The Pacific Northwest in

LIVING COLOUR

Go west, they cried. Road-tripping the USA’s northwestern states of Washington and Oregon reveals cities, islands and histories moulded and shaped by the wilderness that is forever knocking at their door…

Before your journey begins...

Listen to Gareth's adventure come to life in this episode of the Wanderlust: Off the Page podcast.

“Push with your toes,” coached my guide, Austin of Wanderlust Tours, from further back in the tunnel. Lying on my belly, I huffed with the effort, scattering clouds of ash and dust into the stale air, wondering just how cramped this narrow opening would get. “Don’t worry,” he soothed, sensing my unease, “I can always drag you back by your feet…”

It’s a strange feeling to be wriggling down a 50cm-high, pitch-black shaft knowing full well a dead end is nearing. As my fingers clawed at the powder-fine ash on the cave floor, I pictured the eruptions that had reshaped this part of central Oregon 80,000 years ago, threading it with lava tubes like this one, near Bend. Dirt had blown in through cracks furred with the hair-like roots of sagebrush and ponderosa pine, but there was no breeze here now. The only movement came from the cosmos of particles detonating in my torchlight with every tiny movement.

Austin, of Wanderlust Tours (no relation), takes it easy in ‘The Chair’, one of many weird rock formations found in the lava tunnels outside Bend, which have been known to be occasionally invaded by teens setting up impromptu raves

Austin, of Wanderlust Tours (no relation), takes it easy in ‘The Chair’, one of many weird rock formations found in the lava tunnels outside Bend, which have been known to be occasionally invaded by teens setting up impromptu raves

By now, the crawlspace was the width of my shoulders. As the lava had surged, its surface cooled and crusted over, forming a tunnel that sharpened to a pencil point. It was here, after half a kilometre, that it finally slowed. As I jerked my body around the last bend, my headtorch flashed on an ancient moment, captured in rock. I freed an arm to press my hand on the basalt. It felt cool and ordinary. This was the kind of history you don’t normally see, let alone touch; a kind of anti-history: the point at which everything stopped.

“It’s incredible to think that all that violence and power could create a moment like this,” Austin confessed later as we sat in a larger cavern with our torches off, trying to hear the wind whistling through the passages.

“Geologically, the Pacific Northwest is the youngest part of North America,” he whispered, “formed barely 200 million years ago.” I replied that it felt sooner. Driving Washington and Oregon had revealed misty volcanoes that lingered like dark thoughts on the edge of towns. And everywhere I went, people talked loudly of an overdue quake known as ‘the Big One’. It adds a certain drollness to the local humour.

I flicked my headlight on and spied a piece of white-encrusted rock, poking it with curiosity. “That’s definitely someone’s pee,” Austin deadpanned. And back we went.

I had come to the USA’s Pacific Northwest to explore a region where wilderness creaks at the city gates. I had found urban centres wrapped by glacial waters and walked among rainbow-streaked hills and rainforests where moss draped from the branches like primeval washing. But as I travelled, what was just as exciting was how its cities, islands, histories and people had been shaped by them. Beginning in Washington, I didn’t have to look hard to find examples.

The Space Needle towers over Seattle, a city that was built atop the original settlement after a fire in 1889 burned much of it to the ground (Niels van Kampenhout/Alamy)

The Space Needle towers over Seattle, a city that was built atop the original settlement after a fire in 1889 burned much of it to the ground (Niels van Kampenhout/Alamy)

The market's famous sign

The market's famous sign

Dungeness crab is just one delicacy sold in the Pike Place Fish Co, where you’ll spy fishmongers noisily hurling huge salmon to each other throughout the day

Dungeness crab is just one delicacy sold in the Pike Place Fish Co, where you’ll spy fishmongers noisily hurling huge salmon to each other throughout the day

Dustin [centre], a boatwright at the Center for Wooden Boats, explains the history of the museum, which was started by architect Dick Wagner

Dustin [centre], a boatwright at the Center for Wooden Boats, explains the history of the museum, which was started by architect Dick Wagner

Second time lucky

“Are you inside or outside?” asked Terri, the inquisitive guide for Seattle’s Beneath the Streets tour. It’s a simple enough question – childlike even. Yet, as I gazed at the walls to either side, noting the ‘basement’ ceiling overhead, I paused.

