Even though riddled with danger, communists, monsters, and a dark confession, this entry hardly does my six weeks of vagabonding in Seattle, Washington, justice. But then again, I’ve got to write something about the experience.
Unfortunately, it seems, much of what people at home know 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 (or hipster) needs. I thoroughly enjoyed myself on a budget (with a free place to crash).
Seattle just radiates a pleasant pace that seeps into your bones. It’s contagious. And let’s not forget that the city coexists peacefully within range of Mount Rainier, one hell of a prominent (and active) stratovolcano.
I hiked those snowy slopes to Camp Muir and realized that I was exactly where I needed to be. Washington State is indeed a playground for us mountain lovers.
Mountains punctuate the area with sumptuous summits; big lumps of condensed adventure craving climbers’ boots. Along with mountains, there’s a coast; the best of both worlds. The Pacific Ocean is close enough to blow away much of the urban stench of city life.
You get the feeling that Mother Nature is befriended rather than beaten 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, maaaan. And smart. Seattle is the type of place where you can accidentally walk up on a Tibetan festival (I did).
Oh, did I mention that flights to Hawaii, Alaska, and Asia are tantalizingly cheap from Seattle, too?
Sorry, Chicago, my long-running favorite city in the U.S., get your stuff and go. It’s not you; it’s me. There’s a new urban delight in my life.
Seattle 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.
Fremont: 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 around Seattle 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 here seem 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 half-jokingly dubbed the “Center of the Universe” and considered the epicenter for all things weird in Seattle. Legend holds that some local scientists once 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 substances—were involved in drawing that conclusion. Because their inebriated hypothesis could neither be proven nor dismissed, the Metropolitan King County Council made Fremont the official center of the universe in 1994. It has to be true because they placed a marker at the spot, right?
If you’ve ever tried geocaching, the headquarters for Geocaching.com is nearby. Quirky? Yes. Fun? Definitely. I met up with some travel friends who gave me a brief tour of the headquarters. Let’s just say it didn’t look anything like the stale corporate environment I left at IBM.
Without too much of a stretch, we could call Fremont the Haight-Ashbury of Washington state; their motto is De Libertas Quirkas (Freedom to be Peculiar).
“Chinatown” in Seattle
Although Fremont was my base (may as well set up shop at the Center of the Universe), I did two extended house sitting sessions in Ballard and wandered many other neighborhoods until they became interesting.
Chinatown in Seattle doesn’t exist. Instead, Seattle’s “International District”—a nicer way of saying Chinatown or 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. I’ve spent over 10 years moving around in Asia and was thoroughly impressed with Seattle’s take.
The International District did come across as slightly oppressed and pleasantly run down, as Chinatown districts tend to be in American cities, but I ate myself to an aneurysm on cheap dumplings and Szechuan noodles. The shop proprietors were nice enough.
Jessie, a serious traveler, friend, and anthropologist, knew just the right nondescript, folding-table noodle place tucked in a distant corner of the neighborhood. Even Anthony Bourdain couldn’t have found this place.
You can always count on Asia pros like her to know where to eat.
The Fremont Troll
Wondering how to keep crackheads and criminals 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 the lurking Fremont Troll 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 addicts. They’ve since moved on to quieter and less creepy places.
The Fremont Troll is an interactive shout out to the Scandinavian Three Billy Goats Gruff. The impressive monster has even grabbed a real Volkswagen Beetle from the road. According to the plates, his victims—presumably enjoyed for breakfast—were from California.
The Fremont Lenin Statue
As if a gigantic troll holding an actual Volkswagen in a sizable claw wasn’t a scary 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 (who often has blood on his hands).
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-worshipping, 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.
The Weather in Seattle
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. They were afraid the truth could get out and that more people would move to Seattle.
But for many steady weeks over summer, 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 migrated from Alaska—began to grumble and squirm like walruses at a global warming summit. But I couldn’t have been happier.
Vagabond Meetings in Seattle
I was blessed with numerous vagabond meetups while in Seattle. Along with the air, the road just seems more pure in the Pacific Northwest; it’s no wonder travelers buzz around like flies.
I began with a meetup with my old Alaskan friend Jessica, and culminated with a rare appearance from vagabonding legend Amanda Formoso (who sent me to Shaolin training in China), her brother, and his sweet Costa Rican wife. Then, Jessie the anthropologist (our third country for meeting up) 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 / YouTubers 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 because they were high! From patrons in dive bars to students in cafes, many of the Seattle residents with whom I spoke are transplants from other parts of the country. They, too, fell in love with the Pacific Northwest and couldn’t get their feet to move on.
On a side note, there were far less hipsters than people had warned me about. Apparently, Seattle is just too far from Portland to reach by bike or unicycle.
The EMP (Experience Music Project)
Seattle’s Experience Music Project (lovely called the EMP) was a personal highlight for me. It’s not often that one can leave a museum with blistered fingers and streaming sweat, but in this instance, 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 at least 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 mostly deaf—must have really concerned some of the other museum guests.
The Tech Takeover
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 don’t really seem 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, already 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.
Eastern Washington State
But only visiting Seattle and saying that you’ve been to the State of Washington 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 in it 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.
Lady Gaga in Seattle
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 this blog: 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.
My seeing Lady Gaga in Seattle seemed a waste. I normally can’t change the radio fast enough when Lady Gaga comes creeping across the airwaves. Someone else was better deserving of the ticket.
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. I even wore a costume.
But dread quickly turned to excitement as I approached Key Arena. For starters, the half-naked costumes worn by some of the 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 at home in Lexington. They are 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 flame throwers. AC-130 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 leather pants, bad attitudes, guitar solo, or any of the other stuff that I consider good music.
But the theatrics and stage performance were undeniably some of the best I’ve 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.
Greg is a full-time vagabonding writer and adventurer who escaped the corporate world. Now he helps others begin a life of travel.