The Northwesternmost Cut of All
Sunday, May 24, 1998
I woke up at the crack of dawn — hell, even before the crack of dawn — and headed off to the docks in downtown Seattle to catch the first ferry of the morning (at 5:20am) to Bremerton, which is where the USS Missouri had been moored for the last few decades until they towed it away on Saturday afternoon, destination Pearl Harbor. (A nice bit of historical symmetry awaits it there. For the U.S., World War II began at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941; the surrender of Japan was signed on the decks of the Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945.)
I’d missed the Missouri when it was towed past the Seattle waterfront Saturday evening because it was running about an hour ahead of schedule. But it was supposed to round the corner at the northern edge of Puget Sound and head west to the Pacific through the Strait of Juan de Fuca (which separates Washington and Canada) sometime in the early-morn hours of Sunday. It was expected in Port Angeles, about halfway down the strait, at 9am. I figured if I caught the 5:20 ferry, I could get to Port Angeles with about an hour to spare.
So I rolled into Port Angeles around 8 and joined the crowd of cars lined up along the jetty, with dozens of folks peering out into the strait with binoculars and cameras, looking for that big boat. Turns out, though, that we’re all a couple hours late: the Missouri was moving faster than expected and was now about three hours ahead of schedule, having passed by Port Angeles at about 6:15am.
By this time, though, I’m already three hours into the trip, and it doesn’t seem right to just turn around and go home. The road map shows a good spot about 30 miles west where the road runs right along the water, so I decide it’s worth going that much farther. I arrive at the intended destination, Pillar Point Campground, about an hour later — but I still don’t see no boat. I ask the ranger about it. “Oh, yeah, we saw it, it came by here about an hour ago.” It’s getting to be kind of like looking up in the sky for the space shuttle — you know it’s out there somewhere, but where?
The map shows another good viewing opportunity a few more miles up the road, which I figure is just about enough to catch up that one hour I’m still behind the boat. I pull into a seaside parking lot at Clallam Bay about 20 minutes later — and, sure enough, there, lurking off in the distance, is the Missouri. I spent a few minutes watching it there with a couple other shipgazers, one of whom was with his grandson and was contemplating driving the remaining 20 or so miles to Neah Bay, the last town at the western end of the highway.
By now I’d seen what I’d come for — but here I was, a couple dozen miles from the absolute northwesternmost point in the continental United States. It’s hard to be that close to the edge of something and not just go right up to it. Too hard, I finally decided. So I grabbed some breakfast at a little diner overlooking the water and prepared to complete what by now was beginning to seem like a journey of destiny.
I followed along the winding road as the mile markers descended into the single digits; at mile marker 2, there was a nice roadside pullout spot, and I caught the Missouri drifting back into my sights again, the wily old codger. Finally I headed down the final couple miles of road — or so I thought.
I reached mile marker zero of U.S. highway 112, at which point there was a sign welcoming visitors to the Makah Indian Reservation. It seems the northwesternmost part of the United States is, fittingly, still the domain of the natives. But outsiders are welcome, so I continued on for four or five miles to the town of Neah Bay, which could pretty easily pass for the last place on earth. Even so, though, there was one more road leading out a little bit beyond the town, which isn’t quite nestled up against the Pacific Coast.
After three or four miles, the pavement gave way to a gravel road, which finally reached its end in a little alcove with a sign that says “Cape Flattery Trail.” The trail zigs and zags through old-growth forest so dense and moist you could almost swim through it. Felled trees expose root-bases bigger than cars. The sound of water crashing ashore against giant rocks beckons in the distance, drawing you forth toward the magnificent sights to come.
About a hundred yards before the trail end, a smaller path diverges to the left and leads to a little opening where a few people were gathered, seemingly for some sort of ceremony. As I started to bypass them, I noticed the path ahead on the main trail was obstructed by someone coming the other way: It was a woman in full white wedding regalia, trailed by two little tykes who were keeping the train of her dress from dragging along the forest floor, holding it up just high enough to reveal the one inconsistency in her bridal attire — hard-core backpacker’s hiking boots.
After that, even the sight of the ocean at the end of the trail could hardly measure up, at least in terms of surprises. But it was more than worth it in terms of majestic visual wonder. On either side, waves slam into towering cliffs of rock, carving out sizable caverns in several places. To the south, the Washington coastline tapers down and gently eastward, clearly delineating this spot as the northernmost on the U.S. part of the continent.
And, lurking about 20 degrees northeast of this island, there was the Missouri, just about to turn southward into the Pacific. I spent about half an hour at the cape, mesmerized by the sights and every so often peering out at the Missouri again.
Finally I took one last look at that long, sleek, grey apparition on the horizon; as I did, four seagulls drifted into view, flying parallel across its bow as if in formation, a fitting final salute for an unplanned journey that turned out to be well worth the trip.