Rural Pierce County offers many diversions

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Lake Kapowsin Photo by Morf Morford

Lake Kapowsin
Photo by Morf Morford

Pierce County has to be the most variegated county in the state – if not the country. Pierce County encompasses the highest point in the state (Mt.Rainier) and, of course, multiple points (including some islands) at or near sea level. We have deep forests, prairies, rivers, mountains and fresh as well as saltwater  beaches.

I grew up in unincorporated Pierce County, but now live in Tacoma’s North End.

Growing up, I always pictured myself living out in the shadow of Mt. Rainier somewhere with acreage and miscellaneous farm animals – and lots of freedom.

Somehow I ended up working and living in town.

But rural Pierce County is that kind of place; a place of dreams and fantasies, and, at the same time, not the most promising place to earn a stable living.

Like most people in Tacoma, I don’t get out in the county much. I spend most of my time in familiar routes and routines.

A short drive out in the county up-ends my expectations, my working definitions of time and space, work, distance and pace.

Like far too many of us in town, most working people out in the county have ridiculously long commutes.

Out in the county there are those who work from home – and some who hustle or scavenge – or hoard.

Out in the county you may see ramshackle houses, seemingly randomly placed housing sub-divisions and strip malls, and even a few million-dollar homes – though most of these will be tucked away behind walls or blocked by forests.

As in the city, privacy can be purchased. Out in the county, privacy has an open feel to it. Horses, private airstrips, mountain views and extensive lake or river shorelines are only some of the options available.

In town, privacy is primarily an internal experience, defined by walls and fences. Out in the county, privacy is, or at least can be, outside, physically active and sometimes social – at least for those lucky enough to be invited.

There’s a different mood and pace in the rural areas. Those of us who don’t belong are immediately noticed, but that does not need to mean unwelcome.

Thieves and Tweekers Beware! Photo by Morf Morford

Thieves and Tweekers Beware!
Photo by Morf Morford

You may see a few Trump/Pence signs. Maybe even a Confederate flag or two. But don’t rely on pre-packaged rural stereotypes. It takes a special kind of resourcefulness to make a life in the country work for a family.

If you talk to people – as I like to do – you will find that many families have been out in the rural areas of Pierce County for generations. Some have family compounds. Some have family businesses, while some have managed the art of the extended commute for decades.

Abandoned boots in a field Photo by Morf Morford

Abandoned boots in a field
Photo by Morf Morford

Out in the county you are likely to run into the same extremes that you find in town – wealth and leisure right next to squalor and poverty. Each setting shows us dreams fulfilled or abandoned, the best and worst of human aspirations. We work and reach, and for a time we have something within our grasp, but city or country, our dreams take more work than we could have imagined. The city just has a more compressed version.

Pierce County’s economy is still primarily extractive – mostly timber and gravel. Carbonado and Wilkeson were centers of coal production for many years. Wilkeson sandstone was the building material for many of the historic buildings in Western Washington – including the state capitol building in Olympia. (Wilkeson also features the oldest Eastern (Russian) Orthodox Church in the Pacific Northwest).

Most people would never guess that Pierce County is one of the major sources of hydropower in our state. It might not look like it, but yes, the mighty Puyallup River produces about 26 megawatts (one megawatt provides electricity for about 650 homes). The facility, now known as the Electron Hydroelectric Project,  has been producing electricity since 1904. For more information on this historic site, check out the website http://www.electronhydro.com/.

Most counties are defined by geographic features. Pierce County is defined by the Nisqually River on the southern border. But besides that, the border is difficult to trace.

Gig Harbor, across Puget Sound on the Kitsap Peninsula, is part of Pierce County for reasons that made sense at the time. Besides the marker on I-5, the border between King and Pierce County is not clear at all. And Northeast Tacoma has far more in common with suburban King County than it does with the city of Tacoma.

In short, Pierce County has many puzzles and mysteries. Take a tour of an area you’ve never seen before. You could travel to new and interesting places and be home by bedtime. With a healthy mix of activities, geography and history, you never know what you’ll run into.