(Note to readers: this is the second installment of a memoir of a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest. The trip seems to have been an inflection point, though one is never certain until well after the fact. The memoir has turned into a rearward gaze at my life and its primary relationships.)
For reasons I have never quite understood, I have, over the years since my service in the Army, developed a fear of flying. After having piloted aircraft for the US Army in much more dangerous and risky situations than those encountered by modern-day airliners, I had somehow developed a somewhat mild aversion to commercial flight. Or, at least, it had been somewhat mild up until the day of our departure for Seattle. We boarded the plane early on a Saturday morning in Atlanta, Georgia. Literally thousands of people were doing exactly what we were doing that day at Hartselle International. But when I finally found my seat, located all the way at the back of the plane in a corner next to the window, I turned and looked out, and was struck with a terror like I have never experienced before. Looking towards the front of the plane over the rows of crammed passengers, barely even able to make out the door into which we had boarded, an impulse washed over me, telling me to get out–now! But whatever it was my heart was telling my head, my head knew it was ridiculous. I moved to the center of the aisle, took a few deep breaths, and finally returned to my seat. In magnitude at least, that was a first. I did fine the rest of the way, but drank a few bloody Mary’s to calm my nerves (none of which, however, precipitated a weekend fuck fest like those many years ago). I later realized that I have no fear whatsoever of flying. I was never afraid whilst piloting aircraft for the Army—wary in a head-on-a-swivel sort of way, yes—but never possessed of abject terror like I felt in that airliner’s cabin, not even when I had an inflight emergency one time (a transmission problem) that forced me to land in a rice field in Central America. I, in fact, love flying, and actually marveled again on the flight home at the perspective of the world offered at thirty-five thousand feet. I found that keeping my nose glued to the window helped dissipate the feeling of entrapment. What I fear is enclosed spaces, and there is nothing more enclosed than an airliner’s cabin full of people. Nothing. It feels like being buried alive in a suffocating tin coffin full of zombies. I again drank my bloody Mary’s on the way home, but enjoyed them this time, as I watched the checkerboard squares of Middle America pass underneath. I just made myself forget about all the zombies stuffed into every available crevice and cranny next to me. The bloody Mary’s and the view out the window helped immensely in that regard.
Banking into SeaTac airport, there was a “marine layer”, i.e., a layer of low-lying clouds almost touching the ground like fog, shrouding the Sound, and reaching high enough to cover most of the Cascades, depriving us of one of the most magnificent sights—the view of the Cascades and Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound and Mt. Rainier—to behold, from an airplane or anywhere. It was about noon when we landed in Seattle and it was cold, or at least cold to us, having shrugged off the warm blanket of a Southern summer for a week in the Pacific Northwest. July is usually bright and sunny and dry and warm in Seattle. This marine layer was something of a new thing to me. I hadn’t remembered anything but brilliant, almost oppressive, sunshine during July and August when I’d lived up there before, and had timed the trip to coincide with what I was (almost) certain would be gloriously bright, sunny skies. The wife was probably about then wondering how much else of what I’d told her about the area was a lie. And she had yet to see the magnificent Rainier.
Even in the chill (“cold” is a bit of an exaggeration—the temperature was about sixty by 1:00 pm when we left the airport, but we hadn’t seen sixty degrees in at least four months back home), we put the top down and headed the twelve or so miles north on I-5 to the bed and breakfast where we would be staying. The sun began poking its way through the layer of foggy-looking clouds by the time we hit the interstate. As soon as it pushed all the way through, I felt hints of that warm July Seattle sunshine that lit the corners of my memory when I had decided on the dates for the trip. Yes, this is how I remembered Seattle in the summertime.
“See, dear”, I looked over at my shivering wife, wrapped in a sweater and scarf, a hat on her head and a coat over her short-panted Alabama legs, “I told you Seattle was a paradise this time of year.” I couldn’t quite understand her reply, delivered as it was, through chattering teeth while she gripped her hat tightly to her head lest it flew away.
