No. No, mother. Washington State. Not Washington D.C. that's on completely the wrong coast. What do you think we are? Crazy? It'll take two weeks to get even one way to the Eastern Seaboard... Y-yes... it's in the extreme north-west, north of Oregon. Yes, as in the Oregon Trail, that's right, you've heard of that at least. Yes I know it's confusing, but George Washington is very important to the American's - he did after all kick our limey asses out of their oversized country, so they've named quite a few things after him as a gesture of appreciation. In this case it was a brand new state, born out of a once larger Oregon State, ironically - Hmm? No the president doesn't live there, no, that's Washington D.C., different coast. No - oh forget it...
On a grey Saturday morning, we crossed the mighty Columbia River just north of Portland, and into Washington State. We had taken a bit of a scenic route from the motel, through Portland's fine city centre, and up through miles upon miles of old and decaying docks and terminal buildings that ran along the Willamette and Columbia rivers, clear evidence of the enormous volume of goods that passed through the city in bygone days. And then it was into Washington over one of those heavy iron bridges the Americans so love (concrete is definitely more in vogue for bridge design in the UK... if in doubt just consult the latest copy of Concrete and Bridge Technology Weekly, only £1.95 - free binder with part one, a Marshal Cavendish publication).
Crossing the river, the rain turned from a light drizzle into proper downpour, which made for a pleasant experience driving up the three-lane and very busy section of Interstate 5. Even through the mist of the rain, however, the beauty of the Evergreen State's landscape was quite evident. Pine, spruce and the occasional hardwood, vied with the greenest of fields in a remarkably lush land, an understandable, if only, spin off of living in the wettest state of the U.S.
The distance between Portland and Seattle is only about 200 miles, so it was shortly after lunch that we started moving through the built up conurbation around the north-west's largest city. On the left rose a surprising collection of skyscrapers, perched on a number of hill rising out of the Puget Sound. This was Tacoma, the largest of the satellite cities and towns that encircled Seattle, and its setting made it look like a pretty cool place, not so much to visit, but maybe to live in. I'd end up saying that about a lot of the places we saw in the next day or two. Nothing expressely for the tourist like in San Fran., but eminently suitable and pleasant places to live in. Indeed Seattle is described in guides as one of the most liveable cities in the US, as I was soon to agree on.
On the south side of Seattle proper, lay Boeing Field. This is an entire district of the city given over to production of the world largest producer of aircraft. Here was built the 747 Jumbo, and it's kind of understandable, I suppose, that you'd need forty blocks of a city to build something that big. I was a bit of planes geek as a kid, and studied Aeronautical Engineering at university, so this place was a bit a mecca, in a way. Only it's not really particularly impressive - just a bunch of endless low-rise factory blocks. Boeing's Museum of Flight, built next to the Boeing runway that saw the inaugural test flights of the jumbo and others (and which is also an operational municipal airport) is worth a visit on a wet and windy Saturday though. They have one of the old Air-Force-One presidential jets on display (I was gutted to learn there was about six of them - that's not very "One" is it?), and some impressive military aircraft (including a SR71 Mach 3 "Blackbird"), although I confess, was somewhat disappointed. The RAF museum at Hendon in North London is better.
The highlight, however, was catching a live, fully fledged Mullet on camera. For those not of the cognoscenti, a mullet is a haircut in which the full length of hair is allowed to grow at the back, whilst the sides and front are shorn relatively short. The overall effect is somewhat ridiculous. Anyway, the preponderance of mullets in the US was a never-ending source of alternate upset and hilarity for Tim and I. Okay, we have unfortunate souls in the UK who opt for the mullet way of life. But not quite so many as in the US. Our conclusion was also that most of this mullet wielding community were the owners of most of the pick-up truck market in the US also. Mullets = Pick-ups, was the conclusion. Anyway, I rant. The long and short of it (ha-ha! long and sh... oh never mind), was that a beautiful permed mullet had been sighted in the vicinity of an old Dakota DC-3, and that photographic evidence was required. So I spent the next five minutes stalking this increasingly nervous specimen out for an unsuspecting quiet day of plane-spotting with his hen. The last thing on the guy's mind was being captured on celluloid and ultimately encoded into published hexadecimal for all the world to admire/laugh-over. Once or twice he turned around and saw me, my camera up to my eye, and I would quickly turn at that moment as if I was trying to get a snap of the Dakota, and not him of course. Well eventually I got him, and I'll be sending the proud snap to mulletsgalore.com.
Into The Grunge
The rain cleared as we left the Boeing museum, in search of a motel. This was not too easy, finding a cheap one, that is. Seattle is an expensive city. And like all the main centres on the West Coast, property prices have been skyrocketing. And so there was not a beloved Motel 6 within 15 miles of the city centre. In the end, we settled for La Hacienda, about three miles south of the cluster of skyscrapers that clearly marked the centre of town. I thought it was pretty ironic that we were staying in such a named place, as, like Portland, there isn't anywhere so un-Spanish as the North-West. Still, it was pretty pricey, and the part of town we were staying in was far from salubrious. Still, we had sixty channels of cable, so why complain?
