By J. Pennelope Goforth
Everyone looks so much younger, the trees grown much taller, and there’s acres more development. These are a few of the things I noticed when I returned to Olympia after years of travel and living in Mexico, Canada, and Alaska. I wondered if I would feel at home again here. Altered yet still recognizable, Olympia 2009 retains the quaint rain forest town atmosphere of Olympia 1972 when I first called it home.
A young single mother of two toddlers I arrived in the spring of 1972 dressed in my Seattle city garb: a polyester dress, platform sandals and post 60s bouffy hair. A student at Seattle Community College on Broadway I had come at a girlfriend’s suggestion to check out transferring to a new innovative college located in Olympia. Each weekday I boarded the half-empty bus from West Seattle to downtown, worked through the morning work rush hour from First Avenue to Third and Union where I transferred to a standing room only trolley for the brief ride to Capitol Hill.
The college occupied several buildings along Broadway, the largest being the venerable old stone Broadway High School on the corner of Broadway and East Pine Street. My head was spinning from the typical college regimen of an hour of algebra on Tuesdays and Thursday followed by an hour of Medieval Literature then Macro Economics. Monday and Wednesdays began with work study in the library and ended with English. I felt like I was in a knowledge processing factory flitting from one discontinuous task to another in the ancient bowels of the 1902 stone colossus. My friends talk of independent study contracts with a single advisor within a coherent topical field in a modern new campus in the woods outside of West Olympia sounded like the Promised Land.
But first I had to find it. On a sunny spring-break day, leaving the children with my mother and lunch packed by my grandmother, I started out on a fact-finding mission that was to change my life forever. Driving the nearly new I-5 was the easy part; past the spacious Nisqually Valley nothing but Douglas firs, cedar, cottonwoods and maples ruled the landscape on either side of the smooth four lane highway. One nod to civilization on the top of the hill was the aromatic landfill with flocks of wheeling seagulls.
Taking the Capitol Way exit into downtown Olympia I entered pioneer Washington: old-world two and three storey buildings from the Victorian Era lined the main business street; a lawn of green grass sporting great trunked trees was dwarfed by a massive stone building that proclaimed ‘government’; and the ever present threat of left-turning fully loaded logging truck trailed black diesel plumes through the town. In my 20-something mind, gone the hustle of city life, eased was the anxiety of freeway driving. I had entered the 25 mile an hour zone. Which was a good thing as most of the downtown and dock was lined with delightfully decorated storefronts. Most of the short town site blocks were unified across the various shops by a curiously long awning extending over the sidewalk.
Meandering about the town looking for the signs to the college I saw The Spar, the Brown Derby, the food coop, Radiance, Yardbirds, local mercantile stores, the charming run down port with half rotted buildings seeping back into the waters at high tide. Turned around on the one-way streets for about 20 minutes I came upon 4th Avenue and headed over the bridge to West Olympia. I slowed to a crawl to take in a spectacular view of the capitol building on the south reflected in a peaceful lake and the snowy ridge tops of the Olympic Mountains just visible in the north above the blue, blue waters of Budd Inlet.
As I attempted to follow the few signs to The Evergreen State College, West Olympia appeared on a plateau at the top of the hill above the inlet: mostly a residential suburb neatly populated with Washington’s signature wooden clapboard two story houses. Spacious porches, carved wood lattice-work at the corners, lots of yard with a profusion of flowering rhododendrons and lilacs perfuming the air. A few churches, a cluster of stores behind a two-pump gas station and, oddly enough, a music store, Yenney’s lined Harrison Street. A series of wrong turns beginning on Kaiser Road led me deep into the forest again, second growth forest with few houses but lots of farms and time silvered cedar barns.
Another wrong but charming turn down rural Black Lake Road through more endless forest interrupted by farmland, sometimes cows and horses grazing in open fields. Surely it can’t be this far out I thought, turning south, then west again in a circle back to Harrison where a small pub house stood on the left; wooden somewhat dilapidated but obviously popular by the line of logging trucks and pick ups parked out front. Finally a sign to Evergreen Parkway on the right turned into a single lane winding through the forest for some miles ending in a smallish parking lot with construction-fresh clear cut around it. From there it was a short walk on a roughed out path that dramatically ended in Red Square. Somewhat at variance with the wildness of the forest a group of poured concrete buildings, mottled with the knot holes of the plywood forms guarded the red-bricked square. A blocky unadorned very tall clock tower presided over all. Only the absence of a flag pole flying the red, white and blue indicated this was not a military fortification. Among the raw excavated piles of earth yet to be landscaped several grassy areas peppered with spring fevered students lying about in the afternoon sun softened the scene.
