Ever Jump On a Plane... Just Because?

        5 min read

I did. Once. It was a long time ago and clearly, I was a more spontaneous critter back then. I didn’t have kids yet or a significant other. Just me, my little bachelor pad in Venice, California, and my backpack. So, here’s what happened: I awoke one morning as usual, without a thought in my head, and by that evening, I was sleeping under the stars, a thousand miles away on a luxuriant forest floor. I didn’t even have a map to get me there. Just a vague idea. Sometimes you gotta let those stars lead the way.

Of course, that’s not how I live now. Everything is planned now. I don’t go for a walk around the block without a plan. What happened?

Back then, someone would call (not text or email) and invite me out to a party, a bar, some music, or a movie and that would be the greatest thing in the world! I’d drop everything and head out to the greatest thing in the world.

If life is a river, then youth is all about tubing that crazy current – just careening off the rocks into the future. Or at least toward a few hours of fun.

So here’s what was going on that morning: I was about to start a new job in a few days and I would be tied up for a good year of hard work. This meant work = vacation. I needed an instant vacation… before the work began.

I would take vacation pictures and put them on my desk. I didn’t have much money or time. If, I was going to do something it had to be right now and it had to be cheap.

I had been leafing through Eddie Bauer and REI catalogues. They had photos of energetic young people frolicking through national parks… like the one up in Washington - Olympic National Park. Compared to the desert of Southern California the place was overflowing with green – moss, ferns -just dripping moisture everywhere.

Studying these catalogs over my milky bowl of granola, Olympic Park easily doubled for the Emerald City. This was the place. This was where I could soak up enough chlorophyll to last me through a year of fluorescent labor. Within the hour I was zipping up my backpack.  

It was a short hop down the beach road to Los Angeles International Airport. I just had to figure out which airline I should visit. American? United? They must have flights going up to… What would it be… Seattle? Yeah… Seattle was probably right.

The Way Things Were

This is how things used to be at airports – you could just wander up to the counter and buy a ticket for a flight. No huge crowds, no overbooked flights. There were always seats. No one asked for your ID or photo. Hell, if a stranger wanted to unload a ticket, you could buy it from them cheap, just like at a concert or a ballgame and then fly under their name. Happened all the time.

You never had to take off your shoes, remove your belt or empty your pockets. You could carry on a fifth of Dewar’s if you felt like it. X-rays were for the dentist’s office. Back then, you really could just hop on a plane.

At the United counter, I asked, “Seattle?” They said the weather was lovely up there and they had a plane leaving in 30 minutes. Plenty of time. I moseyed over to the gate, passing places that years later would house cattle pens and a posse of TSA agents, herding the traveling public.

Walking right up to the gate amidst travelers, friends and relatives (yes, friends, relatives, lovers, grandparents - everyone was allowed to go right up to the gate), I strolled onto my waiting flight. There were plenty of seats. No one got bumped. And best of all, no one got beat up.

It was an easy two-hour trip to Seattle, just enough time to serve me a hot lunch… in coach.


I have this image of myself, backpack in tow, walking down a sunny corridor at Sea-Tac Airport. I knew the Olympic Park was due west, past a multitude of inlets, channels and islands. But not a clue as how to negotiate a route there.

A friendly person at the information booth got excited when I told him my destination. Everyone in Seattle has one foot out the door and up the mountain. He said there was a bus that took about 5 hours… but also, a small airline in the terminal that offered flights to Port Angeles, a gateway to the park. He held up their flyer. On it was a picture of a tiny 4-seater, just brushing over the forested mountain peaks.    

“These folks are just down the corridor. But I don’t know if they’re flying out there today.”

Being in my twenties, I was certain they would. Or maybe I just didn’t know enough to worry about it. I headed for an unobtrusive cubicle at the far end of the terminal.

There, a woman at a small desk stopped her typing to say hello.

I inquired, “Hi, I’d like to fly to Port Angeles.”

She nodded, “As a matter of fact, we have a plane going out in just a few minutes. A fellow from St. Louis booked it and he just arrived. I’m sure he’ll be happy for you to join him. You fellas can share the cost.”

“Great.” I replied, not in the least surprised by this fortunate coincidence.

She brought me down to the tarmac where the guy from St. Louis was waiting, his backpack by his side. He was happy to see me. The cost of his flight had just halved.

I think all airlines should work this way, don’t you? If you must put up with overbooked flights, the least they could do is lower the cost. Flight booked solid? Everybody gets a discount.

        Clearing the Treetops

We hauled ourselves into the little 4-seater, the pilot stowing our backpacks in the rear. Then in the late afternoon light, we rattled down the runway, heading for a Western sun that was already ducking behind the Olympic Mountains.

My new friend was an attorney who had carefully planned his sojourn to this park. He had reserved this plane weeks before and was amused that I had formulated my plans about 5 hours earlier. I suppose in his eyes I was the embodiment of carefree youth… either that or I was a fugitive, looking to hideout amongst the anonymous acres of the vast government tract.

In truth, we both shared a fascination with this emerald world toward which we were loudly sailing. As depicted in the airline’s flyer, the plane was now bouncing lightly above the treetops, skimming rows and rows of dense mountains.

