Seattle, Washington: the Emerald City. When I planned the trip, I set up my itinerary so Seattle would be the last city I would visit. I always save the best for last. I’d been waiting for this for almost two years and the time was finally here. July 29th, my long awaited return to Seattle.
It was cloudy when I awoke for the first time on the trip and I stayed in my car there at the rest area late into the morning. I was expecting a phone call, but none was coming. I was also attempting to outlast the clouds, but they seemed to be in no hurry to retreat. I gave up and drove down to the city, near Kerry Park, one of the best views in the city. I luckilly found free parking on the street and I decided to leave my car there for the day, the city being a short walk down the hill. I shot a few photos of the cloudy morning skyline and proceeded down the hill. It had been my goal from the very beginning to see Mt. Rainier in its majesty; I caught a few glimpses on the road from Tacoma and at Mt. St Helens as previous noted, but I was really hoping to see it dwarf the cityscape of Seattle. It was cloudy yet, but maybe my time would come later.
Down the hill I came upon an old favorite, Olympic Sculpture Park; the place where lovely artwork, the beautiful bay shore, and rail transport meet. It was still early and cloudy, so I walked along the waterfront, stopping to see the familiar sights of Elliott Bay in the mirrored light of the summer. This would be a common occurence throughout the following two days: several factors, notably the direction from which I first approached the city, and the position of the sun/seasons were reversed from my first trip to Seattle. It felt wrong, and plainly it was, but I’ll get more into that later.
At Olympic Sculpture Park I stood on the edge of a concrete wall watching the bay, watching the trains go by, and the children play on the roof of a house sculpture thing. Already approaching noon, I scrambled up the hill toward the Space Needle, took a turn down Denny Way and found myself at an old favorite, Zeek’s Pizza. With no other thought on my mind, I entered and was seated for lunch at an incredibly famililar booth. While Zeek’s remained identical to my memories and photographs, surrounding Belltown was nearly unrecognizable. Where empty lots and old low rising buildings once stood, lofty apartment buildings rose and tower cranes worked. It’s encouraging to see that level of development in a city; lord knows it takes more than eighteen months to get anything like that going in Western New York.
Once satisfactorily stuffed with delicious pizza, I went back up the road to Seattle Center. I had no intention of climbing the Space Needle on this visit; for one it was cloudy and the view would no doubt be worse than last time, and secondly, being summer I could see that the outside deck above was just full of people. I didn’t want to put up with that, plus I had a (hopefully) better thing planned for later. I strolled by the Pacific Science Center, debating whether or not I wanted to shell out money to see its many exhibits, before shaking my head and moving on up the road toward Key Arena. It’s a shame it remains vacant with the fortunes of the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Coyotes being decided in favor of local ownership. Seattle has such passionate sports fans, they deserve their SuperSonics back, as well as another NHL representative in the Pacific Northwest to compete with the Canucks someday, that’s a topic for another time. I continued through Seattle Center, finding myself near the Experience Music Project. Once again, I considered paying admission to see what it was all about, but it was such a beautiful day I opted to stay in the outdoors. Besides, the exterior of the museum, looking like a set of pop cans melted in the sun, was funny enough to look at. The Space Needle glowed in the sunlight, the clouds having been completely burned off, as I completed my circuit of Seattle Center, headed back down to see the waterfront for the first time in radiant full daylight. I returned to Olympic Sculpture Park, seeing parts of it I’d neglected two on my first two visits, including a close-up of the aforementioned house sculpture thing which appears to be called “The Western Oracle.” I sat there briefly on a red metal chair, watching the ferries go dock and get underway, before proceeding down Alaskan Way along the Seattle Waterfront.
Along the way I stopped by the same places I’d been before, the locations of some of my favorite photographs and spots for new ones. On top of the Pier 69 building, I searched for Mt. Rainier, inquiring with the locals if it was even visible from there, but alas it was still too cloudy to see. Disappointed yet again, I headed over the footbridge and found myself at Pike Place Market. It was absolutely full of people; the road through was somewhat impassable by car, to say nothing of the inside of the market (though I must say there were not a lot of cars inside). I didn’t go in, simply passing by the storefronts on the sidewalk and braving the oblivious tourist crowds there only for the sights. I’d seen it all before.
