Thursday, February 28, 2008

Hiking the Redwoods

Today was one of my favorite days of our almost two weeks of travel. We spend the day exploring – hiking and driving through – the Redwood National Forest.

In the morning I called the park office and a woman gave us some helpful information about good hiking paths and highlights of the park. She directed us to a loop drive in the north of the park. Our first stop was a 1.25 mile hike on that loop.

Before we even got out to hike, we were already impressed. The giant redwoods loomed over us on either side of the car. We could see only the trunks from the car window, but they were so thick we could just imagine what rose from them.

The hiking path was soft. We walked through an area that seemed prehistoric. Ferns and dense, bright green foliage covered the ground. Thick redwood trunks surrounded us. And the redwoods rose far, far up above us, causing us to crane our necks to try to see the tops. The tall trees and dense foliage blocked out the light, making the forest dark and chill. In the places where light filtered through, it danced against the greenery, like a sprinkler emitting much needed droplets of water.

We learned a bit about the redwoods – how their thick bark protects them from
fire, how they can grow to 350 feet, 20 feet in diameter and over 800 years old. We saw how the trunks hollowed out from fires, creating spaces taller than me. We learned how the fungi break down dead trees. Even the fallen trees were majestic, their roots as wide as our SUV, the trunks looking like a sunken ship, covered with moss instead of seaweed. I could sense the decay and regeneration all around me.

I tried to imagine what it was like before the paths were constructed, when people had to make their way through the forbidding land on their own. When I looked up at the branches covered in moss, as though dripping slime, the carpet of ferns, the endlessly tall trees, I felt like I’d entered some type of fantasy or secret world.

We continued along the loop, crossing over a turquoise rushing river that reminded both Mark and I of Kyrgyzstan. Then we went on a single lane, rough road that was one of the most beautiful drives I’ve ever taken. For eleven miles, the trees pressed in upon us, coming within inches of the car. We drove through a green canopy, the outside world feeling far away indeed. When eventually we did emerge and the thick dark forest turned into bare trees and farmland, it was as though someone had removed a blindfold from our eyes and allowed the light in.

Further south we took a couple more hikes. Our most substantial hike of the day, about three miles, was in the Prairie Creek Area. We took the Cathedral Trees path, a journey through a dark green wonderland, and returned via the Prairie Creek trail, which followed a clear, rippling creek. Several trees had fallen across the path due to bad weather in the past few weeks. So we had to do a bit of scrambling, made more difficult by carrying the baby. But we managed to make it through and even saw two black tailed deer on the way.

Our final activity of the day was to see if we could see some elk. The park employee I’d spoken to that morning told me she almost always saw elk when she came to the Prairie Creek Area. A ranger at the visitor’s center there gave us some tips on spotting them and we turned on an a.m. station dedicated to elk information. When we turned off onto a road where elk are often seen, I spotted a group of them behind a barn. We paused to watch them and saw a male with large curved antler, probably a younger male with less developed antlers and several females.

It was great to see them in the wild. In our few weeks of travel we’d seen a coyote, sea lions and elk, not bad considering we never went too far off-road.

We drove down to Eureka for dinner. With a population of 26,000, it’s the largest town on the northern coast. From what I’d read I expected it to be a quaint Victorian town, something like Cape May on the coast of New Jersey. It did have some giant and wildly gingerbratic Victorians but strip shops, chain restaurants, and down-and-out looking people filled most of the streets we saw, making it a not very attractive place.

Compared to Oregon, coastal California feels much more populated and developed. However, once night fell and we continued south on 101 from Eureka, it felt like we had the dark and winding road to ourselves. We could see that we were driving through more groves of redwoods. The thick trunks stood out even in the darkness. We could also see rock-catching nets at the base of roadside sheer mountain faces. Bolivia could certainly make use of something like that.

One benefit of traveling at this time of year has been the ability to enjoy many of the places we’ve visited without feeling like we have to share them. We can choose lodging at the last minute because almost everywhere has vacancy. Even at the Redwoods today, we passed very few people on the hiking paths. We walked through the massive forests as though we were the only visitors. It was great to be able to focus on the sound of the trilling birds, the tinkling brooks, and the falling leaves, rather than hearing other humans.

In the evening we made our longest drive of the trip, doing the long haul of 200 plus miles to San Francisco. Hard to believe that we’ve almost made it down the Western coast and that 48 hours from now we’ll be heading toward Mexico

River is handling the traveling quite well. It’s giving Mark and I both more quality time than we have with him at home. His needs are basically eating and sleeping. I’ve learned to let him breastfeed while I walk when I carry him on me and he sleeps in there too. So he’s generally fine with hikes, car rides, visits to restaurants, whatever. At home, his need to eat feels to me like it ties me down, preventing me from going to the library to work or to do the other things I’d like to do. But while traveling, I just feed him as we move. Instead of him tying me down, I’m carrying him along. We might slow down a bit because of him, or change our plans slightly. But because I’m always seeing something new, collecting novel experiences, I’m happy to share them with him. As a result, I enjoy the feeding and care of him more and see it as more of a joy than a burden. As he nears 12 weeks of age, he seems to know us, be interested in us and his surroundings, and react to experiences. While we know he’ll never remember any of these, we enjoy sharing the adventures with him, hope the forest and mountain and sea air will be good for his development, and take lots of pictures to show him someday where he’s been.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cheese and Vistas

River and I started off our day by visiting the Tillamook cheese factory. I carried him through the self-guided tour. Through a series of signs and films, we learned how cheddar cheese is made. Most interesting, we were able to look out over the factory floor, at the automated processes of cutting, weighing, and packing the cheese. We also saw the cheese being stirred early in production.

