8:00 AM, Bremerton, WA. A cold breeze woke me up from half-sleep. I had been sitting next to the ferry dock at a little park with whale-spout fountains (turned off due to COVID). I shivered, checking and double checking the schedule, as I awaited the grand adventure.
The ferry to Bremerton did not feel like a true beginning. I had taken that ferry many times with my family, and I had always returned home the same day. The next leg was different. A bus serviced by small vans whose schedule did not appear on Google Maps, the Route 3 would penetrate the Olympic Peninsula by way of rural Mason County. Once I boarded that bus, there would be no turning back.
Reading an dry passage from The Prince about appeasing local nobles, my eyes wandered to the little clock at the top of my Kindle. I decided it was time to go. I collected my heavy backpack, took one last look around the familiar Bremerton pier, and climbed the stairs to the terminal.
Thankfully the Mason Transit bus had already arrived. A small van, it waited apart from all of the larger coaches serving Bremerton and the surrounding areas. Eventually the doors hissed open; I was the only passenger. Clattering my exact change into the farebox, I told the driver I wanted to connect to the bus to Shelton. It would be a tight connection and the agency told me that he could radio ahead to make sure I made the next bus. He smiled confidently and said that he usually arrived five minutes early. Sit anywhere you like.
Looking around the walls of the van, I was full of memories. The last time I had taken a bus like this was in elementary school. Laminated notices in Comic Sans covered the bulkhead, reminding passengers that there was no smoking and that the Route 8 was coming back with limited service. Rather than ads for insurance or earbuds, they advertised a course offered by the county to acquaint local people with the transit system. It seemed as if COVID had not changed that much, after all.
We left on time and headed for the highway, but before we left Bremerton we made an unexpected stop. Our second passenger had flagged down the bus. She was an old white woman with a heavily-laden walker. Cars racing by at 50 mph, the driver gingerly opened his door, walked around to the curb, and unpacked the electric lift. Once safely onboard, the woman said hello and immediately launched into a breathless story. Her son was moving to Seattle to take care of her even though she insisted she did not need his help. On top of that, he had brought an unsavory friend who was mooching off his income. Or something like that. "I'm a Southerner," she said with a laugh, "I don't forgive too easy!"
The driver smiled and nodded at the appropriate times but didn't say a word. By now we had left the liberal town center and entered Real America. We took the Old Highway, parallel to Route 3 and used only by locals. A house passed by with a gigantic banner:
PUBLIC ENEMY #1: DEMOCRATS
- OPEN BORDERS
- SANCTUARY CITIES
- CRITICAL RACE THEORY
(the list went on for quite some time). More signs: TRUMP WON, TAKE AMERICA BACK. The last time I had visited Mason County was in 2013, back when the county was still for Obama. Politically the county was a different world. On the bus, however, it felt just the same as before.
More flag stops. The bus lurched to a halt, admitting a disheveled young white woman wearing a mildly trashy T-shirt. She sat down and remained quiet while the old Southerner continued to talk. Despite the increasingly lunatic Trump flags outside, the conversation on the bus was all about people's families -- never politics. Who got what job, what the new bus schedule would bring, and the best brands of microwave burrito were the topics of interest.
Five minutes early, as promised, we unloaded at Bill Hunter Park and waited for our connecting rides. The bus from Bremerton turned into the 5, a local circulator, and sped away. I guess it's called a Park because it has two picnic tables beside the bus shelter. At one table sat a young boy, unsupervised, who stared at the passengers passing through. At the other table sat the Southerner who did not forgive.
Another van appeared and the destination sign flashed on: 1 SHELTON. A well-groomed old white man waved us on. "Byron!" the Southerner said, and he greeted her by name. Byron spoke slowly, calmly, but crisply. He responded to the Southerner's tales with questions of his own, and they laughed together.
The road snaked by a narrow lake colored grey and black by the trees and sky. By now clouds had started to gather. The forecast had called for rain from lunchtime on, and I was slated for a three-hour wait in Aberdeen. I hoped the rain would hold off until the evening.
