Beach Reading in Port Townsend


Seattle as viewed from the Bainbridge Island ferry

Leaving Seattle, I headed to Port Townsend via ferry from Seattle (a 45 minute ferry ride and then 90 minutes of driving), to spend a week relaxing and preparing for the next leg of my journey. I’ve spent a lot of time in the town, enough that it feels in some ways like a second home; at least, it feels more like a home to me than NYC does. I love living near NYC and spending time there, but to me, it doesn’t feel like a “home.” Just a staging ground.

Port Townsend has a population of just under 10 thousand people. It’s supported by a few industries: a paper mill, boat repair and production, and tourism. The town is on the very upper northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula, so you see a lot ships headed back and forth into Puget Sound. Cruise liners, cargo ships, even warships and submarines cruise past.

Port Townsend from Puget Sound

The town itself is composed mostly of restored Victorian buildings. Most of the homes are in many ways closer to cottages, because property near the center of town is quite expensive. Nonetheless these small homes feel quite roomy compared to an apartment! About 90% of homes are surrounded by tidy gardens, white picket fences, imaginative festive colors – the works (the other 10% have cars on cinderblocks and decaying Westphalias sitting in the front yard).

Visiting in the summer, there’s a lot going on: nearly every week there are festivals (Jazz Festival, Wooden Boat Festival, Blues Festival, etc), and many bars have music from local bands 2 or 3 nights per week. However, if you don’t like antiquing, it’s easy to exhaust the downtown area in 2-3 hours.

Luckily, Port Townsend has the best Thai food I’ve ever eaten (at “1-2-3 Thai Food”). I don’t say that lightly – Thai is my go-to cuisine and I’ll sample it whenever possible. The Pad Thai, Massaman Curry, Crispy Tofu – all excellent, and prepared for me at spiciness level 5 (out of 4!). I gorged myself every day.

Normal Port Townsend-style bunker, with deer (“rats with hooves”)

There’s some state parks in the area, which unfortunately aren’t all that imaginative. Most of them are on the beach, feature some forests and fields, and lots of old cement bunkers. Which are cool, and could be amazing, but they’re stripped down and typically covered with graffiti. This describes Fort Worden, Fort Ebey, and Fort Casey, all in the area. The water this far north is too cold to swim in, so mostly you sit on the sand, or fish. I must have seen two or three hundred fisherman and never once saw anyone catch a fish.

There’s also a lot of places to pick up cheap used books: goodwill, the library, book sales, and an actual honest-to-goodness used book store. Combine that with what I had on my Kindle and I was able to do a lot of reading. Including:

  • The Climb, a first-person account of the ’96 Everest disaster (made famous by the inaccurate Into Thin Air). It’s a matter-of-fact book. I wouldn’t mind mountain climbing, myself, if I could acclimate to the altitude. One of the authors of the book actually climbed 7 of the 8,000 meter peaks without supplementary oxygen, including Everest 3 times. In light of my experiences at Grand Teton, this was incredible. At its summit, Everest has half as much oxygen as exists at sea level!
  • Firewall, a Swedish mystery novel. Mediocre but had some funny paranoia about computers and teenage hackers
  • Wild, a chick-lit book about a woman hiking part of the PCT. An enjoyable read, but I don’t find books about unprepared hikers stumbling around the woods particularly funny.
  • The Gnostic Gospels, about alternate gospels and texts that didn’t make it into the New Testament. A little dry but nonetheless interesting
  • Jesus, Interrupted, about what we know about the historical Jesus & early Christianity, given contradictions in our sources (particularly the gospels)
  • Band of Brothers, probably the best company-level military history and one of the best WWII books out there

A typical beach…

On Wednesday and Thursday I took the ferry to nearby Whidbey Island, which has a few state parks and a “National Historic Reserve,” though I couldn’t really figure out what that was. On arrival, I was shocked at how foggy it was – visibility of under 100 yards, I’d say. I waited a little while for the fog to clear inside a Starbucks while I planned my route.

First I went to Deception Pass State Park (the most popular state park in Washington), which is quite nice – it has some beautiful beaches, dense forests, and a nice mountain/hill. The pass itself features, bizarrely, turquoise water. I hiked to the top of the mountain and could see two jets from a nearby airfield maneuvering. I say “see,” but mostly you could hear them, the noise was immense. Apparently it’s routine to do these sorts of drills at night, which must be fun for the residents. There’s a large military presence throughout the Seattle area – Navy and Coast Guard in particular. I continued hiking around Deception Pass, through what appeared to be a temperate rainforest and along the shoreline. The problem with many of these state parks is that they don’t have the sort of contiguous hikes I look for. A park might have 30 miles of trails, but when each trail is 1 mile and they sprawl all over the park, it’s very difficult to piece together the 10+ miles of hiking I’d like to do.

Whidbey Island wildlife

I spent the night at a Wal-Mart on Whidbey because all the parks were full – this in the middle of the week – and the next morning visited Fort Casey, on the southern tip of Whidbey Island – Port Townsend is just visible from it. This was the biggest set of the ubiquitous fortifications that I saw.

Fort Casey bunkers

Most of these date from the very beginning of the 20th century, before they were rendered obsolete. There’s nothing imaginative about them, they’re simply poured concrete blockhouses, searchlight emplacements and watchtowers. They look like a prison, or Stony Brook University. A lot of the grounds – owned by the federal government – were used for training soldiers during the second world war. The guns were almost universally melted for scrap during the same period. At Fort Casey, they did have two guns still there – huge 10″ cannons. In an interesting coincidence, the rifling in the barrels was produced in Watervliet, just half an hour from where I grew up. Quite a journey to end up in the other corner of the country. There was also a nice lighthouse, also rendered obsolete and rescued from decades of neglect in the 70s.

In the end I spent a bit over a week in Port Townsend. I had thought of doing some camping, but the campgrounds around town were full – and incredibly expensive to boot. In the summer the prices seemed to be $35/night. To camp! Instead, I parked near a friend’s house and was able to have continuous internet access, electricity and showers. It was a nice refresher from scrounging for these ‘necessities.’ Thanks, Nancy!

After Port Townsend, my goal was to head to Portland via the main south-bound interstate, I-5.

2 thoughts on “Beach Reading in Port Townsend

  1. Rhea

    That beach pic is screaming for a zombie to pop out… eerie. Is that a bird in your wildlife pic? Looks like it got out of an oil spill or something… craziness.


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