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The International Writers Magazine: Destinations: Washington State - Archive

• Walli F. Leff
The trail along the Deschutes River in beautiful Tumwater Falls Park, just outside of Olympia, Washington, passes by the waterfalls. A thick stand of the fragrant Douglas fir, western hemlock, western red cedar, and Sitka spruce trees that gave the “Evergreen State” its nickname, and the luxuriant rhododendrons that will delight other walkers with the brilliance of their blooms come spring grow alongside the path.

Towering above is the old factory building of the defunct Olympia Brewery. Famous for its Artesian well water (the “clearwater” in Creedence Clearwater Revival’s name was inspired by an Olympia ad campaign), the beer was featured in many films (Clint Eastwood and his orangutan drank it in Every Which Way But Loose).

The river courses rapidly down the steep levels of the falls. In quiet pools between the rocky slopes swim the last of the September-October run of Chinook salmon on their way upstream to spawn. Among them swim salmon that have already mated. Although they’re heading downstream, they struggle, too. Exhausted from the arduous trip they’ve been on, many are about to expire, already turned on their side: salmon do not live long after spawning.

Pacific salmon are born and spend their early lives in fresh water, migrate downstream and grow to their adult size in the ocean, then return to their freshwater home to spawn. State and federal wildlife experts have eased their mating trip in locations like the Deschutes River by installing fish ladders next to the steepest waterfalls. The salmon can swim upstream through this gradual mazeway that allows them to bypass the near-impossible task of leaping up the river from the base of the falls. Since salmon in the wild have a very high attrition rate—only about fifteen percent of newly hatched fish survive to the fry stage when they must find food on their own—the agencies also operate hatcheries where they remove the eggs and milt from fish ready to spawn, fertilize the eggs, and oversee their development. The survival rate for hatchery-raised fry is about ninety percent.

Olympia Mural Olympia, population 48,000, is Washington’s state capital, an attractive city, its housing stock a mixture of non-pretentious contemporary developments and appealing old Victorian homes. It has good schools, active community organizations, and a thriving cultural life. A municipal ordinance passed in 1990 designated that one dollar per person and one percent of the cost of major city construction projects be set aside for public art.

Small, local projects and major installations—sculptures, mosaics, paintings, carvings, photographs, murals and other forms of art—can now be found along the waterfront, in parks, residential neighborhoods, and libraries all over town. They express the area’s ethnic, historical, and natural heritage and artistic predilections in styles ranging from traditional to cutting edge contemporary.

The painted red cedar carving of a Native American thunderbolt at the entrance of the Evergreen State College Longhouse Education and Cultural Center, vivid Dale Chihuly glass sculptures, a metal salmon sculpture that overlooks Budd Bay where migrating salmon swim upstream, seven giant, upright oars in a public park that evoke both the native people of a bygone era and the early settlers, The Kiss, a large sculpture of a couple on the boardwalk where people stroll to view the harbor and the mountains, and a wide variety of other projects are already part of the city’s landscape.

Live drama and comedy productions staged at the performing arts center, community theaters, and children’s theater enjoy enthusiastic public support. The Olympia Film Society shows independent and under-represented films in the Capitol Theater, a landmark movie house that has been operating since 1924. Olympia made its mark in the music world with grunge rock groups. It was the home of the riot grrrl movement’s Bikini Kill group and of the K Records and Kill Rock Stars record labels. According to Billboard, in 2010 the music industry generated $88.3 million for the city.

In keeping with its environmental consciousness, the city is the site of an annual “Procession of the Species” every Earth Day, an offshoot of the 1978 “All Species Parade” that journalist-turned-environmentalist Keith Lampe, who changed his name to Ponderosa Pine, organized in San Francisco. In that artful, colorful demonstration, people dressed in animal masks and costumes to represent the needs and endangerment of the earth’s plants and animals, and marched to City Hall, where Mayor George Moscone proclaimed the day “All Species Day.” Olympia’s procession, which has been held for nearly twenty years, is one of the largest and most developed local versions of that original event. One can imagine that Ponderosa, who died in November 2014, would have been proud of and gratified by the Pacific Northwest’s ongoing commitment.
Species Procession

There is plenty of casual creative expression in Olympia, as well. On a stage at the Farmers Market, where local produce and other enticing edibles are on mouth-watering display, folk musicians entertain the food and craft shoppers and the lunch crowd, who bring their meals from the market’s ethnic food stands to the best seats in the house—the front row picnic tables.

In other well-trafficked areas about town, flash mobs of zumba dancers and fitness experts turn up on holidays. Their compelling music and graceful movements engage onlookers and passers-by watching from the sidelines and soon they succumb to the invitation to dance and join in—the spirit is infectious.

The local spirit is characteristically generous, too. After noticing one morning that my watch had stopped, I went to a jewelry store and asked how much it would cost to replace the battery.

“We don’t charge for batteries. We’d like it if you’d make a contribution to this group that’s buying books for underprivileged children,” said the saleswoman, and she pointed to a container on the counter with a slot for depositing money.

I gladly stuffed the money I’d expected to pay for a battery into the tin can and walked out happy to be a part of this community, if only for a visit.

