Nerding Out on Nature:

Because Earth is cooler than screens


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Writer Island/Orcas Island

I love traveling with my family—see my new essay in High Country News as proof of how much I adore our adventures together. But once in a while, it’s fun to travel alone—to meditate, silently, on museums or hiking trails or why the train’s three hours late. While no mom is an island (sorry, John Donne), I’m excited to visit one in two weeks.

With Washington author and essayist Ana Maria Spagna, I’ll be teaching the art of compassionate writing for “Writer Island”—a weekend creative writing workshop at Kangaroo House Bed and Breakfast on lovely Orcas Island near Seattle.

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I discovered Orcas 18 months ago while on book tour, and stayed overnight at Kangaroo House (named for the kangaroo that used to reside there). The owners made me a gorgeous breakfast and invited me to teach.

I’ve taught writing workshops in bookstores, in hotel ballrooms, in my living room with four cats, and once, in an old ice house–but I’ve never taught at a bed and breakfast. I’m relying on the resident cat for inspiration. (Intrigued? There’s still time to register for Writer Island, if you’re interested!)

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The resident cat, in meditation.

But what if you can’t stand to leave your family behind? Bring them to the island (the ferry ride’s half the fun) and they can head off adventuring while you write. The hike to Mount Constitution in Moran State Park offers intrigue and excitement and really weird mushrooms! Look for banana slugs around the many lakes and climb the lookout tower to check out the historical displays.

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The rock structure, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936, looks like a medieval watch tower. From the top, you get a hawk’s-eye view of the San Juan Islands and surrounding mountains. I also got a fine look at the back of a red tailed hawk flying below me!

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The view from Lookout Tower . . .

There’s a wonderful bookstore, as well—Darvill’s—perfect for browsing if the weather turns rainy. I loved it so much that I went twice in two days and spent a small fortune.

Can’t make Writer Island this year, but want to meet me and Ana Maria Spagna? We’ll be reading at Lopez Bookshop on Lopez Island with writer Iris Graville on Thursday, February 25th and at Darvill’s on Friday, February 26th. We hope to see you soon!

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A Rockin’ Good Time at Petersen Rock Garden

Say the words “Petersen Rock Garden” to native Oregonians, and a wistful expression may glaze over their eyes. “Oh,” they’ll sigh, “I remember that place from my childhood.”

Of course they do. This is the quintessential bizarre family roadside attraction, with something for everyone—rock castles and historical replicas, peacocks, an abandoned 50s diner, and a fascinating backstory.

Good Capitol

In the early 1900s, Rasmus Petersen—an immigrant from Denmark—made his home between Bend and Redmond, Oregon. He fell in love with the area’s rocks and began collecting obsidian and sunstone and jasper and thundereggs in an 85-mile radius. Until his death in 1952, he used the rocks as building material to construct a sort of fantasy landscape that struck me, on my midsummer visit, as way more interesting than anything Disneyland has to offer. (Don’t tell my eight-year old.)

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Pull up in a dirt parking lot, and the first things you’ll likely notice are peacocks strutting their stuff around wide lawns and a stone replica of a U.S. Capitol building (step quietly up the stairs and look inside to spot the resident cat). Other monuments include Independence Hall and the Statue of Liberty, standing stately between a rock castle, rock, bridges and a lily pond.

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Can you see the cat?

At the base of the depiction of the Statue of Liberty sits an unnerving plaque. “Enjoy yourself,” it reads. “It is later than you think.” We pondered that message in arid heat as we made our way over to the abandoned diner. Still decked out with classic 50’s Formica and salmon-colored wallpaper and a soda fountain and a menu on which sodas and sandwiches cost mere pennies, it struck me as the weirdest curiosity of the entire place.

Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

I stood for a long time peering in through a broken window as unseen dogs parked somewhere behind the building, trying to picture the people who’d once eaten and worked there. Did Petersen himself (here, you can buy an image of him on EBay) in his hat and striped tie periodically stop there for a root beer float in the midst of his work on a fanciful new sculpture? I could have asked his granddaughter-she showed up as we wandered around, but the place was hopping, and numerous people crowded around her to talk.

As the July sun walloped us with heat, I couldn’t help wishing we could step inside the diner to an icy blast of air conditioning and a cold Coca Cola. The attraction’s Wikipedia entry mentions the possibility of the owners opening up a café. Given that families like mine spend hours exploring the place, that sounds like a winning idea to me.

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But my daughter seemed undaunted by the weather, and impervious to a tiny white freezer labeled “Ice Cream” in the shade of one building. She wandered, wide-eyed, through the peacocks and looked for tail feathers, finally purchasing one in the gift shop for two dollars. She walked around and around the castle—rock instead of ice, but still, it looked like something that Elsa from Frozen would inhabit. I could tell then that decades from now, she’ll feel a wistful sort of joy whenever she hears the words “Petersen Rock Garden.”