Then I was back in downtown Seattle, my old stomping grounds for five long days. I could feel the butterflies in my stomach twitch as I walked up Pike Street. I passed the Vietnamese/Chinese restaurant and the Chipotle whose food I had once taken up to my old hotel room. I gaped at the monolithic Washington Mutual Center, various unnamed but remarkable skyscrapers, and the CityCentre Mall, before I arrived at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Pike, the entrance to the Sheraton Hotel. I wasn’t prepared for this, and in truth, there’s no realistic reason why I should have felt so nervous, yet that’s how I was. Sure I’d left there too soon with what felt like unfinished business, a connection left hanging and growing weaker by the day, but that was not to be found there. The nostalgia was crippling. The instant I pulled open the door, it hit me. I was impacted with a scent I’d thought I’d forgotten, in a lobby whose appearance remained exactly as I had remembered it. I walked around through the first floor passing the store where I’d bought myself an emergency replacement toothbrush, the lobby cafe that was always closed, and the concourse where once there stood gingerbread houses competing for Christmas cheer and votes. I found my way up the elevator to the fifth floor, to the room I’d once stayed in. The door was closed and perhaps someone else was occupying it, but I could see clear as day the room inside, as if there were no door at all. I went down to the third floor, to the classroom where I’d once learned wind engineering software. No longer connected to the industry that brought me there, I really couldn’t have cared less about that room, so I shrugged it off and went downstairs one last floor. The second floor, where the conference had been. The epicenter. Around, there were refreshment tables set up but empty, joined by chairs stacked in columns. There appeared to be a conference almost ready to begin within the next few days. It was just as it had been and it made my head spin. I looped around the floor, peeking through the doorways to the venue halls, standing in a number of spots I’ve never forgotten. I took photos of the area hoping they’d enhance my best memories rather than overwrite them. The same smell floated in the air the whole time, and that’s what hit me the hardest. I’d thought about my experience there over and over, one of the best, unexpectedly life altering, experiences of my life, yet one simple aspect had escaped my memory, never to once be considered in retrospect, and suddenly here it was again. It was the strongest connection to the past I’d felt there in Seattle, the one thing that was exactly the same. It stood out and I couldn’t take it anymore.
I left out the main doors as I had done 18 months earlier, but there would be no taxi to the airport this time. It was summer, mid-afternoon, and the lighting was all wrong. I headed on south across to Union Square, the site of one of my favorite photographs ever. If you read the blog enough, you know which one I’m talking about. I didn’t recognize the place. It wasn’t night, nor winter. There were people around and no lights strung though the trees. The flags in the plaza flew in the air as folks ate lunch, a couple having a date near where I decided to sit down. The fountain was running, the trees had leaves. My sense of direction was misaligned. I looked at where I’d taken the photo previously, in the same location and pointed the same way, but it was wrong, turned 90 degrees with the sun. What I remember as north had become turned toward the west. It’s hard to describe the feeling; it was unsettling. I felt wrong being there, but I stuck around to rest. At this point in the trip, I’d walked over 50 miles and my legs were starting to feel near their limit. Still I soon kept going, down the road past Rainier Square and the steakhouse I’d eaten my first dinner at, past the famous city library I’d not seen before, down a few more blocks to Columbia Center, the black behemoth dominating Seattle’s skyline. I was going to scale that beast to the top.
For such an inexpensive and incredible viewpoint, there were not a lot of people at Columbia Center’s Sky View Observatory, and that’s the way I liked it. The bright late-afternoon sun shone through the waist-to-ceiling high windows onto a new geometrically-patterned carpet. In fact, the whole 73rd floor appeared spotless and brand new as though it had just opened. To my surprise, it had; Wikipedia confirmed the floor was renovated and re-opened just four weeks prior. The inner walls of the observatory were covered floor to ceiling in murals and infographics, displaying facts about the city, the state, and the landmarks that could be seen without. I took hundreds of photos of the bay, the cityscape, the mountains and hills, the port, the lakes and rivers, and even the concave arc of Columbia Center’s facade. Soon, and to my delight, Mt. Rainier had begun to appear in the southeast. Its glacier-capped peak rose above the clouds, appearing to be one of them until my brain realized the truth. I and several others around me remarked at how we were looking for the peak much lower than it actually was. I knew Rainier was a prominent mountain, but I was unaware of the extent to which it dominates the geography in the southeast. It caught me off-guard, but in the best way. I couldn’t get enough of the sights that were before me and I lingered there for quite a long time; in the end it totalled at just about two hours. People came and went, some became familiar as they dwelt along with me. As I stared out over water, I was suddenly contacted by the woman I had been trying to get a hold of earlier in the day for an interview back in California. I was happy to finally have connected with her and I rode the elevator down Columbia Center feeling optimistic and with a second wind despite my increasingly growing fatigue. I actually had noted to myself that, during the brief chat we had, my ability to think and respond had noticeably diminished from normal levels; the trip was taking a clear toll on my mental health.