I enjoyed learning how cheddar cheese is made. I also enjoyed the samples of cheese curds and cheddar available at the end, as well as the shop, where I purchased cheese and Oregon black cherry ice cream.

Mark visited the Tillamook air museum, where an impressive collection of old aircraft is housed in a former blimp hangar.

Continuing south we enjoyed continued spectacular coastal views, as well as farmland, lots of cows, and everpresent forested hills. The entire coast is lined with thick forests, with occasional hillsides depleted from logging.

We stopped in the town of Depoe Bay, which claims to be the world’s smallest harbor. We looked into taking a boat out to watch whales, but not many whales are around this time of year. We were told they’ll start heading north from Baja California in about two weeks. We read that the entire Oregon coast is at risk of tsunamis and has been hit several times in the past. They come after earthquakes from the fault that lies off the coast and runs the entire length of Oregon. The instructions recommended keeping oneself safe during the earthquake itself, then quickly moving up and inland.

At Cape Perpetua Scenic Area we enjoyed some of a series of well-organized scenic hiking trails, seeing the shoreline up close at low tide. We saw the driftwood that collects, the dramatic shoreline, and the pastel colors that wash over the area as dusk falls.

We finished our day just outside of Florence, at the Lakewood Suites Motel, a great motel on the shores of a beautiful forested lake. Another enjoyable and sunny day in Oregon.

Exploring Sand Dunes

We started off our day today at the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Mark joined a couple on an exciting high-speed ride up and down some dunes on a dune buggy. I stayed behind with River and Mark said that was a good decision, since the driver caroused over steep sand cliffs. The woman who went with them spent the ride with her eyes closed. Mark enjoyed it though.

We then went to the park, stopping by the visitor’s center for some information, then driving to a viewpoint. On one side, I could walk over small dunes to the beach – a long stretch of sand with waves crashing up onto the sand. On the other side, all-terrain vehicle tracks extended up into the dune hills. I think the best way to explore them would be on a four-wheeler, following a guide who knows the way and with the ability to control one’s own speed.

We then continued on and took a one-mile hike recommended by the visitor’s center. The trail went through a forested area, past water, and led us into an area of vast sandy dunes. I climbed up the tallest one and looked out over a beautiful vista – to the ocean on one side, forested hills on the other, and in between, ripples of sand inclines dotted with coastal grasses.

From there we continued south, heading further down the Oregon coast. I was able to throw off my winter jacket today, replacing it with a light windbreaker. We’ve continued our sunny streak, but as we head south, it’s becoming warmer as well as sunny. My favorite town we went through was Bandon, which had an attractive old town on the bay. It was a nice place to stop for a bite to eat, with several seafood places along the waterfront, as well as shops selling sweets made from the locally produced cranberries.

As we continued toward northern California, we continued to stop at the lookout posts and occasionally took short hikes toward views. We gazed out upon crashing waves, rock outcroppings, mountain promontories, winding roads, rocks formed into arches and natural bridges, rivers entering the ocean, small towns, strip malls and towards the end of the day, the sun falling into the horizon like a half egg yolk.

I love how the ocean is so calm on the Oregon coast, crashing only towards the shore, but extending out toward the horizon in mere ripples. I enjoyed going through one state park after another and how so much of the coast is sparsely populated. I loved the seafood, the friendly people and the lack of sales tax. I liked how large developers hadn’t bought out the coastline, so that there are plenty of motels, modest homes and other small properties with fantastic views. Most of all, I liked the sense of freedom that I felt in Oregon. It’s a great place and one I’d be happy to return to and explore more thoroughly.

We traveled through the first 20 miles or so of northern California. We found lodgings at an oceanside motel on the edge of Crescent City. Crescent City is full of motels, grocery stores and chain restaurants. But it’s also the northern edge of the Redwood National Park, our destination for tomorrow.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Traveling the Oregon Coast

Today we left Portland. I was sad to leave our kind and friendly hosts, Lisa and Greg, but eager to see some new landscapes. We were very lucky during our entire time in Seattle and Portland to see only sunny weather. Our friends joked that we must be carrying the sun with us. I feel like we’re not getting the real picture of the rainy northwest, but I also don’t mind having a three-week sunny vacation.

