Life on the Western Frontier

Life on the Western Frontier

Life on the Western Frontier

Dispatches from Seattle.
June 1 1997 3:30 AM

Life on the Western Frontier

Washington's Olympic Peninsula.

The Olympic Peninsula sits perched on the northwest corner of Washington like a small state, an expanse of mountains, rivers, and coastlines wrapped by an arm of the Pacific and separated from the urban swath of Greater Seattle by the inland sea of Puget Sound. If peeled from a map, the peninsula would neatly cover my old home state of Connecticut like a wet green stamp. But its population, strung along a cluster of small coastal towns and Indian reservations, would barely fill one of Connecticut's midsize towns.

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When I first arrived here 25 years ago, a few pulp mills, logging, fishing, and farming fleshed out the economy. The million-acre wilderness of Olympic National Park at the peninsula's heart caught my imagination, as did the region's keen-edged inhabitants. Seen in cross section--say, from Port Townsend, a Victorian seaport of brick shops and cupolas on the peninsula's northeast shore, west to the "logging capital" of Forks--the human landscape has become incredibly diverse. But essential peninsula characteristics, the tics and quirks that make us who we are, have only deepened.

Port Townsend's transformation from fishing port to Sausalito North was well underway when I arrived. Even then the town's low rents and tolerance for writers, live-aboard sailboat dreamers, and small entrepreneurs held the seeds of its destruction. I place the blame for today's wooden-boat festivals, summer arts programs, galleries, and cafes on 19th century ethnologist James G. Swan. Collecting Northwest Coast artifacts for the Smithsonian and scribbling his wonderfully astute monographs while his fellow townsmen were out stumping for commerce, Swan introduced the idea of the absorbed eccentric. It clung to the city's mossy foundations like a limpet. But even Swan went to his pauper's grave still hoping for a rail connection to Seattle, and Seattle remains Port Townsend's undesignated home port.

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This, I fear, has cast a permanent shadow over the town's cultural identity. When an arts patron bequeathed a quarter-million dollars to the city for a work of public art in the '80s, the fledgling arts commission invited big-city curators to jury the competition. The result is a sterile concrete "tidal clock" that collects whatever flotsam the tide brings in, and a wave-viewing terrace more suggestive of an industrial boat haul-out than a Japanese pavilion. Meanwhile, a proposal by local sculptor Tom Jay that drew on the natural heritage of the peninsula and its Native American roots became part of a commission for the Seattle suburb of Bellevue. At a party to send off the piece--Salmon Woman and Raven--a friend offered this toast: "No tears, Tim, we've still got the Ty-D-Bol."

Nearby Sequim brooks no such separation from its past. Murals of farm buildings and country stores decorate downtown businesses even as the last Dungeness Valley farmland is paved over with blacktop. One of the hottest retirement communities in Puget Sound, Sequim knows precisely where it wants to go and how many more new golf courses it will take to get there.

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But even in this town of 4,300 souls (and 16 real-estate offices), the past has a way of rearing up unbidden. A recovering herd of Roosevelt elk has developed a taste for expensive landscaping in the town's recently developed highlands. The elk bed down in hayfields alongside U.S. 101, where traffic conditions have come to resemble the "bear jams" of Yellowstone. Complaints were heavy until the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife announced a hunting season on the all-but-tame elk just beyond city limits. Elk lovers (and the Sequim chief of police) expressed outrage; even some rose gardeners voiced distress. But hunters from all over Puget Sound rushed to apply for permits. Life where wild and tame collide will get even more interesting this fall.

Meanwhile, a wave of roses and golf carts pushes slowly west from Sequim, like a second settling of the peninsula. The frontier (retirees riding lawnmowers on one side, loggers wielding chainsaws on the other) is continually in flux. Right now I place it six miles east of Port Angeles at the Port Angeles Speedway. Not long ago, some newly arrived speedway neighbors petitioned Clallam County for an ordinance regulating the track's excessive noise. The commissioners (frontiersmen, all) were unmoved. "Speedway was here first," they decreed, and dismissed the proposal.

One peninsula community hasn't changed much in the past 25 years: Port Angeles. County seat, business center, pulp manufacturer, log-shipping port, it remains stolidly practical, working class, and Democratic, and the recent closure of one of two large pulp mills has precipitated an identity crisis. Those clinging to the old economic order want nothing more than another large mill. Others envision a conference center, an aquarium, and a performing-arts center (to complement the already existing fine-arts center). Meanwhile, money to retrain workers flows into the community from the state and federal governments, feeding a cottage industry that may prove one of the peninsula's most enduring economies.

Nowhere on the peninsula is federal largess more central to the economy than in Forks, and nowhere is the populace more critical of the government. From the free land doled out to the original settlers through various subsidies like bounties and timber giveaways to the big bucks of Forest Service deficit-timber sales, Forks has supped mightily at the public trough.

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Last week, the Forks city clerk determined the town was getting "stiffed" out of its share of federal aid for communities hurt by cutbacks in federal timber sales. So the city pulled out of the program. Period. Federal grant applications for improving the town's industrial park (itself a federally subsidized project), upgrading its sewer system, rehabilitating a government airport, building a golf course ... were abandoned.

"It makes a statement," the city clerk said. A meeting with the district's member of Congress has been scheduled, but I have no doubt how this will end. Forks will receive funding for its entire wish list, probably with Port Angeles' conference center thrown in for good measure.

The peninsula may be on the take, but it still believes in hard work. During the '70s and '80s I packed up each February and headed west to work replanting clearcuts and thinning young trees in the rainy woods around Forks. Most any personal frailty--be it a penchant for Celtic harp music, Oriental poetry, even moderate environmental sentiments--could be overlooked if a body isn't afraid of work. It is the common glue that binds us.

A few years ago I was helping a neighbor thread tracks back onto his bulldozer. He had disassembled the steel pads, welded new cleats on each one, and strung them back together. He was 65 at the time. We were on our backs in gravel under the machine, when he mentioned offhandedly, "Jakeman has a set of tracks he'd given me for 100 bucks." Dumbfounded, I asked why he hadn't taken them. He lowered the greasy wrench from his hand, looked at me, and confessed, "I couldn't bear the thought of somebody else getting to work on these." Somehow, he knew I'd understand.