A dozen chairs circled the fire pit and all eyes were on the dancing flames. The sky had grown dark, but the smoke from the wildfires hung heavy in the air. I was surprised they even let us build our modest fire that evening. “You guys want s’mores?” Diane, my old neighbor from the cul-de-sac where I grew up asked. The little kid part of me was stoked to plunge the white pillow of sugar into the flames, toast it to a crisp, and squash it between two chocolate-lined graham crackers.Things are different now, and roasting marshmallows as an adult is serious business. No open flame, just red-hot coals, and the marshmallow has to have just a hint of golden brown around the surface. God forbid your marshmallow burst into flames. A crispy black exterior is a guaranteed F. And it’s important to multitask during the browning by taking a half of a graham cracker with a perfect square of Hershey’s chocolate and delicately placing it on plank of pine above the fire. If you time it perfectly, the chocolate will be perfectly melted when your marshmallow is done.
Diane is the grand master of s’mores and not shy about doling out constructive criticism. My attempt was a solid C+ when all was said and done. Oh, well. I need more practice.
It was a little surreal camping with the old crew from neighborhood where I grew up. How many times had we camped together at Deception Pass? Countless.
I grew up in a cul-de-sac of seven houses on the outskirts of Seattle, and most of our neighbors had kids the same age as me and my siblings, so naturally we became friends. We walked to school together, road bikes, and sledded down the neighborhood hills during the winter. One of my favorite memories growing up was going camping with this fine group of folks at Deception Pass State Park.
Life gets busy – school, moving, work, marriage – and the years slipped by without a visit. I haven’t been to the park since I was 17, so when my friend asked if I wanted to go camping with a group from the cul-de-sac this year, I blurted out an emphatic “YES” without even checking my calendar.
My head was spinning at the thought of spending a few days with my old friends, who would be bringing their own families this time around. Would the park look the same? Would the water of the Strait of Juan de Fuca be as vast as it looked as a child? Would the sand dunes still feel powdery soft? Was our gnarled climbing tree still standing? Would walking across the bridge still be a thrill? I was stoked to experience this place of joy through the lens of adulthood and show my husband, Eric, a Deception newbie, why I loved it so much.
Deception Pass is a sneaky little place located on Fidalgo Island 90 minutes north of Seattle. It was originally believed that this island was part of the peninsula, but after some scouting by Joseph Whidbey in 1792, he discovered that this piece of land was separated by a tiny channel. When I heard this story as a kid, I could almost imagine Whidbey shaking his fist in the air and yelling á la Scooby-Doo style, “Curses! Foiled again!” Probably not, but he did name the strait Deception Pass.
I remember frowning as Eric and I pulled into the park on that sunny summer afternoon because everything looked just as new to me as it probably did to him. I didn’t recognize the twists and turns down to the campground. Had the roadway always followed the perimeter of Cranberry Lake? The place I knew like the back of my hand had become foreign to me.
After setting up camp, we met our friends down at North Beach. A half dozen chairs and a few blankets in a straight line along a primo spot in the sand, I was finally on on familiar ground, minus the haze from the wildfires had taken up permanent residence in the Pacific Northwest. We chatted about nothing and everything. Skipped stones on the water. Sipped crappy beer from cans. I even tried to convince Bruce to let us bury him in the sand like we did so many years ago, which he politely declined.
The hours slipped by in a blissful way where you’re not even aware of time. As the sun began to make it’s descent on the horizon, I said to Eric, “I want to show you the tree!” I tugged on his hand and pulled him to his feet. He had listened to me babble about “the tree” on our drive north and knew how important it was for me to see it with my own eyes again.
We followed the paved pathway that snaked between the sound and Cranberry Lake and followed it into the dunes. The grasses were eerily still, the only movement was when we brushed past them.
Cove after cove of dunes, I craned my head to find the tree. A tiny part of me worried it was no longer standing. But thankfully, the dunes opened up to dozens of footprints in the sand leading to this magnificent 850-year-old Douglas Fir. Its thick jumble of branches made my heart twist just a bit. I’d spent so much time here, climbing and swinging from the branches and picnicking underneath its canopy.
Both Eric and I kicked off our shoes, our feet carrying us to the base of the tree. I ran my hands over the knots and grooves of the smooth, weathered bark and looked upward. The limbs twisted in every direction, and as a child, I remember imagining the branches were tentacles from sea monsters and the long necks of giraffes. I made the first step up but gone was the fearlessness I had as a kid.
“You want to turn around?” Eric asked as kindly as he could when we were only 1/3 of the way across the Deception Pass Bridge. It was our last full day at the campground, and I wanted to get in a little hiking before we left. With his back partially turned and his stiffened shoulders, I knew walking 180 feet above the water freaked him out. He didn’t really wait for my answer before he doubled-stepped it back to land.
“That sucked,” he said, taking a swig from the water bottle. I knew he hated heights, but I was a little bummed he didn’t get a chance to make the trek across the bridge like I had so many times as a kid. It was one of my favorite memories, and I wanted so badly for him to feel the same exhilaration I did.
Standing at the trailhead a few minutes later, we spotted a brown wooden sign with carved white lettering that read: Goose Rock Summit.
The air quality was still awful, but we decided to take the short hike anyway. The trail was an easy trek at first, but soon turned to a steep grade with peek-a-boo shots through the trees to the beach below.
I turned to Eric and said, “I think I remember this place!” I described what my seven-year-old mind remembered of the summit – yellowed grass covering the rocks in patches, like stubble on a beard. The chirp of the crickets in the vegetation. The blazing sun on your shoulders and feeling like you were on top of the entire world.
We crested the summit, sweaty and a little out-of-breath. We were the only people in sight, and it felt like we were the only two in the world. The sunbaked grass grew in patches on the rocky surface, just as it had so many years ago. A few lone madrone trees zigzagged upward against the hot August sun. We could just make out the beach near the campground through the smoky air.
It was a cathartic experience for sure. In that moment, I missed my parents who have since passed away. I missed my siblings who are living across the globe and busy with their own families. But even more so, I was grateful to have those memories and to be able to create new ones with my own little family unit.
Like with so many other things in my life, I need to learn to honor the past – the memories, the laughs, the adventures, and even the frustrations, but even more importantly, I need to be present. I need to really hear the words that friends and family are speaking. I need to look and appreciate what is before my eyes and cherish each new experience.
Thanks for the memories, Deception Pass! Both old and new!