Petersen Rock Garden is located at 7930 SW 77th St., Redmond, OR. 541-382-5574. It’s open daily, 9-5. Cost is $5 donation, on the honor system. Find more information on the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/petersensrockgarden .


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Oregon’s North Coast: More Than Just Forts and Shipwrecks

“Mommy, was Pomp home-schooled?”

My eight-year old daughter (aka “The Spud”) and I stood in front of a statue of Sacagawea, famed Shoshone interpreter in Lewis’ and Clark’s Corps of Discovery of the early 1800s. The Native American woman gave birth to her son, Jean Baptiste (nicknamed Pompey, or Pomp), two months before the Corps began their journey from Missouri to Oregon. She simply strapped the baby on her back and took off on the expedition which would take two-plus years.

The statue of Sacagawea and Pomp outside Lewis and Clark National Historic Park

The statue of Sacagawea and Pomp outside Lewis and Clark National Historic Park

One of the original multitasking moms, she saw to Pomp’s needs, saved valuable expedition documents from floating downstream, made peace between Corps members and Native Americans on the journey, and taught her growing son and 31 men about the flora and fauna around them.

Replica of Fort Clatsop

Replica of Fort Clatsop

Jonathan and I have lately decided to home-school The Spud for a while. What better place to start than the Northern Oregon coast, rich with history? We popped in a CD by The Meriwethers, a charming Ashland-based band inspired by the Corps, and drove to Lewis and Clark National Historic Park to wander through an excellent little museum and a replica of Fort Clatsop.

“It that all?” The Spud asked after peering into a handful of rooms holding crudely-constructed beds and tables.

“That’s the point,” I told her. The Corps hunkered down in a similar fort among the Sitka spruce for three months, from December 1805 to March 1806, squashed together making maps and sewing moccasins for the return journey east while rain poured down.

This bright June day inspired us to hike the Netul Landing Trail beside the fort. With our intrepid terrier, we set out along a path picking salmon berries and pointing out bald eagles and great-blue herons. A family of adventurers could easily spend a day at Lewis and Clark National Historic Park, watching films in the museum, studying the exhibits, participating in the Junior Ranger program, hiking, meditating on a forest stump surrounded by the ethereal warble of the Swainson’s thrush.

The Salt Works, in Seaside.

The Salt Works, in Seaside.

Later, fortified by burgers and fish and chips and a puppy patty (a $1 dog burger) at Astoria’s kid- and terrier-friendly Wet Dog Cafe, we drove to Seaside to see The Salt Works. This tiny historical replica depicts the system by which members of the Corps boiled seawater to make much-needed salt for meat preservation and . . . well, you know, to improve the taste of half-spoiled elk.

While Seaside has plenty of attractions–boutiques and boardwalks and a glittering carousel–we opted to visit Fort Stevens State Park instead. We parked at Coffenbury Lake and checked out the anglers and swimmers, then walked the 1.5 mile path to the ocean. There, we found the wreck of the Peter Iredale, a sailing vessel that ran ashore in 1906. Families walked around and around the rusty hull, then dispersed to build sand castles and play Frisbee and brave the chilly waves. We lingered on the sunny beach, wishing we’d brought our bicycles to ride the seven miles of paved paths in the park.

Wreck of the Peter Iredale

Wreck of the Peter Iredale

A walk through Astoria proved just as much fun, however. Jonathan and The Spud visited the Columbia River Maritime Museum with its displays about shipwrecks and fishing boats and the Coast Guard while the terrier and I rambled down near the piers where just a few weeks before, 1,200 sea lions congregated, prohibiting boat launch until a man scared almost 1,000 of them off with his faux killer whale. (See the hilarious story here.)

The north coast of Oregon makes for a splendid classroom. You can visit museums, observe sea lions at rest and at play, wander beaches and forests, take a ride on a tall ship, and cross the gorgeous Astoria-Megler Bridge into Washington to gaze down at Clark’s Dismal Nitch where the Corps of Discovery once huddled against the rocks, stranded during a ferocious winter storm. Fortunately for us, the sun shone brightly this day, and we returned across the bridge to the Wet Dog Cafe for another couple of ciders, another Shirley Temple, and a puppy patty.

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Want to take a writing class with me? Check these out–enrollment ends soon!

June 29th-August 7, 2015–“Feature Writing for Magazines and Newspapers,” Whidbey Writers Workshop Post-MFA Course, 6-week class online, all writers welcome.

July 25th and 26th, 2015–“Heal Yourself Through Environmental Memoir,” Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, Otis, Oregon, 10 AM-4 PM both days. All writers welcome.