North America 2013: Pacific North West

I was still disappointed not to be on the road and heading east to Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Arches, Zion, …, but at least I now had the time to head north. My musical awakening as a teenager centred around Nirvana and the grunge scene so Seattle had always been on my radar; these days a love of coffee, craft beer, food, and independent music made Portland an intriguing prospect as well1.

So I returned Kevin’s truck, spent a few more days in Venice exploring with friends (celebrated my birthday in Silverlake, went to an anti-Monsanto rally, and followed up with chicken-and-waffles breakfast at Roscoe’s—I think I’ve covered LA!), and caught a flight to Portland.

Portland

I’d booked close to a week in Portland, again to decompress and geek out a little, and it really didn’t disappoint. By far the most consistently excellent espresso of any place I’d visited to date, and just a thoroughly comfortable town. I’m from a small town myself, a similar distance from the equator, so while the beautiful sunny weather of the last two months had been great it was still quite nice to feel a nip in the shade, and even to see the town mostly closed as I explored on a Sunday.

I really hadn’t done a lot of research2, and all I knew about Powell’s Bookshop was that it seemed to be one of the things to do in Portland. It was only a block from where I was staying, and I like a good bookshop so on my first morning I wandered over.

I would not emerge until well after lunchtime. Powell’s, I discovered, is famous because it’s the largest independent bookstore in the world. It literally covers an entire block with 4 floors, and if you wanted the technical books section… well, that’s across the road in another building, the size of most normal bookshops. They couldn’t fit it in the main store. Obscure topics (say, “interior decoration for attics with sloped ceilings”) that would barely rate a mention on Amazon, let alone your radar, in Powell’s have multiple shelves dedicated to them.

I caught a bus up to the Rose Gardens, only to overshoot the bus stop and find myself speeding past progressively more distant stops. Eventually I got off, and on a whim started walking down a path off the road-side. It not only went exactly where I was intending, but soon became a very pleasant educational trail—winning. The gardens themselves were picturesque enough and provided a fairly nice view back out over the city, with Mount Hood just visible behind.

Portland is justifiably famous for its food trucks, and many are excellent (many others, of course, are not). On my final morning I made one final trip to an earlier favourite (the peoples’ pig, for excellent porchetta sandwiches), and my afternoon bus to Seattle came up in conversation. They immediately told me about a place for cured meats called Salumi, literally right next to where I would get off the bus—score! It even turned out that the place is run by the father of celebrity chef Mario Batali.

Seattle

So I rolled into Seattle and made a bee-line for Salumi… in something of a harbinger of things to come, it was closed (only open to the public a small number of days, and limited hours). Undeterred I checked into my hostel and after a quick chat with room-mates found a pumping sports bar to grab a counter meal and watch the football game. The local team won, spirits were high, and it turned out the people around me were friends with the owner and we wound up doing quite a few shots. The night was rosy but not out of control… until I cheerily rolled back to the hostel, and agreed to go straight back out again with a room-mate who had itchy feet. I fear I may not have fully appreciated the excellent whisky we wound up drinking.

The next morning my good mood from the night before had deserted me and so, it was feeling like, had my persistent good luck on this trip. Slightly underwhelmed by the hostel breakfast I went out, straight into a thick damp fog making it apparent I didn’t have enough warm clothes on, and I immediately jarred my knee stepping down off the curb, with my opposite hip already complaining about lugging my backpack around yesterday. Feeling slightly sorry for myself I figured any coffee would help, and ducked into the first half-way decent looking cafe I came across. The vile espresso I forced down had me cursing that decision too, and I was all but ready to either go back to bed or pass through Seattle entirely.

Like a true soldier though I pushed on, and after exploring the Pike Place Markets for a while I emerged into sunshine, with my headache and other pains gone, and ready to conquer the town.

This time I didn’t fail at Salumi, and enjoyed a tasty lunch in a secluded Japanese waterfall-garden I stumbled upon nearby.

Late in the day I figured I should check out the standard Seattle cliche, the Space Needle. I wasn’t that excited about it, but for once in my experience of “queuing to go up tall things”, the queues weren’t too bad. Not only that, but by the time I was up the top the skies were clear and the light was great… and only then did I realise that if I just stuck around for another half hour or so I would also get some great sunset and night-time shots!

Bellingham

Bellingham was somewhat of a random choice. An early tip from a friend (Dan) was to check out the San Juan Islands, and Bellingham was one jumping-off point for exploring them. Also, and completely randomly, it’s where The Postal Service originate from!

An early bus from Seattle unfortunately made such good time that we were dropped at the terminal an hour early—which was already scheduled to be about an hour before the first bus into town. A long cold wait, two buses and a long walk later and I was at the motel I’d booked, still hours before check-in time but a very friendly owner let me grab breakfast and found a vacant room for me (as well as telling me that the reason they didn’t have microwaves was because drug dealers used cheap hotel rooms as disposable cooking-labs). I made another long, grey walk into town, only to find (it was a Sunday again) almost everything shut. I did find some passable coffee, and stumbled upon a water-side path that took me all the way to adjoining Fairhaven (also shut). On my return home I took a wrong turn and wound up passing through the university campus—also scenic, and rather close to my motel but with no way to cut through so by the time I got home it had been quite a long day, and I had already seen most of the town! I grabbed take-away and started researching ways to occupy the next couple of days.

This time though, my luck really had run out. Hiring a sea kayak? Sorry, the season finished last month. Perhaps whale watching again? Nope, same story. A visit to the San Juans? Actually, it turns out that you can’t go directly from Bellingham any more, and my best option was via Anacortes (the other town I’d been considering), which would be a 3 hour journey each way. Oh well, it looked like this was going to be another chill-out stop! I spent the next day walking the town, trawling record stores, and hacking in cafes. My final day I hired a bike in Fairhaven and hit a trail that eventually cruised through pine forest along the water’s edge, before a steep climb finished with a short lake circuit hike.

I had one more night back in Seattle before flying back to LA, and used the time to find the fantastic bridge troll (also, Top Pot Donuts).

  1. Yes, I am aware this makes me a closet hipster. Guilty as charged… but my legs just aren’t skinny enough for their jeans, and I refuse to wear plaid, regardless. Also, my stubble is down to laziness, not irony. 

  2. Apart from Zdenka making me watch a series of Portlandia! And yes, apparently that show might as well be a documentary. 

Mark Hepburn 21 April 2014
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