When living elsewhere, and asked where I came from, I often said “west of Seattle.” This was said for the sake of simplicity, to avoid confusing the other person with the obscure geography of a distant part of the country. Too frequently, the response I got was “I didn’t know there was anything west of Seattle.” The Olympic Peninsula is roughly the size of Connecticut, and contains within it the vast, roadless mountain wilderness of Olympic National Park.
The Pacific Northwest is a rugged landscape of rainforest, volcanoes, and high desert; it is a land both extreme and mild, exotic and quotidian. But above all, it is a land of water: the rain which falls gently and steadily through the greater part of the year, the many islands and inlets of Washington state, the many waterfalls which give the Cascades their name, all provide the key to understanding the Northwest as a region. It is the pattern of rainfall, too, which defines the character of the landscape. While other regions of the same latitude are leafy and humid in the summer, the rains cease sometimes altogether in the Northwest, and dry, sunny days prevail. The great firs and cedars of the northwestern coastal forests do not mind waiting patiently for the rains to come again in the fall, when they can drink and grow all through the mild winter. And it is for this reason alone why these forests are characterized by the massive pillars of their trunks and the scent of their resin, and are imbued with an entirely different character and spirit than those of Minnesota, New England, the Mid-Atlantic.
I once thought nothing of regularly crossing giant channels of water while en route to college or a relative’s home, or of the fact that, on a clear day, the horizon was dominated by the vast form of Mt. Baker, over a hundred miles away. When I left, I often longed for high alpine valleys and the cold glacial lakes I swam in as a child. When I returned to my homeland after six years' absence, I returned with new eyes, and am amazed at the sight of things which remain familiar, but newly striking.