Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Nice Place to Live, But I Wouldn't Want to Visit There

After a day off from touristic pursuits (to do laundry, shop and watch a soccer match on TV), we took a day trip up to Vancouver, British Columbia. We drove inland to the border crossing north of Lynden, Washington (where there was no delay to get across) and went by the set of the current television show "Bates Motel," which airs on some cable channel. (We had thought it was the set of the movie Psycho when we planned the excursion, not having carefully read the place description on line.) Then we headed into the city.

Let me pause here for a brief product review. Our anemic rented Nissan Rogue comes with a GPS Navigation system proprietary to Hertz Car Rental. I would not have thought it possible that I could be persuaded that the ancient first-gen navigator on my own convertible was anything but the most annoying and tedious piece of vintage technology. Now I know better. Hertz's "NeverLost" machine, like my ancient navigator, seems not to know about many roads built in the last 15 years. My machine has the excuse that its information comes to it on old DVDs; but Hertz's is constantly updated. (We know this because every now and then it would announce that it has been updated.) 

Hertz's NeverLost device is slow to respond to input on its touchscreen. You put in a letter (having to spell everything) and it registers, but you don't know that it registers so you put it in again, and then it responds. Twice. So you have to back up. That usually involves starting over. Sometimes you touch one character and it registers a different one; and you have to back up. Or start over. And even more irritating is that the device will not allow you to orient the map with north at the top (unless you zoom out so far as to make the map pointless); it insists on having the direction of travel at the top, so the map is always rotating and you can't tell at a glance if you're going the way you want (and many times, you aren't). Most irritating of all is that the machine won't simply show you a map of where you are; it will only show programmed routes. Given the slowness of the machine, and its failure to deal well with missed turns and changed plans, it is all but useless in tight city driving; of which there is plenty in a place like Vancouver. 


(I also get irked at the crass commerciality of the system. It takes a long time to come on every time you start the car, at least in part so that it can give you options of finding "Popular Chains" -- outlets for companies that have paid Hertz for advertising; and its "Explore" option lists only the few half-assed tourist destinations that, similarly, have paid for the privilege of being represented. If Hertz had its customers' interests anywhere in the forward part of its collective corporate mind, it would at least show the destinations clients might actually want to explore ... like Stanley Park or the Queen Elizabeth Gardens. But there's no direct money in customer satifaction, is there?)

Vancouver skyline
After a long (and unnecessary) wander through city streets (thanks to the NeverLost Navigator's inexplicable routings), we finally gave up on technology and just went to the freeway into Vancouver. Our first stop was Queen Elizabeth Gardens, which occupy the highest point in Vancouver and have both beautiful landscaping and excellent views over the city. We spent the better part of an hour up there, then drove into the heart of the city. (Using printed maps for navigation, we got where we wanted to go with only the normal traffic troubles.) By this time we all wanted lunch, so we parked on a sidestreet near a corner where we were offered the choices of Greek, Thai, Vietnamese and Irish-Pub cuisines. We did not choose wisely. The first three were all storefronts, mom-and-pop places; the Irish Pub, Cieli's, was large and a little upscale, just to the point of being flashy. We chose the Irish Pub, part (it turns out) of a chain of such places.

The bartender greeted us cheerfully, and then was never seen again. It being another gorgeous day, we wanted to sit outside, but they only had two-tops there, so we pulled up to a high table just inside the wide open doors. Naturally there were televisions all over the place, so we couldn't entirely avoid watching; but at least they were showing British sports, such as you might have to see in an Irish prison: darts on one screen, golf on the other. (Darts, it seems, is as abstruse as cricket. Scores seem to go up and down at random, and we couldn't tell just by watching whether a throw was good, or otherwise.) Our waitress brought menus and drinks quickly. So far, so good.

The menu includes such overpriced traditional Irish fare as sliders, flatbreads and nachos. These are the things we ordered. (As Hispanics have moved farther and farther north, I have more or less rescinded my rule against eating Mexican food north of Round Rock, but then, this wasn't really Mexican food. Let's call it cucina-inspired.) Church Lady and the Perfesser both went for the pulled-pork sliders. They report that the little burgers had good flavour but not a particularly good texture, neither moist nor dry, just vaguely unsatisfying: too little meat, too little slaw, too much bread.  "Disappointing" was the word used twice.

