Monthly Archives: August 2009

Looking down for miles through high still air

Last week, my college room mate moved into my living room.

I live in a small, overpriced Seattle apartment with inadequate closet space, so we’re being a bit adventurous here. Hopefully we won’t kill each other before she finds a permanent living situation.

We’ve been doing all sorts of best friend things since she got here after driving across the country with her sister. Happy hour, ice cream, cooking, shopping…it all makes me miss college, except for that whole 10-page-paper-due-on-Monday thing.P1010282

Fire lookouts have fascinated me since high school, back when I read entirely too much obscure Jack Kerouac literature. Back then, I used to think spending an entire season in a spartan cabin on top of a mountain with no human contact for months seemed like a fine idea. I’ve since developed more refined ideas on vacation, but visiting one of Washington’s fire lookouts on a day hike seemed doable. I haven’t read the Beats in years, but their poems and musings, especially about wild America, stuck with me. So it worked out great that our hike on Saturday was to a fire lookout on top of Mt. Pilchuck in the Cascades.

Turns out this was a pretty tough hike, accessible some 7 miles down a primitive forest service road–oops. The guidebook failed to mention that part.

P1010284It also failed to mention the enormous boulders we’d have to scale to get to the ladder that led to the fire lookout. It was crowded, which is what happens on hikes less than 2 hours from Seattle on sunny weekend days, and meant that we had to perch uncomfortably on the lower rocks while those above us descended. Some people had their dogs with them, which is ridiculous because dogs can do a lot of things but they aren’t great at scrambling over boulders.

The view from the top was amazing. Fog and clouds obscured some of the peaks, but mostly we had a 360-degree view of the Cascades, the Olympics, Mt. Rainier, the valley below, and Puget Sound.

Here is a poem written at a fire lookout by one of my favorite poets, Gary Snyder.

Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout

Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.

-Gary Snyder


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Notes on the 4th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

Next Saturday marks the 4 years since Hurricane Katrina came and messed everything up. Check out my thoughts, published at The Traveler’s Notebook.

And I’ve also published a more newsy piece today on Matador Pulse about if and how to balance the growing number of visitors to the national parks with their protection and preservation. Check it out here.

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Notes on taking the 17 at 9:01

Today, I was late.

Today, I was late and that meant I had to catch the 9:01 with the annoying driver who is like her own version of Google Maps. She tells you what the next stop is (unfailingly. every stop.) and what buses you can connect to and where those buses go and what points of interest are within a six bock radius. The entire bus ride is a constant stream of her chatter, except that she says it in such a low voice that it seems like it’s only because she likes to hear herself talk. Either that or she’ll talk at the person in the front next to the door whether or not that person is even capable of speaking back.

This whole experience is particularly irritating because at this point in the morning all I really want to do is preserve a few moments of precious alone time with my book before I’m catapulted into the world of office and work and adult life. She also has this weird pause before announcing the next stop that is particularly grating. “And the next stop is….,” she’ll pause for too long and then by the time she says everything she feels she needs to say, it’s too late for anyone who might find this information at all useful to actually STOP.

It’s summer in Seattle and so downtown is a cacophony of construction so when we hit that her words are broke up by jackhammers and bulldozers and such. “And the next–third and–connect to the seven–and Jackson–to go–also the King County–office…” It’s probably not a huge deal to anyone else but it irks me so much that I’m already in a bad mood. And no one should be in a bad mood at 9:40 a.m. before the day has really even started.


I did things entirely backwards this weekend and went hiking in the fog on Saturday and spent Sunday afternoon rummaging through the shelves at Elliott Bay Bookstore while it was sunny out. They have a charming cafe in the basement which, sadly,  I did not visit because they don’t allow you to bring unpurchased books down there. I thought you maybe could sneak by, but there’s an unpurchased book detector thinger that probably sounds an alarm if you try to pass. It’s kind of lame, but it also means you don’t have to check your bag at the counter when you walk in, so I think I’ll take the trade off.

I ended up buying Julie and Julia, because the movie looks amusing and I’m on this experiment-for-a-year-and-write-about-it thing. That’s what I’m attempting to do, after all, so it’s interesting to see how other people go about it. I’m not enjoying the book very much so far, but that’s probably premature because I read only the first two pages on my 40-minute commute due to the aforementioned bus driver. I wanted to buy Zeitoun, a new release by Dave Eggers about a family during Hurricane Katrina, since I’m writing about that, too, but it’s only in hardcover right now and who can afford hardcovers right now, really? Not me.

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Sandwich environmentalism

HomegrownMore and more I’m finding restaurants in Seattle with menus featuring local food–mostly produce and meat. It makes me feel a whole lot better about going out to eat when I know my food wasn’t trucked across the country or even flown around the world.

