When the Walls Come Tumbling Down

The day of the last tours, ever, of the Elwha Dam on the Olympic Peninsula, Laurie and I went hiking on the nearby Dungeness Spit. The weather played predictable: grey but not wet, a swath of sameness, a timid surf, a long flat horizon. Lot of driftwood.

Where my mountain prejudice came from I don’t know. When I was a kid I did a science project, and I remember the thrill I felt in cutting out the blue/white photos of the Himalayas, the Andes, and I remember the guilt, too, that the scenery seduced me so much more than the science. I had no patience for geologic time, the crash of tectonic plates, the slow boring building up and eroding down, the foreign-sounding words: igneous, metamorphic, schist. But those photos of distant snowy domes — those and others over my long adolescence in suburban LA — left me so breathless that, as soon as I could, I moved to the mountains and stayed. When, a couple of years ago, a friend took a job on the coast, I felt pity for him. He’d traded glaciers-up-close for Costco and radio reception. This seemed to me a kind of weakness or defeat.

On the Dungeness Spit, we met with friends we hadn’t seen in 17 years. We saw a newt and met a ranger named Knut. The kids practiced native skills and took the orange peels and created teeth from the white backside. An eagle sat not 100 feet away atop a weathered stump. All those long years of house building or career building or family building come easing back together like the tides, like these gentle lapping waves. Not the crashers I knew as a kid.

The idea of a dam coming down sounds momentous, but it shouldn’t be. Make no mistake: I’m a big fan of hydropower, but the Elwha is antiquated and inarguably stupid: providing precious little electricity, while decimating an entire run of salmon. The only reason to hang onto that dam is stubbornness, loyalty to an idea — that all dams are good — at any cost. (Much like sticking it out in foreign wars rather than admit that they were misguided to start with and ineffectual to boot. But I digress.) Taking down the Elwha should be no bigger deal, I thought, than yanking a garden crop (my peppers, say, this lousy summer) that’s withering. No more notable than taking out the trash. With explosives, sure, but still. Brush off your hands and move on.

On the Dungeness Spit, a head popped up just beyond the swells, the size and shape of a footing we once used for a woodshed, blocky and pyramid-like. Black. A sea lion, our friends said. How did they know? A harbor seal is a smaller round-headed creature. Later, for over an hour, we watched three cormorants ride a piece of bark parallel to the beach until, as we watched, a long smooth hump appeared. The hump grew large then rose, entirely and vertically, out of the water. Huge. It turned and collapsed and came up again. A grey whale. Breaching. Not 100 yards away.

I couldn’t help it: I was breathless. I had to admit, I’d been wrong about the coast and that my prejudice had nothing to do with nature or wildness — plenty of that on the Spit — or even my own nature. Just cliché snobbery, resistance to change and an eagerness, even, to ignore the obvious truth. Admitting my wrongness, it turned out, was less a chore or a relief than a celebration.

Maybe, I’m thinking, that’s what it’ll feel like in September when I return to the peninsula to watch the walls come tumbling down.