Even though riddled with danger, communists, monsters, and a dark confession, this entry hardly does my six weeks in Seattle a morsel of justice. But then again, I’ve got to write something about the experience.
Also, it’s saddening to know that most people’s knowledge of this groovy city comes from watching Tom Hanks’ and Meg Ryan’s sleepless-and-dreadful mating ritual back in 1993.
From a solid slow-food movement and fantastic farmers’ markets, to sophisticated speakeasies and the dingiest of dive bars, Seattle has everything a vagabond needs. The place just oozes a pleasant pace that seeps into your bones. It’s contagious. Like when white people come home from a vacation in Jamaica with an accent and carefree attitude. And let’s not forget that the city coexists peacefully within range of Mount Rainier, one hell of a beautiful – and active – stratovolcano. I climbed those snowy slopes to Camp Muir and realized that I was exactly where I needed to be.
The Pacific Ocean is close enough to blow away the urban stench of city life. Mountains punctuate the area with sumptuous summits; big lumps of condensed adventure craving climbers’ boots. You get the feeling that Mother Nature is befriended rather than whored out in the name of progress. The sounds of sirens don’t wail perpetually in the streets (I barely saw any police officers while there), and people are weird, man. And smart. Seattle is the type of place where you can accidentally walk up on a Tibetan festival. Oh, did I mention that flights to Hawaii, Alaska, and Asia are nicely cheap from Seattle, too?
Sorry, Chicago, my long-running favorite city in the U.S., get your stuff and go. There’s a new urban romance in my life.
This city is stark raving mad, and surrounded by green beauty. I’m more than willing to call the Pacific Northwest my new home, well…at least, in the summers. It’ll be a while before I can join the crazies who revel over winter.
The Center of the Universe
Each neighborhood in Seattle has its own peculiar allure and unique vibe. And although they are outside of the city center, I wouldn’t ever call the neighborhoods ‘suburbs.’ The word suburb tends to suggest something that one could live without, like an arm. Instead, the neighborhoods function more like internal organs for the city, each one somewhat necessary and doing its part to pump sticky juices to wherever they are needed. People are fiercely loyal to their particular neighborhoods, but not to the point of violence. No need to change bandanna colors before crossing from Fremont to Ballard.
I stayed in Fremont, what was once dubbed the “Center of the Universe” and considered the epicenter for all things weird in Seattle. Legend holds that some local scientists determined that the center of the universe was actually located at N Freemont Ave and 35th Street North. No doubt, numerous craft IPAs – among other things – were involved in making that decision. Because their inebriated hypothesis could be neither proven nor disproved, the Metropolitan King County Council made it official in 1994 and placed a marker at the spot. If you’ve ever tried geocaching, the headquarters for Geocaching.com is nearby. Quirky? Yes. Fun? Definitely. You could call Fremont the Haight-Ashbury of Washington state; their motto is De Libertas Quirkas (Freedom to be Peculiar).
Although Fremont was my base, I did two extended house sitting sessions in Ballard and wandered many other neighborhoods until they became interesting. Seattle’s “International District” – a nicer way of saying the “place we keep a lot of Asians” – has enough hole-in-the-wall noodle shops to freak out even the most veteran of Asia travelers. It was still oppressed and pleasantly run down, as Chinatowns usually are in any proper American city, but I ate myself to an aneurysm on cheap dumplings and Szechuan noodles. Jessie, a vagabonding friend and writer, knew just the right nondescript, folding-table noodle place tucked in a distant corner of the neighborhood. Anthony Bourdain couldn’t have found this place. You can always count on Asia pros to know where to eat.
The Fremont Troll
Wondering how to keep crackheads from congregating under a bridge? Why, build a giant troll to scare the holy hell out of them – of course! God help the person who walks up on this lurking thing while in an altered state of hallucinogenic madness; it’ll blow those Doors of Perception right off their hinges.
In the grim, yellowish light illuminating what was once a sketchy syringe-dumping ground under a bridge, lurks a 13,000-pound monster of a bearded troll. The good news is that tourists hanging out under the busy bridge now outnumber the drug addicts, who have moved on to quieter and less creepy places. This interactive shout out to the Scandinavian Three Billy Goats Gruff is impressive, and the monster has even grabbed a real Volkswagen Beetle from the road. According to the plates, his victims – presumably enjoyed for breakfast – were from California.
As if a gigantic troll holding an actual Volkswagen in a sizable claw wasn’t a quirky enough addition to the neighborhood, Fremont also claims a 16-foot-tall statue of Vladimir Lenin as an iconic symbol. Ordinarily, Lenin is portrayed as a teacher and scholar – holding books, even. But this statue is rare: it portrays him as a stout revolutionary leader.
