Along Washington's gorgeous Olympic peninsula, I traveled more than 300 miles for $6 last month. No, I don't have a car that gets 100 miles per gallon: I took the bus. And not grimy Greyhound, either; I rode friendly, convivial little buses with drivers who wanted to know my name and passengers who wanted to share their stories.
Rural Washington and Oregon are crisscrossed by tiny, frequent, county-run buses that cost about as much as pocket lint. They'll take you pretty much anywhere you need: they connect the Victorian mansions and Goonies house in Astoria to Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, and to seaside lodges, Olympic trailheads, and ultimately to downtown Seattle or to the ferries to Canada at Port Angeles, WA.
(The one place they don't go is Portland: you have to take a once-daily Amtrak bus to get from Portland out to the coast.)
So, for one crazy day, I decided to see as much as I could. Jumping on a bus in Cannon Beach at 7 AM, I rode up through rainforests, past the Pacific and into Indian reservations for 11 hours, stumbling off onto the last ferry to Victoria, Canada at Port Angeles, WA.
On the way, I rambled in a way friendlier than driving and far less gritty than Greyhound. The riders on these small local buses are usually regulars, like the two elderly Native Americans who got on a Jefferson Transit bus headed to their reservation's community center and implored an appalled young man to "respect his elders," the bone-tired waitress in Seaside, OR who got on for a five-minute hop because she'd been on her feet for 13 hours, or the elderly lady in Forks, WA who paid for a broke, dazed surfer to get on the bus because "after all, that could have been my son."
Unlike on Greyhound, here, drivers knew their passengers and cared who they were and where they were going. Riders were going home, or to work, or off the rez, or to the espresso shack -- and the drivers were happy to take them there.
I spent a good three hours with a Laotian bus driver whose van changed route numbers twice as it wended through small towns and up the coast of Willapa Bay, taking a scenic spin around the sleepy hamlet of Bay Center seemingly just so riders could see the Pacific from various directions. Distance? 77 miles. Price? A cool $1.35.
In the hopeless town of Aberdeen, Washington, where the downtown seemed to have completely given up and moved to California, I sped past a muffler shop advertising a concrete statue of local son Kurt Cobain, who got out of town as quickly as he could. I could have gotten off and checked it out for an hour, but I decided to follow the rock star's lead and stay on the road.
At a dusty bus stop in the middle of nowhere near the Lake Quinault Lodge, I waited with a wiry man in a cowboy hat who said he was on his way to Juneau -- via all of Vancouver Island, the Inside Passage and Prince Rupert, probably the ultimate budget journey on the West Coast.
Nodding off among vast stands of evergreens advertising the next time they'd be culled, I wondered small-town thoughts.
Like: Why is there a major Laotian community in Raymond, Washington?
And: "Cosmopolis." That's overly optimistic.
And: Why does every town, no matter how small, have a ramshackle espresso hut by the side of the road?
By the time I got on Clallam Transit's (www.clallamtransit.com) plush, commuter-style #14 bus in the sagging logging town of Forks, my eyes were sated with evergreens. But I still had to look when we punched through the trees to drive along the coast of Lake Crescent, a blue hole like an upside-down sky, entirely forested all around.
I did the whole trip in one long day -- starting at 7am and collapsing onto the last ferry to Victoria at 9pm. But the buses could have dropped me at any of several quaint, peaceful lodges in various parts of Olympic National Park, the best two being the Lake Crescent Lodge and the Kalaloch Lodge. A Clallam Transit bus that I didn't take could have whisked me away from Forks (or Port Angeles, Victoria or Seattle via connecting buses) for an overnight at the Ocean Park (www.ocean-park.org) resort, a TV-free collection of cabins and suites on a dramatic part of the Washington coast.
Another itinerary in the region could take you from historic Astoria, OR to either of the beach resorts of Cannon Beach, OR or Long Beach, WA, and back in the same day. But I enjoyed staying at Cannon Beach, with its broad beach, tide pools and Ecola State Park within walking distance from downtown.
How'd I Do It?
In Oregon, the Sunset Empire Transit District (www.ridethebus.org) buses run hourly between Cannon Beach, Seaside, and Astoria, OR, with a change of buses in Warrenton ($2). There, I connected to a once-daily service with Pacific Transit (www.pacifictransit.org) from Astoria up Willapa Bay all the way to Aberdeen ($1.35); buses also go to the shore resorts at Ocean Park. From Aberdeen, three buses per day go to Lake Quinault with Grays Harbor Transit (50¢; www.ghtransit.com), and connect to a thrice-daily service with Jefferson Transit (50¢; www.jeffersontransit.com) along the edge of Olympic National Park to Forks, WA; those same three trips then connect smoothly in Forks with Clallam Transit (www.clallamtransit.com) to Port Angeles.
You can also get from Aberdeen to Seattle similarly cheaply by changing buses in Tacoma and Olympia, and from Port Angeles to Seattle very inexpensively by using four buses and a ferry, a trip which Clallam Transit describes here (www.clallamtransit.com/Seattle Connection.htm).
If you plan to take this trip, go on a weekday -- buses run more often then. Make sure to bring plenty of change, and some snacks in case you end up missing lunch. Try not to make your connections too tight, but if they are tight, ask bus drivers to call ahead -- rural drivers often hold buses for connecting passengers. And don't bring too much luggage -- I had no problem traveling with a rolling carry-on bag, but anything larger than a backpack might be trouble.
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