Shelton was a desolate stretch of churches, unused office buildings, and empty parking lots. It was absolutely quiet except for the occasional passing car. There was a dim mistiness that indicated a coming rain. We parted ways with the Southerner at a Baptist church, and I departed Byron's bus at the bus terminal. Empty coaches lined the blocks around the station. Given the state of the town, I was surprised at the relative liveliness of the Transit Community Center. Dozens of passengers waited under the awning, a family played ping pong in a public room, and clean bathrooms were open to the public.
For about half an hour I leaned against the railing, waiting for the Route 6 to appear. Across the street, a young woman loitered at the edge of a Safeway parking lot. A "little free library" was filled with romance novels. Two tattooed men appeared from an alley, offered her a cigarette, and they all walked away.
|Shelton Little Free Library|
It hadn't begun to rain but it was getting close. The bus arrived on time, and I boarded along with about a dozen others. This one was not a van. Thanking each of us as we paid our fare, the driver changed his tune when one man claimed that he thought the fare was only 25 cents. "We don't do courtesy rides," the driver said firmly, and slammed the door.
(Mason Transit is free within the county but charges a small fee to travel to Bremerton and Olympia. Unlike in Seattle, where drivers almost never refuse service to a passenger who refuses to pay, rural bus drivers are extremely strict about money. A rural driver can't kick someone off in the middle of nowhere, so it is important to filter out the drunks and the druggies before they board. A small fare allows them to avoid these 'undesirables.' More on this on Day 4...)
The rain pounded down. Hurtling down 101 towards Olympia, the bus kicked up a massive spray. I fell asleep to the sound of the roaring engine and awoke only once we had entered the capital.
Olympia was nothing like the last time I had visited. Nearly every storefront and office building was empty. Restaurants had closed, leaving only the faded imprint of their names on their locked, unused doors. COVID had obliterated the place, and even though the vaccine was fixing the virus situation, it felt like the old city would never come back.
As a consolation prize, however, the rain decided to stop the moment I got off the bus. The Bread Peddler was closed (though it planned to reopen in the "coming weeks") so I headed north to an Italian restaurant. The food was okay but not great, and it came in such a massive portion that I had to leave two thirds of the dish to be thrown away. I sat next to some bureaucrats from the Department of Natural Resources who chatted happily about office politics. Massive quantities of rain gushed down as I ate, but once again, it stopped the moment I left the restaurant.
I still had over an hour to kill. The waterfront was empty, as usual, but it had some great views of the Capitol. The old M/V Evergreen State, Washington State's first government-funded ferry, sat there retired and unused. There was a boardwalk winding by a long line of closed shops.
By this point the weather and the store closures had worn me down. I was beginning to convince myself that the entire trip would be on the boundary of rain and that every town would be a ghost town. And beyond Olympia, it would be very difficult for my family to pick me up. With this dreary mood I walked back to the transit center and waited for the bus to Aberdeen.
The 40 arrived on time. Fishing out two dollar bills from my exact change envelope, I claimed the best seat -- the front of the raised section in the back -- and began to fall asleep. The seats were plain grey and somehow overstuffed. Two other passengers got on in Olympia: one tattooed man and one woman in medical gear.
Predictably, the rain started again as we rushed down Route 8 toward Grays Harbor. The bus kept to the freeway for a while, but as before, it deviated to the Old Highway at the earliest opportunity. One hour and forty minutes of semi-local travel, moving at fifty miles per hour but screeching to a halt at one or two bus stops placed haphazardly on the side of the road.
|Nuclear power plant seen on the 40 to Aberdeen|
I stepped off at Aberdeen station with three hours to wait and without much of a plan. There was an intriguing Kurt Cobain memorial about a twenty minute walk from the station, so I decided to check it out. What I saw was one of the most memorable places of the entire journey.
Block after block of decrepit houses with grass gone to seed. Most were abandoned but some were occupied; many hung TRUMP 2024 flags in their dirty windows. Each had a short chain-link fence, a NO TRESSPASSING sign, and a growling guard dog which bounded toward the sidewalk as I passed by. I met only one person on my way to the memorial. A sunburned man wearing sunglasses -- the classic caricature of a hillbilly Trumpster. When he saw me I was a little apprehensive, but he took off his glasses and smiled. "Hi, I'm Brady," he said. I introduced myself; he seemed happy to see a new face in the neighborhood, and perhaps assumed that I would be moving in. "See you around," he said, somewhat optimistically. I said goodbye and continued toward the Wishkah river.
