On Washington State’s Peninsula, nestled deep in the Olympic National Park, the Sol Duc Hot Springs tempted me with warm waters and a fantastic origin story. An online blurb said:
Native American legend tells how the springs were created by dragons.
“Once there were two dragons. One lived in the Sol Duc Valley and the other lived in the Elwha Valley. Neither dragon knew of the other’s existence. One day they were both out exploring the forest when they came face to face on top of the ridge separating the Elwha and Sol Duc Valleys. They exploded with anger as each accused the other of invading its territory.
“The fight was brutal as the dragons thrashed and ripped at each other to win back their territory. After years of fighting and clawing at each other, they grew frustrated. Their strength was evenly matched and neither could win. The dragons both admitted defeat and crawled back to caves in their respective valleys and are still crying over being defeated. The dragons’ hot tears are the source of the hot springs in the Elwha and Sol Duc Valleys.”
I read this back in August, while we were on our annual family vacation to the Olympic Peninsula, and I decided we had to go there. Dragons are kind of our thing.
During our first visit to the Hoh River Valley, we started playing Dungeons & Dragons together.
Fantasy plays a central role in the way we talk about the world with our kids.
I once suspected a dragon was responsible for a problem under our basement.
My husband even summoned a dragon to watch over the alley retaining wall behind our house.
The thought of bathing in dragon tears was irresistible to my overactive imagination.With a legend like that, it had to be a magic place. Surely, the waters would grant me some powerful vision.
As we drove to the Sol Duc Resort, I imagined there would be dragon relics everywhere. In my mind, I saw myself discovering a portal to the primordial wisdom of the forest.
We paid the $25 entrance fee to the National Park and another $48 for day passes to the pools, and I mentally budgeted for the dragon T-shirts and traditional dragon art I was sure would be in the gift shop. I wanted to document whatever epiphany I received.
But when I got there, I found nothing about the legend. In fact, I couldn’t find any information on the local tribes. I did find that lunch for four at the snack bar cost $78. Without any beer.
Despite the lack of dragon souvenirs, historic documentation, or a frosty mug, the hot spring pools still enchanted me with their heat and lingering scent of rotten eggs.
Soaking in the sulfur, I wondered about the deeper meaning of the legend. Stories, especially ancient myths, speak on many levels. Bathing in dragon tears, shed after bitter, endless battles, seemed like a powerful metaphor for dealing with an unwinnable feud.
The forest hot springs are now channeled into chlorinated, cement pools surrounded by a tall fence. The local tribes were forced off the land many years ago. I could only imagine how the original residents made use of the natural springs.
It occurred to me that the steaming, stinky waters and their accompanying legend may have been a way to cook out the inevitable violent frustration that comes with uneasy truces. Drown your hot rage, sacrifice it to the fantastic beast that also couldn’t vanquish those deplorable neighbors.
After further poaching in the pools, though, I began to think instead that the hot springs percolated warriors for another defense of sacred territory. Absorb the dragon’s rage and strength, fight for your terrible beast’s honor.
Depending on the day and situation, I could see either interpretation as good guidance. If I wanted to hard-boil my hunch, I’d need more context. I decided to track down the source story.
Back at our cabin, I couldn’t find mention of the tale on any of the Peninsula tribes’ websites. All the online references to the legend were on tourist sites and they all circled back on themselves. There were plenty of dragon tears hits, but I couldn’t find which tribe first shared the story – or to whom.
Something smelled fishy. The purported legend started to reek of marketing gimmick. I knew better than to seek enlightenment from a clever commercial.
Don’t be fooled by the vast forests and languid mists of the Olympic Peninsula. It’s not a serene wilderness. Much like the Elwha and Sol Duc dragons, people have been battling for control of its rich landscape for centuries. Since the 1880’s, Native tribes, non-Native settlers, tourists, timber companies, and the U.S. military have staked claims to it.
When we first drove along Highway 101 out to the most Northwest point of the contiguous United States, it looked like a 1960’s travel postcard. The overexposed light, the blankets of evergreens, and the isolation made it seem frozen in time.
Then I passed the lumber company clear cuts and ramshackle homesteader sites with crudely lettered signs protesting federal land grabs. The remote tribal reservations, clinging to the coastline, vulnerable to rising ocean waters, were a mix of extreme poverty and fierce cultural preservation. The illusion of the Olympic Peninsula as a pristine sanctuary dissolved.
