At the base of the Olympic Peninsula in a still fragment of Washington State sits Grays Harbor County. The sparsely populated upper half is home to only the Quinault Indian Reservation and a coniferous rainforest whose constant drizzle accumulates to nearly 180 inches of rainfall each year. The lower half is interspersed with small towns and a large bay that cuts even deeper into Washington’s jagged coastline, and at the mouth, where the Chehalis river pours into brown saltwater, sit empty lumber yards and pulp mills that belch steam into a grey sky.
Founded in 1854, Grays Harbor’s economy was held aloft on the back of the timber industry until the 1980s’ recession caused hefty cutbacks in lumber and pulp production. However, the final blow didn’t land until the 1990s, when the Forest Service began designating millions of acres of timber as protected areas for an endangered species of spotted owl. Mass layoffs put thousands out of work, mills were mothballed, and local businesses permanently closed.
A small portion of the community was able to scrounge up the last remaining jobs in the timber industry, but most locals found themselves out of work and financially trapped. Most residents today are born-and-raised locals who never left. They still hold on to their memories of the pre-‘80s boom when middle-class wealth defined their childhoods. However, when looking at the county today, it’s hard to miss the ever-rising homeless population and addiction crisis that’s overtaken the larger towns and public school systems.
Aberdeen, at around 16,500 inhabitants, is the largest town in the county, and on the welcome sign that once read “Lumber Capital of the World” now sit the words “Come As You Are,” a eulogy to the town’s most successful export. Grunge is in the streets of Aberdeen; it’s an accumulation of Grays Harbor art and culture that’s found its place on the sidewalks of downtown where corroding sculptures of fantastical creatures sit in cages and tweakers in the midst of a drug-induced metamorphosis squawk at pedestrians like seagulls.