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North By Pacific Northwest

March 16, 2010

On the way to the airport we discussed bad drivers and kids with allergies before I said goodbye and boarded a plane to Seattle. After wandering around the airport and being thwarted by a lack of signs I finally found the bus that would take me downtown. Half an hour later I emerged from University Station into the sunshine. I checked in at the hostel and wandered across the street to the Pike Street Market, a menagerie of gawking tourists, shoppers and people filming something. I then turned down 1st Avenue and wandered amongst bountiful bookstores, very cool and stylish people and ubiquitous cafes (Seattle holds the questionable distinction of inventing Starbucks). I stopped at one of the latter and had the best real coffee I’d had since being in America.

The change in climate was clearly having some effect on me, or the late nights of heavy drinking had finally caught up with me, or perhaps it was a combination of these and more, but as I sat sipping my latte I could feel my nose blocking up and coughed every now and then. That night after dinner I had a full blown cold so I sighed and trudged upstairs to bed.

In the morning I ate pancakes and stepped outside into the overcast day, setting my sights on the Seattle Center, home of the Space Needle. I wandered the former Expo grounds and glimpsing a landscape of mountains in the distance I aimed for that. A long walk along Denny Way proved fruitless, the view obscured by industrial warehouses and factories. As I was about to turn back disappointed I chanced upon a bridge that led to a bike and pedestrian path that ran along the waterfront, so I roamed with the cyclists, dog walkers and joggers in the sunshine that had broken through and admired the Olympic Mountains across the water.

I made my way back towards downtown by way of the Olympic Sculpture Park, home to a number of art installations and found myself back at the Pike Street Market. Being a Saturday the market was crowded as anything, so I pushed my way through to snap a photo of a hideous looking specimen known as a monkfish and browsed bookstores and vinyl shops. Down at the Waterfront I encountered only teen hoodlums and stoners and an aquarium that I wasn’t particularly interested in so I found a cafe and spent a good while people-watching and getting my caffeine fix.

The next day I set forth for Fremont, a hipster suburb north of Seattle. It hosts a number of pieces of interesting, if not bizarre, public art and so I made it my mission to see them. First however, I went to the Sunday market, which was still getting started so I moved on, deciding to return when it picked up. I also encountered my first piece, two topiary dinosaurs. A little up the street was the rocket, a precariously-placed Cold War missile on the top of a cafe. At the town square and self-proclaimed centre of the universe stood a statue of Lenin brought back from Slovakia after the fall. It is technically for sale, but no one has yet to buy it. I continued on to see the Fremont Troll, a sculpture nestled under a bridge, and returned to the market, which was by now buzzing. In an underground parking lot were more stalls, mostly selling what could only be described as junk: secondhand oddments like watch faces, war medals, typewriter keys, records, clothing and so on. Overhead the sky was getting ominous so I caught a bus back downtown.

Monday I had designated education day, so the first stop was the Klondike Gold Rush History Museum, detailing Seattle’s boom during the 1850s. I continued on to take a Seattle Underground tour, led by the wonderfully entertaining Dan. It provided a seedier look at Seattle’s history and took us underground (obviously) to Seattle’s original ground level, before a fire levelled the town and subsequent rebuilding lifted Seattle by a storey. Of note were the stories of the town’s first mayor, Arthur Denny. In his colourful career, he sued the city as mayor and settled out of court…with himself. He also established Seattle’s first lottery and then won Seattle’s first lottery. With the demographics of 1 woman to 10 men in the early days, Seattle was home to a number of “seamstresses” according to tax returns, yet in an audit taken at one stage, not a single sewing machine was found. The explanation? Work was done by hand!

Back at ground level, I wandered back to the hostel and signed up for a night out at a jazz club followed by a couple of bars. A duo of piano and drums kept the tunes rolling in joyous, syncopated fashion as we played musical chairs and got to know each other. We then moved on to something of a dive bar, hiding in a graffiti-covered alleyway en route to avoid a local weirdo. The final place was well-known for its hot dogs and ubiquitous pinball machines; I ate the former but didn’t play the latter. We returned home and I was somewhat reluctant to leave having just met a whole bunch of people who had decided to arrive in Seattle on my last night there.

In the morning I checked out and made my way through the drizzle-swept streets to the Greyhound terminal to await my bus to Portland. It soon arrived and a couple of hours later pulled into my destination. I disembarked and walked up Glisan St, went across the bridge over the freeway, apologised to a bum for not having a cigarette to spare and finally arrived at the hostel. I checked in and after some directions headed for 23rd Street, where numerous bars and restaurants were to be found. I settled on a Vietnamese place and had dinner before returning to the hostel and bed.

My first day in Portland was spent wandering the streets, and after a stop at Powell’s, the largest independent bookstore in the USA (and possibly the world), sitting in cafes reading and people watching in between lattes. With the sun out the next day I went on a long walk around the city, gazing over the Willamette River across to downtown, up through the small and disappointing Chinatown, and generally enjoying myself. Finally, not one to shy from a drink, I found myself at Rogue Brewpub with the promise of a distillery tour. The “tour” consisted of walking up a flight of stairs to see where the rum was made; it was a new addition to the beer and a one man operation, so the tour lasted all of 10 minutes. Back downstairs I got talking to a girl called Colleen from Seattle over a sample tray of 5 brews, and our conversation spilled out into the street and into the next brewery, BridgePort, where we sampled another 6 beers. Colleen’s notebook was soon filled with our analysis and ratings; in the spirit of being critics (and slightly inebriated) nothing scored higher than a 6.8.

In the morning, my bags packed, my cold dissipated and the iPod pumping out the last of my grunge collection, I boarded the bus and headed south to San Francisco.

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