QUEETS, WASHINGTON The kid had downed his morning milk, and so, buckled tightly in a car seat for the bouncy ride up a river road deeper into thick forest, he was ready to tune in.
The subject was trees: how big they get in this neck of the Olympic Peninsula, particularly a Douglas fir just beyond the road's end. It is one of the tallest firs in the world.
''Bigger than me?" the kid asked.
''Oh, big enough for a monkey to climb it?" he said, getting warmer.
''And big enough for a gorilla to climb it, too!"
The kid, as the 3-year-old native of Massachusetts shall be known here, had found himself with his parents and 8-month-old sister at the wild western end of the continental United States.
Older travelers often get bogged down in the real, worrying about hotel reservations or the appearance of the next gas station. Even with logistics sorted out, they can become passive when entering a new place, choosing to observe rather than engage.
What is it like to wander as a newcomer, with such a short view of this long world?
Consider the greeting the kid gave many strangers, including a clerk in a national park information center.
''I'm not 2 anymore!" he said, rocking back on his heels and raising his chin.
On the first morning, while mother and sister slept, the kid agreed to a ride through the Quinault Indian Reservation and into Olympic National Park for a hike to see the towering fir. With six miles of bumpy road down and six more to go, a barricaded bridge blocked the route.
The kid sized things up.
''If I had my little motorcycle," he said, ''I would just ride it right through there."
That blue plastic motorcycle was back at home, so the kid settled for a stop along the banks of the Queets River.
The river, bordered by a strong stand of birch, ran fast from the east, fed by glaciers atop Mount Olympus, at 7,965 feet the park's highest mountain. Through the low cut of morning sun, two bends then a third opened to a long shot of forested ridges and distant cathedral peaks.
The riverbanks are lined with virgin stands of western hemlock, sitka spruce, and Douglas fir. Roosevelt elk, the peninsula's largest mammal, bugle from the ridges in autumn. Salmon return to spawn along the gravel bottom in stretches of the Queets they left years before.
The kid hoisted two smooth, grapefruit-sized stones against his chest, then dropped them to the ground. He threw a handful of smaller stones into the smoky glacial current.
''It sounds like a parade of instruments in the water," he said. ''But it was just a stone going 'plop.' "
As far as wilderness goes, the Olympic Peninsula, an anvil of land the size of Connecticut, is a kid, too. It was only in the past couple of hundred million years -- recent, on a planet more than 4 billion years old -- that the Pacific Ocean floor slid beneath the continental plate of North America, pushing upward the peninsula's peaks of sandstone and shale. Shifting shelves of human settlement over the past 15 decades or so, particularly along the nearby eastern shores of Elliott Bay, in Seattle, brought heavy logging and simple, squat towns to the peninsula. Yet much of its high country core and a long swath of western coastline have been protected within the bounds of Olympic National Park.
Traced by the asphalt lanes of US Highway 101, the lowland rain forests and raw beaches offer an easy taste of the damp, dense Pacific Northwest, even for a 3-year-old.
Late one afternoon near Kalaloch Lodge, a clutch of cozy cabins on a bluff by the sea, the kid strode across soft sand and plunked down next to a young man playing guitar. The kid showed off his harmonica and suggested a duet: ''I've Been Working on the Railroad."
The guitarist smiled and picked a strong, soulful version, then said, ''Take it away!" The kid blew hard and true into the harmonica, searching no particular notes but finding a melody of his own.
Behind the duo, massive twists of dried trunks, washed down rivers then kicked back ashore by a surging sea, formed a fence at the beach's edge.
To the north, sea anemone, ochre sea stars, sea cucumbers and hermit crabs sought shelter in shallow pools during the retreat of the nourishing tide. Farther, sea stacks, sentinels of rock just offshore, weathered blows from surf that has delivered ashore glass floats lost by Japanese fishermen an ocean away.
Jam session finished, harmonica in hand, the kid bolted toward several hundred seagulls resting near the wash of gentle waves.
