Though it's only three hours away from Vancouver in time, Seattle is worlds away in character. Yes, I may have been riding a Vancouver high that coloured my impressions. But there was no mistaking the fact that we'd travelled into another country. (Especially when we walked into the Cash Converters and were confronted with a case of guns at discount prices!)
I’ve been racking my brain trying to decide how to articulate my general impression of Seattle – what defines the culture, what unites its people, what sets it apart from other cities? It’s a hard question to answer. Seattle didn’t really feel ‘special’ to me at first; it could almost have been any city. Everything you’d expect to see and not much you wouldn’t. (But I guess at a glance it would be easy to say the same thing about any city.)
Add to that the fact that walking through the city could be a bit of an alarming experience at times. We’d turn a corner and be taken aback by yelling, wild gesticulation, or Walking-Dead style moans and groans. (Of course, intentionally Walking Dead themed items are welcome, and we were happy to find a Walking Dead themed 'blood-red blend' wine. We enjoyed it thoroughly until the bill came with $20 corkage!)
But I would come to realise that one of the greatest things about Seattle lies below the surface – literally. Learning about the history of Seattle in the underground tour was fascinating.
In the mid-1880s, when settlers first arrived in Seattle, it was far from the ideal setting for a city. Puddles were so ubiquitous that the map of the city had to regularly update its maps to show the newest puddles that needed to be avoided. Matters weren’t helped when the local saw mill kindly filled the puddles in with sawdust – which promptly degraded and turned the puddles into something more akin to quicksand.
So when an oil fire burnt the entire wooden city to the ground in 1889, the council gradually rebuilt a new, more solid foundation for the city a whole storey above the ground, forcing the first floors of newly built businesses underground. As we walked through the underground it was impossible to recognise what once must have been, though there are still ‘skylights’ on the streets, letting light filter through to what used to be underground shopping malls.
I guess it’s hard to really get to know a city when you’re staying downtown, though. When we took the water taxi across to West Seattle for the Sub Pop 30th anniversary festival, it was like we’d crossed into a different city. Riding the high of free music, everyone was in celebration mode and I started to get a feel for the real Seattle, the one worth staying for. There were broad smiles in every direction and a chilled-out vibe that made it easy and relaxing to get around in spite of the crowd.
After checking out the Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix rooms at the Museum of Pop Culture and seeing how the music scene had evolved, it was very special to immerse ourselves in it. And most importantly, Father John Misty was headlining! He put on a spectacular show as usual and ensured we left Seattle on a massive high.
Portland was another world again. Well, it certainly seemed that way. But then again, in Seattle we were planted right in the middle of downtown, whereas in Portland we decided to stay in an Airbnb in the Hawthorne district, a funky neighbourhood in the southeast.
If I were to pick a word to describe Portland, I’d pick sunny. Not for the weather, though it was darn hot. It’s the vibrance and warmth that pour from the houses, the quirky dress sense, the crazy collections in thrift stores, the neverending food trucks, the all-embracing attitude. It sort of felt as if summer might last all year in this city.
Everywhere we went were colourful homes and streets. The whole neighbourhood seemed to work together as if it had been planned. Gardens were beautifully kept, though not to the point of perfection. Hanging plants and decorations adorned porches and garden beds. Signs posted in yards proclaimed love and respect for everyone, no matter colour, creed, gender, or sexuality.
There’s a friendly vibe in the streets as well; everyone was quite self-aware and respectful. I don’t know if it’s related to some law or just a trend, but all the cars stop for you, even when you’re crossing a busy street nowhere near a crossing. And the shopkeepers were always keen for a chat.
When we went to see Timber Timbre at the Doug Fir Lounge, it was refreshing to see that there doesn’t seem to be any expectation as to dress code. I have a feeling that if you came to a gig in Melbourne wearing hiking shorts and river sandals you’d get a few double takes, but here it seemed perfectly natural! Everyone here marches to the beat of their own drum, and immersing yourself in the cacophony of beats is a rewarding experience.
For more photos of Seattle and Portland, click here.
Glacier National Park
As we left Portland, fires were raging in Oregon and from all reports they were just as bad in Glacier National Park. Sure enough, as we drove towards the park the smoke was impossible to miss.
Hiking through Glacier was a surreal experience, heightened by the shroud of smoke that constantly veiled what lay ahead. One minute you were surrounded by greenery and wildflowers, the next you were sitting alongside snow and ice, then you’d find yourself stranded on the side of a seemingly endless mountainside, waiting for the moment that Steven’s claims that ‘The top is just up here!’ would finally come true and choking on your own laughter through all the panting.
The actual glaciers at Glacier are now very scant and small, but the evidence of their existence is all around. The patterns on the rocks were like nothing I’d ever seen before; if I saw them in a museum I’d assume they’d been carved out by human hands. The colours were all new to me as well; purples and blues were painted across the mountainside and scattered beneath our feet.
Yellowstone National Park
We’d planned to stay another day in Glacier, but we cut our visit short on account of the smoke. Our first day in Yellowstone I wondered whether we had made a mistake as we weaved our way through the crowds to get a better view of the attractions for which the park is known.
Don’t get me wrong, some of the thermal features are undeniably spectacular. It’s hard to believe the colours of the Grand Prismatic Spring are sprung straight from nature. And the rolling water over the Mammoth Springs main terrace is mesmerising.
But it wasn’t until we hiked alongside the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River that I really got a sense of what Yellowstone is all about. All credit to Elliot for picking the Canyon Village campsite. We spent a day walking the backcountry track alongside the canyon, which was blissfully empty. Every time we stopped the view was just as arresting as the time before.
Rarely have I been so overcome by the enormity of something. As I stood on the edge (much to Elliot’s consternation) and gazed out over the layers of rock and swathes of rusty colours smeared across the canyon, I felt absolutely exhilarated.
It was strange to think that the landscape beneath our feet was just the same, that we were a part of it. It made me feel very small. Virtually insignificant in the context of the universe. But, far from being demoralising, if anything I found it reassuring. In moments like this, so open and free, you realise how unimportant most things are and how small your sphere of influence really is.
A corollary of that realisation is that it’s not up to any of us to change the world. All you can do is change what is within your power to change. Try to make the lives of those you love a little better. Influence just a few people with the positive choices you make and the perspectives you share.
For more photos of Glacier and Yellowstone, click here.
After a thoroughly peaceful and enlightening few days in Yellowstone, the challenge of preparing ourselves for Burning Man began! Stay tuned…