A small gravel path curved off the road just before the bridge. And there was the Kurt Cobain memorial.
There were signs and sculptures, but the real Cobain memorial lived in the surroundings: the steel-grey sky, the gritty neighborhood, the bridge, the river, and the silence. Under the bridge, a simple sign said "FROM THE MUDDY BANKS OF THE WISHKAH." It was a beautiful but haunting experience.
I sat there for about an hour reading Jeffrey Archer's Kane and Abel. It's a story about two men who achieve immense wealth and success through their skills and hard work. One was born a Boston Brahmin, the other grew up in a Siberian gulag, but both achieve fabulous success. Sitting in Aberdeen, the story felt like a lie -- but an entertaining lie, nonetheless.
Grays Harbor county is a land of Trump's "forgotten men and women." It has been a major timber producer for hundreds of years. After voting for Democrats in every presidential election since Herbert Hoover, it swung hard for Donald Trump in 2016 and evicted all of its Democratic state representatives. From the state of Aberdeen, I understood why the residents would be enraged over the collapse of local industry and eager to blame it on liberals. I doubt that any amount of UBI or job training would wipe away the despair humiliation that drenched the once-proud town.
Clouds blocked the sun and the air cooled to the 50s. More rain was ahead. I packed my bag and said goodbye to this quiet, melancholy place. More fences, guard dogs, and warning signs lined my path back to the station.
Aberdeen's bus terminal is simple but comfortable. Lines of benches are installed under a broad green awning. There is a vending machine (I got a Snickers bar) and a clean bathroom. I couldn't find the flag for the Pacific Transit bus to Raymond, but I knew roughly where it would pull into the station, so I settled down for another hour of reading. Under the awning I was safe from the rain but not from the cold wind.
At last my bus arrived. Another van, larger than the Mason County buses but smaller than the bus from Olympia. This route ran only twice a day, so I was surprised to see about seven passengers file off. One was an obviously drunk homeless man who the driver knew by name. He shuffled off and asked if he could get back on. The driver demanded a fifty-cent fare which he didn't have, so the man stumbled away dejectedly.
My fellow passengers were a drunk old man, a younger man, and a woman. They seemed to be traveling together, but I couldn't tell if they were family. They spent much of the trip arguing over where to get off the bus -- Raymond or South Bend. As they spoke, the bus whizzed down a heavily forested section of Route 101. The driver raced around tight curves, aggressively passing any cars driven by slowpoke tourists. The very back of the bus, where I sat, protruded from the rear wheels and swung from side to side with every turn.
(It's always entertaining to travel the small highways by public transit. On difficult roads where tourists might slow down for caution, experienced bus drivers can curve through at rollercoaster speeds. Most of them have done it hundreds of times.)
Before reaching the town center, the bus pulled away and completed a five-block loop to serve a small neighborhood north of the Willapa river. No one got on or off. These "ghost stops," though unproductive for the transit agency, are a gold mine for the casual traveler because they trace the patterns of local life. The stop north of the Willapa River was across from a church and a convenience store. It was the first of many that I would encounter over the summer.
Raymond sat on a flat river delta surrounded by steep forested hills. A few blocks separated the bus stop from the Pitchwood Inn. The town was empty, but it didn't feel as depressing as Olympia or Aberdeen. There was a movie theater and a diner, and the sidewalks were well-maintained.
Opening the door to the Pitchwood Inn I saw something I hadn't witnessed for many months: a small room, wood-paneled and lined with neon signs, packed with laughing, maskless people. The bar was active and no one gave a second thought to "distancing." Back in Seattle, despite the vaccine, people were still sanctimoniously wearing masks outdoors and chiding each other to stand six feet apart. Here in Raymond, the pandemic was over.
This was my first time staying at a hotel by myself. I was a little nervous about checking in, but the bartender handed me my room key without checking my ID or my credit card. The room was tiny but extremely comfortable.
After spending a few minutes checking out my home for the next night, I returned to the alehouse and ordered a BLT. I would soon find out that the Pitchwood, along with every other restaurant in the country was understaffed. I didn't care. After a year of isolation, I was delighted to stew for an hour in the cheerful atmosphere of the packed bar. The sandwich finally came with an apology and a discount.
|9 PM in Raymond|