I spent the next hour in the Seattle Public Library, looking to log my walk around Portland on Fitocracy before it became longer than seven days ago. I couldn’t get on a computer because I had no Seattle library card so I sat at a bench and painstakingly plotted my (likely slightly incorrect) maps in Runkeeper on my phone. That’s something you should never do by hand on a mobile device. After struggling to complete it, my cell battery was drained and I was hungry so I ventured onward looking for a place to eat. I found myself on Fifth Avenue looking up Pine Street, an area I knew pretty well, so I walked up to the only other place I’d ever eaten in Seattle. It was a restaurant called Von’s, a dimly lit somewhat rustic looking bar and grille. The last time I was there with the two people I’d met at the conference and two local acquaintances. It was a really nice time, but I apparently spurned it in my memory in favor of the dinner I had the next night. Being in the area again, I remembered it fondly.
As I approached Von’s, I saw that there was no patio or signage over the facade. In fact, the door itself was blacked out and the storefront vacant. I couldn’t believe it. Nearly everything else had been where I had expected it on this trip, but the one place I had only recently brought back into my memory was gone, moved to the other side of the city. That upset me more than I thought it could, but I was really more in shock and disbelief than depressed or sad. I shook my head and kept walking northeast, a way I’d been once before, and that time not alone. It led me to the back corner of the Sheraton Hotel, to the restaurant called The Daily Grill. I walked in the unexplored back street entrance and was seated in a place I could never forget. As fate would have it, I was led to the symmetric counterpart of the last table I’d been at, continuing the unsettling mirrored motif of my return to Seattle. I sat there alone in an empty restaurant, glancing across the way at the other table, sipping on scotch and occupying my time by reminiscing there as my phone charged by the wall over yonder. Nowhere to be, no flight to catch; I wished I could have been in this situation 18 months earlier. There was never enough time. In retrospect, I somehow appreciate that. What I experienced ended in what had to be the best way possible, anything else would have been too much. In actuality, most of my nostalgia is floating in idealism rather than grounded in reality. I’d much prefer to enjoy my unattainable dream than wallow in a crippling, inertial hope. I admit that was pretty abstract and vague, but as I’ve been writing this, it’s been a lot to process, a cacophony of feelings I’ve had to sort through all at once. To whomever is reading this, you might have no idea what I’m talking about, but if you do I really hope I’m not misunderstood. If you want more specifics or, at the very least, less obscurity, I suggest you read my post on my first trip to Seattle. It might point you in a different direction.
… So with dinner actually finished to a definite conclusion this time around, I walked down the hallway through the lobby and out the front door once again. Despite dining to my satisfaction, I left feeling empty and I wondered to myself if returning was a mistake. I don’t think I’ve determined that just yet, but I feel like I’ll probably never go back to that place. There’s no point living in the past. And so, both literally and symbolically, I moved on, back to the north on Fifth Avenue through Belltown, the same road that marked my first path through Seattle. As I mentioned earlier, it was unrecognizable. There was so much construction some of the sidewalks were even closed. I could not for the life of me pick out any landmarks from my last visit. The sunset cast a low orange glow on the buildings behind me, nothing like the even overcast lighting of winter previously upon them, and the missing buildings left me without my bearings. I return to the Space Needle, Seattle Center and the Sculpture Park before crawling back up the hill to Kerry Park. The sun had finally set so I popped open my car, pulled out my tripod, and hoped I could figure out how to make my long exposure photographs look good. I mounted the camera, pointed it at the city, and went on experimenting. Twenty or so pictures later, each growing less and less blurry, I determined that I had a working system in place and shot the beautiful Seattle skyline for an hour. Each picture was different as the light shifted away to the west and the blue dark of night crept in from the east, and happily, they came out crystal clear.
It’s hard to see, but that’s Rainier on the right. I finally captured its snow silhouette with the skyline, and at the time I couldn’t have felt better about it. Sure, there are times when conditions are much better, but given my narrow visiting window, this was probably the best I was going to get. (And it was). I braved the crowds forming around the railings at the edge of the park to get these photos and I have no qualms about saying that they’re some of the best I’ve ever taken. Satisfied, I hopped back in my car and came back to the rest area where I’d spent the previous night, my first repeat business. I went to bed hoping for a sunny day the next day.
