There is a common perception among people that the western half of Washington State is entirely composed of civilized city types while the eastern half of our state, consisting mostly of sparsely populated farm and ranch land, is home to their cultural opposites. The conventional wisdom holds that the areas surrounding the urban core of Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett are uniformly urban or boringly suburban and that our more “independent” personalities reside for the most part in the burghs and hamlets east of the Cascade Mountain Range which divides our state neatly between red and blue. While there are exceptions here and there, for the most part this observation holds true in my experience.
One exception to this conventional wisdom is a geographically substantial portion of the state that lays between the western shores of Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean. Consisting mostly of the vast wilderness that is Olympic National Park, the folks who inhabit this part of the state have acquired the nickname of mossbacks due to the area’s prodigious amounts of rainfall. If you have ever travelled the back roads of Appalachia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and thought to yourself that the people who inhabit the wilds of West Virginia were the poorest and most proudly destitute people in the country, you would be mistaken.
For those unfamiliar with our state, Jefferson and Clallam Counties are a land of stunning natural beauty. The Dosewalips River Valley. Dabob Bay. The Duckabush River. The Hoh rain forest. The rugged Pacific coast as it was millenia ago. You would be hard pressed to find such primordial wilderness anywhere in the world. That it is in such close proximity and easily reached from our major cities and their throngs of hikers and mountain bikers, a culture clash unlike any I have witnessed occurs between a people among the most stereotypically coastal urban progressive in the country and the denizens of such waterlogged towns as Quilcene, Chimicum, Liliwaup, Humptulips, who regard anyone not sporting red suspenders and hob nail boots, or lacking a severely underslung chin and prominent brow ridge as suspicious at best and meriting outright hostility if they perceive you as a threat to their long held cultural norms. These cultural offenses can range from the minor, such as the wearing of a North Face pullover, to highly provocative acts such as piloting a Subaru Outback sporting a Thule rack through their territory.
If you’ve ever seen the History Channel series Ax Men, filmed in and around these counties, understand that the foul mouthed, hot tempered, illiterate rednecks featured on this show are the creme de la creme of mossback society. Supported mostly by what is left of the logging industry in these parts, they live largely in dilapidated singlewides surrounded by clearcut woodlands and collections of the rusted remains of every car, truck, motor, transmission, and assorted piece of machinery or scrap metal that have been handed down through generations from father to son. To a city boy like I was at the time, they were suspect in every way. Which leads me to the proverbial hole in the donut of this tale.
A few years back while still a member in good standing of polite progressive society, my then future wife, myself, and a very gay (nttawwt) hair dresser friend of hers, growing bored one Saturday morning with the thousands of choices available to us in the city as only a city dweller can, piled into future wife’s car and in a couple of hours found ourselves travelling in this part of the state. Just passing through. Killing some time. Seeing the sights. Now when I say “car”, I mean that we were driving a 1960 Rambler American. Not exactly state of the art automotive engineering when new, this vehicle had lost most of its starch around the time of the Johnson administration and now served more as an ironic fashion statement than form of reliable transportation. When we saw the small dirt road that temptingly offered the prospect of leaving the banality of the highway in the rear view mirror, and not being experienced in the challenges involved in navigating roads marked on forest service maps as “un-maintained”, we probably should have hesitated on leaving the pavement behind while piloting such a “classic” and called it a day. Future wife however, prone to making rash decisions in search of adventure, insisted we forge ahead. Her friend, a pragmatic and rather cautious type strongly suggested we not, as we were in unfamiliar territory with darkness a couple of hours away. After bickering for a few minutes and getting nowhere, they turned to me and requested my services as a tie breaker.
Our fashion statement already having over heated a couple of times on the drive, my instincts for survival were telling me in no uncertain terms that heading back to town was probably the wise course of action. Cool reason and logic were not however to be employed in this particular instance. One look from future wife and our course was settled. You guys know the one. The “Well?…. I came over here to have fun, so if you have any interest in getting laid you’ll see to it that I get some.” look. As she was young and beautiful and I was neither of these, I made the only decision any man in my position could make and over loud protests from our cautious friend in the back seat, I cranked the wheel, hit the gas, and in a spray of gravel our fate for this weekend was sealed.