We drove west from Portland on Route 26, the same road we’d traveled to Timberline yesterday (but in the other direction). It was a pretty drive. We passed through farmland, where people sold salmon jerkey, dried fruits, dried mushrooms, and holiday trees at farmer’s markets. We passed by small, no-name coffee stands, another unique concept to Oregon. We drove in between thick forests. Bright green moss entirely covered some trees, making the branches look like creatures from a fantasy film. On a sadder note, amidst the dense and vast fir forests, we passed by several hillsides razed by logging. Near one of them was a town called Timber. The felled trees and branches fell every which way looked as though a razor had cut through stubble, leaving some forlorn hairs standing. As we emerged from Clatsop state forest, we looked up at an open, golden field and saw a coyote looking down at the road. Behind it, blue mountains covered with thick white grey clouds on the horizon rose up as backdrop.

We arrived at the coast in the town of Cannon Beach, a quaint little community. We drove around looking at the monoliths that emerged from the ocean waters, including one that looked like a haystack (appropriately called Haystack Rock). We drove along the coastal road, looking through tall green firs at the swelling ocean waters a little further out.

Driving down a random road, we traveled through thick, green tropical forest, passed a school tucked away in the natural world, and arrived at a few houses located along the coast. Every so often we passed signs reminding us that we were in a high tsunami risk zone. That was nice to know, but I didn’t know what we were supposed to do should a tsunami suddenly appear.

We stopped at viewpoints along the way to read about the local history and geology and to enjoy the views that appeared one after another. It seemed a little less dramatic to me than the coastline I’d seen south of San Francisco. But instead it appeared to possess a calmer beauty, more self-possessed and soothing.

A bit south of Cannon Beach, at Oswald West State Park, we took a 2.5 mile hike to Cape Falcon. We didn’t make it quite to the end. We were carrying baby and we were afraid of dusk overtaking us. But we did get most of the way through what our Portland friends described to us as their favorite hike. We walked along a path softened by pine needles, the terrain gently sloping, the view of dense forest, creeping moss, fern undergrowth, tinkling streams, a waterfall, and a gorgeous view through the trees of a rounded beach and rocks sticking up near the shore from the ocean waves. The air had the pleasant mixture of fresh forest green with salty ocean scent.

River slept most of the way there, but poopy diapers and hunger caused him to cry for much of the way back. As his cries rang through the woods and a photographer looked at us in silent disapproval, I thought of the biological function of a cry. It’s loud enough not only to alert parents to an infant’s needs, but also to announce to everyone else within earshot – defenseless young human in crisis, please help if you can. The help usually given is disapproving stares at the parents, which guilt them into doing whatever they can to stop the tears. There wasn’t much we could do in this case though, since it was too cold to change his diaper in the woods and stopping to feed him would mean possibly not making it back before dark. So we just had to endure it until we returned and hope that he’d understood.

We returned to the car tired, ravenous, and with headaches. Mark chose a roadside restaurant, The Lighthouse, for dinner. They served great fried halibut and grilled wild salmon in a simple, family friendly interior. Our local waitress told us about her husband who fishes as a hobby and brings back so many crabs fresh from the ocean that she’s sick of them. Each time the neighbors see his boat return, they line up with bags and he hands them out for free. A place where neighbors hand out fresh seafood sounds to me like an attractive place to live.

Our plan was to continue another 26 miles south to Tillamook. We’d look for lodging there and visit the local cheese factories tomorrow morning. Mark commented on how surprisingly empty of traffic the road was. We were tempted by a floating motel we passed along the way, as well as other options with a view of the water. We’ve got a long way to go to San Francisco though and it takes us a while to get going in the morning, so we decided to get as close to the cheese factories as possible.

Perhaps we should have stopped, because we were soon stopped by flashing lights behind us. A cop stopped us for speeding.

“I clocked you going 41 miles in a 30 zone and you passed two 30 mph signs while I had my radar on,” he said. We saw a 40 mph sign about ten feet in front of us, which very shortly thereafter changed to 45. There must have been a short stretch of 30 mph going through a town. The cop drove an unmarked truck and seemed to camp out in that stretch to catch unwary people. I thought it was rather tricky.

“Drive safely and slow down,” he said after giving us a citation. “We need revenue, but not that badly.” Then he turned around and went back to the slow area to trap more people. Funnily, our friend Greg told us we didn’t need to worry about cops in Oregon because the state didn’t have enough money to pay police. I guess they do need the revenue and going after cars with out of state licenses is a good way to collect it.

We found a bed for the night at a Best Western, located near the cheese factory we planned to visit the next morning. With two beds, a large, warm, comfortable space, and the opportunity to dip into a warm whirlpool before sleep, I got some of the best sleep I’ve had in nights, even despite getting up several times to feed River.

Skiing Mount Hood

Less than an hour in one direction from Portland, one reaches great hiking and waterfalls, less than two hours in another direction is the coast, and less than two hours in another direction still, one reaches fantastic mountain skiing.

We tried it out at the Timberline lodge on Mount Hood. The beautiful lodge was built by hand by unemployed craftspeople in 1936 as a Federal Works Progress Administration project. When we arrived, it was half-covered with snow. From the inside, we looked out windows covered with snow at a bluish-white haze. The skiing was very fun – with a lot of lower intermediate slopes, plenty of space (I was often skiing alone, with no one else around), and good powder. It made me miss my regular weekend ski trips in Kyrgyzstan.