Washington’s Seattle is a city where you can spy volcanoes and skyscrapers in one glance, yet, bizarrely, what lies beneath your feet is just as fascinating. In the late 1800s this was all a low-rise sprawl stretched across tidal flats. Sewage dumped in Puget Sound gurgled back into muddy streets and it took the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 to cleanse them. A new city – the one you see today – was built atop the old; pavements were suspended as high as 12 metres above the mud. It brought jobs, cash and, before it was covered, the sight of locals clambering three storeys for a beer.

“No one died in the fire, but 17 men were later killed by falling off ladders drunk,” observed Terri in her rat-a-tat style as I gazed at the walls, suddenly curiously thirsty.

These old streets still lie under parts of downtown, and as we dipped in and out of basements, I learned how the early art and LGBT scenes found cheap rents and freedoms underground. It was my introduction to a city that often felt like someone had looked at the waters of Puget Sound and thought: yeah, I can do better. The current tech-fuelled construction boom is growing a newer quake-proofed city, but remnants of its last big push, when the World’s Fair arrived in 1962 and the Space Needle heralded a brave new future, held more charm. Later that evening, I saw the city’s skyline from the Alki Island ferry and pondered how fitting it was that modern Seattle, birthplace of Microsoft, was actually the 2.0 version. It made me curious to seek out other pieces of its living history.

You can see Pike Place Market’s red-letter sign long before you arrive. Erected in 1907, the building was a symbol of Seattle’s decline for many years. In the 1970s a vote was held on whether to preserve it; today it supports itself with donations from the 10,000 or so visitors a day who call on its food stalls, watch its salmon-hurling fishmongers or pose in front of the gum-filled wall, created over the years by bored music fans who pinned their used wads to the bricks while queuing at a club, stretching them out like dayglo icicles.

My favourite story about the market was told to me by Bob Williams of Show Me Seattle tours. After the big San Francisco earthquake of 1906, Washington sent timber down the coast to help it rebuild. San Francisco had no money to pay, but the returning empty cargo ships had to be weighted with something, so they used marble. It was put to good use by the city. Between mouthfuls of Danish, I gazed at the glistening cobbles underfoot and smiled.

By night, I explored hipster bars and eateries in the up-and-coming Fremont and Ballard neighbourhoods. By day, my time in Seattle ended on Lake Union, having borrowed a rowing boat from the Center for Wooden Boats, a charming anachronism-cum-museum that also fixes old skiffs and yachts in the shadow of the new Google campus.

This glacial lake used to be lined with the fruits of industry and was one of the poorest parts of the city; now its rusted gasworks have been turned into an island park and the old floating homes of the workers sell for upwards of a million dollars. I rowed closer to the jettied pavements to peer at the houses’ homemade flags hanging limp on their poles. At the Center I’d been told how the new skyscrapers had changed the way the wind moved across the water. Just as I was contemplating this, a boat equipped with a hot tub chugged past, its passengers steaming obliviously as I gave a wave. I rowed on. The winds here had changed long ago.

A bird in the hand

My final glimpse of Lake Union was less sedate. Within minutes of boarding the seaplane it had rubberbanded off the water, banking sharply as the Space Needle loomed. Just forty minutes later, we splashed down at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, part of an eponymous archipelago in the Salish Sea and a popular bolthole for weary Seattleites. I’d swapped skyscrapers for serenity.
I made my base in Roche Harbor, a pretty resort with industrial roots. In the late 1800s, John McMillin, a lawyer with strong ‘Mr Burns’ vibes, turned its lime deposits into his personal fortune, creating a town for his workers. The walls of my hotel glowered with his portrait, and I’d heard his family mausoleum lay nearby. I soon stumbled on an empty stone table and chairs (each containing ashes) wrapped by a rotunda. It conjured an eerie magnificence, pitched somewhere between mason and pharaoh.

The columns of the McMillin mausoleum on San Juan

The columns of the McMillin mausoleum on San Juan

The island’s roads were blissfully quiet. San Juan doesn’t even have traffic lights, but I had arrived during the US midterms, so the roadside was filled with red and blue signs. I found grander history in San Juan’s British and US camps, the settings for a stand-off known as the ‘Pig War’ of 1859, when ownership of the island was in dispute. Tensions had come to a head over the shooting of a British pig by a US farmer, giving rise to the glorious, if likely apocryphal, line: “It is up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig!”

