The thing about growing up in a rural area is that, sometimes, your “hometown” is smack dab in the middle of getting from here to there. I went to elementary school and had all of my childhood friends in one small town, Suquamish; our mailing address and my county’s middle and high schools were in another small town, Poulsbo.
And, connecting the two, is a long, curving, rolling, two-lane blacktop lined with towering evergreen trees and rated at 55 m.p.h.
Until I traveled around other rural areas in the U.S., I didn’t appreciate how rare it is to have two small towns so close together — there are about six miles between them — that are essentially worlds apart.
Suquamish is the heart of the Port Madison Indian Reservation and features the majority of the tribe’s infrastructure — it’s where Seattle’s namesake, Chief Sealth, is buried, where the tribal museum and community buildings are, and where most of the Tribe lives.
During my childhood, it was also largely undeveloped; while the Tribe had leased land to non-indigenous developers to build houses they sold to non-indigenous families such as mine, the majority of the land was heavily forested and wild. Brown bears still hunted the forests around where I grew up, and legends of their exploits were told around nervous summer campfires, every pop and crackle inspiring jumps and starts.
The Tribe held annual festivals during which the rich scent of smoked salmon permeated the air for miles around; you could hear drumming and singing and dancing deep into the night. For years, the Tribe had operated a boom-and-bust fiscal cycle centered around the sales of fireworks for Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve; leading up to these holidays, the region felt like a warzone, with the continuous, heavy cracks and booms of barely legal fireworks vibrating from dusk until dawn and clouds of sulfurous smoke meandering through the trees.
The streets of Suquamish were somewhat organized in a grid-like pattern leading to the sea, but most of its population lived deep within the forests where they had formed large compounds of cottages and mobile homes, collected together to house their extended family. When we moved there in the late 1970s, the only white people who lived in the two towns that comprised the reservation — Suquamish and Indianola — were essentially hippies who had moved to these somewhat remote environs in an attempt to get back to the land. Accordingly, my elementary school was primarily comprised of the kids from the Tribe plus a handful of white hippie kids who hustled hard to fit in. The Tribe had signed a treaty in 1855 that resulted in them giving up much of their land in the area, relegating them to the reservation’s borders and, more than a hundred years later, it wasn’t something that they were particularly happy about. They expressed their distrust of white folks on the regular.
Poulsbo, in contrast, was known as Little Norway; in fact, when King Harald of Norway visited the United States in 1995, he made a special visit to Poulsbo in recognition of its historical links to Scandinavia in general, and Norway in particular. It hams up its Norwegian roots with a downtown main street designed to look like what a bunch of Americans who have never been to Norway think a Norwegian small-town main street looks like — so, lots of white trim and pointed roofs. It used to have a small movie theater, curiously called The Alamo, which was so broke that, for several years before it closed, it simply played Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on repeat.
Poulsbo is a tourist town — a trap, really — that fills up each summer with lookie-loos purchasing all manner of trinkets and trash. I spent hot summer afternoons and cold winter nights slinging fish and chips from a local chipper all throughout high school; during the summer, the line for the fish and chip restaurant went out the door and down the main street, easily a hundred people deep. The smell of grease and tartar sauce seemed to be baked into the concrete.
When the tides went out, the mudflats in Liberty Bay were a noxious blend of danger and excitement: You could lose your shoes trying to run across them, the stinking mud enveloping your foot and sucking your soles away. Under the tiny boardwalk was a treasure hunter’s paradise, provided that “treasure” meant old bottle caps, empty Bics, and pennies.
This small, scenic town is surrounded by farmland, populated by the descendants of the Scandinavian immigrants that arrived here in the late 1800s, making the area feel quaint and safe and provincial. Everybody is white, and everybody stays away from the reservation.
In the early 1980s, the Tribe built a convenience store and gas station along Highway 305, called The Longhouse, introducing a new outpost of civilization for us. All of the kids that populated the Laura Loop, Candy Loop, and Sandy Hook housing developments would make regular treks to spend our smatterings of small change on penny candy and sodas.
From my house, there were two ways to get to The Longhouse, both requiring some form of bravery: Through the woods, tiptoeing along the back fences of one of our neighbors in order to skirt their Evil Dobermann Pinschers, or along the highway, dodging all manner of motor vehicles careening down the road at a minimum of 60 m.p.h., only the faded white line separating us from certain death — not that we actually noticed it.
When it was rainy and musty, we often opted for Highway 305, the slick pavement proffering up the rich scents of gasoline and dirt and ozone, as there’s nothing quite as chilling as the feel of cool raindrops falling from treetops and down the back of your neck. On sunnier days, traipsing through the forest and dodging guard dogs seemed more appropriate; slices of sunshine carving shadows out between the trees and the patches of drying moss releasing a fragrantly lush, almost floral scent.
Regardless of the route, upon arrival at The Longhouse, we spent what seemed like hours selecting the tiny sugary gems our pennies could afford. Jolly Ranchers were my favorite, the sweet-and-sour green apple flavor inspiring mouthwatering treks back home. We’d select our treasures and then convene at the single picnic bench placed to the right of the gas pumps; as it was under a tree it, too, was covered in patches of verdant moss, lending an organic softness to the otherwise flat, hard bench. We’d trade candies, dares, and tall tales, until it was almost too dark to go home; eventually, we’d break ranks and trudge home along Highway 305 in our separate directions, the speeding headlights the only illumination along the way.
Aside from the tribal buildings, our elementary school, a church, and a row of businesses along the waterfront, Suquamish didn’t have much going on. As a result, Poulsbo was considered “town” to everyone; it is where the large grocery store was and it had a couple of restaurants. It is technically where Highway 305 terminates, becoming, instead, Highway 3 and continuing deep into the peninsula. As one of the main commercial corridors between Seattle and the western peninsulas, Highway 305 is populated by semis filled with everything from logs to petroleum, speeding down its musty two lanes in a mad dash for the next pitstop. It is a place of transit, and no one stops to think about whether or not where they are is where they should be; they’re coming from somewhere and need to get somewhere else, and Highway 305 is simply the conduit.
But not for us; for us, it is home. For us, we watch the headlights speeding by and ponder where they’re going, where they’ve been, and if we’ll ever meet them. Beneath muscular trees, we watch the world pass by.
There is a specific scent, an earthy dampness, that I associate with Highway 305; it is cloying and takes up residence deep in the back of my throat. The asphalt edges of the highway are muddied and coated with a thick blanket of pine needles and leaves that, when saturated by the rain, trap entire worlds beneath them. This scent, this pleasant, dirty, musty, minerality, is trapped, too, and wafts up only when it’s released by the gentle nosing of a shoe.