Van Go: Best Laid Plans
By Julie Snyder
The plan was simple enough. Point Van Go due north for the four-hour drive to Port Townsend, Washington, visit some friends living there, and overnight at a vintage hotel. The next day, head west to the Pacific Coast for beach time, then south to Lake Quinault Lodge in Olympic National Forest for two days of R&R amid the big trees. The best-laid plans…
“Travel is about spontaneity,” contends my husband, Joe. Though come the end of a day too long spent in the driver’s seat, he’s grateful when a reserved hotel room or camping spot awaits. For me, pre-booked accommodations are the anchors that green-light free-wheeling days. Once I know where our bed awaits, anything goes. Most of the time.
On this particular trip, I longed for several non-spontaneous things—an outdoor breakfast in the sunshine, an afternoon interlude at Rialto Beach, long solitary walks in the woods, and a comfy room with a view. (And since we were traveling on Super Bowl Sunday, I also yearned for the Kansas City Chiefs to triumph over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—payback for the latter’s trouncing of my Green Bay Packers a week earlier.)
Our best-laid plans began to go awry with breakfast. The slight breeze and sunshine that greeted us at the Tides restaurant on Hood Canal soon devolved into down-jacket dining with threatening clouds and gusty winds. We held onto our hats with one hand while eating food that quickly turned cold with the other. Reading the newspaper was out of the question. Even portable heaters couldn’t entice us to linger past the last bite.
Port Townsend, perched on a thumb dipping into the Puget Sound, so charmed me that I suggested to Joe that we relocate to a cozy cottage there when we retire. “We’re already retired,” he reminded me. I hastily revised my suggestion. “I meant when we’re ready to retire from city life in Portland.” A distinct lack of enthusiasm for this idea from my spouse.
We wandered around Fort Worden, an Army base-turned-State-Park, where Van Go was a hot ticket. A pair of walkers, with older vans of their own parked at home, envied our sweet rig. In the Downtown Historic District, we checked into the Palace Hotel, a Victorian gem like its neighbors along the main street.
Our local friends joined us to stroll past art-filled storefronts and wander around the harbor, where we peered into a wooden boat-building studio. Were the deserted streets a Covid consequence or a nod to the seduction of the Super Bowl? I couldn’t tell. We finally succumbed ourselves, grabbing take-out slices from Waterfront Pizza and retiring to our elegant room for the fourth quarter. (The Tampa Bay win definitely wasn’t part of our plan.)
The next day was doomed as soon as I suggested we take the scenic route toward the coast. For thirty miles, farmland and forest encompassed us until we were nose-to-nose with a “Road Closed” sign. Retracing our route part way, we detoured onto a narrow, pot-holed shortcut through the hills. But ten miles on, another road closure. Sighting a peacock and a pair of pudgy pigs brightened my spirits. But daylight was burning, and I badly wanted to reach the beach.
By the time we found our way back to the main road and headed west, we were several hours behind the schedule detailed in my mind. Joe was still in qué será será mode, so I kept silent. Spotting an overlook along the shore of Crescent Lake, we made a brief lunch stop. Back on the road, a warning light popped up on the dash. Van Go started to miss, then smooth out, then miss again.
We were halfway between Port Angeles and the much smaller community of Forks. Deciding Port Angeles would offer better repair options, we made a U-turn. An auto repair shop visit, a computer diagnostic test, and a call to our Portland mechanic cumulatively convinced us that the problem was minor and we needn’t rush home. In the waning afternoon, we headed for the coast for the third time. A charm, I hoped.
The sun hovered on the horizon when we arrived in Forks. Rialto Beach was at least thirty minutes further, and Joe was driving like a horse headed to the barn. Sigh. Rialto would have to wait until our next trip. Another ninety minutes and we arrived at Lake Quinault Lodge and shrugged off our misadventures.
I had booked a lake view room, believing it to be more spacious than the parking-lot-view closet assigned to us on our previous visit. Alas, the view was large, but the room—not so much (though it did have an inviting clawfoot tub). Joe sat on the only chair—a straight-back desk variety—and I perched on the bed. Forty-eight hours of elbow-to-elbow closeness awaited.
For a moment, the coziness, lack of television, and mini-fridge seemed sweetly rustic. The moment swiftly passed. I pulled up the hotel’s website and looked at other room options. “Be right back,” I said, dashing out the door. We were in luck. There was a lake view fireplace room available for a reasonable upgrade fee. “Sold,” I said to the desk clerk.
We moved our minimal luggage a few doors down into a spacious room with a king bed, gas fireplace, mini-fridge, television, and two comfy chairs to pull up in front of the patio doors for a lovely view of Lake Quinault. Misadventure averted.
Early the next morning, I was rambling along a park path, listening to “Pod Save America,” my political blood pressure soothed by the rainforest’s earthy perfume and gradients of green. I stopped at a fork to read the trail sign. “Warning: Cougars Have Been Spotted in This Area,” it said. Hiking alone was the number-one “no-no” on the list of safety tips in cougar country. Yikes! I made a beeline back to the main road and confined my future walks within view of civilization.
Joe joined me for a few afternoon nature trail strolls, where we were rewarded with shafts of sunlight piercing the moss-laden trees. Our search for the largest western cedar was less rewarding—try as we might, the turnoff eluded us. Our compensation was a farm stand with homemade blueberry jam, honey, and brownies. Still, I left Lake Quinault longing for extended, solitary forest treks that weren’t meant to be, just like my Rialto Beach rendezvous.
The one piece of our plan that remained blissfully intact was the R&R. Snug in our room, fire blazing, we read and napped and picnicked on goodies that had traveled north in Van Go’s refrigerator. Tracking the movement of the sun across the broad lawn and over the tree-fringed lake was mesmerizing on its own. Who needed television?
We had not been fans of the lodge’s Roosevelt Dining Room on earlier visits but found it surprisingly satisfying in pandemic mode. Joe ordered from a limited menu while I selected a socially distanced table in the dining room. One night, while awaiting delivery of our “to-go” order of salad, cheeseburger, and fries, we sipped Bombay Sapphire martinis in enormous margarita glasses. The next evening, we sipped wine from our own bottle and split an order of tender fish and chips and lava cake.
Lake Quinault Lodge put us at ease with its pandemic protocol, and other guests were respectful of the mask-and-social-distancing requisites. The travelers who had ventured to the lodge in the time of Covid were an eclectic bunch. “Best in Show” was a Kansas City couple who married in Hoh Rainforest’s Hall of Mosses, then convened in the dining room, the young woman wearing a wedding dress with a faux fur cape and her new husband in a suit and stocking cap.
No, our Olympic adventure didn’t unfold according to plan. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how to turn lemons into lemonade. We did, and it was sweet. Almost as sweet as arriving safely home in snow-tire-less Van Go within hours of Portland’s worst winter storm in recent history—with pre-booked accommodations.
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.