I had booked a week at the 11th Avenue Inn, a bed and breakfast in the Capitol Hill district of the city, about a mile or so from Pike’s Place Market and all the other touristy shit people who visit Seattle do (that god-awful space needle, for example). I had never stayed even a night in Seattle itself (the base where I had been stationed was about forty-five minutes or so to the south, so why stay in the city when you could just drive home?), and didn’t know the Capitol Hill district from any other. It turned out to be something of the epicenter of the Seattle “alternative” lifestyle, which, I suppose, from the look of things, meant it was where the gays and the emo’s hung out, along with a host of rather ordinary looking folks. But it seemed everyone toted a backpack, which helped us blend in with crowd, and not look too touristy, I think. Even though I am neither gay nor have any piercings or tattoos, and neither does my wife have piercings (except one in each earlobe, as is the Western WASP custom) or tattoos, and though one never really knows about the sexual urges in another’s heart, has never exhibited any homosexual tendencies, I relished the idea that we could sort of blend in, perhaps as the photographic negatives providing contrast to the alt’s somewhat outlandish sartorial and behavioral choices. In the end, I was glad we stumbled upon Capitol Hill and the 11th Avenue Inn. Had we stayed in a high-rise in the city center, we’d have missed really feeling a part of what makes Seattle unique. I’ve stayed in enough city centers in America to know they all look and feel pretty much the same. The Capitol Hill area was not a bland imitation of everywhere else.
The proprietor of the 11th Avenue Inn happened to have also been an Army officer stationed at Ft. Lewis. He got out about the same time as me (1991), but had only spent three years on active duty, the minimum commitment for an ROTC officer, and was able to get his discharge from Lewis, not being required to attend the Advanced Course for his specialty. I could have done only three years as well, had I not chosen to go to flight school, which tacked another three years onto my total commitment. I’m still not sure whether it was worth it. I wonder how my life might have gone had I been able to get out of the Army whilst stationed at Ft. Lewis. Might I have stayed, like David, the innkeeper (he was originally from New Jersey)? Would my (now) wife and I have gotten back together? Would I have continued the limited contact with my family that such a separation of time and space implied? In hindsight, staying away from Alabama—a long way away, like in Seattle—is probably the only way I could have carried on any sort of lasting relationship with my natal family. I thought that by the time I moved back, the family members might have grown up and begun to act with some measure of maturity, instead of behaving like spoiled children as they always had. I was wrong, and not just in my estimation that they might grow up a bit. I was also wrong in the direction their maturity would take. They regressed, and became more child-like with each passing year.
For example, I returned to Alabama to find my mother making a huge fuss over everyone’s birthday—it was the vehicle she used for pulling all of her children unto her. I played along for a while until I just got tired of all the silliness and told her I was only doing major birthdays—celebrating mine only once a decade, if at all. When she pitched her emotional fit, as is her wont, I asked her whether she remembered my twenty-fifth birthday. The puzzled expression on her face was priceless for the fleeting moment that it appeared. Then it turned to that angry, mean look she gets when she realizes someone has tricked her or caught her out. Venality always simmered beneath surface of her exterior, creeping around the edges of even the happiest fake smile she could muster.
I turned twenty-five my first year in Seattle. Mom didn’t send a card, or letter, or even call. Out of sight, out of mind, I suppose, but not realizing until moving back to Alabama, what a sweet deal that was. Mom was none too happy when I reminded her of the fact that she completely ignored my twenty-fifth birthday as justification for vastly scaling back my attendance at her birthday galas. At the time, out in Seattle, I hadn’t much cared, or even noticed, that no one back home acknowledged my birthday. I was living a good and full life, and birthdays really weren’t that big a deal to me anyways. They were never a fuss growing up—nothing like the ones my kids experienced, I am ashamed to say (as their father, who at least abetted the silliness). So I didn’t see how mother could get away with making a big deal of them now we were all adults, just because she wanted to assert her will and gather us all to her again, whereas all she’d ever dreamt when we were kids was that we would leave her alone, and had barely acknowledged the passing of our years at the time. Alas, worshiping Father Rainier was far more satisfying than being in the presence of my mother, who expected to be worshiped and revered, but without the majesty and grace of a massive fourteen thousand four hundred and ten foot volcano. The volcano had a rational core. There was never any rhyme or reason to my mother’s eruptions.
The 11th Avenue Inn was located, as might be easily guessed, on 11th Avenue, which is about two-thirds of the way up Capitol Hill, nestled a few blocks up from Broadway, and four blocks from the top of hill at 15th Avenue. Broadway and Fifteenth Avenue were happening places. They would have comprised whole entertainment districts had they been located in my home town. There were restaurants galore—everything from Thai to Ethiopian to Irish-style pubs to foodie joints. All of them had a bewildering array of craft beers from which to choose. I rather prefer good old PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon, which to my chagrin, has apparently made a comeback as the hipster beer of choice), which few had on tap, but will try crafty beer, so long as it’s not too hoppy. I had two beers with lunch and two with dinner every day we were there. It was an excellent way to live. I really should begin that regimen at home.