Seattle’s Homegrown restaurant is in my neighborhood, so it’s been great walking to eat amazing sandwiches that use mostly local and organic bread, cheese, meat and veggies. They even serve local beer!

Homegrown touts their “theory” on their big chalkboard menu, saying they go hale's alesbeyond just local food in the effort to fight the good fight against climate change and The End of the World as We Know It.  They don’t sell bottled water and the napkins, plastic cutlery, etc.  are recyclable or compostable. Their menu changes occasionally to reflect seasonal changes, so that makes the whole thing even more exciting. Homegrown calls this beautiful synthesis of all things delicious and wholesome “sandwich environmentalism.”

There are all these little moments that take place when you ride your bike everywhere–moments you’d miss out on when you’re in a car, probably. Life moves at a slower pace (unless you’re one of those nut cases who thinks every bike ride is the Tour de France). Last week I caught this moment from Gas Works Park–a regatta on Lake Union at sunset. I’m not sure I would have noticed had I been zooming by in a car.

lake union at sunset

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Of beer and bikes

I feel like a lot of my time in Seattle has been spent waiting for the sun to come out. Maybe I’ve finally adjusted, or maybe after months of sunshine I don’t mind a few days of gray. This weekend, for whatever reason, had all the cheer and energy of a Seattle summer–without the sunshine.

Compostable cups!

Compostable cups! (Look: free product placement!)

I spent all day Saturday at New Belgium Brewery’s Tour de Fat, a bike festival held in a handful of western cities in the summer. (It’s highlighted in my article 8 Quirky Bike Events.) Lucky for me, it was held at Gas Works Park, a short distance from my apartment. It’s famous (well, locally anyway) for a few things: it was the setting for the paintball scene in 10 Things I Hate About You, it’s a great place to fly a kite and has been called the strangest park in Seattle because it still has the skeleton of the coal gasification plant that once operated there. Tar still leaks from the soil on occasion, but apparently it’s a safe place to be…although someone once told me never to eat anything dropped in the grass if I ever picnicked at Gas Works. Yikes.

Not my bike, but: A bike leans against the coal plant at Gas Works Park during Tour de Fat.

Not my bike, but: A bike leans against the coal plant at Gas Works Park during Tour de Fat.

But no matter; it’s still a great place to go, and it worked well for Tour de Fat. The event started with a (super slow) bike parade, in which some 200 people–some in costume–rode down the bike path led by a man whose bike trailed a large speaker system. There was a designated area for riding Articycles (bizarre bikes that really aren’t very rideable or practical, but they’re still cool enough to want to try out) and plenty of music and entertainment. There was, of course, a beer garden. Yum, Fat Tire. Later, someone gave up his car for a year in exchange for a bike, which was lowered from the stage after a car funeral, New Orleans jazz-style. It was all very strange and entertaining, which you’d expect if you know New Belgium. They have a super fast twirly slide in their brewery so the office workers can zip on down to the taps, and they give vintage-style cruisers to employees who’ve worked there for a year. Plus, they use wind power and lots of other environmentally-friendly brewing practices. I usually try to drink locally, but I make an exception for New Belgium every now and then–I like their business model and their tag line “Follow your folly” resonates.

The farmer’s market is crazy this time of year. Everyone’s gone nuts with the arrival of a slew of colorful produce. I came home with corn, beets, parsley, cherries, zucchini, onions and artichokes this week. In Ballard, the mood is always festive as well as a bit frenzied: musicians, kids, dogs… It used to work that if I got there right when it opened at 10, I could avoid the crowds. Not so anymore. Just have to elbow your way through to get what you want, but at least everyone’s pretty good-natured about the whole thing. I usually feel a bit harried myself on these summer weekends as I try to preserve what’s left of my time here. Lucky for me–as the emcee at Tour de Fat emphasized–everything moves more slowly on a bicycle.

Great spread at the market this weekend

Great spread at the market this weekend

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Book excerpt posted on Matador

I worked an excerpt from my book into a piece for Matador’s travel writing blog The Traveler’s Notebook. You can read it here.

Gold 5 in front of a building we gutted in Cameron, LA.

Gold 5 in front of a building we gutted in Cameron, LA.

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8 Great U.S. Bookstores

Local, independent bookstores are a must-see destination for any of my trips. I love ducking into a cozy store, browsing next to locals, finding a great deal on a book I’d never seen before, reading staff recommendations and treating myself to a warm drink at the café. It’s a relaxing way to pass an afternoon—or maybe just a spare hour—and it makes me feel all sophisticated and literary. Plus, the local color is usually walking around in full force. Huge or historic (or both), these 8 U.S. bookstores are worth a browse. Click here to read the story on Matador Life.

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