Buttermilk's flatbread was better. It had a topping of pulled pork with pineapple salsa and jalapeños on a crispy layer of bread. The topping was adequate in quantity, though more meat would have been unobjectionable, and the crust maintained its integrity throughout the meal.

My nachos were interesting. They were made from a number of small tortillas, cut in half and fried, then stacked in a jumble on a plate. Toppings of meat (pulled pork again), corn, onions, peppers and jalapeños were scattered across it, then dosed with a drizzle of sour cream. The menu referred to "lots of cheese" on the dish. There was, arguably, the promised amount of cheese, but it was mostly in one part of the plate, as though the arm doing the scattering of ingredients had tired towards the end and just abandoned the effort. Because of the interlacing of the nacho chips, the dish was a little hard to eat, but that produced the rare yet desireable result of allowing me to finish lunch after the Perfesser, who is reknowned for his deliberate approach to meals.

What does that mean?
We almost didn't learn any of this about the food at Cielli's, because the service was so very bad. (I was reminded of a rude comment of a friend, years ago in Mexico, who told a waiter that we had received lo mas pinche servicio. It would have applied here, but we were all too polite to express ourselves except through the gratuity. We did not get our food before we had reached the point of calculating how much we should leave for the drinks if we walked out. It was easily a half hour between ordering and serving, during which time we learned nothing about darts scoring either. It would have helped our mood, to say nothing of the tip, if our waitress had come by to check on us during that long wait, or to let us know there would be a delay. Instead, she studiously avoided so much as looking in our direction; she devoted herself to the farther sides of the room, the exterior tables, and the areas behind the kitchen door. She was not a good waitress.
Ceili's Modern Irish Pub on Urbanspoon

pretty building, not much inside
After lunch came another disappointment: we went to the MacMillan Space Center. At ten bucks a head (the senior rate) for the admission, plus $5.75 a head for the planetarium show, we were expecting significantly more. But then, we're all grown-ups, and this place is clearly aimed at ten-year-olds with a reasonable vocabulary; a fact we think should have been mentioned in the descriptions on line and in our guidebooks. The exhibit halls, which are not extensive, contain some photographs and video recordings relating to space flight, along with a number of hands-on exhibits that have suffered much from having too many hands on. 

The planetarium show was just okay. The people behind it seem to be too enthralled with their new equipment to consider in any depth what people, especially grown people such as their audience, might like to see; and the gradeschool questions thrown out for the audience ("What do you know about Mars?") were tired and uninteresting, as well as being largely ignored by the sparse crowd. (I finally started responding just to get the show moving.) 

We went from there out to Stanley Park. Let me tell you, Vancouver is not a city with a happy relationship with cars. At 3:00 on a weekday, you expect a certain amount of traffic in the center of any large city, but Vancouver has given itself over entirely to pedestrians and bicycles, to the point where lines of cars waiting to turn right -- right, mind you -- stretch back for blocks, because only one car can get through the throng of the crosswalks on each signal's cycle. They seem also to randomly select streets to serve as pedestrian malls. In the end it took us about 45 minutes to go the 4 1/2 kilometers (2 1/2 miles) from the space place to Stanley Park. 


Stanley Park is huge, and popular with locals. For tourists, it's not so great. It's so big that you can't walk from one part to another without repeatedly paying the typical exorbitant parking rates. It's so poorly marked that we didn't find the many sites we had wanted to see there, settling in the end for the wildlife of the Lost Lagoon (which we found right off; I guess it's only lost because nobody's looking for it, and I understand why), consisting of lots of racoons and ducks, a few other birds, a squirrel and -- surprisingly -- a coyote; all of whom seemed to want to be fed (except, thankfully, the coyote, which was happy to just chew on himself); and the waterfront view of the Lions Gate Bridge, mainly of interest for the forest of kelp floating along the shore. On our way out of the park, we passed Sunset Beach, which we had intended to visit later on because our guidebook called it "a less populated beach." That must mean it is less crowded than Times Square on New Year's Eve, because it was packed four hours before sunset. We quietly dropped that plan and headed on to Canada Place, which was mildly interesting and slightly informative with its postings on Canadian history; and we drove by the Gastown Steam Clock --- it was too congested to stop, but we got a good long look and a decent picture out the car window while waiting for crosstraffic; we had a stop sign, they didn't.