Colombia River Valley

Whenever I asked people what to see in Portland, I was unanimously told Multnomah Falls. So our friends Lisa and Greg offered to accompany us there.

We spent the entire day in the Colombia River Valley, just about an hour away from Portland. It took only about a half hour to reach the limits of the city, beyond which further development is not permitted. Then we drove through forest and farmland until we reached the Colombia River.

We climbed up a road to a bluff that overlooked the valley. Wind rips through the gorge, especially in winter, making the river a popular place for windsurfing. They described it as a board attached to your feet and a sail above you. The sail gets caught by the wind, lifting people up to 20 feet in the air. Sounds pretty fun.

We visited a series of fantastic waterfalls. The largest and most famous is the Multnomah falls, where crowds of people lined up to see it, even off-season.

We finished the day in Hood River, a small town filled with coffee shops, sport and art stores. Then we had dinner at our friend’s favorite Portland pizza joint, A Pizza Scholls. “We can’t eat pizza anywhere else,” Lisa complained of the thin crust pizza with truffle oil, “because it just doesn’t compare.” We followed it with cupcakes and truffles from a chocolate shop next door. A nice day full of exercise, nature, exploration and good food in Oregon.

More Portland

On Friday afternoon we met Frederick, a good friend from Siberia who now lives in Portland with his wife. We met for lunch at the Red and Black Café, a vegan café where all the decisions are made as a collective. I had soy yogurt with nuts and granola and an insubstantial Oregonian salad – greens with hazelnuts and apples. At the counter, behind the jars of teas, was a collection cup for the medical expenses of one of the employees. The clientele were young and arty. There was a play area with toys in a corner.

When we needed to change River, we asked about a changing table. They did have one, but if they hadn’t, Frederick said it wouldn’t have been a problem to change River on the table. I told him how the patrons of a Seattle café protested when we changed him (on top of his snowsuit) on our table, after unsuccessfully looking for a changing table. “It’s different here,” he said “People would understand.”

My friend Lisa told me that the attitude in Portland is “live and let live.” Libertarian values are common. People want freedom to do as they please and one doesn’t pay attention to what their neighbors do unless it is causing real harm.

We finished lunch still feeling hungry, so we went to a bakery in a nearby warehouse to get some carbohydrates. That place was vegan as well though. While I like meat, I can do without it if necessary. But I really don’t like going without eggs, milk, cheese and butter. It feels too restrictive and I feel denied.

Frederick was kind enough to show us around Portland. We drove to the northwest, where we saw attractive homes lining a green park area and a vibrant commercial area, filled with art and coffee shops. Frederick told us that many people in Portland have a craft. Whether it’s gardening or bookbinding or ceramics, artisan crafts are a popular way to spend time. It was certainly true of my friends. Lisa and her husband garden, make music, produce silkscreen t-shirts, write, build and create things for the home, and draw. Frederick writes and his wife bakes, binds books, photographs and knits.

We stopped at the Japanese gardens, a quiet area near the rose garden, within a forest of tall, majestic, stately trees. I didn’t like it as much as the Chinese gardens because the China garden was such a pleasant surprise within the urban center. The Japanese garden seemed naturally located within the hilltop wilderness. Nevertheless, it was a pretty and peaceful place, with a rock garden, many Japanese plants and trees, a rock sculpture exhibit, and Japanese architecture and artisanry.

We went to Frederick’s for a cup of tea. He lives in the warehouse district, in a small apartment with windows offering a view in all four directions. Their bed pushes back into the wall and pulls out like a drawer, maximizing space.

Everyone we spoke to said that Portland has been changing and modernizing significantly in the last few years. They said the Pearl district, a wealthy area near downtown, was the first to build up. Then the northwest area that surrounded it followed suit. Frederick thinks the area where he is living will be the next to gentrify, as old warehouses are converted into cafes, shops and apartments.

He and his wife Melody took us to one of the new neighborhood arrivals, a Japanese place called Biwa. The portions were tiny, so I thought we might again leave hungry. But we ordered enough small platters – of chicken, lamb, beef (ah, meat!), shitake mushrooms, eggplant, rice and pork dumplings – that we all left satiated.

From there they took us to a local movie theater. Admission was six dollars, less than I can find in my neighborhood. But my friend Lisa said that was too much, especially if it didn’t include beer or pizza. She said many local theaters include beer and/or pizza in the admission price. Another nice Portland tradition.

We took River to the movie, crossing our fingers he’d behave. He ate and/or slept the entire time, allowing us to watch Persepolis and not disturbing others. The movie, a cartoon film about an Iranian girl, was good, but not as fast-paced as I’d been led to believe by the previews, nor quite as engaging as I’d hoped.

Thursday, February 21, 2008


We didn’t see or do all that much today, but somehow finished up the day tired anyway. My first impressions of Portland are a little vague. I don’t feel like I got a good sense of it. I see it as working class, affordable, with quite a few unique characters and people that are friendly, but don’t come across as quite as happy as those we met in Seattle. Nevertheless, everyone I spoke to so far loves living here.

