Over thousands of years the Pacific has battered the Olympic coastline inland. The iconic rock towers, called "sea stacks," are vestiges of the ancient coast. | Photo by Ethan Welty/TandemStock
—Yvon Chouinard, founder of the company Patagonia
My sister and her boyfriend drop me off at a small parking lot in the Olympic National Park forest, saying they'll meet me 17 miles downcoast in four days. I hoist my pack and slip into the shadows of ancient fir and cedar, my introduction to the South Coast Route. For three miles I listen, through birdsong and my own footfalls, for the big, watery yawn I'm itching to hear. But before the sound, there's the smell: salty and kelpy and pleasantly rotten.
I descend a steep bank, scramble over a tangle of bleached driftwood, and drop to the sand. And now I'm running. Miles of open beach, open water, open sky. Waves smash down, exploding mist into the wind. I leap in imitation: landlubber, landlocked soul, jumping fool.
The surf recedes, and for a few moments the beach extends all the way out to a rock the size of a minivan. Without dropping my pack, taking off my boots, or weighing the risks, I run to it and clamber up. But as I delight in my small triumph, somewhere between crying and screaming and wanting to strip for a wild dance of gratitude, another wave looms.
It's a cold chaos, not yawning but roaring, that sweeps me off my pedestal. I'm slammed to the sea bottom, where pebbles rake my skin as I try to crawl shoreward. Then the water retreats, and I'm on the surface, gasping, laughing, collapsing just above the wrack line.
When I set up camp that night, everything is soaked: my tent, my sleeping bag, my carrots and noodles and chocolate. My limbs sting with scrapes full of salty grit.
As I sit in my tent and stare out the door, a crescent moon hangs on the sky. A seal swims. I hear a thousand layered voices in the breaking waves. "Welcome," some say. And others, "Enjoy the sloshy walk ahead." —Leath Tonino