From there we headed up to Lynn Canyon, a public park on the far side of the Burrard Inlet, in North Vancouver. We spent a happy couple of hours traipsing up and down the trails and across the suspension bridge rigged over the creek.

By then it was time for dinner. I had located -- on Roadtrippers.com, a trip-planning website that I heartily recommend -- a strip of local shops, clubs and restaurants on Commercial Drive, and we headed down there, parked, and explored the area on foot. It is, as described, a collection of funky bars and clubs, many with live music; ethnic restaurants; and shops featuring all manner of oddities. As the neighbourhood evolved from Italian to ethno-mix, big chains have made some unwelcome inroads; there's a Starbucks and a Tim Horton's, and more necessary installations like banks and pharmacies. But it still maintains a unique localist vibe that we enjoyed experiencing, even so briefly. We chose an Italian restaurant called Arriva, which had a sort of faded-glory feel overall. The service was on the Little-Italy-New-Yawk model: cadre-style, professional and just a little sassy. It was good for the most part, but one of the three servers seemed to have acquired the knack of appearing to give good service while not actually doing anything. When we asked for another basket of bread his response was, "Absolutely, but it'll be just a moment." It never came, until we asked another server for the same thing. (His response was, "Absolutely. Immediately." And he brought it.) The food came quickly enough to please us (especially after the godawful service we'd had at lunch; see above) and we tucked into spinach tortellini, sole florentine, and ravioli. 

What does that mean?
I didn't try the ravioli, so I can only say that it reportedly was very good. I did try the tortellini alla panna and can confirm that it was excellently made, robust and excellently seasoned with a rich cream sauce. I had the sole florentine, one of the day's specials: a filet of sole cooked in white wine until just the slightest crispiness began to form along the edge, then topped with spinach wilted with sautéed garlic in a white wine reduction. It was nicely presented with roasted potato quarters and crunchy-crisp sautéed vegetables. A glass of house white wine was an excellent accompaniment. Really, the only thing about the food that was the least bit below standard was that bread, a reasonably fresh focaccia with a lightly oiled texture on top but just the slightest dryness overall. Hardly worth mentioning, but I can't resist grousing about something. Not entirely.
Arriva Ristorante Italiano on Urbanspoon

What's that mean?
We followed this up with a stop for gelati at Caffe Calabria, which calls itself the oldest Italian cafe in Vancouver. Who knows? Who cares. What I know is it has a tremendous display of Italian deli items, gelati, and baked goods. Oh, the baked goods! How hard was it to resist those! But I did, and settled for a double-scoop of the gelato tornado, which the counter clerk thought of as being like cotton candy. Other than being very sweet, it was nothing like cotton candy. It was indescribable. It was fabulous. It was rich, and luscious; it was the Jennifer Lawrence of gelato. (The Tiger Tiger, an orange and licorice flavour, was also very good, and that from someone who doesn't like licorice.) The gelati at Caffe Calabria have the additional distinction of being just about the only thing we found in all of Vancouver that we didn't consider overpriced.
Caffe Calabria on Urbanspoon

In the end, our day in Vancouver was nice, putting aside the delay getting back across the border at Blaine. But the high prices, the heavy traffic congestion, the difficulty in getting around in the central part of town make me confident that I'm unlikely to ever return. The border-crossing issues all but ensures that.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Two Days

There is a yarn store half a mile up the road from where we're staying in Birch Bay. This became important and required a visit of some protraction on Sunday morning, as soon as it opened. The Perfessor took the opportunity to acquire a novel from a local writer who was sitting under an awning at the Birch Bay Public Market nearby; the novel turns out to be a good story badly told, but he's going to read it if it kills him.