A radio story I edited back in 2009 first drew me to the Peninsula. The self-proclaimed “Sound Tracker” Gordon Hempton determined that deep in the Hoh Rain Forest he found the quietest One Square Inch in America.
I live on a busy city street, near a major Air Force/Army base, up the hill from train tracks and a shipping port. Noise is my life. So, I took my family out there to discover the balm of silence. For a few years we were heard the world as our ancestors did.
The serenity didn’t last. Recently, Navy Growler jets drowned out the frogs with sonic booms. The U.S. Forest Service granted “permission to the Navy to route its Boeing EA-18G Growler jets over Olympic National Park on electronic-warfare training exercises”. (Seattle Times, 4/17/16)
We listened to the jets fly for an hour at a time, twice a day. Then, we inhaled the peace that returned once the jets went back to their hangars.
While I searched the internet for the dragons of legend at my remote woodland vacation rental, the real-life, roaring, fire-breathing beasts of today flew circles overhead. My cursory Google inquiries only yielded dead ends, so I promised myself I’d do deeper research back at home.
With my magical Sol Duc dragon fantasy under review, and hoping to distract us from the military maneuvers overhead, I started reading “The Buried Giant” out loud to my husband. My mother-in-law gave it to me as a birthday present, and I knew very little about the plot when I started it.
I had to use my outside voice to be louder than Navy Growlers, but we were still drawn into Kazuo Ishiguro’s take on post-Arthurian Britain. It’s a story of a living under a fragile truce between deeply divided cultures. In the wake of wars between the Britons and the Saxons, Ishiguro follows an elderly couple searching for their estranged son through a mysterious mist causing amnesia across the land.
My husband and I noted the coincidence of the novel telling another story about territory disputes. Then we reached the part of the book where Ishiguro reveals the source of the mist. A creature named Querig. A dragon. We upgraded the coincidence to synchronicity.
I reserved our cabin in the woods for six nights, but just before midnight on the fifth night Navy jets began nonstop exercises. The Growlers screeched across the sky for five minutes, then circled to the other side of Mt. Olympus, giving us five minutes of quiet, and then came howling back into our airspace. I didn’t sleep at all.
The maneuvers continued into the morning and stretched past noon. Five minutes of sonic shrieking, five tense minutes waiting for the war machines to return. Finally, I admitted defeat and packed the car to leave early, returning to my urban cave to cry hot tears over the money I spent on a rental I couldn’t use.
Back in Tacoma, I finished reading “The Buried Giant” and all of its resonant themes of mutually assured destruction, military occupation, wounds that won’t heal, cultural divides, and the challenge of forgiveness. Ishiguro’s dragon was not the same as the Sol Duc dragon, or the Navy Growlers, but they all told the same story. Beasts of battle die hard.
I expected that my further investigation into the Sol Duc dragon legend would reveal it as a modern fabrication. But, like all my other expectations, this turned out to be wrong.
I found that the story being used by the National Park was originally in the book “Gods & Goblins” by Smitty Parratt. Smitty grew up with a National Park Ranger for a father. Smitty went on to work with the National Park Service himself. The dragon legend was one of many stories he catalogued from the Olympic National Park. However, Smitty wasn’t a tribal source. He re-told the story as he heard it.
Then, the Quileute Nation helped put me in touch with Larry Burtness, the tribe’s grant writer and planner. He sent me this link to a Quileute account of the Sol Duc legend by Chris Morganroth III. There I found the same story of evenly matched opponents and hot tears, but the beasts were not called dragons, just monsters.
And then, Larry put me in touch with Jay Powell, an anthropologist who, along with his partner Vickie Jensen, has helped preserve many of the languages, stories, and traditions of Washington and British Columbia tribe. Jay sent me this account, as told by Hal George. Hal’s telling gave me a much richer description of the weeping creatures beneath the hot springs:
Both monsters were fierce, like martens, and strong and wiry and real smart because they were old. They had big mouths full of teeth as big as a man and sharp toenails. And their breath was like a hot wind that could burn you if you stood close, and they cooked their meat by just blowing on it. They were real big; when they walk through the woods you can see their heads and backs above the trees. When they fight they whip their tails on this side and on this (other) side and roll around. Their tails break off trees. And when they roll they flatten the trees they roll over. And sometimes the hard breathin’ sets the woods on fire around the battlefield. So that’s why nothin’ grows on Boulder Peak.