We made our way into town in late afternoon, just as the sun came out. As soon as we entered from the south, past the famous old Kingdome stadium (now demolished only just the weekend after we were there!), I found that I wasn't to be disappointed. Seattle had been hyped by the guides, and by everyone I know who'd been there, so expectations were high. I loved the place. We drove up Third St., a tree lined boulevard of elegant Victorian city building, cafes and arty shops. I was quite surprised, I was expecting something much more modern, and yet what I saw was something more akin to East Coast cities like New York. As we walked toward the main shopping and business area, however, the buildings grew taller and more modern, and yet even these had style and the place seemed imbued with a sense of prosperity, with expensive looking boutiques and shiny, well-appointed department stores and shopping precincts. It wasn't quite all glitz, however. There were a surprising number of beggars, particularly around the more grungy market down by the wharves. Now I thought, while freezing my nuts off in a howling cold wind blowing straight off the Puget Sound, that if I was a beggar, perhaps the last place I'd spend on the streets would be a wet, windy and chilly place like Seattle. Perhaps I'm missing something, but wouldn't hitching a ride to L.A. or Miami somehow seem like a better proposition?
We wandered around the city centre for a while, soaking up the atmosphere of a busy Saturday afternoon, before deciding we really needed to find an internet cafe. We were directed by a Starbucks Drone toward Capitol Hill, about half-a-mile upslope from the centre, and so headed up that way, crossing the ubiquitous Interstate 5 running once again through the heart of another west-coast city, and into a pleasant suburb of slightly-grungy-but-inkling-toward-intelligensia shops and cafes, one of which had internet access. There we read and replied to all the e-mails that had piled up over the last week, whilst enjoying a particularly fine latté. Of course, the quality of the coffee was to be expected. Seattle is coffee town. Starbucks, which originated here, is now a world-wide cancer, err... I mean, name, and everywhere you look, there's a coffee house, and as the competition amongst the fussy and discerning Seattlites is high, the quality is famously good. Hey, we might complain that Starbucks is heading for world domination (like two other very famous Seattle based corporations, one we've mention, and one we're about to...), but at least the coffee's always good there. But why coffee and Seattle? The weather, I reckon. The Russian's might have their Vodka, but to me, nothing beats a hot latté when you come in from the cold and rain. And in Seattle, they've plenty of that.
Better was to come. We made our way back down the hill, through town, and now feeling more than peckish. We hunted around for some places to eat, but were in one of those moods where neither of us could agree on what we fancied. It was perhaps made worse by the excellent choice of posh and not so posh eateries vying for our stomachs. In the end, in frustration, I'd spotted a basement place that looked intriguing, and took a punt. I was going in, whether Tim liked it or not. He could join me and eat, or stay out there and starve. He soon followed, and the punt paid off handsomely. La Buca (at 102 Cherry Street) summed up Seattle for me. It was sophisticated, yet informal, relaxed. After too many Wendy's and Denny's on the road, we decided our palates demanded subtlely and so we splashed out. The food was superb - we both went for fish of course, it being the North-West. And the service was friendly but professional, the atmosphere welcoming and warm. It was the best meal of the trip. If ever you're in Seattle, go to La Buca. That's an order soldier!
Next day we would visit the apex of our trip. The most northerly point for us, and the North-West's most famous landmark, The Space Needle. Built for the World Expo in 1962 (and doesn't it look it!), it was for many years the tallest structure west of the Mississippi, but is now beaten by many of the skyscrapers that lie in the central district just to the south. We took the monorail from the centre out to the rather tacky amusement park that surrounds the needle and was once a part of the old Expo grounds. Soon, however, we were powering up one of the three elevators, and emerged into the tacky gifte-shoppe-cum-non-descript-restaurant that is the hallmark of tourist traps the world over. The view beckoned us outside - into the ball-breaking westerlies straight off the Pacific, and undiminished 600 feet up. Despite the overcast, the view was top-rate. To the east lay Lake Washington, and beyond that the enormous houses of Redmond and Bellevuew. Just to the south lay the skyscrapers of the city centre. To the west was the expanse of water that is Puget Sound, and beyond that, hidden in clouds, the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula, and to the north, the city blocks expanded up the isthmus between the lake and the sound, into varied and interesting suburbs and neighbourhoods. The only disappointment was the extinct volcano of Mount Rainier which, had it been a clear day, would have risen majestically to over 14,000 feet in the distance behind the skyscrapers. So advice is, once again, save this visit for the summer.
Descending the needle and heading back into town, we visited the grungy market down toward the wharves. An unusual construction, you entered the market from the city centre side at street level, but then you could sink down through another two floors before emerging down at the wharfside. It was exceedingly cosy, and being built, seemingly, all out of wood, it was more like walking around an old sailing ship at times. Still there was plenty of fresh fish and seafood on offer, as well as other produce, and lots of those crafty like shops for the purple-haze lot. We lunched in a no-nonsense seafood eatery in the midst of what could have been the poop deck, before walking along the waterfront for a bit, and then headed back to the car.
We were ready to leave, to begin the long, long journey back to L.A. which felt like a world away. But we had one more mission to attempt first, one last spot of business. Find Bill...
Bill who? Well Seattle, as I've mentioned is home to three megalomanic world-domination enterprises. Two, Boeing and Starbucks, has already been mentioned. Which leaves, of course, the producer of the very bits of software that have made production of this website that much easier. It is, of course, one of the biggest corporations in the world. Microsoft is somewhere in Redmond, just over Lake Washington from Seattle proper. So we headed across the lake on one of the "floating bridges", and into a land of enormous houses set in idyllic pine woodland. We toured around here for a while in this green and pleasant land of the Microsoft Millionaires, but the amazing thing was, we didn't find a trace of the huge corporate campus, or any indication as to where Bill Gates was, who at that time, was probably hacking at the software controls of one of the million or so gadgets and climate or lighting control systems that pepper his multi-trillion dollar lakeside home. But we weren't fussed. Just catching a slice of the idyllic life in the wooded hills on the fringe of World Domination Corp City was enough. It was time to head back, via the Pacific Coast...