''Fly, seagulls, fly," the kid called as he sprinted toward the birds, his own arms mimicking flight.
The gulls rose, drifted and set down again. The kid stalled, arms hanging low.
''Will you carry me?" he said.
The next morning, a steady, cool rain fell along the coast and, predictably, a few miles inland in the Hoh Rain Forest, among the wettest places in North America with some 140 inches of rain annually.
On the paved road leading to the visitors center, one sign read ''Big Cedar Tree," another ''Big Spruce Tree," noting the location of a sitka spruce 12 feet across and 29 stories tall.
After a diaper change and lunch near the restrooms, the kid sprinted up a short trail leading to the ''Hall of Mosses." The so-called climax forest had a mystical air, with giant clumps of moss hanging from big-leaf maples and thousand-year-old western hemlocks lording over thick carpets of ferns.
The kid took stock of the trunks and agreed that these trees would do well for the dogs in P.D. Eastman's ''Go, Dog. Go!", a tale of relentless canines, one with a questionable collection of hats, that gather high atop a tree for a party.
He looked from one tree to the next.
''Maybe there will be a ladder," the kid said, perhaps hoping for a party himself.
The drive back to Kalaloch Lodge was interrupted for an emergency carton of milk at the Hard Rain Cafe & Mercantile, which boasts a fine collection of hubcaps outside and huckleberry jam inside. Thirst quenched, the kid made an observation of note:
''The sky," he said, ''goes all the way to Ipswich."
So it was that he reached a benchmark of life: an awareness that, though this was not home, splashing rocks and wailing harmonica notwithstanding, it was somehow connected to it. Such breakthroughs seemed a double-edged sword. They may help the kid understand his place in the world, but they would eventually lead him to the literal-mindedness of adulthood, threatening an imagination that helps him create a universe of his own.
On his last day, the kid visited a crescent beach on the peninsula's north coast for an impromptu family picnic. A bald eagle soared above a rocky stretch to the west. Sun broke through a dense sky as first one huge container ship, then another navigated the sweeping Strait of Juan de Fuca toward ports in Seattle, Tacoma, and Vancouver, British Columbia. A dozen miles across lurked the bulky shores of Vancouver Island.
The kid tried to hit a ball with a bat. Did he think it would be fun to go out and ride one of those big ships?
''No," he said. ''Because we can't play baseball there. Because the balls would shoot in. The balls. So I don't want to go there. I want to go to another place."
After lunch, he found himself in the town of Neah Bay, wandering the extensive exhibits of a museum documenting the history of the Makah tribe. In the late 1990s, the Makah made headlines with controversial plans, after a decades-long hiatus, to hunt gray whales migrating past Cape Flattery, the northwesternmost point of the continental United States. Young hunters killed one whale then, but have not taken another since.
Museum exhibits feature wedges, chisels, and other whalebone tools excavated from the so-called Ozette site, a seaside native community buried beneath a landslide 500 years ago.
''We need to get some of those for me, so I can build a canoe for us," the kid said. ''We could put it on the water, and then get the oars, and then we could put it on the water and then it could move. And we sail it on the water to people's houses and then other people could ride back."
He made friends an easier way at a three-horse merry-go-round outside the town's supermarket. There, two Makah children, Alexandra and Zachary, joined the kid for 50 cents' worth of riding, their attention diverted only by the wailing of a loud siren a few blocks away -- a test of Neah Bay's tsunami warning system.
Inside the store, a fisherman said he had spotted two killer whales feeding on a sea lion out by Tatoosh Island a few hours earlier. The whales, the fisherman said, were tossing the sea lion back and forth between bites.
Minutes later, at the start of the trail to the edge of Cape Flattery, and a view of Tatoosh Island, the kid skipped and sang a simple chorus: ''Bumbully-bum! Bumbully-bum!"
He stopped only to ask a boy his age.
''Do you know how old he is," the kid asked, turning back. ''He's 7!"
Contact Tom Haines at firstname.lastname@example.org.