, but it is also a history of our choices. Names of rivers and forests play hide and seek with the fact that this land has not always been American, its forests and mountains not always a park. Looking down onto it from the seats of our seaplane, Olympic National Park is a completely different world than the map of it suggests. Peering out the open window, hands numb with cold from pointing a camera into the frigid air whipping past us, no boundaries can be seen between this parcel of land and that one. The view from way up here is a seemingly endless sequence of mountain ridges, pristine snowfields, and the dance of clouds in and out of the valleys.  

And it is here, 8,000 feet in the air, where Ralph asks me to marry him and it is here that I say yes. However surprising and unexpected the moment felt, it was a choice that hardly felt like a choice, because it was something my heart had already decided. Not all choices are so easy, but these are the kinds for which I am always grateful.

What I would wish, as one who loves both history and the wild, is for all of us to choose to dig a little deeper the next time we visit a wild place.

What I would wish, as one who loves both history and the wild, is for all of us to choose to dig a little deeper the next time we visit a wild place. Get to know the life of the ground on which we choose to stand. Discover the history of a name. Learn what battles were fought and lost and won to make the quilt of our land what it is today. Catch a glimpse of that expansive sense of time and space offered by the natural world that reminds us that we are one small part of something bigger, one person of many who have come before us and all those who have yet to follow. Find in this, hopefully, a little more wisdom and a little more joy.

We arrived at the Olympics with so much – a new tent and the prospect of adventure. We left with even more – new friends, the memories of campfires, a borrowed engagement ring, and a renewed sense of what is deeply important. [H]

Aelwen is a historian and the winner of the Explorer's Grant 3.0. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska.

 


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