The Inn itself, built in 1906, had a Victorian feel, with creaky hardwood floors throughout, and antiques and collectibles in every uniquely furnished room. Wifi, breakfast and parking was free, which made the under $150/night fare seem almost ridiculously cheap. We staying in the Ruby Room, which was on the second floor at the far end of the hall, serviced by a private bathroom across the hall. It was elegant and rustic at the same time. Because Seattle never really gets enough hot weather to justify the expense, very few dwellings have air conditioning, this one was no exception, which means open windows and fans during the warm season of mid- and late summer. It was quite warm during the latter part of our stay—upper eighties for highs—which count as a heat wave in Seattle. So we had ceiling fans and windows open to the world—something you’d only get at a kid’s rustic summer camp in Alabama. It was delightful, rustic Victorian elegance.
The open windows made sleeping a bit problematic one night when it turned out they were taping a music video for Macklemore a couple of blocks down the street until about 1:00 am, and hundreds of fans had gathered for their cameo appearance. But I didn’t mind. I mean really, it’s not like I had anywhere I had to be the next day. Besides, nobody ever films a music video in my hometown. It was sort of exciting, laying there staring at the ceiling, listening to the band and the crowd.
The first two days were spent exploring Seattle. We strolled around the Capitol Hill neighborhood the first day, visiting the nearby parks (one of which was Volunteer Park, which has an awesome walking trail, museum of Asian art, and brick watchtower that offers a panoramic view of the city and the mountains and the Sound), and sampling some of the local fare. We had a rule—no food that we could buy from a chain restaurant at home. So the first night we had Thai food on Broadway. The next day, lunch was fish and chips down by the waterfront at an Irish-type pub, and dinner was Italian at another joint on Broadway. We explored the waterfront and Pike’s Place Market, passing through the Olympic museum and visiting the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum over at Seattle Center, before refusing to ride the elevator up the spire (the Space Needle—I’d done it before and it was just so banal and overpriced and touristy, both then and now, that I couldn’t see doing it again, even nearly a quarter century later).
The Chihuly was not my favorite, though it came highly recommended by our fellow guests at the Inn. I didn’t get why it was such a big deal to fashion imitations of things like sea anemones and urchins and conchs out of glass. Yes, I know, Chihuly did them with an expressionistic, artistic flair, but to me, the more they looked like the real thing, the more powerful they were, but not artistically, because imitation is not really how art is supposed to work, or at least is not the sort of art that moves me. I never really got Warhol’s tomato soup can, except as something of an inside joke, perhaps on those who found it immediately iconic.
By my reckoning, the challenge of the artist, whatever the medium—glass, canvass, literature, stone, etc.—is to conjure and focus the image that exists just beneath fully conscious thought in the human mind; to take this image that exists as a fuzzy mass of thoughts and feelings, the mind’s eye of the memory if you will, and clarify and rectify it, but only to a point. It is not the task of the artist to take what the mind’s eye sees in memory and correct it for objective reality, but to bring the fuzzy image lurking in the corners of the mind closer to the light of cognition. Dale Chihuly’s art did not do that for me. In fact, with his eye patch and scraggly appearance (and pictures everywhere of him, almost as much as of his artwork), the twenty bucks I spent to walk twenty minutes through his museum kind of felt like getting huckstered. I later learned he’s got another museum in Tacoma, and one in St. Petersburg, Florida. He’s obviously one of those artists who outsources a significant portion of his work, as it would be impossible for him alone to have created all the pieces in the Seattle museum, never mind the other two.
I know, I know; what right have I to criticize the great man? All I can say is that art appreciation is a very subjective thing. I like some things other folks don’t, and dislike a lot that other folks do. Chihuly falls in the latter category. By my reckoning, the best work of art in the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum was an enormous table, about six feet wide and thirty feet long, its top hewn in one piece from what appeared to be Douglas fir, upon which Chihuly had displayed a few of his facsimiles of starfish/anemones/whatever. Nature always and forever is the most prolific and talented sculpture. The table top, created by nature and needing only a saw-wielding lumberjack to achieve its utilitarian perfection for man, offered stark contrast to the imitation ocean creatures made of glass displayed upon it. Mankind shows its puniness when it attempts to imitate nature. The deep veins of ligature in the wood of the table top, laboriously constructed over the centuries of its existence, vastly exceeded the imaginations sitting upon it of how sea creatures might look were they made of glass.
