First Impressions of Port Angeles: An Outsider’s Perspective by Victoria Rastal

I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days experiencing Port Angeles, the town where my husband went to high school and where my in-laws worked as teachers for the past fourteen years. As an Ontario, Canada native and current resident of Mercer Island, Washington, when I mentioned to local Port Angeleans that I was considering moving to town, many asked about my first impressions of the area. In general, I found in P.A. a clean, thriving town with a passion for community involvement and the finer things in life.

The town’s residents are tirelessly friendly and open. Sipping a specialty peach-flavoured Italian soda made with Red Bull in a local coffee shop, I easily struck up conversations with fellow patrons, and people sitting nearby listened, often interjecting comfortably with anecdotes and personal opinions. Most patrons were relaxing at the shop on their own, and everyone I spoke to shook my hand or touched my shoulder in introduction.

Through chatting, I got the impression that even people who didn’t have much time to spare found fulfillment in community interests—in being part of something bigger than themselves. I spoke with a personable formerly homeless single mother studying a thick textbook on emergency medicine. “If you’re interested in becoming an EMT, it’s a twelve-week course,” she told me. “We can use all the help we can get.”

When I dealt with service professionals, they were sincerely focused on determining the best way they could help me. In dining with my mother-in-law, who has severe dietary restrictions, I never saw anything less than patience and compassion. More importantly, she always had something to eat, even if it was off-menu, and I never witnessed any mistakes where servers brought her things that she had mentioned were off-limits.

And what a surplus of delicious food! At a luxuriously appointed local Chinese restaurant, my tofu dish was delicately crispy, salty, and garlicky. It was only slightly less delicious five days later, when I finally finished the leftovers. I also managed to buy a cookie the next day—a zingy, syrupy honey cookie with lemon frosting—as big as my face. For a few dollars, a person can find a sufficient number of calories to get through their day; however, I’ll confess I found contemplating such drastic portions daunting at first glance.

I was also impressed at the high level of fashion I felt I could achieve with minimal money or effort. The Goodwill store was clean and busy with happy shoppers. I managed to find an outfit of a drapey chiffon blouse and tweedy grey skirt for under $20—professional, laundered, and in mint condition. I also spent some time admiring the ornate fabric and sturdy stitching in the clothes at Maurices, as chain stores usually sell clothing meant to last only about one season. With few true in-town clothing stores, it is surprisingly easy to find a crisp, quality outfit for most occasions.

I did see some hardened faces, though. I’m not sure where ambitious young people are supposed forge careers in the town. The only white-collar jobs on offer that I could see were either at the schools, with the city, or in health care, and I think that’s a shame. It would be hard to have to abandon such a close-knit community, and I strongly believe that young people strive better at school when they can see young professionals succeeding around them.

I was shocked to see homelessness in such a small town. Outside a cute downtown consignment shop with some chic pieces and a sensible discount policy, a vagrant who could form no words stood rigidly on the pavement staring at us, angrily blurting syllables as my husband and I hurried past. The store’s owner, serene and professional, assured us that he wasn’t violent, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit shaken.

My worries soon dissipated into the fragrant potpourri of the excellent Country Aire market. For an independent health food store, the size is stunning. I conceptualize Country Aire as the market that Whole Foods would give anything to be: a bit smaller with more selection in relation to size, local, community-focused, and with better customer service and passionate staff. It’s also downtown, in the middle of things, bringing traffic to other local independent shops. As a vegetarian, I can also vouch for reasonable prices on the specialty items vegetarians need, such as bulk nutritional yeast. Whole Foods hasn’t sold that in years.

The town is fantastically supportive of the arts—one could almost say that there’s a secret refinement to the area, always hovering in the atmosphere and asking for closer inspection.  It’s in the wheat berry salad at a popular local breakfast and lunch restaurant, in the glossy glass and wood appointments of many local restaurants and shops, and on the canvases in the large bright gallery-style art shop at the Landing Mall.

At the same mall, I also spoke to a local jewelry maker who was actively giving reasonably priced classes on silversmithing and was happy to take apprentices. He even had a small library in his store with chairs and a computer nearby so anyone could come in and study up on the subject. In talking to him, I wasn’t convinced that he had any accurate idea of how generous and supportive he was, which was amazing to me.

Equally amazing is the idea that such a small town has its own symphony.  I haven’t had the pleasure of attending a performance, but the number of cars lining the streets on symphony night pointed to a major event—something to be treasured.

I would move to Port Angeles from my Seattle suburb. I feel that the shopping, dining, and community involvement are much richer in Port Angeles than in Mercer Island, putting to shame the big-city rhetoric about needing to be squashed into studio apartments with exorbitant rents in order to be close to life’s more sophisticated pleasures. Seattle is not the end-all of Washington. What a freeing, breathable thought!

1 Comment

  1. Carl Alexander

    Thanks for the kudos about P.A.! Glad you enjoyed your visit, come back again! We would be glad to have you as a permanent resident… however, you need to be aware that just like any other town or city, Port Angeles has it’s drawbacks and dysfunctions. The homelessness, vagrancy & mental health problems you witnessed are symptomatic of larger underlying sociological issues that face our community – and while the people and governmental agencies here try their best to respond to such things, there is (and probably always will be) a gap. Port Angeles is not a perfect place to live, so don’t fool yourself.


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