Following that utter waste of valuable time, we drove down to Ferndale, a small town between Birch Bay and Bellingham, where there is a bowling alley. (Not for nothing are we the Once-a-Year Bowling League.) But before we embarrassed ourselves on the lanes, we checked out Pioneer Park, a collection of 19th Century log buildings from around the area brought together as a sort of tribute to local history. And indeed our visit turned out to coincide with the biggest event Ferndale has to offer, Old Settlers' Weekend. The park was crowded with visitors ... well, okay, not crowded, but decently attended. The usual vendors were out in force, offering trinkets and craftwork and the sorts of odd products one normally will see only on late-night cable TV; also there were those who would persuade others of the rightness, if not righteousness, of their cause. Republicans were registering voters and some pipeline promoter was there to prove how valuable its own particular version of environmental disturbance was. And, of course, there were the food vendors, and in addition to the usual carnival-grounds choices, there was a booth set up by a group of young Ukrainian and Russian immigrants and descendants to sell foods from those lands. I tried the dumplings (I forget the Russian name; variniki, perhaps), which contained potatoes and onions wrapped inside (they called the wrapper a tortilla, but it clearly wasn't; I guess that's proof that the word "tortilla" is now fully English) and crumbled bacon and sour cream on top. Dee-licious!

I spent half an hour on a front porch talking to an interesting Marine veteran from Massachusetts who gives the impression of being somewhat addled, though that could be the effect of long years spent in Alaska.  After that, we had lunch at Bob's Burgers & Brew, the local outlet of a regional chain. Way too much food, good service. It was also right by the bowling alley, where we all did so abysmally that I shan't report the results in detail here. Suffice it to say, we all need practice.

We went from there to Honaker Homestead Park, which features two attractions: a fragrance garden and a farmstead. The fragrance garden is a small plot of ground planted with aromatic herbs and flowering plants. It includes Tennant Lake and has a 40' tower for wildlife viewing. I didn't see any wildlife, but got nice pictures of Mount Baker.
The fragrance garden

The farmstead is the legacy of the Honaker family, of Swedish origin. The patriarch was an accomplished architect back in the Old Country, but apparently not happy. He upped-sticks and moved to New Zealand, then to California, before landing in this remote corner of Washington around the turn of the 20th Century. Having designed his own farm buildings, they are somewhat nicer than your run-of-the-mill farmhouse and barn. The barn (and a sort of farmyard petting zoo) were open, but they didn't have enough volunteers on hand to open the house.
The Honaker barn. It's full of old farm
equipment, but a little short on
explanations.
Following all that excitement, we retired to our condo for crispy beef with noodles and broccoli and, of course, margaritas. Everything's better with margaritas.

Monday was our day to explore the North Cascades. First stop was for Second Breakfast at Lafeen's
Where doughnuts come from
Donut and Ice Cream shop, where we had perhaps the best doughnuts In The Entire World. Thus fortified, we embarked on our trek. Our plan was to visit Raser State Park, for eagle viewing, then stop at a number of sites in and around the complex of recreation areas and parklands that make up North Cascades National Park. But en route, we decided to go in reverse, and so drove all the way out to Washington Pass, some 150 miles east, and make our way back along the Cascade Highway. It was a good choice.

Washington Pass offers excellent views of some stunning mountain scenery, with the added attraction of birds. Loud birds. Bold birds. One sat on a tree branch not six feet in front of the Church Lady long enough for her to get a really clear photograph. While she stared at it, another bird flew down and hovered behind her. A shame we didn't get a picture of that.

Our next stop was at an overlook from which you can see in the distance the mountain where Jack Kerouac and his friends served as fire-watchers in the 1940s. Then it was on to Diablo Lake, one of a series of reservoirs formed when Seattle City Power dammed the Skagit River (pronounced Ska'jit) in the 1930s. The lakes are fed by glacial melt and maintain a startling turquoise colour, a fact I remembered clearly from my one previous trip down this highway four years ago. 

Gorge Creek Falls

Ladder Creek Falls
Just below Diablo Lake is Gorge Lake, and the stream that flows out from there, Gorge Creek, drops in a falls right next to the highway. A similar falls come down a few miles farther on, behind the Gorge Lake Power Plant, at Ladder Creek. Both of these falls are gorgeous.


By this time it was growing dark, so after a brief stop to see an elk herd grazing in the near distance, and a quick swing through Rasar State Park to determine that it wasn't really worth a stop, we headed home (with a stop for a relaxed dinner at The Farmhouse in Mount Vernon, a sort of less-rustic Cracker Barrel). Just another enjoyable day.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Busy, Busy




On Friday, we crossed on the ferry from Swartz Bay, north of Victoria, to Tsawwassen, south of Vancouver, and drove down to our condo in Birch Bay, Washington -- enduring a long wait because of the ludicrous and specious security procedures at the border; procedures which Canada has apparently copied in retaliation, judging from the line waiting on the northbound lanes.