Walking around and through the city, I recalled something I had noticed about the Puget Sound area years ago. There is no stereotypical Seattleite. Seattleites come in all shapes and sizes and lifestyles, but most significantly, seem to have somehow been born with a defective tribalism/cliquishness gene. At least in their appearance, there is often no easy way to categorize them. Soccer moms driving minivans wearing ordinary soccer mom outdoor gear (yoga pants, running shoes and t-shirts, e.g.) and trundling along rather ordinary looking kids might have tattoos on all their exposed skin, and they might also be mommy daddies. Except for the extremely goth, grunge or gay (a small percentage of who I saw, even in the Capitol Hill area), there is no good way to stereotype Seattleites.
I fancy the reason why is because the people who came to Seattle—the farthest reaches of continental America—actually don’t have as strong a tribal impulse as the folks they left down South and back East to get there. The South is uber cliquish and tribal. In the South, you are either “wid’ me or ag’in me.” The large mega-cliques in the South are based upon race; each race then has individual cliques within it—the “white” race most prominently so. The South, particularly among its whites, is social stratification on steroids. Back East, the cliques and tribes were centered on nationalities—German, Dutch, French, English, etc. It’s hard to tell that there are any such tribes and cliques in the Pacific Northwest, and specifically, in Seattle. It’s not hard to see why. The population is derived from stock as varied as German and Finnish (about 20 and 9%, respectively, Germans being the most populous among Europeans), to Chinese and African (about 4 and 8%). People of European ancestry (i.e., whites) comprise about two-thirds of the population; the rest are a jumbled melting pot from everywhere. And how cliquish and tribal could one innately be, yet still muster the courage to trek out to the Great Northwest to a place where no welcoming majority of your people resided? Either the people are innately less tribal, or they became so once they get there.
Or at least that’s my impression of the people living in the Pacific Northwest, which I’m sure is vastly oversimplified, and may even be wrong, as I don’t have an insider’s perspective, and thereby might have missed the subtle tribal/cliquish cues of which the natives are aware. I noticed the egalitarianism years ago, but didn’t pay it much heed. I was in the Army, which is also very egalitarian and accepting of different cultures and races (the saying being that the only color in the Army was green), and so it just seemed like an extension of the organization to which I belonged at the time. But coming back as a civilian, from the highly stratified, cliquish and distinction-drawing South, the apparent lack of such cliquishness and stratification and distinguishing attributes of stereotypical castes struck me as something quite remarkable, and frankly, beautiful.
In the humanities academy, the idea that the environment shapes human culture in myriad ways, an idea called environmental determinism, passed from favor along about the time the progressive idea that human culture could be shaped and formed according the will of technocrats and bureaucrats took hold, which is to say, along about the sixties and seventies, environmental determinism came to be viewed as a quaint, naïve, backward and moderately racist explanation for the success or failure of various human cultures, in the place of which, human agency got the blame, which itself could also be interpreted as mildly racist, but gave better justification for proactive human interventions to shape cultures according to the progressive ideal. But the environmental impact on culture can’t be ignored. It has to have had a significant impact upon the Puget Sound’s apparently quite egalitarian and cooperative, yet individualistic, culture.
The Cascade Mountain range runs along the spine of the Pacific Northwest, starting around Northern California and stretching into Canada. It is the result of the Pacific plate sliding under and along the North American plate as North America slides gradually west and the North Atlantic Ocean slowly gets bigger while the North Pacific shrinks. The Cascades, and to a lesser extent, the Olympic Mountains, which are on a peninsula in the far northwest corner of the state, determined what was and wasn’t humanly possible in the Puget Sound region. The mountains rise from the sea to heights of six and seven thousand feet, with dormant volcanic peaks (and one, Mt. St. Helens, not so dormant) jutting over twelve and fourteen thousand feet into the icy realms of the atmosphere, creating all that made the area unique, and determined everything in it that was humanly possible.