Olympia The heart of town, in the city center, is the Capitol Campus. The dome of the Capitol Legislative Building, an imposing structure completed in 1928, is only one foot shorter than the U.S. Capitol dome. The tallest self-supporting masonry dome in the country, it is the fourth highest all-masonry dome in the world, after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and St. Isaac’s Cathedral in Saint Petersburg. The building’s interior is richly constructed and appointed. Its floors and many of its walls are covered with marble.

The ten thousand pound chandelier that hangs from the dome and all the other lamps in the rotunda were made by Louis Comfort Tiffany; they constitute the world’s largest collection of Tiffany bronze. The chandeliers and other lighting in both legislative chambers were made by Tiffany, as well.

After withstanding three major earthquakes, the Legislative Building underwent an environmentally-friendly rehab and earthquake repair that was completed in 2004. More than eighty percent of the project’s eight thousand tons of construction waste was recycled. One hundred forty-four solar panels, the largest number on any U.S. state capitol, were installed on the rehabbed structure.

The countryside around Olympia also has its attractions and one of them is Hains House. Its owner, Pat Hains, wears many hats. A Washington state government civil servant, she studied bread-making at the Akademie des Deutschen Bäckerhandwerk in Weinheim, Germany, restored a lovely old farm just outside Olympia, and now gives baking classes and runs a bed & breakfast there (

The white frame house and grounds, with a big red barn, chickens clucking in their fenced-in yard, and an expansive vista, would be the perfect location for a film set on a mid-twentieth century farm. The only anomaly to be found would be in the adjoining pasture: those aren’t cows grazing, they’re llamas.

We had a big baking day planned and the sunny workroom off the kitchen easily accommodated the five would-be bakers in our group plus the sixth member who arrived in time for dinner. Our agenda was ambitious—apple pie, peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, and pizza, all in both wheat flour and gluten-free flour versions.

An extremely well-organized instructor with a perfectly equipped kitchen, Pat wasn’t fazed at all by the demanding schedule. She got us through all three projects with grace, humor, and the patience of a saint, demonstrating the steps we were supposed to follow and correcting us gently but firmly until we got them right. When she praised our pie crust crimping or pizza dough stretching we were as pleased as puppies who’d been rewarded with an encouraging “good dog.”

We worked hard for hours, learned a great deal, and had fun. The most exciting part was carefully carrying the pizzas we’d made to the patio in back and firing them in the impressive wood-burning pizza oven that heats up to 800°. Sitting around the dining room table, we feasted on our pizza dinner, topped it off with a cookie or two, then packed away the pies we were much too full to dig into. We bade Pat a grateful, fond farewell, loaded the remaining cookies and our apple pastries into the car, and drove off tired, but content, thinking about how nice it would be to stay overnight on the farm and wake up to Pat’s home-made breakfast.

Mt Rainier Enjoyable as Olympia is, the scenic wonders of the Pacific Northwest are a powerfully competing draw. I was happy to learn that Mt. Rainier National Park, with its spectacular volcano topped with twenty-five glaciers, and the forests, alpine meadows, and lower level parkland that volcanic soil, bright summer sunlight, and unusually high precipitation levels have made so fertile and green, was only sixty-five miles away, a comfortably manageable day trip. The top of this craggy mountain always has white fields, no matter what the season, and is often entirely covered with snow. The dense forests and flower-filled meadowland below are a habitat for black bears, elk, black-tailed deer, small mammals—pika, marmots, chipmunks, and squirrels—and many bird species.

Mountain goats keep to the rocky cliffs. My hope was to see Mt. Rainier capped by an altocumulus lenticular cloud—a cloud shaped like a stationary lens—not an everyday occurrence but one that happens only under certain conditions.

Wind, first of all, flowing over the mountain in a way that creates wave patterns in the air. Then, moisture. A storm approaches, moisture enters the wave and condenses into a cloud, and the cloud rises to pass over the mountain. The part of the cloud that reaches the descending side evaporates there, but on the ascending side the cloud continues to form. Thus, although part of the cloud dissipates on the descending side, new cloud continues to form on the ascending side, so, visually, the cloud stays in place. Under certain conditions, wave clouds form—long strings of lenticular clouds near the crest of each wave that give the lenticular cloud the appearance of a flying saucer.

The drive was sunny until we arrived at our lunch stop, the restaurant of a rustic lodge a few miles before the park entrance.

By the time we were finished it had begun to rain. We entered the park and drove a short distance to the National Park Service’s Longmire Museum, which offers engagingly presented exhibits
of the small mammals and birds native to the park.

When we left the museum it was clear that the only road we were going to travel on was the road back to Olympia. Not only was the rain coming down in a serious downpour, a thick fog had settled in and visibility was poor. Driving any further into the park, never mind up the mountain, would have been dangerous. Hiking was out of the question.
No complaints. It rains a lot in the Pacific Northwest—that’s how Washington came to be the Evergreen State.
Mt Rainier at night

Some day I will see a lenticular cloud.
Mr Rainier Cloud © Walli F. Leff - December 2014

Walli F. Leff’s psychological thriller, The Woman Who Couldn’t Remember But Didn’t Forget, published by Sunstone Press, is available in both print and e-book editions. With Marilyn G. Haft, she co-authored Time Without Work, published by South End Press. She writes articles on psychology, science, cultural and political affairs, and travel.

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