The Pacific Northwest is where I spent the most time, going from city to city and just experiencing each place. I don’t really have a good answer to what I was shooting for in these places, though. Nominally my goal in traveling has been to decide where I’m going to live, but I think I at least regionally settled that question when I discovered how much I like the lakey Northwoods in the general vicinity of the Great Lakes, and I was somewhat aware of that even when I got to the West Coast. Since then the goal has been to do interesting stuff and see interesting things, ever searching for a broadened perspective. Maybe if there was a subconscious question guiding me down the coast, it was: “How are all these cities alike and different?” But really it all just translated into semi-aimlessness. Get into the city, piddle around for a week or so looking for interesting stuff to do, and then move on to the next one.
You may recall that I had a little trouble finding somewhere to stay in Seattle. After half a dozen annoyingly ignored CouchSurfing requests, I sounded the Grinnell horn and Darwin invited me over until I could find something else. The entertaining part of this is that Darwin is also the guy whose house I lived in while I was in New York in the summer of 2010. He had just moved to Seattle three weeks prior. He was living with a group of volunteers, doing something or other to help the poor, and meanwhile living an ostensibly Spartan lifestyle on an intentionally minimalistic monthly stipend from the Lutheran Volunteer Corps.
It turns out Seattle has a lot going on, so much that I couldn’t cover it all even in over a week, though I did my damnedest. I borrowed an unused bike and ran and reran the bike paths back and forth all over the city. First of course I got the touristy bits out of the way—and even that took a couple days or so. Over even the Space Needle most of the time, number one on every list of Seattle stuff (of which there were several in Darwin’s house, because most of the people in the program had moved in at the same time he did and were from elsewhere) is Pike Place Market, home of the flying fish. It’s a great place, good for delicion of every sort around each bend, and people enthusiastic about food, and just a fullness and wealth of good edibles. And of course the guys who throw fish at the Pike Place Fish Co., to one another, while singing songs about fish. You can tell these guys love their job. And they love fish.
But actually, that turned out not to be my favorite place in Seattle to have fun with fish. Because that same day I biked to the locks. From what I remember, Seattle is a place of confusing geography squeezed between the ocean and a huge lake (Lake Washington), and there are streams here and there going between them, and one of these has a lock system on it, and because of a confluence of circumstances it happens to be the most active lock in the country, and it’s also just kind of right there in a big city, so they decided to also turn it into something besides an eyesore. They sort of went above and beyond by installing an arboretum, where they boast such things as a Japanese tree whose berries start out green, turn orange after a year, and then turn black after another year; and a dawn redwood, which is a genus that paleobotanists had found fossils of from the Miocene, but that they thought had been extinct for all those millions of years, until someone found one in China.
By one of my occasional boons of Traveler Serendipity, I got there about three minutes before they started the free guided tour, and learned all these things. I also got to see some boats going through the locks, which was neat and all, but I save my real enthusiasm for where I went after the tour was over: just across the channel to the salmon ladder. A lot of salmon return to Lake Washington to breed each year, and I was now in the thick of the fall run. The ladder has about twelve steps; each step is a tall, sort of claustrophobic, rectangular chamber filled with water rushing in from the next step up.
There’s a hole in the bottom of each chamber that leads to the next step, so the fish can swim through that, or they can jump over the top, which isn’t nearly as popular. While they make up their minds, they can chill out a little while in the chamber and take a breather. Now, all that would be all well and good but pretty hard to see, except that some brilliant engineer assigned to the project had a terrific idea: they would put a window on the side of one of the chambers. And so I stood there watching fish the size of brawny arms motoring gracefully to stay stationary in the hard current plowing into them, crowding with each other into the chamber, and occasionally working up the resolve to swim into the hole leading up to the next chamber. Stunning. Now I know how hard these fish work, and I’ve seen them alive and thriving, working on fulfilling the purpose created for them by all the salmon leading back to the beginning of salmonkind.
