50 Shades of Gray in Port Townsend and Fort Worden

July 8-11, 2019

We drove south from Snoqualmie through Tacoma instead of taking a car ferry, which let us avoid Seattle completely and takes the same amount of time even though it’s more mileage. I’m not sure of Tacoma’s reputation, but what we saw of it was interesting–steep and nestled on the side of a hill with great old buildings. They have a really nice art store–better than anything we have in San Francisco at the moment. I got watercolor supplies as I’d determined at the last minute to do one painting per day to brush up on my skills (so to speak – ha ha!). (Spoiler alert – I only did two but that was better than I expected.)

From there we drove north, seeing mostly trees and occasional glimpses of Puget sound and working ports. To my surprise, the landscape became drier (compared to Snoqualmie). Not super dry, just not the lush wetness I’d expected. Maybe the Olympic National park grabs up all the rain in the summer?


Awesome drive-in movie theater on the way to Port Townsend. I wish I’d gone! 

I’d expected Port Townsend to feel more isolated, but there were towns, houses, farms, and businesses all along the way and no real sense of transition when we arrived.

First stop, Safeway to get snacks, as I feared that once we arrived at Fort Worden the family reunion would be ON and it would be hard to get away. The store was lively and I got a kind of Sebastopol feel from the clientele…tattoos, hippy vibe, some colored hair, teen dressed in a candy-raver outfit, a few down and outers in faded cotton with tattered sandals. We ran into my aunt and uncle there (they came from British Columbia for the reunion) which was a fun surprise.

We drove down the main street and it was cute as promised, but smaller scale than I’d expected, maybe a dozen small blocks. Much evidence of artsy-ness though, and probably more bookstores per capita than SF has.


It’s breaking my designer heart not to tweak the contrast on this,
but mid-level gray is most accurate.

The homes, once we turned onto a neighborhood street, were nicer and more upscale than I’d expected. All very well maintained, a mix of older and more modern structures, and with great landscaping and gardens. The place feels prosperous and I began to wonder who lives there and what they do for a living.

After only a few minutes, we arrived at Fort Worden. The town is small! I’ve been imagining and planning for this and somehow I misread the scale and assumed anything on a peninsula was the size of San Francisco.

I didn’t have high hopes for Fort Worden (it being a state park and me knowing that contracts to run these places often go to vendors that don’t feel the love) but overall it was very nice. It’s a late 1800’s military base that’s been converted to a park and conference center. The forts built in this era (for coastal defense) all look a bit alike, with many nondescript two-to-three story wooden buildings, plus fancy houses for the officers. They’ve done a great job repurposing the place, and now it’s got a nice restaurant, woodworking center, small press, marine center and museum, campgrounds, fitness center, a college of some sort, and is home to other arty-sounding organizations (based on the signs on windows). There was a painting workshop going on while we were there, and a week-long writer’s workshop starting next week.


Victorian (as advertised)? I guess? Definitely in need of fresh paint.
That’s my house (left side only – they are duplexes.)

Our extended family rented four officer’s houses, all next to each other. Though they were built in the Victorian era, from the outside they weren’t really classic Victorian looking (to my eye), and all were a bit drab and in need of a fresh coat of paint.

The elders got the fanciest house, a Commander’s unit with six bedrooms. The interior was lovingly restored to Victorian splendor, with nice carpets and wallpaper and books and art and decorative plates, mirrors and antique clocks. All that stuff. A little too fussy “bed and breakfast” for my taste but well done.

We popped in there to get the key to our place, hugged a few people, and hurried to our house to unload the perishable groceries…and…our house was SUPER CRAPPY. Stained grey industrial carpeting, no art other than a few lame photos of cannons that were too small for the frames, peeling paint on the ceiling, beige walls chipped and gouged, no decorative plates, no fancy lamps on marble side tables – nothing! Not that it was empty. We had a couch and two chairs in the living room, a dining table that seated six–but the wooden chairs were missing crucial pieces that made me nervous to sit in them. The bedrooms were awkwardly furnished, ours having an oversized wooden dresser placed in front of the window (partially blocking the view), a table in the corner perhaps meant to serve as a desk, but with no chair, and a double bed that clearly was not going to hold two full-sized adults comfortably.


There was only one shower for the seven of us staying there, and the bathroom looked like something from a prison. They’d screwed a piece of frosted plexiglass over the window so we couldn’t open it. Why??

