Sunday, June 10, 2012

Notes from the Pacific Northwest

Observations on the Pacific Northwest from the plane on the way back from our trip to Seattle:

(If you're reading this blog, you probably know that our son Grant is in France with a school exchange program that we've been preparing for for years. Partly to distract us from fretting about our 12-year-old being on another continent, Sally cashed in a few thousand frequent flyer miles, and we took our first kidless vacation in years -- staying, for the most part, with Sally's cousin Bruce and his wife Julie and their daughter Taylor. With the expenses of travel and lodging covered, we were able to indulge ourselves with great food [and the related hidden costs of parking and ferry crossings] without worrying about the budget.)

We spent the first week in June there without ever unpacking my walking shorts or short-sleeved shirts. The weather alternated between sun-splashed and drizzling, but it rarely got above 60 degrees. And since we didn't really have a spring in the Midwest this year (its been in the 80s more often than not ever since early February), the cool climate was perfect, from my perspective.

When I travel, I tend to plan my days around cultural and historical sites -- whether that means castles and cathedrals and seaports and cityscapes, or simply pubs and bistros and the food and drink and music and conversation within, I'm pretty much a "man-made" kind of guy.

On this trip, we encountered a heap of male seal lions basking in the sun;
a peregrine falcon perched above its cliffside nest; a herd of elk lying down on a roadway in a valley below us; and best of all, for a few magical seconds, a bald eagle skimming across the surface of the Columbia River just a couple of hundred feet from us. These unplanned events rarely lent themselves to photography or any other souvenir-taking. The memories will have to do.

Nature had the starring role in two other attractions that weren't on my pre-trip agenda. On Monday Bruce and Julie took us up into the mountains to Sosquamish Falls (remember the opening scenes of "Twin Peaks"?) --
a waterfall that is narrower but taller than Cumberland Falls in Kentucky, but that somehow manages to send a tower of mist higher and farther, it seems, than Niagra.

And, on the return leg of an overnight trip to Portland, we took a detour to visit Mount St. Helens. We had been advised to allow at least two hours for the trip and ended up taking five. It's an amazing experience that just keeps getting more compelling the farther up the 52-mile road you drive -- especially if you stop at the four different visitors centers along the way, watch the videos, and talk to the interpreters and forest rangers (this property is part of the U.S. Forest Service, not the National Parks ... more on why that matters later).

I remember when this volcano erupted in May 1980. I was in the middle of my last finals week as an undergraduate at Ball State; and the huge news story of the day wasn't the volcano, it was the Iran hostage crisis -- "I'm Ted Koppel and this is America Held Hostage, Day 143". We've all seen the pictures and the video of the column of ash, but -- probably because of the relatively small loss of life (incredibly small, once you've been there) -- the enormity of this event didn't register on me before.

You start this trek on Interstate 5 a couple hundred feet above sea level,
and end up 4000 feet higher (and 20 degrees cooler) on an observation deck outside a bunker-like interpretive center atop Johnston Ridge, staring across two miles of a lunar landscape at the bottom rim of a huge, angled crater, the top edge of which , at 8000 feet, is 1000 feet lower than the peak of the mountain used to be. Everything in between -- and as far as the eye can see to your left and your right -- is an almost-barren field of boulders and dried ash and pumice, a new valley floor hundreds of feet above a former wooded valley floor that was filled, for 30 miles downstream, with the raw material of a mountain that blew itself apart.

And in the middle of that crater, silent and snow-covered, is a new lava dome that has risen over 800 feet in just the past thirty years.

The mountainside was sparsely populated to begin with, and "only" 57 people died because authorities had evacuated the area in advance. "Only" 300 homes -- spread across a 40-mile long valley -- were destroyed, and most of them were empty. That's why the numbers don't prepare you for driving miles and miles and miles across empty countryside -- most of it now replanted with fir trees. On the way back down the mountain, you pass the point at which the trees were splintered by the power of the eruption; to the point at which the trees were yanked out by the roots and hurled down the valley along with the avalanche of melted snow and mud; to the point at which the trees were left standing but naked and blackened by the heat from the blast. That point is 14 miles downhill from Johnston Ridge.

No one lives less than 25 miles from Johnston Ridge today. Except maybe Bigfoot. It was an amazing experience, but coming down the mountain -- even with three hours of daylight left -- I felt very small and alone and eager to get back to civilization. It felt good to get back to Seattle and settle into a neighborhood grill for a martini and duck quesadillas and rabbit tacos.