The condo is a nondescript little complex on the one road in the area; tiny seaside cabins across the street in front, a creek behind. Nice enough inside, and with all the necessary accoutrements: utensils, cooking gear, fireplace & television. We spent some time settling in, then headed up to the grocery store -- and, more importantly, the liquor store -- to stock up. We cooked (skillet chicken & rice) & ate in after a pitcher of margaritas had worked their mellowing magic. It was not a tragedy.

This one I actually liked
"Endangered Species"
a quicksand hot tub?
Yesterday (Saturday) we started exploring the area in earnest. First was a small sculpture garden at Big Rock Park in Bellingham, a large town about 15 miles south of here. The park features about 30 works of art placed along gravel pathways among the trees: a gorgeous setting for what I could describe as the usual assortment of mediocre post-modern sculpture with a couple of more interesting pieces accidentally included.
"Ooh! What's that smell?"




Next stop was Whatcom Falls Park, where the US Government, following a previous Republican-inspired economic meltdown, built some charming improvents around a stream with a couple of waterfalls, for the employment of that generation and the enjoyment of subsequent ones.




What that means
Still in Bellingham, we drove down to the city center and walked along pleasant streets, having lunch at the Mount Bakery, a trendy (but not too trendy) small eatery featuring quiches, crepes and baked goods. I had "crepos rancheros," an excellent crepe filled with poached eggs, onions, peppers, tomatoes and a mild salsa, with a side of black bean and poblano soup. I followed it up with a nice marionberry scone (because they were out of peanut butter pie, which I really wanted). It seemed just a little overpriced, which, in this area, is probably normal.
Mount Bakery Cafe on Urbanspoon

After lunch, we walked across the street to the Spark Museum of Electrical Invention, a place filled with odd and rare old devices from the dawn of electricity: Tesla coils and old telephones, radios, televisions, galvanometers, and all the things used to bring mankind to the understanding we now have (some of us, anyway) of electricity and its applications. Best part of the visit was the show they put on once a day, where a man dressed as a mad scientist demonstrates (without really explaining) static electricity and the operation of a Tesla coil. He does some interesting tricks, lighting fluorescent bulbs without connecting them to anything, and putting a volunteer in a giant metal cage and running two million volts at it. Fun for kids, as much fun for grown-ups.

We took a short walk around the city center before heading back to the car and up to Big Four Mountain, east of Granite Falls. There used to be a big resort hotel there, but it burned down in the 1940s, and now it's just a part of the Mount Baker-Snohomish National Forest. So of course the entire area was beautiful, and it would have been perfect in a convertible. We found the trailhead and hiked up toward the mountain.

The mountain is called Big Four because there's a place near the top where, when most of the winter snows have melted away in the spring, snow in the shape of a numeral 4 is left in a low area for a good long while. That, though, isn't the attraction that brought us to the mountain. We were there to see the ice caves that form at the bottom of the mountain. Snow falls from the upper parts of the slopes down near-vertical cliffs that range from two to four thousand feet. It forms a large pack at the bottom, and then snowmelt running down the mountain runs in at the top and out at the bottom, forming large caverns entirely of ice. Of course, with those cliffs and that snow there's a strong likelihood of avalanches, and even now, in mid-summer, the resulting caves could collapse at any time. Somebody dies in there every ten to fifteen years, but that didn't stop a lot of people from running around in the caves with their children. It stopped us from leaving the trail, which is on slightly higher ground 100 yards or so away.... Most of us, anyway; I told myself I didn't come all that way to stand that far back and look, so I climbed down onto the talus deck and approached nearer to the caves, mentally calculating how far a total collapse of the ice would move out away from the mountain wall. (Not all that far, because there's not all that much snow and ice left at this time of year.) I stood in front of the largest cave to get a picture and to feel the alternating hot and cold breezes as winds came first off the mountainside to my right, and then out of the cave in front of me.
 