I won’t say it was love at first sight, but the place, like the moss on the trees thriving in the rain, it became my home for the next seven years while I lived in various places between the college and the train stop of Tenino. Following graduation and a stint as a groundskeeper for the Thurston County School District, I left for the king crabbing grounds of the Bering Sea in 1978. I was not to return to Olympia for just over 30 years.
A half a lifetime later. It doesn’t seem like much in historical perspective where the trees grow for a few hundred years, the mountains a few thousand, and the tides run eternally. I returned in the spring of 2009 to visit with my daughter, Jessica, who had just graduated that winter from Evergreen. But like my very first trip, first I had to find her.
I left Seattle on my own this time, both my mother and grandmother passed on, only the strong memories of their motherly spirits now accompanying me. The Pacific Northwest had changed superficially over the years: millions more people now lived here altering countryside and the once individual towns all along the I-5 corridor. A corridor no longer through the grand forests but through strip malls, housing developments, shopping centers, 4-story high neon casino signs, and big box store complexes… all the way down from Seattle. In Tacoma the odious stack of the mill was gone. Now the Puyallup tidelands spiked with orange and white gantry cranes. I recognized the state green and white signs for Fort Lewis and its doppelganger, No Fort Lewis. Then the familiar mossy stone train trestle that marked the gateway to Olympia, crossing the wide, mostly unchanged, Nisqually Valley.
Once over the hill I noticed the landfill must have filled up after all this time and been filled in itself. Across Martin Road, it seemed as if as if I were on my way home but someone had relandscaped while I was gone—and it was not pretty. I got stuck in an off ramp only lane by a FedEx truck and ended up on College Road, then somehow turned around on the unfamiliar welter of shops on Lacey Boulevard then circled around to Ruddle Road. We had once lived on Ruddle Road on several acres of land there with a field, huge garden and outbuildings just north of a pond called Southwick. While I didn’t think the old farmhouse we lived in would still be there, I didn’t expect that the entire area—both sides of the road— would be blanketed in cheap-looking development housing; with so many for rent and for sale signs I wondered why they had been built to begin with. The only charm left on that stretch down memory lane for me was the towering rows of evergreens creating a sheltered passage, dappled green in the afternoon sun.
The once rural two-lane road that was the Yelm Highway and Ruddle [Ruddell] Road had been lined with family farm houses, barns and cattle, gardens and fields of strawberries and Christmas tree farms. Now it morphed into one and two-story housing developments and big box stores.
Of course one of our first outings together was to the Evergreen campus, now the alma mater of both mother and daughter. We stopped downtown for a late lunch. I suggested the Spar Cafe, for old time’s sake, when I spotted it. The Spar I recalled was a popular greasy spoon ‘truck stop’ for loggers and truck drivers as well as the locals. But she said that it had new ownership, a gentrified remodel and the food wasn’t that great. It seemed most of the eateries, spaced between the equally numerous coffee shops, were an ethnic blend of Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Italian. The familiar buildings seemed rundown a bit with a brightly painted mural here and there among the many empty storefronts with for lease signs. A young grunge-looking populace walked the tree-lined streets, sitting outside at coffee houses, or browsing 2nd hand book and clothing stores. They resembled the hippies of the 1960s sporting tattoos and neon hair. An antique dealer cluttered up the sidewalk with rickety old wooden chairs and racks of tattered finery on just about every block. Even one of my other favorite restaurants, The Brown Derby—where legislators, aides and lobbyists sat at the long breakfast bar with the hippies from TESC—had been transformed into a ‘junque’ shop. Still, old Mr. Schoenfeld’s furniture store and the aromatic Radiance herbal and massage place—a shocker for the more staid Olympians when it first opened in the early 1970s—along with the timeless YMCA and the theater on 5th Avenue held fast; remnants of a time of family-owned and operated businesses when you knew the people who ran the store and sharing news was as much a part of running errands as was the shopping. That spirit seemed alive and thriving as my daughter did exactly that with the clerks at Radiance and the waiter at the hole in the wall restaurant. We had Pacific Northwest comfort food: a fresh grilled salmon sandwich that told me home is where you can get your favorite food.