That aside, all the houses had great, deep porches and those were tons of fun. We moved from porch to porch throughout the days, socializing. We’d gather at the big house in the afternoon (they had the most chairs) and have drinks and hors d’oeuvres. The houses fronted a huge lawn (aka the parade ground) and the smaller kids ran wild there and it was easy to keep an eye on them. My aunt, super sweet of her, brought a fully-loaded piñata and got us all out on the lawn the first night to wack it. It was a great way to see and greet everyone because, due to being in four separate houses, we were never quite sure where anyone was at any given time. Though I’d have liked us to be all together more often (we were only all together twice) it would have been like herding cats to try to coordinate group activities.


Okay, the weather was occasionally very nice. But only for a few hours, so I don’t have to change the title of the post. 

Instead, we randomly encountered each other and spent time in smaller groups hanging out on the beach, walking to town, going to the store, visiting the light house, checking out the marine mammal center, hiking on the hill, kayaking, grabbing lunch, playing bocce or board games, etc. It worked out well.

The weather was mostly shades of gray with occasional sun and rain. Not cold. The temperature was very pleasant. Oddly, the grayness had a kind of glare that irritated my eyes. A bright diffuse light that came from everywhere and nowhere. I didn’t want to wear sunglasses because that made things too dark, but I kept my hat on, brim pulled low, to deal with it.


As I walked the beaches and the charming streets, I hoped I’d fall in love with Port Townsend but I never did. It has the right elements on paper, but in real life it didn’t work for me. Firstly, where were all the people? I know it’s a small town but the residential streets were deserted. I could walk all the way from the fort to the downtown and see no creature but deer (which were weirdly lounging all over the place). No one mowing the lawn, no one washing their car, no one biking. So freaking odd. Clearly people live there because of the immaculate yards. I like neighborhoods to have people in them. The dead end street I live on in San Francisco, which has about 50 houses on it, is abuzz with activity on a normal day. I guess that sounds hellish to those that prefer the peace and quiet of small towns but I love it.


The beaches and water views were nice, but not as dramatic as I expected. I thought I’d sit on the bluff and watch the clouds drift around and the light play on the water and the mood shift but nothing much happened. It was like being on a lake, with no waves, just a gentle lapping on the shore. The tide did go in and out, but that just meant more rocks exposed, less rocks exposed. The sand is a grayish tan, and the bluffs are made of the same. The rocks and pebbles are kind of nice but I was hard-pressed to find any I wanted to add to my collection. The huge driftwood logs on the shore are interesting but you get used to them.


Does this look like heaven? You should move to Port Townsend!

I guess, bottom line, peaceful, gray, quiet coastlines aren’t my thing. My soul did not connect with that landscape.


I did like all the bird sounds everywhere. That was really nice. And I saw an eagle! I’m not sure I’ve seen one in real life before.


I feel like not being able to see beauty everywhere is a kind of personal failing, along the lines of, “only boring people get bored,” but aesthetics are subjective. And listen – I tried to take nice, artsy pictures here but I struggled. I didn’t feel moved. Rarely did I grab my camera and think – I’ve got to get this right now. I had to pull myself out of the gray and think – I might be able to do something with this later. And as I write this post, the photos look nice and I feel happier looking at them then I did being in the place, which is weird.

beach bonfire

One of my favorite places was not in Port Townsend, but 11 miles south in Chimacum–Finnriver farm and cidery. https://www.finnriver.com/


It’s an organic farm with a huge covered seating area where they serve food and (obviously) cider, and have guest food trucks and music and other events.


The evening we were there, a woman hosted a science fiction trivia night in a room off the bar. They had bocce and cornhole and hula hoops, and the setting was lovely–it felt like I was in Napa or Sonoma valley.


Overall, the family reunion was a success, and Fort Worden was a good place for it. If we’d have been somewhere more exciting we’d probably have never seen each other at all. This event was about spending time with people, not sightseeing. I was really sad when everyone began to pack up and drive away on Friday. All my whining about wanting us to have held the reunion in Hawaii was me wanting a vacation, and overlooking the reason for the trip–which was family bonding. Yeah, I like vacation but I’ve got to devote more time to the extended family. They aren’t gray–they are amazing, interesting, creative people and I love them.


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