The mountains lift the moisture laden air of the Pacific Ocean to dew point altitudes, directly causing the relentless cloudiness and ample rain in the Puget Sound region. On the west side of the Olympic Mountains, which are the first set of peaks to meet the storms howling in from the Pacific, annual rainfall can total over two hundred inches (including in the Hoh rainforest, which we didn’t have time to visit this trip, but where I had been before), and make for a temperate climate marvel—a rainforest above the 45th parallel, over half of the way between the equator and the North Pole. Trees with trunks the diameter of small houses grow in the rich volcanic soil, towering hundreds of feet to the sky. The lush undergrowth and multiple canopies make a trek through the woods seem every bit like a walk through the Amazon, excepting the cooler temperatures and the particular flora and fauna found along the way (especially the lack of buzzing, biting insects). How could this unique sort of topography not have shaped the human cultures that arose there?
The Cascades are aptly named, as a cascade of water falls upon them every year, in the form of rain about four months of the year (sparsely during the summer dry season), and snow the rest of the time, depending on the particular elevation. (Mt. Rainier, its peak of 14,410 feet being well above highest snow levels during the rain and snow season, gets as much as six hundred inches of snow each year). The water fuels lush growth along the ridgelines, slopes and valleys of the fifty-mile wide mountain range, running off into streams and small rivers, some of which head down the slopes right back into the Pacific through the Puget Sound; and some of which–the water falling on the east side of the Cascades– takes a circuitous route around Eastern Washington via the Columbia River and its feeder systems, finally reaching the ocean after traveling for hundreds of miles as the Washington-Oregon border. The Columbia River Bar, as the mouth of the Columbia River is known, is a place of tempestuous violence where rolling storms and surging tides often impede the river’s attempts to return the bounty it has received from the sea. But gravity always wins. The water always returns to the ocean from whence it came.
It was the afternoon of our second day in Seattle when the wife finally caught a glimpse of Mt. Rainier, which, along with its progeny and cohort mountains, volcanic and otherwise, is the immanent cause of everything, human or otherwise, that a visitor to the area might see or experience during their stay in the Pacific Northwest. Aboriginal islanders in Pacific atolls who worshiped volcanoes as gods perhaps didn’t know the intricacies of plate tectonics, but they knew—they somehow knew—that the forces which caused the volcanoes also caused everything they saw. They instinctively understood what it took skeptical Western scientists until this century to understand. Volcanoes, and the forces causing them, represent the closest facsimile to an omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent entity as anywhere can be found. Forces at work deep within the earth cause the continental and oceanic plates on the surface to grind against and overlap each other, which in turn causes the uplift of mountain ranges and the explosions of volcanoes, the most incredible force of nature visible to mankind’s unaided temporal perception. The aboriginals were right. Volcanoes really are gods, particularly ones like Father Rainier (as I like to call the highest peak in the lower 48), which seems always to be keeping careful watch over his creation—on a sunny day, the triangular, snow-covered peak is visible from all points along the Puget Sound and several miles inland.
If the essence of godliness is the power to create and destroy , the god of Abraham shares more attributes with volcanic peaks like Rainier than any devout monotheist would ever care to admit. There is no other god before Rainier for the Puget Sound area. Rainier created the topography of the area, breathing life into by raising its slopes to bring down the rain, and exuding its treasures to nourish the earth. It has impassively kept watch over the area as men built cities and highways in and on and around his creation. And if Rainier shall ever so desire, it can destroy all that man has made of the land around the Puget Sound. One good eruption proportionate to that of Mt. St. Helens (a much smaller dormant volcano before her eruption in 1980, is also a part of the Cascade range, situated close to the Oregon border), and the area would be all but inhabitable. So finally, on day two of my arrival, I got to see the god of my imagination once again, and my wife got to see it for the first time. She didn’t share the same reverence I have for the mountain, but then, she relates to the world through her relationships with people. I am quite the opposite. I mostly try to ignore the noise of people and society so I can clearly see and relate to the magnificent creation that is the universe and the world, and particularly in this instance, so that I might focus on the magnificence of Rainier and his unique creation. Seeing it again for what felt like the first time, as had always been the case when the mountain parted the cloudy shroud of the rainy season each summer to burst forth in awesome glory again, I was, as always, profoundly humbled. That sense of humility at the awesome power Rainier represents and reveals can’t be uniquely mine. And if it’s not, it has to have helped in shaping the unique human culture of the area over which Rainier rules. If my perceptions are true, and Seattleites are more egalitarian than people in other places, perhaps it is partly because they innately feel equally humbled before the power of the Cascades and the Olympics, and particularly of their mountain Zeus, Rainier.
to be continued…