Big Four Ice Cave
click here to see all the pics
from the Condo Week

What does all that mean?
And that was the first day of Condo Week. On the way back we stopped for dinner (not at Subway: Buttermilk and Church Lady wanted something "more interesting") at Conway Pub & Eatery, in Conway, Washington. It was about 9pm when we arrived and the place was a-jumpin'. It was karaoke night, and everybody was singing along. Loud? You betcha. Crowded? You betcha. Fun? You betcha. All the locals getting drunk -- why, oh why could I not find places like this when I was young and single and willing to sleep with anything that seemed likely to move? But the beer was cold and the food was good. The burgers were gigantic, the kind you cannot get your mouth around but can only nibble along the edges; the fries were perfectly twice-fried and plentiful, and the service was cheerful and efficient. Prices seemed high to my South Texas sensibilities, but not too high, so I guess they're perfectly in line with what locals would expect; about $10 for a burger & fries, if memory serves. (Sometimes it does.)  All in all, a super-fun place to eat and drink on a Saturday night, and the kind of place where, I bet, if you show up twice you're as good as a local.
Conway Pub and Eatery on Urbanspoon

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Buds & Bugs

Having only two days in Victoria, we planned around the weather. Wednesday was to have a good chance of rain, so we planned to do things in the city that would keep us indoors most of the time. It worked out well, and we hardly got wet. In fact, the threatened rain turned out to be nothing more than a slight drizzle until mid-afternoon, at which point the weather gods gave up and left us with only clouds.




Thursday was the important day, when we were to be outside almost completely. There was a slight chance of rain in the morning, but in the event it was only morning clouds, followed by a spectacular midsummer afternoon of blue skies and breezes. We spent way too long at Butchart Gardens, a fabulous botanical spot in a long-dead rich old lady's back yard quarry north of Victoria. My feet still ache from the experience.

We arrived early, shortly after their opening, and stayed until around 4pm. At that point we headed down the road a short distance to the Victoria Butterfly Garden, which was more fun than I had anticipated. When that exhibition closed, we headed across the street for dinner at a so-so family restaurant before going back to Butchart Gardens, because they were supposed to be really something to see after dark.


Ross Fountain at Butchart Gardens
Night is slow in coming this far north in mid-summer, and it was well after 8pm before you could tell that the thousands of lights around the garden were on at all. We spent most of the wait in the Japanese garden section, relaxing in a small gazebo, before venturing out into the nearly-deserted gardens. With only about an hour before closing time, all we could really see was the Ross Fountain, with a dozen or so jets of water that dance with coloured lights. People naturally compare all dancing waters to the fabulous fountain at the Bellagio, in Las Vegas, but this fountain predates those by a decade or more; and even so, the Ross Fountain is vastly more relaxing to sit and watch, surrounded as you are by extravagantly gorgeous gardens, rather than the bustle of the Strip. 

After that, we just had time to walk through the Sunken Garden on the way out.

On To Canada

First sight of Victoria
After meeting everybody at the airport, and trying to park my car in the wrong long-term lot, we finally got away. We drove up to Port Angeles, where we caught the ferry to Victoria, on Vancouver Island in British Columbia.  Cleared customs easily and located our hotel with no trouble. Victoria is a very manageable size, and though we are well out of downtown, it's only a matter of blocks from the hotel to the center of activity. We unpacked and headed out for dinner at a new English pub (because the Persian place we wanted to go to was already closed).

On our first full day, we hit all the highlights of the city: the provincial capitol building;


Miniature World; 
diorama of the battle of Bastogne

the Bug Zoo;

and Craigdarroch Castle, home of western Canada's greatest robber-baron.

We spent a good deal of time walking around, including lunch at a hot dog stand that virtually doesn't exist, and dinner at a locavore place that was pretty good. I would say more, but (a) the pictures more or less tell the entire story, and (2) I'm too tired.