I started out my day meeting a couple of former classmates for lunch and hearing about their experiences living and working in the city. Neither is from Portland, both seem to be happy living here. Then we drove into the downtown area, where we first stopped at Powell’s books. It’s a city landmark and giant bookstore, with shelves upon shelves of new and used books on every conceivable topic. I walked through the store and was consumed by a desire to read. Seeing so many books just reminded me of how many of them I haven’t read. I longed for long, empty afternoons during which I could read. I’ve had very little time to read since River arrived. The small patches of time I get to myself go quickly to exercise, writing, working, or getting things done. Powells also had an amazing collection of audiobooks and that reminded me that I can listen to books on CD, even if I can’t read the paper versions as much as I’d like.

We strolled through the Chinatown/Old Town area. Apparently, it’s not one of the best areas of town. But for a not-so-good neighborhood, it was much less threatening than the bad parts of other cities. We walked through with a baby stroller. While we did come across some odd characters, we never felt really uncomfortable.

We happened across a Chinese garden and decided to take a look. After paying the $7 per person admission and being instructed to turn off our cell phone, we walked into a surprising oasis of calm and tranquility in the middle of the city. The roar of a waterfall drowned out the sound of traffic. The sweet smell fresh plants pleasantly perfumed the air. The architecture and the furniture seemed genuine, as though we’d entered a small town and quiet secluded garden in China. A small tea shop at the back of the garden sold tea flights, samples of some of the many varieties on offer.

We walked briefly along the waterfront, where a path runs alongside the river, offering views of a giant steel bridge and of the city. It was busy with bikers and joggers, even in the early evening. We saw two women and a young girl there who appeared to be homeless. I felt so sorry for the ragged young girl, that as a child she was denied the security and warmth of a home and stable family.

In the evening, we ate a delicious, healthy, homemade dinner and chatted some more with our friends. So far, I’ve enjoyed the time spent in my friends’ coy and funky house than I have the city itself. But tomorrow we’ll have a local friend in the car with us who can hopefully guide us to the main attractions. So far, I find it a nice enough place, but haven’t fallen in love with it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Mount St. Helens

Today’s adventure was a drive from Seattle to Portland, stopping along the way at Mount St. Helens. I was only a child when Mount St. Helens blew in 1980, but I remember it happening, as well as how excited I was when someone gave me a vial of volcanic ash from the mountain. So it was great to see the majestic peak decades later, when the growth has reappeared and it is only the before and after photos in the visitor’s center that really capture the horror and magnitude.

We took I-5 south from Seattle. I expected a dull, wide grey freeway. But the scenery was surprisingly beautiful, often lined with trees, with views of farmland, cows, forested hills and mountains. True to what John told us, the traffic moved slowly, going 65 miles per hour, even in the fast lane. We saw several bumper stickers of people with unique characters, such as “I don’t have an attitude problem, you’re just an asshole.” Or “It’s your hell – burn in it,” from a Wiccan driver with a young boy in a carseat.

When we reached Mount St. Helens, about two hours from Seattle, we stopped in the nearby town of Castle Rock. We thought we might find something to eat there. But instead we found a sad, dilapidated little community. We later found out that several of the houses there were carried away by the river flush with volcanic debris. One woman described seeing her house picked up by the river, carried upright, then crushed as it went under a bridge and came out the other side in pieces. It makes me wonder what keeps people there. One young woman told me, “It’s because we love this place.”

The visitor’s center showed a short film about the volcano as well as a helpful display. Nearby was a one mile trail along a lake created by the eruption and we walked that, enjoying beautiful views of the snowy peak across the water.

We then drove up toward the volcano, receiving increasingly beautiful views as we became closer. Much of the land is owned by either the National Park or by Weyehauser logging company. Entire hillsides had been stripped of trees and Weyerhauser replanted them with Douglas and noble firs, resulting in whole swathes of green trees of exactly the same size. At the viewpoints, we looked down at rivers with banks still coated with grey volcanic silt. We could only go up so far because the road was closed partway up due to snow. It would be nice to return in summer and climb the mountain itself. But we enjoyed the beautiful drive.

In the evening we arrived in Portland, where we are staying with an old and dear friend, Lisa. She and her husband live in a small, cozy house. The walls are painted mustard, rust, green and brown comfortingly warm and bright at the same time. We chatted about life in Portland, a city they have “fallen in love with,” to such an extent they would not leave to pursue professional opportunities elsewhere.

They told us about the strong bicycle culture, about the incredible recreational activities nearby, about the affordability and the niceness of the local people. The downsides seem to be below average schools (they described this as a result of the low tax, low government services culture) and not a lot of higher education opportunities. They themselves lead a quality of life that I admire and envy. They are home every day by five, grow vegetables in their garden, eat farm fresh eggs, use all natural products, and eat very healthy foods. They have a balance and evidence a contentment with life that I think is ideal.

