A driftwood sign at the end of the beach trail has an arrow pointing back to the mainland; "Reality, Five Miles". Indeed, after hiking two and a half hours to the tip of the longest natural sand spit in the United States, you feel isolated from the rest of the world. For the lighthouse keepers, who man the New Dungeness Light Station in weeklong tours of duty, the assertion that reality is five miles away is especially poignant.
Since 1857 ships have navigated safely around the long, narrow sliver of sand guided by a lighthouse near the tip of the spit, the centerpiece of the New Dungeness Light Station. In 1994 the New Dungeness Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society assumed responsibility for staffing and maintaining the Light Station under license from the U.S. Coast Guard.
Anyone can join the Association and register for a tour of duty as a lighthouse keeper. Members are eligible for one tour of duty every two years. Working as a lighthouse keeper is a vacation punctuated by the occasional obligation. You are welcome to enjoy one of the most relaxing and scenic spots on earth, but don't discount the fact that you are acting in an official capacity as a keeper. One of your primary duties is to greet the public and show them around the lighthouse. During my tour of duty at the Light Station I greeted visitors from Colorado, Indiana, Ireland and Japan.
In addition to acting as a lighthouse tour guide, the lawn requires daily watering and weekly mowing, the lighthouse’s brass needs occasional polishing, and the sump pumps require a quick inspection each morning. A few other chores occupy some of your time and you are expected to thoroughly clean the quarters before you leave. Nonetheless, there is ample time for long walks on the beach and to spend the day “up top” in the lighthouse, whiling away the hours staring at the sea, watching the passing marine traffic.
At low tide on the first day, your group and supplies travel from Sequim to the Light Station in large, four-wheel-drive trucks: the only vehicles permitted on the beach. When they drop you off at the Light Station, they pick up the outgoing keepers. It is a fast-paced and well-orchestrated exchange. Timing and expedience are critical as the beach is only passable during low tide. You won't see another wheeled vehicle until the trucks return to pick you up a week later. In cases of extreme emergency, helicopter transportation is available.
The sign at the end of the beach trail makes more sense once you’ve spent a few days working as a keeper. Indeed, reality is five miles away. The chores are light and the beach is long and lonely. The silence is overwhelming and the serenity is profound. At the end of your week-long tour of duty, you will not want to leave. You have no choice. The tide is going out and the trucks are coming to take you back to reality.