We stopped at the artesian well to fill her water container; it’s now surrounded by garish yellow concrete blocks and a black painted wall mural in a Diamond Parking lot in the middle of town. Then onto a quick drive through of the port area north of downtown. It seems the heart of serious shopping in Olympia has moved to a gentrified farmers market and the surrounding new shopping buildings. The old food co-op is gone but another tightly packed natural foods marketplace now perches on a hill above Pacific Street. Some of the industrial lumber ways and sawmills that once flourished on the gradually filled in tide flats north of downtown have given way to a marine park called Swantown with the nearly identical looking boat repair yard that I recalled. It also sported a new maritime version of a gated community with locked fences across catwalks down to the fingers of an upscale marina packed with $100,000+ sailboats and yachts fronted by a spacious parking lot. On the other side of the lot several desultory stacks of logs waited for shipment to China. Lumber was big business when I lived here; tramp steamers dating from WWII commonly docked at Olympia taking on cargos of lumber for the voracious market in Japan. Yardbirds with its huge silly yellow and black fowl perched on the building’s roof is gone now. Home Depot and Lowe’s rule here as elsewhere but they don’t evoke the same smile as the Bird. Several seriously nice looking apartment buildings, one for seniors, are now part of a new kind of pleasant urban neighborhood with nearby restaurants, coffee shops and a bakery or two. Sylvester’s Landing and the long new promenade area spanning almost the whole eastern side of the West Bay make for a pleasant walk and festival venue for the many reasons to party that Olympians are known for. (What else do rain forest dwellers do other than delve into history, read, or go to school?)
On our way across the bridge to West Olympia I was glad my daughter was at the wheel. She expertly navigated the roundabouts that looked dangerous to me. I recalled the S-curves at the bottom of that hill. I barely recognized Harrison but for Yenney’s Music and the kernel of the shopping empire that started as The Westside Shopping Mall. As we drove along Cooper Point Road we talked about our respective programs at Evergreen; her’s was psychology and mine had been a blend of media studies, physics and what then called New Age stuff like Kirlian Photography. She attended the day care center on campus that also served as an excellent Early Childhood Learning contract program. Memories of those years flooded our conversation as we pulled into the parking area. Large fluffy cedars had taken over the gravelly mounds of earth that were left in the construction wake when I first arrived.
When we got to Red Square, large native evergreens had grown up around the then bare concrete buildings softening their presence. As in other springs, students filled the many more grassy spaces enjoying the warmth of the afternoon. Even the stark clock tower seemed somewhat domesticated by the verdant greenery. The only jarring note in the natural symphony was the discordant, tortured looking trees in front of the library building. Stunted poufs of greenery capped the cut off bare stylized branches grown out of trunks with scabrous patchy looking skin. It hurt to look at them. Like the freeze-deformed spruces of Southcentral Alaska, I had the urge to put them out of their misery. They made the post-construction site ambience of my first view seem sweet, especially as it was accompanied by the gradual reclamation of the native shrubs and trees over the happy years I spent here. My daughter rolled her eyes and muttered about the ongoing controversy over the forcibly malformed trees.
We wandered around the buildings on the footpaths through the woods that are now paved, stopped at The Store, temporarily housed in a portable on the back side of a building—some things never change. Strolling through the CAB, I felt again the comfort of being in a familiar and loved place, a place that had become homey through usage and memories of camaraderie and the excitement of semester registrations. I could see in the animated faces in the ebb and flow of students and faculty around us in the foyer that the spirit of innovation and enterprise that magnetized liberal students in the post-1960s still resided here.
Jessica and I, ambled contentedly along a curving path between campus buildings. Happy in the company of my daughter, sated on local salmon, comfortable on the changing but familiar streets of Olympia, sheltered beneath the growing canopy of the rain forest, and awash in pleasant recollections I realized that I had, indeed, found my way home again, in so many ways. Just when I thought it doesn’t get much better than this, with a significant smile Jessica took me to a magical place I’d never seen before and didn’t even know existed: the Longhouse. I stood in awe at the door in front of the larger than life carving of a Native tribeswoman: her open, upturned hands extended in welcome. I felt well and truly welcomed home.