Geographical Wallflowers

Washington State is located in the soggy northwest corner of the continental U.S. The Key Peninsula is the southernmost peninsula of Puget Sound, an inner limb in the messy convergence of land and sea that makes up America’s left shoulder.

Therefore, those who choose to live here are, in my view, geographical wallflowers.

Staking our claim to the top left part of the country, the KP isn’t far from Port Townsend and the forts the U.S. military once built to protect us from a Pacific invasion. Many of us take this “backed into a corner” metaphor a step further, existing quietly at the end of dusty, tucked away, dead-end roads, sometimes behind a tall fence or a barking dog or, like my family, both a fence and a dog.

Unlike the wide-open spaces elsewhere in America, where we live the vegetation grows like fungi in an abandoned petri dish. (A lot of it is fungi.) I moved to Olympia from New England at age 18 and remember strolling forest trails and feeling the magnitude of the universe, as every plant around me was just so big. I went so far as to stick an enormous maple leaf in a manila envelope and mail it to a friend back east. No accompanying note needed.

When I discovered the Key Peninsula, I felt like Alice tumbling into Wonderland. How could I have lived so close to something so amazing and never even known it existed? It didn’t hurt that I arrived in May, when every fruit tree on the peninsula was sporting pink and white blossoms, frilly as Easter dresses, the grass green, the air warm, not hot. Months later the blooms were gone, the grass was Shredded Wheat and the heat was hitting furnace temps.

But by then I was already in love.

There is our elderly neighbor, who pulls to the side of the road when he sees my daughter making her wobbly first bike ride. When we reach him, he tells us he learned to ride a bike himself in this very spot 70 years ago. 

There is Kip Miller, recently retired from Skate Night. Many years from now his name might begin to slip my mind, but like so many I will never forget his voice announcing “Wwwwwinner! Wwwwwinner!” during skating games.

There are our fast-food employees, our grocery store and convenience store clerks, who smile tirelessly despite long days on their feet, chatting with friends and neighbors as they pass through.

There is the pastor of my mother-in-law’s church, who still smiles and says hello even though we have yet to stop in for a service.

There is the El Sombrero waiter who recognizes that my husband and I are out for a rare kid-free dinner and congratulates us on getting time alone.

There is the gentle smile of the woman at the transfer station, the close-knit community of KP teachers I’ve grown to rely on, the older couple who walk Cramer Road every morning around 7, giving a wave and nod as I pass.

And there are so many more.

Sometimes life gets the timing just right. The other day I was cruising north on the KP Highway, cresting the hill that overlooks Key Center, when the song Small Town by John Cougar Mellencamp came on the radio. I was listening to a big, commercial station, and knew of course that just as the first familiar chords rang out from my radio, the same song was at the same time starting up in thousands of radios all over the Seattle-Tacoma region.

But I also knew that in a way the song was playing just for me. I don’t think any Lakewood resident, for example, or a person sitting in traffic in Renton, Federal Way or Auburn, could possibly have resonated with the lyrics the way I was just then. Envelop yourself in rural America and you can almost forget our country’s problems.

As Mellencamp sings, “I was born in a small town. And I can breathe in a small town. Gonna die in this small town, and that’s probably where they’ll bury me.”

Yes. Yes. Most likely yes. And yes, when my time comes, bury me right here on the KP.

Alice Kinerk teaches at Minter Creek Elementary School. She lives in Longbranch.

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