By Brother Stavros
My brother used to kid me: “Why would a monk cooped up in a monastery all year want to go to an even more remote place for ‘retreat?’” “I don’t know—you’d just have to live here,” I would answer. Truth is, in the heart of every monk or nun lives some fascination for the wilds. I’ve indulged this attraction, usually including water, at places like a small island in Lake George, a big island in Narragansett Bay, and Cape Lookout in Oregon. Most of the time my trip has been supported by benefactor friends, and the time is determined by our two yearly breaks. This February I reached the apex of remoteness: Cape Flattery and the Makah Indian Reservation at the northwestern-most tip of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. You can go no farther west on this continent without going to Alaska.
My northern odyssey was based at a monkish 1950’s motel cabin in Port Angeles with a view of the Olympic Mountains to the south and the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north. My quest for solitude, silence and scenic beauty was abundantly met.
On my first excursion, I envisioned a major Zen walk along the Dungeness Spit. Named by the British explorer George Vancouver in 1792, it is the longest sand spit in North America: some 5.5 miles long. When I reached the little park and nature preserve at its base, the sun came out, triggering several rainbows. It became quickly obvious that I wasn’t going to make it to the lighthouse at the tip. The tide was coming in, reducing the spit’s width to under 300 feet, and the rigor of going over or around huge beached logs of Sitka spruce and Douglas fir while dodging the waves was too tiring. The logs did provide a gallery of sculptures of vastly different textures and colors. By the time I headed back, maybe two miles out, a big weather change produced strong northwest winds, creating an angry sea on my right while the bay remained calm just yards to my left. For good reason the Park advises low tides in the summer as more hiker-friendly.
I headed to a ranger station, got a map, and considered a ranger’s suggestion of a hike to a waterfall but decided to drive the five miles up Hurricane Ridge, which is open in winter. It was amazing: mountains above, lots of snow (but no more than we see at home) and spread out below the blue-grey Strait as the sun was about to set, lighting up the peaks from underneath..
Next day, a Saturday, I started at dawn for Neah Bay and Cape Flattery. Route 112 had little traffic and only a few patches of fog, which burned off quickly. It is the ultimate scenic route. The road is seriously serpentine, but with lots of pull-off spaces. At the Neah village store, a mile past the “Welcome to the Makah Nation” sign, I paid for my pass to take the Cape trail. The rain forest was dazzling in the morning light. Lots of boardwalks and stairs, and eventually I could hear the surf crashing into all the clefts and firths fringing the Cape rock. Because of a newly fallen tree I got briefly off the track, prudently pondering some vertiginous vistas below. There are several viewing platforms. It was a sunny Saturday, and lots of hikers were out, complete with children and dogs. The westward view is thrilling where the ocean forges into the Strait. A small island, Tatoosh, punctuates the Cape, the way the dot above an “i” hosts a lighthouse like a pearl in a rock bezel. I enjoyed some quiet reflection, then started back.
I drove into the tribal council headquarters: simple, almost military-looking buildings with not a soul about. Then on a hunch I found the road to Shi-Shi beach on Clallam Bay, on the Pacific side south of the cape. It is a splendid sand beach with no development, just some eco-friendly cedar cabins. Finally I returned to town and stopped at the Cultural Museum. It is well laid out with whaling canoes, cedar longhouse, and many wonderful crafts and artwork. The baskets and masks in the gift shop were very expensive but worth every florin. I got a few things for church, including a dramatic native design in a black and red 3 x 3 foot cloth, to cover the table where we keep the saints' relics.
In town I enjoyed lunch in the only restaurant, by the marina looking out over the fishing boats. The cook and waitstaff were alI Makah; the patrons were Anglos. I asked the waitress if she spoke Makah, but she only remembers bits and snatches. She suggested I talk to a certain Mary, who has the B&B on the edge of town. I was very interested, but Mary was not home.
I took a slightly different route back to Port Angeles, which to my delight took me around Crescent Lake closer to the interior of the Olympics. And what an astounding sight. Since it is in the National Park, it is pristine. It was late afternoon, so the light and shadow, the rose and purple clouds were reflected in the water, the golden cream of the snow peaks, almost like a dream world. It was a spectacular end to a wonderful day.
Close to nature, close to God, as the saying has it. I can attest to the truth of it with two memorable days. True closeness to God will uproot our ego-centeredness. The Makah people refer to their homeland as “the beginning of the world,” and all that time I thought of it as the western end of the world. How helpful to see another’s point of view.