Looking below, I had the fleeting notion that if we went down, we would be swallowed by the great blanket of evergreens, only to disappear forever. This probably wasn’t the best thought to have on a vacation, especially one that I had flippantly conjured at this morning’s breakfast.

So, I turned my gaze to the grey-blue Strait of Juan de Fuca out on the horizon – the distant body of water separating the U.S. from Canada. Port Angeles and our airstrip awaited somewhere on its shore, ready to welcome yet two more backpackers to the generous bounty of the great Northwest.

Dusk And The Park

Our pilot executed a perfect touchdown on the darkening runway. He not only delivered us safely, he gave us directions to where we could hitch a ride to the park. This was a full-service airline. No frequent flyer miles, but you got to shake hands with the pilot. So, we did and trekked over to the nearby state road.

Again, perhaps it was the day’s karma but we didn’t wait five minutes for a ride… as if on cue. This obviously was a time in my life when I believed it was all about me. Maybe it was.

Darkness was settling when we passed the stoic welcoming sign, understating the obvious: “Olympic National Park.” Beneath the big sign was a smaller one… something about a rain forest?

I asked my traveling companion about the rain forest – what was that all about. He said we were heading for the Hoh Rain Forest within the park, where it rained about 170 inches or 14 feet a year. Well ok, that’s why everything was so green. Hope you brought some good rain gear, he added.

I did bring a poncho… and a tube tent. Not a real tent as you would normally recognize but a tube of plastic, sort of a giant garbage bag designed to be strung up between two trees. Being a tube, both ends were open. But you were mostly protected from the elements… mostly.

This Is A Rain Forest

Our welcoming night in the park was beautiful, starry and clear. No need for a tent this evening and, as I gazed at the perfect LED constellations above, I got to thinking about my day. I had racked up some serious miles and happenstance since the morning’s bowl of granola. Even my devil-may-care self was mildly impressed at the whimsy of the last eight hours.

The next morning dawned like a fragrant bar of bright green deodorant soap. Being the vagabond sorts, my companion and I were feeling the itch to go our own ways, and so casually shared our daily schedules indicating as much. Happy to have met each other, we set out in opposite directions on the trail.

Cinching my belts and buckles tightly, I trod this fairyland, passing moss laden logs with new trees growing out of them… which were covered with yet more verdant moss. This park was so fertile, things were furiously sprouting out of other things – life just erupted from every square inch of the place.

During my impromptu trail lunch, a lite drizzle began. Far from being a problem, it only enhanced the natural beauty in this fern gully, giving every shiny leaf an effervescent sparkle. Besides, I was warm and dry under my poncho. And I stayed that way all afternoon as I happily hiked in the gentle rain.

But as the light started to fade it was time to take shelter, so I strung up the tube tent and pulled out my little stove. In those days, I was adventurous with my outdoors cuisine so there I was, squatting over my freeze-dried Coq-au-vin, sheltering it from the rain. And protecting it from the mud.

This Is The End

To savor my re-hydrated dinner, I retreated to the middle of the tube tent to stay clear of the rain now pouring at either open end. So tell me, who brings what is basically a lawn and leaf bag for shelter into a rain forest? I guess someone who didn’t give the entire enterprise a great deal of thought.

But everything had gone so well. I had been delivered effortlessly, seamlessly, with speed and perfect dispatch to my own wonderland. Now that I was here, experiencing all its majesty, it was starting to suck just a little. Tiny rivers of rain water were flowing along the floor of my tent, lapping up to the shore of my sleeping bag… which dutifully drank up the moisture like a thirsty wick. It would be a wet night.

In fact, it turned out to be a wet, cold and very dark night with a misery factor creeping toward 9.5. During those thick hours in this blackened glade, I pondered the cruel joke of my existence. This whole trip may have been a ruse. The gods had at once helped and mocked my serendipitous experiment.

“You want to take off, just like that and get back to nature? Sure, sonny. We’ll get you there in a jiff. You can have all the nature you like!” they snickered. And they had done it. So… who was I to complain? I had wished and it had been granted. And no getting extra wishes. Not this night in the evil forest.

And with such musings, I drifted off to a very damp sleep.

The next morning dawned grey and laughingly inclement. But I had thought my way to a sliver of peace. When you go to the North Pole, expect snow… the Sahara, lots of sand. I was a guest here in the rain forest, so no whining about the service. Either accept it or go to a motel.

With the rain banging inches from my head, I spent the morning huddled over a damp paperback. It might have been, ‘On The Road’. By mid-afternoon, nothing had changed – the downpour was a machine – constant and mechanical. As if programmed by Weather Central.

It was now going on two days of constant precipitation and it had been beautiful. But eventually you want to get out of the pool. So, hunched over in the rain, I packed up my wet garbage bag of a tent, stuffed away the dripping sleeping bag and headed back down the trail - back to the park entrance. I arrived there just as darkness fell.

There, in absolutely no time, a car stopped to pick me up. The driver was a pilot for one of the big airlines. He also had been backpacking and he also had had enough of the rain.

He was happy to bring me back to Port Angeles, where I could get a warm meal and figure out my next adventure.

It would no doubt be spontaneous, ill-prepared and glorious. And I prayed…. dry. Very dry. 

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