I’ll skip the part about hitting a large rock miles away from the end of the pavement and snapping off the driveline of the fashion statement. Watching with a strange detachment in the rear view mirror as it rolled behind us down the steep narrow logging road, it picked up considerable speed before it hit another rock, turned 45 degrees, and then launched itself over the side and into the abyss. I’ll also skip the tirade that our now vindicated friend launched in the direction of the two of us regarding the situation we now found ourselves in. As he let us both have it, I was tempted to now express my earlier unspoken doubts about our vote to take the road less traveled and belatedly join his side in asking future wife just what the hell she was thinking, as the prospects for my rationale in casting the tie breaking vote in her favor were now starting to look rather slim. I held my tongue however, less I am now ashamed to admit out of principal, but in the hope that should we ever get off of this mountain my loyalty would, while perhaps not today, in time be duly rewarded. By the time he had concluded informing us of what a couple of fuckwits we were, it was quite dark and getting fairly cold. About this time we noticed a single dim headlight approaching from above us on the switchbacked road.
While the photo above does not exactly capture the look and demeanor of the pair of brothers that we now found ourselves face to face with, who had just exited an old pickup truck that looked like it had been through an auto crusher and then partly unfolded and returned to the road, it is close enough so that you get the general idea that they were not the type of fellows that we were accustomed to encountering in our work-a-day lives two hours to the east. As they approached, one of the brothers, looking I assumed at our trendily dressed cautious friend stated matter of factly “You look like a queer.” Sensing his alarm at their initial observation, I immediately jumped to our friends defense and in my best progressivese attempted to explain that I found it offensive that they make such a snap judgement based on someone’s appearance alone and that while he was indeed gay, where we were from it was a common thing and not something to be afraid of. At this point both brothers quickly moved very close, focused their gaze directly on me and said “We’re not afraid of nuthin’ and we’re not talkin’ to him, we’re talkin’ to you.” As they looked me up and down, taking in my black North Face fleece vest over a moss green long sleeve poly T, baggy cargo shorts over blue poly long undies and my very expensive gore-tex lined cross training/ mountain biking/ hiking/ multi use/condescending/ I’m better than you all purpose boots, I came to the realization that the snap judgement they were making was to be at my expense and at this time, in this place, in this git-up, I was the queer. I readied myself for a fight to the death or a re-inactment of Ned Beatty’s performance in Deliverance. I was very much hoping for the former. Future wife, playing the strategic long game, remained slumped down and silent in the passenger seat of the Rambler.
As luck would have it our cautious friend was, as I have mentioned, a very trendy dresser. In the Seattle gay community at this point in time that meant flannel shirt, Levi’s, Carhart jacket, and heavy leather logging boots. Understanding the peril I was now in due to my lack of good judgement regarding acceptable dress in mossback territory, and apparently forgiving me my vote in favor of getting laid at the expense of his safety, he immediately jumped to my defense, stepping between us and saying “We’re from Seattle, our car’s broken down, and we’re lost…Can you help us out?” “Well…sure” said the bigger of the pair, turning his back on me completely now, regarding our more appropriately dressed cautious friend as obviously the man in charge of this outfit. The three of them then arranged to tow our rig back down the mountain with the unfolded pickup truck. Once off the mountain with the Rambler safe and sound in a makeshift lean-to on the property, they invited us to their doublewide for many shots of bourbon late into the night where future wife, having earlier abandoned her strategy of slumping her way to invisibility was a big hit, due in no small part to the two brother’s enthusiastic approval of her choice in rundown vehicles. Our cautious friend turned out to be the life of the party after a few shots. They had never been exposed to someone as thoroughly gay and drunk as he and they laughed hysterically at everything he said. He took it all in good humor as did the brothers.
After much good story telling and many laughs, they put us up in a vacant singlewide surrounded by clear cut woodlands and collections of the rusted remains of every car, truck, motor, transmission, and assorted piece of machinery or scrap metal that had been handed down through generations from father to son. It turns out they had a driveline for a 1960 Rambler American in one of their piles of inherited junk and spent most of Sunday installing it, no charge, and then sent us on our way. I like to think that over the course of the evening and the next day I had won them over as well, but I think that they still were suspicious of my motives by the time we expressed our thanks and headed back to town. Our cautious friend was safely on his way back to the city, future wife had the fun and adventure she was seeking, and I learned an important lesson.
The notion of “the other” being judged as a group rather than as an individual is a very strong component of human nature and cuts in all directions. The two brothers and I had our minds made up about the other before we so much as spoke. Our cautious friend, while perhaps thinking to himself that he knew who these two were, spoke to them as individuals and found that they indeed were. If we would all leave our group think comfort zones from time to time, to simply speak our minds and then listen to those with whom we might be suspicious of politically, religiously, culturally, we might discover that we, and they, may not have all the answers, and that maybe we are not as infallible as we all think we are.