I can only imagine the horror of tourist families who have wandered over into Fremont on freak-viewing excursions. I saw a few with cameras bouncing around their necks. A bronze, 16-foot-tall communist must be quite the crown jewel among their intrepid vacation pictures. “Hey honey, remember that one year we didn’t go to Disneyland?” But the nervous guests who immediately dismiss Fremont as a bunch of commie, flag-stomping hippies aren’t really in the know.
If they had looked closely enough, they would have seen that, as of late, Lenin’s hands are painted red. He was a murderous madman, after all. And with a little timing on your side, you can even catch the dauntless leader clad in a dress (courtesy of the Hash House Harriers) or sporting drag during Pride Week.
I’m supposed to tell you that the weather in Seattle perpetually sucks and that residents walk around with pre-tied nooses for when the meteorological burden becomes too much to bear. That’s the stereotype. In fact, I promised Sean and Andrew – two cool Seattleites I worked with in Mexico – that I would replace the cloudless blue sky in my photos with something apocalyptic and gray, perhaps even with flaming feline precipitation or something equally nightmarish.
But for many steady weeks, I’ve rarely seen better weather in my life. And since I’m accustomed to the impenetrable humidity shared by both Kentucky and Southeast Asia, I felt light as a feather in Seattle. Walking five feet without leaving a salty trail of perspiration was a new sensation altogether. When temperatures encroached upon the 75-degree mark, the translucent-skinned locals – many of whom hail from Alaska – began to grumble and squirm like walruses at a global warming summit. But I couldn’t have been happier.
I was blessed with numerous vagabond meetups while in Seattle. Along with the air, the road just seems more pure in the Pacific Northwest, so it’s no wonder travelers buzz around like flies. It began with a meetup with my old Alaskan friend Jessica, and culminated with a rare appearance from vagabonding legend Amanda Formoso, her brother, and his sweet Costa Rican wife. Then, Jessie from DFR, our third country for meeting, and Anna – a longtime blog friend who’s hardcore enough to carry a compass. I met some new readers as well, and just missed Washington natives Lynn and Noah Camp; they were too busy riding horses across Mongolia or some other mad thing that vagabonds should be doing.
In fact, most of the random people I met in Seattle were fantastically friendly. And not all were high! From patrons in dive bars to students in cafes, many of the residents with whom I spoke are transplants from other parts of the country. They, too, fell in love and couldn’t get their feet to move on. And on a side note, there were far less hipsters than I expected. Apparently, Seattle is just too far from Portland to reach by bike or unicycle.
Seattle’s Experience Music Project was a personal highlight for me. It’s not often that one can leave a museum with blistered fingers and streaming sweat, but that’s a good thing. The lower bowels of Seattle’s eclectic-shaped EMP museum are dedicated to horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. From Jason Vorhees’ famous hockey mask to Darth Vader’s lightsaber, it’s all down there. And when your inner geek is sated, the EMP becomes increasingly exciting as you move upward.
The next levels are dedicated to Jimi Hendrix – a Seattle native – along with Nirvana and bands of the Grunge era. Smashed guitars are very interesting, but the real fun begins when you hit the top level: the Sound Lab. As a red-blooded American boy, it’s been my dream to sit down at a full drum kit and beat the living hell out of it in a manner that would scare the crap out of Tommy Lee himself. You can do that in the Sound Lab. For free, you get to enter soundproofed studio rooms filled with various instruments, and for better or worse, go to town with the sticks and picks.
As a guitarist – or someone who used to threaten the neighbors with improvised noise – the jam rooms were exciting. Full Marshall stacks capable of ear-splitting volumes and tuned Gibson Les Pauls await your worst. But I really couldn’t escape the drum chambers. Between crash symbol crashes and bass drum booms, poor Jessica had to wander to other parts of the museum before we were ejected. Or arrested. After 30 minutes of enthusiastic banging, I emerged with calloused hands, ringing ears about to bleed, and sweat dripping from my face. My exclamations to Jessica of how awesome the experience was – at full volume because I was completely deaf – must have really concerned some of the other museum guests.
Or maybe it was the feverish sweat and madness in my eyes. I’m lucky they didn’t throw me into the ebola quarantine.
Amazon, Microsoft, and Google all have enormous presences in Seattle. Lovingly referred to as Amaholes, Seattle residents have mixed feelings about all the techies that call the city home. Actually, the feelings aren’t really that mixed at all. Pretty much everyone who isn’t prospering from the young acronym-slinging crowd hates them. Why? Seattle is going the way of San Francisco and other silicone-heavy cities where peace-loving anti-consumerists were forced to move on by real estate prices. An apartment in Seattle, generally the size of a pantry in Kentucky, costs enough to scare you sober.