I think the only thing I would particularly want to single out, that's not represented by the pictures, is the truly outstanding job done by a "floor supervisor" named Adriana at Craigdarroch Castle. Of all the employees I've encountered at any tourist site in any city on any continent, she is undoubtedly the most interesting, knowledgeable and entertaining, not to mention vivacious. What would have been a self-guided tour of perhaps an hour in an interesting old house became a truly enlightening and fascinating three hours. She's an argument in favour of human cloning: with more like her, more people would want to know more about history and architecture, and that can only be a boon to society.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Sleepless in Seattle

Not a clever title, I know, but I thought it was appropriate Saturday night, about one in the morning when I left downtown Seattle to return to my dingy hotel room in Sea-Tac. I went downtown with the idea of taking some night pictures of deserted streets, but (A) my camera battery died and the spare was back in the hotel room; and (B) the streets weren't deserted. Turns out downtown is a happening place in these parts. There are clubs and crowds and more street-people than you can shake a stick at, much as you'd like to. I saw the Gum Wall and the ferris wheel and the Space Needle (from a distance) and had a yakisoba hot dog from a food truck; got into a conversation with the guy behind me in line and now, of course, we're like Best Friends Forever. He and I walked around for a couple of hours and talked until I couldn't stay awake any longer and went back to Sea-Tac.

My plan for Sunday was to go first up to Snoqualmie Falls, then come back to the hotel and do my laundry. Big day. I got as far as the parking lot before deciding it was too cold and wet to go up in the mountains for lousy pictures of a beautiful waterfall, so I surfed the web for a while. Then my new friend Mick (a southern boy, from Mississippi, who used to live in New Orleans, so we had lots to talk about) called and invited me back into the city. Met him on the street corner where we'd said goodnight and he took me up to Pike Market for a newspaper and Ranier cherries and a cabbage (he also likes to cook, so that's more we have to talk about) and, of course, coffee (drinkable; what a pleasant surprise, though he had to make fun of me for just ordering regular coffee), and then we went up to his apartment, on the 24th floor of a building right by the art museum (gorgeous view; wish I'd thought to take the camera with me then, though it hadn't occurred to me until just now that I could have taken pictures of it. If you lean waaaaay out and look left you can see the Space Needle), and we sat out on his balcony and ate cherries and talked for a while. Then I went back to Sea-Tac and did my laundry. Big day. Big day.




magnolia
Yesterday I drove my Western Washington loop, going through all the remaining counties in that part of the state. Along the way I saw the state capitol complex at Olympia, where I was surprised to see magnolia trees. Not big ones, but successful ones, with big blossoms just starting to come out. The capitol building itself is mostly unadorned. The dome seems too large for the building, but not too out of proportion. The office buildings surrounding it are designed in such a way that they all seem very small, though they're not, really. Inside, the building is remarkably plain compared to every other statehouse I've ever been in: understated. The best thing about it is that I was made to feel welcome there. Nobody made me walk through a metal detector, nobody insisted on seeing identification or logging me into some kind of mock-security register of Potential Terrorists Come To Bring Down Western Civilisation. Not at all like the statehouse in Kentucky, for example, where I refused to go in because of all the asinine rigamarole they demanded. The only questions anyone asked me were (1) what's my zip code (for the tourism statistics) and (2) "Can I help you find something?"
Star hydrangea

My next stop was in North Aberdeen, out near the coast, at the Kurt Cobain Landing, a half-assed memorial to the late grunge rocker thrown together at a spot where he used to hang out under a bridge when he was a kid. I'm not a big Nirvana fan, but there aren't many things out on the fringe of America to use as an excuse to visit those counties. The Landing has a sculpture of an electric guitar and some quotes from The Great One on signs and walls; the best part was the easel, empty, labelled "Kurt's Air Guitar."

Willapa NWR
Followed US 101 south from there to Cape Disappointment State Park, near the mouth of the Columbia River. I have a couple of theories about why it's called that. The park has some nice views of the beach (called Long Beach, "the longest driveable beach in the world" at 27 miles), and two decrepit old disfunctional lighthouses, and, of course, views of the mouth of the great river.

decrepit lighthouse A

decrepit lighthouse B
not Long Beach
After that, it was a scenic drive up the Columbia to the freeway that brought me back to Seattle. I did get one clear glimpse of Mt St Helens (which, on my previous visit to this area, had been entirely shrouded in fog), but when I got closer it was hidden behind lower intervening hills; and later, as I approached Seattle, Mt Ranier stood out clear, though getting a picture of it was a real challenge, since the only clear shots were from the freeway. I finally gave up and settled for a picture with a bunch of phone lines in the way.