Well, then. Those two monsters are just covered with scars. They have scars all over their bodies from fightin’ because they have been meetin’ to fight for a lon’ time. They have big scars where their skin was ripped and tore. Every time they fight, they fight until they are bloody and tired, all bit, bones broke, skin ripped and burned. They have scars on top of scars.
But, they are even matched so one of them can never kill the other one. Neither one can kill the other one. We say they have ¶ibiti taxîlit, real stron’ spirit power. If you are a good warrior, you need that power. Neither one can kill the other. But they cause real bad injuries to each other every time they fight. Often them fights went on all day until night and it got dark. Then, they stop and roar. Both of them roar and roar and sing a victory song. The Quileute monster sang his song: “¶ip•ll• abi/ ¶ib•ti ti/l. ¶qpitilawli. Ahii. Ahiii. ‘A’a’aaaa. (four times) He’s talkin’ about havin’ a strong power and that’s why he is always winnin’. The Elwha monster sings, too. And then they roar some more and go home. They go to their cave.
These were my dragons! Mouths full of teeth, huge tails, breath to ignite the forest, and “real stron’ spirit power”. And there was the message to the warriors, “If you are a good warrior, you need that power.” Spirit power.
This documentation of the story titles it “The Border Monsters”. Jay Powell says that this tale takes place, “in the liminal region of peaks and rain-forest riverine headwaters where Elwha and Quileute territories come together”. The world liminal jumped out at me.
“Liminal” is used in anthropology, medicine, and literature. It refers to that confusing, slippery space of transformation between an old way and a new way. Terrible things can happen when we leave known territory and venture into wilderness. But, moving through that space is the only way to achieve lasting change.
In the 16th century, liminal space on a map was noted with the phrase, “Here be dragons“.
The idea of dragons as threshold guardians resonated. They have held that job in stories around the world, including Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant”. But, border monsters didn’t set my imagination running. Soaking in their tears did.
I set up a makeshift hot spring in my tub at home, adding epsom salts, leaving out old eggs, and stewed on the matter. Wading deep into the realm of metaphor, I remembered that the phrase “take a bath” can also mean losing big on a major investment. Certainly, not being able to vanquish a perceived threat can feel like going broke.
In the Sol Duc legend as told by Hal George, though, “both of them roar and roar and sing a victory song”. The Quileute monster sings about having a strong power and “that’s why he is always winnin’. The Elwha monster sings, too.”
It’s only once the monsters go home from the fruitless battle that they move a rock over their holes, lick their wounds, and cry. “They cry and cry because they are hurt bad.”
The description of the monsters sounded a lot like what I know as dragons, but the Quileute don’t use that word. According to Hal George, the Sol Duc dragon was named “the monster who cries in the woods”. It wasn’t named, “the monster who lost”, or even “the monster who sets the woods on fire”. The monster was known for the sorrow it feels that its perceived enemy was so evenly matched.
As preface to the Sol Duc legend, Hal George tells how the mythic Quileute hero Q’wati, called “The Transformer” in English, established the border between the Elwha and the Quileute. Q’wati piled up boulders at the boundary because the two tribes fought over territory “until Stormking Mountain had enough of it and tore off a big stone from his head. He threw it down and killed the warriors…” That’s how Lake Crescent came to be.
The dragons of the legend guard a border meant to keep human battles from fracturing the earth itself.
Stories, especially ancient myths, speak on many levels. They also speak different lessons to each person, depending on what the person needs to know.
The Sol Duc legend tells me that if I want to venture beyond the boundaries that fence me in, I will have to face the dragon at the divide. I cannot expect to defeat that dragon, not even if I have a dragon of my own.
Unable to eliminate my foe, I can soak my head in the sorrow of my limitations. But if I go too deep into those bitter tears, I could drown in despair. Or, I could steep myself for another painful, fruitless fight. Either way, those waters stink.
Instead, I’m going to let those tears wash away my fiery rage, a rage so powerful it could burn up the very land that nurtures me. If defeat is impossible, for either side, then I’ll make sure to wear only my human form, and to pack my real stron’ spirit power, as I venture once more into the liminal space that promises true transformation.