So remember: Every time you order a book from Amazon instead of paying double at your local bookstore, a puppy in Seattle dies.
But only visiting Seattle and saying that you’ve been to Washington state is akin to visiting London and claiming that you’ve seen England. So, I rented a sleek Toyota and made use of the horsepower to head east, out of the city. The landscape changes were surreal. Desert, sagebrush, volcanic hills – the scenery was always changing. Rolling wheat fields, like a not-so-flat Kansas, dominated much of the state.
Wheat soon gave way to enough vineyards to keep half the U.S. buzzing, and I stayed with Jessica’s lively grandmother in Walla Walla – a small-but-pleasant town of around 32,000 with a happy vibe. We watched a parade that had enough horses to impress even the average Kentuckian. The state fair was in progress, which like many state fairs, consisted of people consuming fried obscenities and gawking at oversized vegetables. Leathery-skinned farmers murmured about crops and weather. Teenage couples wandered between stomach-churning rides snapped together by vagrants. I was really enjoying the people watching before an actual dust storm nearly blew everyone out of there.
And strangely enough, I found myself visiting a brand new Thai temple in the Tri-Cities part of Southeast Washington. With 2014 being the first year in a very long time that I wasn’t in Thailand, I really didn’t expect to be giving a wai to Thai monks anytime soon. But it happened. I was also introduced to a ‘garden monk’ who’s job was to tend the lush garden on the temple grounds that feeds everyone. I’ve never seen so many chili-pepper plants in one place! And I think that I may have found my new dream occupation.
Yeah, you read that correctly. And so begins the death of any credibility I once had as a punk rocker or devotee of hair metal. But I’ve got to be honest, as I vowed to do when I began Vagabonding Life: I went to a Lady Gaga concert and…wait for it…had an incredibly good time [shudder].
It all began with a dire suggestion from Jessica. She had an extra ticket. For weeks, I pleaded with her to take a girlfriend or someone who would appreciate the show properly. It seemed a waste, myself standing in a not-so-cheap concert for a performer I generally didn’t care about. I normally can’t change the radio fast enough when Lady Gaga comes creeping across the airwaves. I feared the worst, perhaps a screaming teenage horde sucking my brains out in a fit of hormonal rage. Getting trampled by Hello Kitty flip-flops has to suck. When the day came, Jessica still had the ticket, and I found myself reluctantly taking a bus to meet her in Seattle Center. Here’s a shot of my costume.
But dread quickly turned to excitement as I approached Key Arena. For starters, the half-naked costumes worn by female fans didn’t hurt. They asked me to appear in photos destined for Facebook and thanked me with a pinch on the bottom. Seriously. Then at the entrance, a throng of picketers protested the show. Signs read, “Your daughter’s gonna be a whore!” and other delightful anecdotes. Angry 20-somethings in seashell bikini thongs shouted back in jest. The energy was undeniably electric. Tension and anticipation hung in the air. I also may have possibly been the only straight male attendee for the show.
I took the opportunity to speak with the only cop I saw for the first four weeks in Seattle. He was standing amongst the madness, nonchalantly leaning against a railing. I asked why there was such a low police presence there; he said that there didn’t need to be more. Just one. A single policeman armed only with a small sidearm and a radio.
In contrast, I see at least two dozen cops weekly – mounted on an armada of bikes, horses, and even Segways – at Lexington’s downtown Thursday Night Live festivals. Had some anomaly like Lady Gaga made an appearance, my city would have had SWAT guys ready to rappel out of helicopters with bazookas. Spectre gunships would have been on station. But no, Seattle had dispatched a single officer, who honestly wasn’t doing much other than diligently chewing a toothpick. Is this what happens when a state legalizes marijuana?
Upgraded to a lower level, our seats were fantastic. I cringed when Lady Gaga first took the stage, expecting a screeching cacophony of teenager-oriented lyrics that had nothing to do with motorcycles, mountains, bourbon, leather pants, or any of the other stuff that makes good music. There probably wouldn’t be a single bad-attitude guitar solo to be had. But the theatrics and stage performance were undeniably some of the best I’ve ever seen. And she even sang a song that brought a tear to my eye. A song that I would actually listen to voluntarily: Gypsy.
Whoosh, yes, that is the sound of credentials being sucked away. But when you’ve told as many goodbyes as I have, you can’t help but to feel this song in your very bones:
…I don’t wanna be alone forever, but I love gypsy life.
I don’t wanna be alone forever, maybe we could see the world together…
So, I just packed my baggage and, said goodbye to family and friends.
And took a road to nowhere, on my own…
And I don’t wanna be alone forever, but I can be tonight…
Seattle, what have you done to me. I do love this gypsy life.