Tomorrow we’ll explore this place for ourselves.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Seattle Neighborhoods

We were told by some friends that the life in Seattle is concentrated in the neighborhoods, a series of urban villages. So today we used our rental car to drive around and explore them.

We started out in the Ballard area, a former shipyard and worker area with a Scandinavian heritage that is now becoming more gentrified. The narrow streets were lined with Craftsman bungalows, modest and attractive little houses in a variety of colors. We saw these small homes throughout the city and I liked them a lot.

We then spent some time exploring Green Lake, a beautiful lake surrounded by a walking/biking path. Looking out over the calm waters lined with the bare yellow branches of willow trees, I immediately loved that area. It reminded me so much of the lakes in Minneapolis. Even the street was the same – Woodlawn Avenue instead of Woodlawn Boulevard. And there was a Baskin Robbins nearby, just as there was in Minnesota.

After lunch we walked the 2.8 mile loop around the lake. The path was packed with people strolling, biking, skateboarding, skating, walking dogs, pushing strollers, carrying babies in pouches and sacks. This was in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon. I imagined it must really get packed on weekends.

While walking around the lake, I noticed there wasn’t much diversity, with the overwhelming majority Caucasian. I thought it was just the neighborhood, but a friend who had us over for dinner that evening said the city as a whole is not very diverse. The main immigrants were Asians and they have been here a long time already. Another person I met today told me that the demand for childcare is much higher than the supply. So I wonder why this city doesn’t attract more Hispanics or other immigrants.

We then drove through the bohemian neighborhood of Fremont and the upscale neighborhood of Queen Anne before joining a friend and his partner for dinner in their Eastlake townhouse, on the east side of Union Lake.

Bob and Eric have been living in Seattle for a few years and they were able to tell us about the local culture. They told us how the slower pace of life extends even to the freeways, where people will always let others in and the speed rarely exceeds 65 miles per hour, even in the fast lane. They told us about the opinionated, liberal population, how “hell would freeze over” before a Republican would be elected mayor, how all the city council members were elected at large. They told us how this made for lively debate, but in difficulty making decisions. How when a water tower was planned to be constructed in one neighborhood, everyone had an opinion about the size, color, and style. Since all were at large, it wasn’t possible to just defer to the person representing that neighborhood, but instead consensus had to be achieved on all the minor issues.

The film Sicko made the observation that Americans are a passive electorate because they are too afraid of losing their jobs, security, etc. to speak up. It seems that Seattle is an exception, an example of a community where people speak up, debate, and seek compromise. It may take longer and be messier, but maybe knowing their voice is heard contributes to the fact that they seem happier and friendlier than people in many other areas of this country.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Kitsap Peninsula and Bainbridge Island

Curious to see the nature that surrounds Seattle, today we took a trip to the outskirts, to Kitsap Peninsula and to Bainbridge Island. We drove south, past Tacoma, and then onto the Kitsap Peninsula. Several trucks passed us, laden with giant reddish-brown tree trunks stacked in the long cab. We hadn’t gone more than 15 minutes outside of the city when a spooky and romantic mist covered the land, the trees grew thick and the ground was covered in dense and bright greenery – moss, ferns and undergrowth. We’d see much of that throughout the day, trees that grew in spindly shapes covered with moss, forests so green and thick they looked like rainforests. And of course there were the beautiful and frequent views of water – of bays, estuaries, inlets, harbors.

We stopped for lunch in the little town of Poulsbo. It’s nicknamed “Little Norway” for it’s resemblance to the Norwegian fjords. It also had a Sons of Norway clubhouse along the waterfront, Scandinavian shops and streets with names like King Olav 5thVei and NE Jacobson Road W.

We stopped for lunch in a wonderful little café, Magnolia, where we had a view of the fireplace. I enjoyed a fantastic salad, with spinach, sweet potatoes, goat cheese, candied walnuts and dried cranberries. As with many of the restaurants here, the menu is not fixed in stone. It changes based upon the ingredients that are fresh and available.

We saw many homes today in beautiful locations, overlooking calm blue waters, surrounded by dense green forest or privy to both foliage and water views. I think it would be a nice place to have a cabin. But it was hard to imagine living in a place like that. I’m too used to being able to walk to the local shops. It’s hard to imagine getting into a car anytime I’d need something.

We tried to visit some museums, including a Native American museum. They were closed due to President’s Day. But cars filled the parking lot and garage of the nearby casino.

We visited the tiny Fay Bainbridge State Park, where we scampered over pale draftwood and walked along the black sand and pebble beach, looking at the crab and scallop shells that lined the shore. I learned that the Puget Sound has the largest octopuses in the world, as well as the biggest and fastest sea stars. We looked out across the water at Seattle, a beautiful city view framed by a full moon overhead and a sky turning pink.

Poor little River had a tough day. Every time he’d fall asleep, we’d be on the move again. So we returned home by ferry in the early evening, enjoying the view of the sun setting over Seattle. Back at our hotel, River could get some interrupted rest, as could we.