I arose on July 30th to cloudy skies, to my dismay. My list of sights to see was growing shorter, and I had been wrestling with the idea of staying another day in Seattle. I was growing homesick, and each day the additional 800 or so photographs I added to my camera made it that much more priceless. I just wanted to get it home before something could happen to it and all the work I’d done was lost. After a quick breakfast I headed out to the first locale of the day, Gas Works Park on the north side of Lake Union. It offers a fine view of the city from a hill among a former gas refinery. The structures are being reclaimed by nature, growing with vines and weeds. The silhouette of an old petroleum station in front of a cloudy sky is a pretty fantastic, if ominous, image. I love settings like that, but, though it was a legitimate city park now, I felt a little bit uncomfortable around the area. Another case of a dreary morning in a strange place, I suppose. I didn’t stay long before heading back to Kerry Park to drop the car off again, but first I sat in the car until 10am as I had a follow up to the previous day’s phone call. It went okay enough to get me another phone interview. (As of the writing of this I haven’t heard anything in response to that. Oh well, maybe soon I’ll know something.)
From Kerry Park I walked east this time toward Lake Union. I was attempting to get to a neighborhood I’d wanted to go before but didn’t have the time to, Capitol Hill. Getting there was an adventure; there were few crosswalks I could find over Route 99, and the entire area around the south of the Lake was under construction. It took a great deal of backtracking and inventive pathfinding before I made it across to Capitol Hill and Volunteer Park. There, beyond streets of well manicured landscapes and large houses, I climbed an old water to the top, a tank inside a cylindrical brick building with a staircase spiraling around the space between. It reminded me a lot of Riven, and the deck at the top was straight out of Myst. The views of the city from this water tower were surprisingly good for its stout shape. I had a clear line of sight toward the downtown skyscrapers, Elliott Bay, and Seattle Center. To the east I could almost see Mercer Island inside Lake Washington. The climb up to Capitol Hill had worn me out already, so I sat down on a bench in the tower for a good whiel. I could tell this was going to be a short day.
I walked back down Capitol Hill toward Pike/Pine looking for somewhere to eat. I settled again on Chipotle, bringing my trip’s lunches full circle. I just wasn’t feeling adventurous anymore. I wish I had more time or desire to explore the area. I walked right by the (famous?) Comet Tavern and a number of record stores without even realizing it. I overwhelmingly wanted to just get back to the city and relax. At the top of a hill at Pike/Pine I spied a pair of Doug Flag stickers on the back of a street sign, completing the trifecta of finding a Doug Flag in each Cascadia city. I felt accomplished, despite it not even being a goal I had in mind when I started. A photo of a Doug Flag I’d seen in each city has been marking each of these posts, if you didn’t notice 😉
I made it back around to downtown, ending up once again at Union Square and the Seattle Sheraton. I decided to quickly revisit a few other locations I’d been to in the winter just to see what they were like in the summer: the area around Westlake Park downtown, the stairs I once thought were super long beside Post Alley, and the southern end of the waterfront. I found myself across from the Seattle Great Wheel, a giant Ferris wheel put up in 2012. I didn’t feel like riding it, but it did look rather impressive sitting out there on the pier. A quick stroll up Alaskan Way and I was back on top of Pier 69, this time the whole roof plaza was open to the public. I found a small square stool and again sat down to rest. The view of downtown from that roof is spectacular, and on that day the Olympic Mountains shone beautifully across the water. Mt. Rainier was again invisible. After a brief respite, I found a store and bought some Gatorade to replenish my fluids before walking once again up toward Olympic Sculpture Park. Making several stops along the way both to rest and watch trains go by, I eventually ended up passing through Centennial Park to get to the Amgen Helix Bridge near Queen Anne. I watched a docked cruise ship disembark from the bridge as a small passenger train passed beneath. And then my shin decided it would shoot a sharp pain up my leg, and I was nearly incapacitated. It hurt so bad to walk that I immediately called it quits and slowly hobbled back in the direction of my car. Unfortunately, that ended up being a wholly stressful uphill walk from Elliott Avenue through Kinnear Park to Queen Anne Hill. When I finally got back to the car, I stopped to take a few farewell photos from Kerry Park before heading off.
Still relatively early in the afternoon, I decided to check out a pair of parks on the city’s west side: Lincoln Park and Alki Beach. At Lincoln Park I slogged along a wooded path down to the beach. My leg hurt so bad it was hard to enjoy the scenery. The beach at Lincoln Park overlooked Puget Sound and once again the Olympic Mountains were a lovely sight off in the distance. Nearby, people swam in a salt-water pool. I would have liked to join them, but I was unequipped to do so. I found a shorter, steeper path back up toward the road and I took that gladly on my way out of the park. Anything to minimize my walking distance. When I found myself back in the car, I drove along the coastline; an absolutely gorgeous drive as the summer sun grew lower in the western sky. As Alki Beach approached, parking grew scarce with pedestrians and cyclists abounding, so I opted to keep going around the northern end of the peninsula. I pulled into a spot on the northeast edge with a clear view of both the Seattle skyline and the sunset over the Olympic Nountains. I decided I would wait the rest of the day out to capture the city at dark, so I pushed back my car set, reclined, and passed the time on YouTube. When sunset grew near, the clouds in the sky turned to fire. It was one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve witnessed and I’m glad I stuck around for it.
