Our guest blogger, Marnie Lassen, hails from Melbourne, Australia, where she is a reader, conservationist, adventurer and excellent cook. She recently scaled the tallest mountain in Borneo (and got back home in time to whip up a pavlova). When I last saw her she was passing through the Northwest, on her way to brave the dangers of an all-inclusive Mexican resort.
It only seemed appropriate that as we headed on our first family trip back to the Pacific Northwest since moving away two years ago, I should read West of Here by Jonathan Evison. Its Northwest wilderness theme dovetailed neatly with the time I spent here hiking and working in conservation. And I learned about the early regional history of exploration and settlement to boot – albeit through the use of historical fiction.
The book straddles the eras from when the mighty Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula was first dammed in the name of progress and industry, to when it was finally set free again. It reminds us of how outposts like the Olympic Peninsula were not so long ago considered to be untamable – to the white folks at least – and of the apparently limitless source of natural resources that places like this presented.
Evison also paints a picture of a population that struggled to mark its place in US history in both eras. In the 1890s the folk in the small towns around the Peninsula were literally trying to scratch out a life and livelihood miles west of the already bustling metropolises of New York and Chicago. In the early 2000s they were coping with an economy and society that had largely passed them by, their formerly quaint small towns pocked with fast food chains and Walmart.
A question I rarely ask myself when hiking is, ‘Who was that mountain named after, and what was that person like?’ By contrast, the book gives life to (fictitious) figures who might otherwise be relegated to history. It follows a small group of hardy, if not foolhardy, explorers who were determined to be the first to cross the rugged interior of the Olympic Peninsula. Again – a neat dovetail with my time here, when my beloved and his friends made a similar attempt, but didn’t make it even with the benefit of GPS, Goretex, granola and a well-constructed hiking trail. I won’t disclose whether the explorers made it across some 120 years earlier without those innovations.
While I generally steer clear of magical realism, Evison lightly infuses the story with Native American folklore and modern era Bigfoot rumor, without overpowering the main narrative. Indeed, this aspect of the book ties the two eras together, and adds a depth that might otherwise have been lacking. The story is also inter-generational, picking up the lives of the descendants of the original settlers and giving a fascinating ‘Where are they now?’ aspect to the tale.
I came away from the book with a new appreciation for the grit and determination that it took the first settlers to carve a life in this near-perpetually damp clime. It somewhat diminished my own self-perceived hardiness in surviving several years here, even if they were during an unseasonably cold and wet La Nina period. At least I had central heating.