The camps, at either end of the island, couldn’t be more on the nose. The British hunkered in a genteel inlet, all manicured gardens and high-tea picnics, while the Americans toughed it out on a windswept bluff above the Haro Strait. Eventually, the unlikely arbiter of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm found in favour of the US and the Brits had to pack up their china and leave. I followed suit, but not before going in search of the island’s biggest prize.

Andrew from San Juan Outfitters vainly scours the waters for orcas

Andrew from San Juan Outfitters vainly scours the waters for orcas

It isn’t pigs but orca that brought me to San Juan. A resident pod visit the waters of the Haro Strait year-round, though the dwindling salmon population (a theme across the northwest) is making their survival harder. I set out in a kayak with Andrew of San Juan Outfitters knowing the chances of seeing one were slim, but the sighting of a friendly harbour seal at the marina seemed a good omen.

The strait is packed with isles fringed by remote holiday homes. Wealthy Seattleites are colonising them slowly, I’d been told; actor Chris Pratt was even said to have a “farm” on San Juan. Andrew pointed ahead to one large island:

“That was the site of a failed game reserve in the 1950s,” he explained. “You can sometimes spot wandering descendants of the bighorn sheep and elk that were shipped in.”

(Danita Delimont Creative/Alamy)

(Danita Delimont Creative/Alamy)

The skies were brilliantly blue, but as empty as the seas. Then, after 90 orca-less minutes of paddling and an island pit stop, our return journey offered a taste of hope. Bobbing on the surface was a tightly packed circle of seabirds.

“It’s a good sign,” Andrew enthused. “There’s a bait ball under there. Something must be causing it.”

We waited. Nothing emerged but Andrew soon jabbed at the air, grinning boyishly. A pair of bald eagles, wings wider than a car, 747’d their way from a treetop to strafe the water ahead. San Juan is one of the best places in the US to see these birds, but so far I’d only heard their calls (weedier than in films, which often substitute the cries of red-tailed hawks). The orca never showed, but an American icon seemed fair compensation.

(Lighthouses/Alamy Stock Photo)

(Lighthouses/Alamy Stock Photo)

All of the colours

Soon enough, everything turned green. Driving west of Seattle, I looped up around Olympic National Park, an ancient stretch of temperate rainforest that once ran from Oregon to Alaska but now pools in Washington’s north-west peninsula. As a rule of thumb, rainfall here increases an inch for every mile west of Port Angeles you go; however, as I pulled into Lake Crescent Lodge for the night, snow had set in. The late-autumn leaves were tinged an unseasonal white and a freezing mist ghosted the water in wispy clouds.

The following day I met up with the impressive Tommy Farris of Olympic Hiking Co and we drove to the park’s Sol Duc Falls, pit-stopping en route at his secret spot to watch coho salmon leaping upriver. He told me he had ditched a career in accountancy for this and smiled with the conviction of a man for whom life was now in the credit column.

The sight of trees growing out of nurse logs or stumps is a common one in Olympic NP’s Quinault Rain Forest

The sight of trees growing out of nurse logs or stumps is a common one in Olympic NP’s Quinault Rain Forest

The falls were dramatic but the walk, beneath creaking branches pregnant with moss and snow, was even better. Tommy pointed at liquorice ferns and gleefully scooped up yellowing lichens to show me. Many of the trees grew atop old stumps that had rotted away, giving them a distinctive bow-legged look. He gestured to a row of young firs sprouting from a fallen trunk: “We call that a nursing colonnade,” he said. A pretty name for a ruthless process.

After days in the park, I’d seen misty sea stacks at Rialto Beach, where the rainforest sidles up to the coast; passed an Indigenous town relocating inland in preparation for future tsunamis; and been driven from the trails of Quinault Rain Forest by a fierce downpour. Now, following the coast south and over the Astoria-Megler Bridge into Oregon, the region held an even bigger surprise. East of Portland, the firs and maples evaporated as I rose out of Columbia Gorge and emerged the other side of the Cascade Range to wide-open skies and golden grasses bumping against the horizon.

