“If you can’t get a site you’re welcome to pitch your tent on mine.”
It was morning and I arrived early enough to see if I could secure a spot at this coveted ocean campground. It was hard to tell if people were leaving or staying...and most were still asleep so I couldn’t ask. I debated on whether I should stick around or not, but after going back and forth between this and another campground further up the road I decided South Beach was where I wanted to be and if anything, I had a shared spot already offered to me by a silver-haired, ponytail-wearing man who drove an ‘84 brown Westfalia.
It didn’t take long to make several friends while driving a couple loops around the small site - pretty soon I had advocates that were determined to help me secure a spot.
Mid-morning I was setting up camp at site 13.
“That’s a great spot, it’s underestimated. I always take it if it’s available. You’ve got great views.” It was my could-have-been camp mate. I replied but had to repeat myself a few times before realizing he wore a hearing-aid in his left ear. We chatted for a bit about the peninsula, about what I could see, where I could go...other camp sites to consider for later. He didn’t see why I would camp anywhere but here on the beach. He shook his head at the idea of me going into the Hoh rain forest to spend a night. “It’s...okay,” he hesitated. “But, this is where you want to be.” His sea-grey eyes looked as if they had seen the ocean every day of his life - there was a depth and a distance about his gaze that seemed permanent. Almost apostolic.
After the dust had settled from the morning’s events I organized and hopped into my Element. As I was rolling out he appeared there on the gravel road. I rolled down my window. “You going into the Hoh?!” “Nope,” I said, “it’s the beaches today! Tomorrow is the rain forest.” “Okay.” He slightly nodded downward and I was off.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I saw him again. I was heading out to the inner parts of the peninsula and there he was, on the road again. “Hey!” I waved and smiled, “I’m heading into the Hoh!” We chatted briefly. As I drove away I wondered what would he spend his day doing?
After a full day in the green I returned to South Beach for sunset. I was pulling into the campground - and as if on cue, walking along the gravel road, was Wayne. “What are your plans for tomorrow - are you sticking around?” “I’m not sure.” “Well why don’t you come over to my fire and we’ll look at a map.” I was happy for the invitation and made a quick dinner to take with me. After having to return to my site to grab my chair, I was settled in at his campfire. Turned out he was the one with the great ocean view. He unfolded a park map and explained all the areas with bits of invaluable information. Clearly he had been here many times before and knew what most people couldn’t know unless they lived nearby.
As the sun set over the ocean we moved on from talk about the park to talk about his life. He was born in Venice Beach and grew up there with one sister. In his early 20’s he took a surfing trip with friends to Hawaii. They went home, he stayed for over 20 years. After a really bad surfing accident and with the undesirable changes that had come to the island, he moved to Port Townsend, Washington. And that’s where he’s lived since ‘91. He worked with boats or yachts in some capacity - I couldn’t quite figure that part out. I mostly listened to whatever he had to say and the stories he wanted to share.
Darkness descended and the fire’s flames grew more vibrant. “Why does your fire smell so sweet? It’s incredible.” I could see that he had redwood - but wasn’t accustomed to seeing it at a campfire. “It’s redwood. Once I was camping here and I saw another man’s fire that was burning just like this one, clean and bright. So I asked him about it. I went with him down to the beach the next day and he taught me what to look for in the wood grain amid all the driftwood. The thing about redwood is, it’s so lightweight - I can find a log and haul it over then split it as the days go by. It cuts like butter. The only thing is, it burns fast...but it’s not smoky...and there’s plenty of it.”
I was fascinated. I had gathered some small pieces of driftwood the day before that must’ve been redwood as they were incredibly light. The ocean had sanded the edges into beautiful rounded shapes and the sun had bleached the fibers into a grey that resembled my new friend’s locks. He sat there looking into the fire - his face weathered by sun and surf. Jeans, a fleece jacket, simple really. No fancy camping gear that stood out beyond the man himself. He pulled for his pocketknife and cleaned underneath his nails as he spoke again of Hawaii and coming back to the mainland. After showing me inside his Westfalia and how it all worked I said goodnight and, back in my tent fell asleep to the sound of constant waves pushing into the shore.
Wayne had suggested I stay at the beach for a 3rd night instead of heading elsewhere. It was the weekend and finding a new place could prove difficult. My wanderlust was getting the better of me and it was my last night in the park so come morning I decided to drive north and stay north. I packed up then went for a long wander along the beach. Afterwards I was heading towards Wayne’s site to say goodbye when of course, there he already was, walking on the gravel road. Like the days before. “So, it looks like you’ve decided to head out.” “Yeah, I’m going to take my chances.” “Well, remember there’s the fairgrounds in Port Townsend if you get stuck and...you know...you can always come back here.” He nodded. I nodded. “Thank you.” We paused. I handed him an ink drawing I had done of driftwood on a postcard as a thank you for sharing his fire with me. We shook hands and I was on my way.
Later that night, when I was at my new site, sitting around my regular -smelling campfire, I felt a sadness roll over me. I missed Wayne and sitting around his fire. I was missing being there at the beach and knowing that whenever I was coming or going, he would somehow be there on the gravel road walking about, sometimes going to or from the bathrooms. I thought about how next time I am at South Beach, Wayne will be there too - with his ‘84 brown Westfalia. We will sit around his fire and he can tell me more stories from his life. I have so many questions I want to ask.