As dusk fell that night, I pulled out my tripod and shot the city. It got cold pretty fast out there on the coast, waves crashing from the wakes of ferries. I stayed by the water shooting for over an hour. As I left south along the West Seattle peninsula, I stopped again to capture the city reflected in a more tranquil bay. I’m pleased the photo turned out as well as it did. Despite all of the suffering, homesickeness and fatigue, my current final memory of the city of Seattle is a good one.
Exhausted, I got in the car and drove south, stopping to grab fast food in Renton. I ate on the road, making my way back through Tacoma and Olympia before once again stopping near Chehalis. I wanted to sleep so badly I want to say I simply passed right out. It was an uneventful night.
Or so I thought. July 31st, in central Washington, I woke to find water falling through the windows onto my door handles and center console. It was drizzling out, nothing too heavy. It was nice, but I really could have used some sun to wake me up. I was now on the last leg of the journey, heading home to California, so I forewent any serious attempt at bathing and simply got back on the road. I drove south along the stretch of I-5 I’d bypassed earlier, down across the Columbia River through a cloudy, dreary Portland. I kept driving until I got to Eugene; there I diverted to the east, headed for Crater Lake.
I was happy to once again journey through the mountains and forests of inner Cascadia. While the towns grow depressingly redneck and backwards, the scenery gets more and more beautiful. I ate lunch out in Podunk, Oregon, barely able to comprehend what the poor woman running the Dairy Queen register was trying to tell me. I’m sorry, I hadn’t really slept in five days. I swear I’m not a moron. After a quick lunch I kept pressing on, down winding roads among forests with cliffs off to the side. At one point I was stopped for a good ten minutes as a one-lane road diverted traffic around a crew repairing after a landslide. I stopped for gas in another backwoods town before arriving on the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway. The sky around here grew dark and threatening, and I felt a sense of volcano-driven doom. As I sped down a long, perfectly straight road, lightning crashed in the distance and rain poured down onto my car. It didn’t last long, however, and the sky remained grey and dirty. It became even foggier as I approached the entrance to Crater Lake National Park, signs on the kiosk indicated that fires nearby were reducing visibility. That was disappointing, but perhaps the lake would still provide a good view. The view upon entering the park was eerie and desolate. The Pumice Desert is inhospitable normally, but when the sky is full of smoke, it becomes a wasteland. If not for the trees and slightly blue sky, I’d think I stumbled through a portal onto Mars. It was beautiful, but the smoky air had begun to give me a headache. Just what I needed.
I climbed the rim of Crater Lake in my car eagerly, pulling off at the first scenic viewpoint. One last time I was dismayed to discover the lake nearly invisible beneath a thick layer of smoke. I could make out islands and cliffs below, but the supposedly crystal blue water was barely to be seen. Undeterred, I looked on the bright side; the smoke gave it character and made it mysterious and dangerous. I’d probably never see it like this again. As I circled the rim, I found myself alone once again at the top of a ledge looking down at the water. I felt enlightened, though that may have been the smoke getting to my head. At the Phantom Ship, I was once again transported to the world of Myst, this time to Channelwood Age, if it had burned down and sank into the Stoneship Age. The view on a clear day must be legendary, but I had to make do with the kind of day fate had dealt me. And then I was fully around the lake and on my way out. That was it; next stop: home. I followed my GPS down rural expressways along Klamath Lake down into brown fields, all the way the sky colored orange with the smoke of nearby smoldering wildfires. In a flash, the clouds began to cry tears of ice as pebble-sized hail knocked on my windshield. It had been so long since I’d been in a severe hailstorm that I whipped out my camera to record it on video. Once the hail storm subsided, the haze returned and choked the sky, having barely left to make way for the weather. I didn’t realize the extent of its spread until suddenly at the California border, it ended. I literally just drove out of the smoke and emerged to blue skies and green farmland shining in the sun. For such a vast cloud, it was incredibly odd to see it have such a sharp boundary.
Then I was in California, but still far away from home. I snaked down US-97, stopping to take some panoramas of a beautiful snowy Mt. Shasta before reconnecting with I-5 south. I stopped again in Redding for food, eating on the road, passing rest stop after rest stop as long as I could before calling it a night in Orland. I didn’t want to return home late at night, so I left myself two hours of road ahead to complete in the morning.