And that also happened to be the day I discovered real good tea. It was just after I’d left Pike Place Market: before I could get out of the area, I got caught short by a sign saying Free Tea Tastings. I sat down next to an English couple at a long, low wooden counter behind which a Chinese man stood, expertly maneuvering tea-brewing equipment and lucidly explaining to us the kinds of teas we were going to taste and the proper technique for making tea with an outstanding flavor. He poured us black tea fermented with lychees, the forerunner of English Breakfast. It was so rich and distinct. Then one enigmatically called Blue People, which he described as being “Chinese Red Bull”, making coffee unnecessary. And then a pu-erh to cleanse the palate and stimulate health. It was so deep and dark and earthy—I was in love. It continued that way. I started to get uncharacteristically excited about tea. The English couple and I raved about these tastes together, and told the Chinese man how much we liked it all. I don’t want to overdramatize, but I think this tea tasting could fairly be called “revelatory” for me. But sadly, I knew it would be a bad, messy, and useless idea for me to carry looseleaf tea in my backpack, so I didn’t buy any. The happy ending is that I found another store run by the same company in San Francisco, and got some of the lychee tea there. It’s great.
Just in case I hadn’t done enough already that day, though, I also popped into Þe Olde Curiosity Shoppe.1 I wouldn’t even have thought it was legal for a public establishment to display some of the things they had up: real shrunken heads, two very real, very dead mummies. Beyond those grotesqueries they had amazing, one-of-a-kind things everywhere. I was particularly taken with the paintings on pins’ heads, the collection of dozens of patterns of dollar-bill origami, and the preserved animals with too many heads and limbs. They also had Chief Siʔaɫ’s hat
and some paleo bread.
On other days I did yet other things. I dropped in on a tour of the Beacon Food Forest, the country’s only permaculture food forest in a city park. They’re doing some neat stuff, but they only started just last year, so it still kind of looks like they haven’t done anything except plant little trees and build a neat shelter. In a decade or so that place is going to look amazing. I also stopped by several microbreweries in a row and sampled stuff, and discovered a truly awesome beer called Helmsman IPA, which is fermented in cedar barrels and gets a wonderful edge of taste from them.
Then I moved! Another friend of mine who’s in Seattle, Joe Hiller, invited me to his place. Actually, more accurately his entire coöperative[^2] agreed to invite me over for a few days. And this is how I got to know a little about coöperative living. It’s sort of complicated, but fun. There are fifteen people there. They have a very intricately worked out chore assigning system that everyone apparently abides by. They have communal dinners every night, but not everyone shows up to each one. There are mandatory house meetings (or “as mandatory as anything can be in a consensus-based house”) once every fortnight for three hours. They keep close track of expenses, and they have an absolute wealth of communal food. It all adds up to something beautiful, where apparently everyone gets along and there’s always someone to hang out with or talk to. It inebriated me with a sense of community that I haven’t felt since I left the yellow house in Korea where all of us teachers lived, or really since I graduated and left EcoHouse behind. I’d love to live in a coöp.
During the Joe era was when I toured those breweries, and I also drew some signs for their rooms, and I also kept exploring. He told me about Black Coffee, a coöperatively owned coffeehouse with anarchist books and activist events and stuff, and I enjoyed it. And I biked through the Arboretum, where I met a guy in a secluded green corner of the park, back behind an abandoned section of highway,
and he told me that I had missed the season when nude sunbathers come by, and where I found a tea bush and took a few leaves but failed to brew anything to rival the pu-erh I had, or even to give Lipton a run for its money. I hung out in the University district, and I went with some of the coöperative’s dwellers to try to dumpster-dive a chocolate factory. (All we found was bushels and bushels of cocoa bean shells.) But for the most part I’d already done most of the stuff I could be expected to do, aside from take a dip in Lake Washington as Darwin repeatedly suggested, and eventually it was time to call it a city well achieved and move on.
Next I’ll do Portland. I promised a Portland blog to the friend I stayed with there in September, and I still haven’t gotten to it. Directly!
Also, just so you know, I got a new computer yesterday. The one I’ve had for 6½ years finally bit the dust. It’s actually still plugging along a little, but it just has so many problems heaped on top of each other, and it’s so old and tired, that this was the humane thing to do. I got this one through Craigslist from some guy in Kentucky for $250, less than a third of the retail asking price. So far it’s awesome—new and with more features and speed than the old one ever had. A fresh start is nice sometimes.
If you ever see “Ye Olde” anything, the Y is actually just a modified way of writing the letter Þ, which is called a “thorn” and was pronounced “th” until English stopped using it (it still has a home in Iceland). Nothing is pronounced “yee old” for real. See “Ye Olde”, but say “the old”. Them’s the breaks. [^2]: That’s how they spell it. Who am I to argue if I get to use a diæresis? ↩