Except for the fabulous lunch, I wasn’t wowed by anything I saw today. But it was pleasant and beautiful. I liked how the water and forests and the Scandanavian people reminded me of Minnesota. I appreciated the bounty of the vegetation and the fresh and delicious food of this region.

Looking at a map, Seattle is surrounded by greenery to explore – Vancouver to the north, the Cascade mountains, numerous islands and waterways, Mt. Rainier to the southeast. It would definitely be nice to come back with more time for outdoor adventures.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


Twenty four hours after arriving in Seattle we are liking our first impressions. We took a bus from our hotel in the university district to the downtown area. The bus was clean and arrived on schedule. Unlike at home, where it seems it’s mostly the down-and-out that use the buses, here the bus attracted a variety of people – a pair of elderly women, a man reading a newspaper, a young, professional-looking woman, the heavyset women in baggy clothes who carried a radio and told us “I can’t help what songs they play on the radio.”

We immediately noticed the solar power traffic meters and the electric buses, signs of environmental consciousness. A large black billboard announced “babies are born to be breastfed” and baby slings appeared to be just as popular as strollers, indicating a propensity toward attachment parenting. Looking out the window I saw the blue of water, as well as boats and ships with their rigging. There was the maritime aspect. And looking out across the water I saw the snow-capped peaks of the Olympia mountains. I don’t think I’ve ever seen snow-capped peaks in the US and I loved it. It brought me back to Bishkek, where the views of the peaks on my way to work raised my spirits. Only here there are beautiful views of water as well.

We got off the bus downtown and headed to Pike’s market, the busy, roiling farmer’s market near the waterfront. It was gorgeous. Stands of fruits and vegetables glistened in all colors of the rainbow. Fresh seafood – scallops as large as hockey pucks, crab legs as long as my lower arm, white fish cheeks, and other items recently pulled from the ocean – sat piled under chunks of ice, waiting to be enjoyed on dinner plates. There were bunches of tulips in bright spring colors, bouquets of dried flowers, tart and sweet dried cherries (I didn’t know Washington was the world’s leading cherry producer), gourmet pastas (think dark chocolate pasta, or porcini mushroom, or sweet potato orzo) and dipping oils (white truffle – yum!), jams, honeys, blueberry syrup and vinegar, homemade goat cheese, artisan baked goods, and even a shop that made cheese on the premises in a giant vat surrounded by curious onlookers.

Unlike the Trenton farmers market, where I once heard a vendor respond to a customer’s inquiry asking what the yellow melon was by saying curtly “yellow watermelon,” here friendliness rang through the air. Musicians played Andean music or upbeat tunes, vendors handed out samples or described their goods with a smile. People stopped to admire our baby, to ask his name or his age.

We noticed the friendliness of the people here immediately upon arrival. Our first stop out of the airport was the Thrifty car rental office. The two employees behind the counter were so kind – giving us an upgrade, offering us a map, suggesting places to see along the Oregon coast, answering our questions, helping us put in the car seat. Even the woman in the booth, spending her Saturday evening in a chilly parking lot, greeted us with a smile as she collected our papers.

We ate lunch at a seafood diner on the waterfront. We were seated at the bar, where we watched the cooks at work. The waitstaff worked as a team, helping each other out. And the cooks worked quickly, efficiently, and seemed both happy and professional, I had the feeling that people seem content to be in their positions. I later heard that people have pretty balanced lives here, that it’s uncommon to work extremely long hours, that most people enjoy themselves on their days off. So perhaps their job is just one part of an overall fulfilling life. Since it doesn’t consume them, they can enjoy it more.

After lunch we walked along the shoreline, past a sculpture garden and to the space needle. We ascended to the top in a 41 second elevator ride, traveling at ten miles per hour. With the wonderful weather, we had an excellent view of the city. Walking in a circle along the observation deck, we looked out over the Olympic peaks, Mt. Baker, and the imposing Mt. Rainier. We watched boats traveling over water and seaplanes taking off and landing.

From there, we took a short and pleasant ride on the Monorail, constructed for the World’s Fair, back to the downtown area. We met some local friends for dinner at a trendy fish restaurant, where the fish surprisingly came from everywhere other than Washington.

They told us that in Seattle, much of the life is in the neighborhoods outside of downtown and suggested we explore those areas. The downtown area did clear out by the time we walked to dinner at shortly before six, and almost felt uncomfortable. So we have lots to see and do in our remaining two days.

The city itself isn’t the most beautiful one I’ve seen (for example, I think downtown Minneapolis is a prettier place) however the life and culture are very attractive here at first glance. I overhead one man on his cellphone calling to tell someone he’d arrived here safely and is having a good time. “Washington DC and Baltimore are looking worse every minute I’m here,” he said. Seattle cast its spell on another visitor besides us.

Arrival in Seattle

We arrived in Seattle late last night after a pleasant direct flight on Continental. The middle seat in between us was open, so we were able to put River’s carseat there and had sufficient room.

Our first stop was the rental car agency. They wanted to upgrade us to a minivan or SUV. Initially I wasn’t interested, but then we figured that the four wheel drive would be useful on the mountain roads. I’m trying to think of that to ameliorate my guilt at using such a low mileage vehicle on the city and coastal roads. It’s very spacious though, which will be comfortable for us during our two week trip down to San Francisco.