Oregon’s high-desert region is like arriving in another country. Beyond Bend and its brewpubs and lava tubes, there isn’t much of anything. So much so that the state is applying to have the area recognised as the world’s largest dark-sky reserve. But it also means that few travellers make it this far. Sure enough, as I arrived at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, there was no one in sight.

A walkway through the Painted Hills (Shutterstock)

A walkway through the Painted Hills (Shutterstock)

This was what I had looked forward to the most. The Painted Hills were unlike anything I had seen: striped in reds, blacks and yellows, they looked for all the world like a child had been let loose with a pack of crayons. They also tell their own story. This area dates back more than 30 million years and the stripes are a record of the changing climate (iron oxidising red in the wet; black manganese left by dead plants). They are too delicate to walk on, but as I strolled the surrounding trails, their colours shifted in the light, becoming ever more surreal the harder I stared. Its strangeness seemed fitting preparation for my final stop.

The Painted Hills at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (Shutterstock)

The Painted Hills at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (Shutterstock)

Sarah Gilbert of Around Portland Tours takes the city’s patriarchs to task

Sarah Gilbert of Around Portland Tours takes the city’s patriarchs to task

A mural of the Lewis and Clark party, whose expedition led the way for US settlers to expand west, daubs the Oregon Historical Society museum

A mural of the Lewis and Clark party, whose expedition led the way for US settlers to expand west, daubs the Oregon Historical Society museum

The inclusive graffiti art of Portland’s Hawthorne district, a neighbourhood packed with excellent ‘pods’ (collections of food carts), of which Cartopia and Hawthorne Asylum are well worth seeking out

The inclusive graffiti art of Portland’s Hawthorne district, a neighbourhood packed with excellent ‘pods’ (collections of food carts), of which Cartopia and Hawthorne Asylum are well worth seeking out

A long goodbye

While Seattle feels quite polished, Oregon’s Portland revels in its unofficial slogan of ‘Keep it weird’. I found no better expression of this than a day with guide Sarah Gilbert, who arrived in knee-high rainbow-striped socks and bearing a warning: “I often get into arguments on these tours.”

Among her tales of debtors sold into a life at sea and the latest wellness craze for horseback archery, it was her civil rights stories that held the most power. Portland has a long history of protest. As Sarah poured forth on the city’s tussle over whether to restore an Abraham Lincoln statue torn down in a 2020 march dubbed the ‘Indigenous Peoples Day of Rage’ (Lincoln ordered 38 Dakota men executed in 1862), local politics had rarely felt so immediate. Tourism can often feel quite removed, but when stood beside that empty plinth, it was hard not to feel something.

In Portland, these moments often creep up on you. A street-food tour in the Hawthorne neighbourhood revealed a market in an old asylum where I ate heavenly Ukrainian dumplings presented by their proud expat chef. On the fringes of the city, I later kayaked to Willamette Falls where I was surrounded by the ghosts of industry and an inquisitive California sea lion. These pinnipeds have become a menace, I was told, waiting at dams along the Columbia River to pick off tired salmon at the fish ladders. Locals catch and release them into the sea, but they’re fighting a losing battle. Menace or not, I couldn’t hide my delight.

Throughout this trip I had found wilderness creeping into the cities of the Pacific Northwest again and again, especially in Portland. Without time to explore its 21 sq km Forest Park, I satisfied myself with a final stroll up Mount Tabor instead, an extinct volcano in the east of town.

As I wound upwards, evening joggers cruised past, their headtorches bobbing like caffeinated fireflies. At the summit I rested against yet another empty plinth, staring at the city lights as my breath fogged the air. Locals might rightly still fear the ‘Big One’ here, but just as I had found back in the lava tunnel, primeval sights like this also remind us that after all that turmoil comes silence and calm. I gave the city one last glimpse and left. At peace.

About the trip

The author travelled with the support of Washington State Tourism and Travel Oregon. International travel was arranged by Audley Travel, which offers a 15-day ‘USA Pacific Northwest Self-Drive Tour’. This includes flights, accommodation on a room-only basis, fully insured hire car and excursions. The itinerary includes time in Seattle, Lake Crescent, Cannon Beach, Portland, Hood River and Mount Rainier National Park.