Thirty years ago – has it really been thirty years?!? – I learned a secret: everybody wanted to be the last person to move to Seattle. I remember how dubious everyone had been about my choice of graduate school. All anyone seemed to know about the place, or anywhere that far into the Northwest was “Isn’t that where it rains all the time?”
I had my doubts too, I’ll admit. We’d landed in the midnight of a spring storm, flight attendants strapped in and steel-eyed, the hammering rain audible even over the whine of the engines. The torrent pummelled the roof of the cab, made it nearly impossible for me to hear the driver’s commentary as we wended our way through the tangle of streets on Queen Anne Hill. And I’m sure my dreams were those of Noah.
But in the silence of the morning, from the moment I pulled back the curtains to first glimpse the staggering skyscape of the aptly-named Olympic Mountains across the ferry-laced, glittering water of Puget Sound, I knew I was hooked. It wasn’t a typical day, of course. Even Robert Henry, my assigned graduate advisor made that clear right off the bat when he held up my schedule of orientation meetings for the day, then announced that we would be “deviating from the program” to go sailing. We spent the afternoon out on Lake Washington, picnicking on the deck of his sailboat while older graduate students who’d been fished from their research as additional crew extolled the virtues of the Computer Science program. Princeton never had a chance.
I grew to love Seattle for its other virtues. My friends and I embraced the self-deprecating but unapologetic spirit of Northwest life, spouting Tom Robbins and drinking (admittedly) damned good coffee. We danced, badly but with enthusiasm, to bands like the Young Fresh Fellows and Ben Vaughn Combo in basement clubs on University Ave and somehow remained awake enough during the day to make acceptable progress on our degrees. We sailed, hiked and kayaked every day we could get away. And when the weather was especially nice, hopped a ferry up to the San Juan islands where, Devon and I promised each other, we’d some day buy some land and settle down.
When I departed for an MIT postdoc seven years later, PhD in hand, I swore, MacArthur-like, that I would return.
Over the years, though, I noticed something about my beloved adopted city. Other people were beloving it and adopting it. Lots of other people. The secret was out. Housing developments were going up, further and further along I-90, until lights were visible at night all the way up to Snoqualmie Pass. Those miles of open fields along the bike path where we’d go berry picking on the way to Juanita Beach were slowly replaced by corporate headquarters, and those quirky basement bands we used to see on University Ave were replaced by the “hot new Seattle sound that was sweeping the nation.”
I remember sitting on a plane coming back from seeing my mom in LA. The man next to me was intense, hyperkinetic at his discovery of our little northwestern paradise. He was a stockbroker, or lawyer or something and was telling me, in a staccato that suggested he’d already embraced Seattle’s caffeine habit, that he had his plan all worked out: he’d already made his first million, and figured he just needed two more before he could quit the rat race and move up here. Port Angeles, he said. It was great. I mean, they didn’t have decent bagels, but he figured that once he convinced the rest of his friends to join him, they’d get somewhere in LA to open up a branch, and then they might actually get a good French restaurant, too, and a yoga studio, while they were at it. And you know, the people out there were a bit weird, but once his friends came up, they wouldn’t have to deal with the locals. He whispered this all to me like he was letting me in on his secret, his five-year roadmap to El Dorado. All I could think was that, if the plane crashed right now, I could die with the solace that I was taking one for the team, and the good people of the peninsula need never know the horrible fate they’d been spared.
By our third day in Port Townsend I found myself desperately hoping I didn’t sound like that lawyer. My career and life went in quite a different direction than any of us could have imagined, but Devon and I never did quite abandon that dream of making our way back to the Northwest. Seattle, in spite of all our friends who still live there and encourage our return, feels too big after all those years away. The San Juans though, those magical islands of my memory, haven’t let go of their spell.
We’ve poked around the area a few times, teasing ourselves a little about about how someday always turns to never if you wait long enough, and flirting with the idea of “How about now?” No, we wouldn’t move back for good, at least not yet. But maybe a little pied-a-terre somewhere…
Given how nicely Port Townsend treated us last time we visited, we thought it would be worth another visit. So we left a pantry full of mac & cheese for the kids along with enough money to order pizza once or twice in our absence and told them we’d be back in a few days. Was a bit alarming to just up and go like that, but with Miranda’s graduation and the end of school, it feels like we’ve had a bit of a sea change at home: the kids are growing/grown up, and you know, there’s just not that much hand-holding they need on a day to day basis anymore.
So off we went on another date with Port Townsend. Port Townsend put on its slinky red dress and blew our collective minds. Sure, there was the kaleidoscope of wildflowers along Hurricane Ridge at the top of the world where we stumbled along, whispering at the immensity of it all. And the windswept walk out to the lighthouse at Fort Worden. There was the quirky old waterfront (uptown, downtown and “undertown”?). And there was the shanty sing at the Wooden Boat Center where we were taken in as lost members of the tribe. When we found ourselves around the table with many of those singers later that night (pure coincidence, blame the Pabloverse), it was like the Port Townsend recruitment committee had staged an intervention to bring us to our senses.
“Oh – you’re a writer? A lot of us are. Jim here is working on a three book deal for his murder mysteries. And Annie – you met Annie, right? She writes fantasy. Got a Nebula Award back in ’89. Yeah, you’ll fit right in.” As the evening went on, we heard tale after tale of what a great community they’ve built here, how unique and magical it is. We really ought to just capitulate and move here, Chris said. “Why delay the inevitable?”
This morning I was walking out below the bluffs on the North Beach, a windswept seascape looking out on Vancouver Island. The North Beach seems to be where people walk their dogs, and I found myself stopping in conversation with damned near every dogwalker I passed. Robert is another California transplant, from way back. From thirty years ago, by odd coincidence. Yeah, he said, once he left the rat race, he’d also wanted to be the last person to move to here. It wasn’t that he minded other people discovering his little hideaway. But he liked it as it was, and didn’t much cotton to new folks coming here and wanting to make it just a little more like wherever it was they’d just left. “You know what I mean, don’t you?” I nodded silently.
There’s a quirkiness here, a self-deprecating but unapologetic spirit. A sense of humor and a sense of wonder. And sense of place that rests on the knowledge that folks here have found, and are holding on tightly (but gently) to a special way of life. Oh, Port Townsend, I’m not sure if I ever had a chance. Please, don’t ever change.