We used Mark’s new GPS to get from the airport to our hotel and it took us reliably there. We drive right through the city, a beautiful glomeration of yellow lights with a bright blue dome and flashes of red and green. It looked to me like a toy city, or a cake topping. I thought it was beautiful.

The freeway was a dull grey four-laner, but the rises and falls were surprising to me. I guess I’ve never been in a mountainous highly developed city. That reminded me of the new landscape to explore and made me excited about the adventures to come in the upcoming days and weeks.

Our hotel, the University Motel, is located near the University of Washington, in a neighborhood that seemed a little sketchy at night. Our room brings back college days, ancient furniture, flimsy cabinets, cheap construction. But it’s a suite, with plenty of space (and 3 beds, as well as a kitchen) so it meets our needs well.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Almost on the Road

Tomorrow we leave for a 3.5 week trip. Our itinerary includes Seattle, a drive down the West Coast through Portland and San Francisco, Morelia and Guadalajara Mexico, and Chicago. It’s my first big trip since returning from Bolivia last September. And it’s our first experience flying with River. We’re attempting to inaugurate him into world adventures and are crossing our fingers that he accepts it with enthusiasm.

I’m so excited to get on the airplane, to see the new scenery, to sleep in various hotels, to try new restaurants and cuisine every day, to reunite with old friends and to meet new people, to speak Spanish and to learn. Nine weeks and six days after childbirth, I’m ready to hit the road and to resume my travels.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Recent Stuff

Lessons I’m learning about parenthood:

-The Fisher-Price Papasan swing is the single most useful item we bought.

-Cloth diapering is not as bad as it’s made out to be. We just started about a week ago, using BumGenuiuses. They come in Easter colors, fasten in the same simple method as a disposable, and wash easily in the washing machine. Only drawback is that at River’s size, they make his butt look rather large. But he doesn’t seem to mind.

-Thrush is evil

-Pumping milk is a whole job unto itself

-It’s incredibly rewarding to watch one’s own child develop and interact more and more each day.

-Despite having the wonderful luxury of help, it is still extremely difficult to get anything done, especially when in the house.

Other things happening:

-The Presidential election race is on in full mode here in the United States and I’m heartened to see the level of interest and participation. It seems likely that the next President will be either McCain, Clinton or Obama, any of whom would be likely to reverse some of the horrible policies of the past several years. I myself was unable to vote since I called to register one day after the deadline. Luckily, my chosen candidate won in my state, so I didn’t feel too bad.

-We are preparing to take a long trip down the West Coast and to Mexico and I’m busy packing and preparing for that. It’s going to be a whole different ballgame with a two-month old in tow. But I’m very excited to get on the road, to see friends I haven’t met in a while and to explore new places. The fact that the climates should be nicer is just an added bonus.

-With baby and his added equipment, we need to try harder to pack light. So I bought myself a new little mini-computer, the Fujitsu Lifebook u810. It weighs only 1.5 pounds and functions both as a laptop and a notebook. I love it.

-River and I went to our first post-natal yoga class today. At almost 9 weeks old, he was the youngest one there. The others ranged in age from 3-10 months. It was fascinating to look at the other babies and see what lies ahead for us. Those that sat up and crawled looked so large and developed to me, though I suppose to most people they still look like little babies. I could feel how much each of the mothers in the room loved their babies. I thought about the little boy in foster care one of my relatives is trying to adopt and wished that all children could start off life with such love and devotion. They deserve it.

-I saw a couple good movies lately. The Italian is about a 6-year-old Russian boy, about to be adopted by a loving Italian couple. But he’s determined to try to find his birth mother first. The story is line with the Russian nationalist desire that children not be sent overseas (this belief gained credence after stories of American parents abusing the Russian children they adopted reached the mainstream) but rather retained as part of the narod. But it’s also just a good story about a very determined little boy.

Sicko has already received plenty of media attention. As an employee of a European company, I already know and understand the differences between the American and European social systems. I already benefit from the long vacations and the humane maternity policies. But to see that the United States is surrounded by countries doing so much better in meeting the needs of their citizens – Europe, Canada and Cuba – was very disheartening. I especially found the free childcare and free university education amazing. Right now, in my family, we are spending close to 20% of our take home pay on childcare and savings for college education for just one child. Should we drop from two to one incomes, it would be a third of our income. Should we have more children, even more. So while yes, those countries (esp. Europe and Canada) may have higher taxes, they also have so much more freedom. They don’t have to make decisions at any point in their lives just because they are desperate to retain the insurance or the benefits they need for their children. They are free to make choices of where to live and where to work because it is the right decision for them or their families. They may have reduced incomes throughout their lifecycles (due to the extra taxes) but they still live at a comfortable level and they don’t encounter the serious resource shortages that occur while attending college, while having and raising children, or while entering old age. That income smoothing seems likely to reduce stress, which would improve health and happiness, and yes, they do live longer.