People and Places

Sacred Places

Posted on June 3, 2012


As always with travel, there are places that prove to be less than what you hoped, places that deliver, and places that blow you away.  The Hoh Rainforest, part of the national park, is in the last category and is a national treasure.  It felt like we discovered a sacred place.

In many ways, it is.  Hoh is one of the last large tracts of old growth forest in the US, a place largely untouched by humans aside from the expert hand of the National Park Service (my new favorite federal agency) in whose care it remains.  They provide beautifully maintained trails, occasional signage that explains aspects of what you are seeing (written with a kind of poetry, we became convinced that an English major got a job with the service), and a small visitor’s center.  The ranger with whom we chatted was so knowledgeable with that kind of forest wisdom that felt ancient to us city dwellers.  He was a guardian priest of sorts and the forest was every bit the mystical cathedral or temple.

Instead of stone columns, however, there were soaring Sitka Spruces, Douglas Firs, and Cedars, some well over twenty stories high.  Some of the Sitkas actually reach 300 feet in length.  Moss covered their trunks, draped like fabric from their limbs, and was often iridescently green, creating the illusion of sunlight in this place where it is almost always raining or misting or pouring.  The Hoh, as locals calls it, gets 160 inches of rain a year and another 30 inches of “tree drip” from the canopy that catches condensation from the frequent coastal fog.  It is as fertile and fecund a place as we have ever visited.  It is nature almost riotously life giving.

Every inch of soil is covered with moss or ferns or trees or some other form of plant life.  Fallen trees decay and become “nurse logs” to new saplings that grow from them.  Those saplings form roots around the nurse log and into the ground and the nurse log eventually rots away so the base of the new trees have a web of roots that are above ground and through which you can see light and air.  Some are so large you can walk through them and they are called “buttresses,” evoking the flying buttresses of medieval cathedrals.  Because some of these fallen nurse logs can be 200 feet long, they support multiple new saplings all in a row and when those trees mature and reach their towering heights, they stand in imposing neck craning array like a colonnade.

We saw a herd of Roosevelt Elk as we drove into the rainforest and a black bear crossing the road on the way out (we were one of “lucky ones,” according to the ranger).  We saw recently hatched salmon in the creek.  We saw hummingbirds and Stellar’s Jays, vibrantly blue with sort of out-of-style mohawks.  When we pulled over to admire the elk herd, their ears went up and they kept a careful eye on us as they slowly walked away.  Only one female surprisingly remained in place and we wondered why and then just twenty feet from the side of the road her baby sprung from the tall bushes that had hidden him from our view and walked on gangly legs to join mom.  She nuzzled him, rebuffed his attempt to nurse, and led him away.  It was just one of many take your breath away moments in the Hoh.

We also stopped at Ruby Beach, one of more famous beaches along the 73 miles of wild coastline in the Park.  Ruby is much photographed because of its “sea stacks,” tall rock formations out in the water, often topped with trees and vegetation and battered by the constant surf.  They are rock remnants of the earlier coastline and create dramatic backdrops when shrouded in spray or mist.  At Ruby Beach and in Hoh we were reminded of the joy that comes with visiting places in the off season.  We were mostly alone and the only sounds were those of surf or water dripping or bird calls.  Someone in nearby Forks told us that a spot in Hoh has been named quietest place on earth.  While I’m not sure how they’d know, it is easy to believe. 

We’re coming up on Father’s Day, the day my own father passed away and it’s hard to believe that it is almost twenty years now.  A little sadness comes upon me every year at this time before I remember what day approaches and I thought of my father often as we walked through the forests.  He loved nothing better than a walk in the woods.    It is said that my grandmother dressed him in bright red when he was a child because he often would wander off and fall asleep in a hay field or under a tree.  The red made it easier to find him.  He wasn’t a big church going guy, my father (more a duty than a conviction for him, I think), but if he could have seen the forest yesterday he would have thought he had glimpsed heaven on earth.

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