So, yeah, we had great meals -- charcuterie from Charlesbourg, a French bistro in the newly revitalized, funky little Greenwood neighborhood; wood-fired pizza at a Ballard art fair; great meals of salmon and pork tenderloin that we took turns cooking for each other; marionberry crepes at a ferry landing in Kingston; dungeness crab in eggs benedict at the Edgewater and crabrolls and salads at Lowell's in Pike Place Market and in stew in an oyster bar in Old Town in Portland. I also had a reindeer sausage from a food truck in Portland. So we not only saw wildlife on this trip; we ate a fair amount of it too.

The daytrip to Portland was the only real disappointment. Not only did plans to meet a friend fall through; that was the day that Sally hit a wall, physically, and she ended up using our lovely suite in the restored Mutnomah Hotel for napping. And for a few hours of another perfect cool spring day, I was fairly content to wander the riverfront and the used bookstores and head shops and open-air bars for an afternoon.

This was my second time in Portland, and I lobbied for this hotel because I stayed there for a museum conference in 2003. At that time, I found the surrounding edgy neighborhood and its population of young people in dreadlocks and tattoos to be exotic and charming. I don't know whether things have gotten seedier, or I'm just nine years older. After a few hours, I found it depressing this time.

Of course, 24 hours in Old Town can't be a fair evaluation of Portland. And indeed, part of what was special about this trip was the time we spent in Seattle, not so much as "tourists," but rather as co-residents. Bruce is a free-lance videographer who had client meetings during the days; Julie is a Lutheran minister. They had school events with Taylor on a couple of evenings, and we joined them for a pitch-in dinner at church one night and for worship on Sunday morning; otherwise, they went about their business (including, happily, their usual "Sunday-afternoon-through-Monday-evening 'weekend'" with us) and we spent much more time behaving, it felt, like Seattlites than visitors -- watching sunsets over Puget Sound from city parks (or from catwalks over freight train tracks);

going to a farmer's market; or, as Sally and Julie did on Sunday evening, attending a compline service at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral (an austere and stunning space which they insisted I go see the next day, and about which I want to do a separate blog. Later.).

Or just grilling out and making mojitos and sharing stories with very good friends.

There are places I love to visit but I wouldn't want to live there: New York, New Orleans, Clearwater Florida, among others. And there are places where we can't help picking up real estate guides, and making the leap from fantasizing to strategizing about relocating. I've felt that way about our last few summer trips to Lake Webster in northern Indiana. We really feel that way about the Pacific Northwest.

Surely, the physical beauty of the mountains, the bays and islands, and the ocean can only go so far. You've still got to make a living. And the long months of cloud cover from October through April might be a problem for someone with a touch of seasonal affective disorder -- although I'm told that the mild temperatures and the thousand shades of evergreen (along with the thousand shades of gray) bring a texture to the Seattle winter that offsets the lack of direct sunlight.

But mostly, I feel at home with the cultural/social/political values of the region. The environmental awareness, the embrace of diversity, the value placed on education. This is the home of Boeing and Microsoft (and Starbucks), of course, so there's no objection to capitalism, which seems to thrive with an educated populace. Prices are high and so are taxes, but I didn't talk to a single person who could imagine living anywhere else.

Which brings me back to Mount St. Helens. The scale of the devastation makes the effort to build a road and several bridges and a sizable, if spartan, monitoring station/visitors center between 1982 and 1997 seem like an epic story in itself -- a "they said it couldn't be done" story in the mold of Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate Bridge or the Apollo project. A federal project, moreover. After 1980. And for what purpose? To educate people about an historical event -- to provide them with an opportunity to comprehend the scale and power of nature?

From a utilitarian viewpoint, some of what the federal government did around Mount St. Helens must make sense even to those who say that government is only good for fighting wars and paying for prisons. Surely, building a dam to trap the annual rush of sediment and seeding thousands of acres of mountainside with new trees and grasses to prevent erosion is a prudent use of precious taxpayer dollars. Weyerhauser, the private company that owned (and lost) hundreds of thousands of acres of mature lumber, aided that effort by investing in replanting forests that are still years away from harvest ... perhaps it was a fair trade that the government would build a road for them. But the last 14 miles of that road, and the visitor's center at the apex, seem to serve no purpose beyond allowing the public to share in an experience.

Kind of like a national park, except it's not a national park. National parks can only be created by acts of Congress. Mount St. Helens is a National Monument, administered by the Forest Service, and created not by Congress, but by executive order in 1982. By Ronald Reagan.

Once upon a time there we lived in a world where some issues, some endeavors, were not partisan, and not immediately opposed by 49.9% of the electorate. Vacation over, tomorrow I go back to work, in hopes that we can get back to such a world. And if I'm wrong ... there's always Washington state.