Friday, February 24, 2012

Not what I had in mind: How I found Seattle for the first time (Part I)

Zoom to a two-lane highway on a glorious day in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada in October 2000. I am ecstatic. For the past month, I've been sleeping in a cramped camper in the backyard of a dysfunctional family in a broken-down town in the middle of nowhere. A rooster struts underneath the camper at five-thirty every morning to wake me with an ear-shattering crow. I am ostensibly here to learn how to make goat cheese, but there are some problems. First, I have discovered that I absolutely hate goat cheese. "What flavor do you like the best?" would-be customers constantly ask me at the weekly farmers' market. I try not to flinch, then reply, "Well, uh, most people seem to like this one," demurely offering them a sample of the spreadable herb-garlic. When some folks cringe at their first taste of that distinctive goat-y flavor, I have a hard time disguising my sympathy.

Also, the farmer I'm working for isn't the most disciplined in her profession. She rarely emerges from the family trailer before 9:30 am, and even then she only puts in a few hours of work each day. I'm beginning to wonder if she has a trust fund somewhere.  Her husband is on disability leave after taking a bad spill from a ladder during a roofing project. He's told me he wants to brush up on Auto-CAD and go to school for architecture, but every time I go in the house he's sprawled out on the couch eyeing the television with mild disgust, and menacingly wielding a fly swatter. Every visible surface in the room is covered with fly carcasses. Including the ceiling.

There's more. It's breeding season, and the farmer's friend has generously loaned us one of her horniest billy goats. From the tiny slit of a window by my camper bunk, I can see him repeatedly mounting the females, who want none of it. He's not in the least discouraged. Watching his efforts, I consider giving up males altogether. As part of the mating ritual, he pees on himself and then smears the urine all over his shaggy brown coat. Pheromones fly and permeate the property with a putrid stink. The farmer's eight-year-old daughter comes home from school with a teacher's note: Alexis has smelled a little ripe lately. Could you please give her a good washing? I would worry about my goat-stink too, but it seems inconsequential, since I never leave the farm.

This isn't exactly what I had in mind.

I'm taking a year off from school. After two years at a highly reputable Canadian university, I've had enough. I feel like I've just been doing what's expected of me without really knowing why. I'm tired of classrooms so large I can't even see the professor or dare to shout out a question, of professors who look at me blankly despite my repeated visits to their office hours. More importantly, I'm craving some genuine experience, beyond the confines of the classroom. I'm inspired by Into the Wild, by a recently discovered passion for mountains and wild places, by a few charismatic vagabonds who've crossed my path. I'm 19 years old, and I've been in school my entire life. I know there's a lot more out there, and I can't stomach another semester until I get a taste of it.

My plan for the fall is to volunteer my way up the coast on different organic farms. For a very reasonable ten dollars, the organization Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) has sent me a listing of West Coast farms that will provide room, board and informal training to people willing to work a very manageable average of four hours a day. There are dozens of listings, from hippie-run healing centers in the California desert to tiny market farms in the foothills of the North Cascades. I tell myself I'll start in California and slowly head north to Washington, arriving in time for the apple harvest. My parents are not thrilled that I have dropped out of school, and seem anxious about my farm-hopping plan. The house is full of tension, and I want to get out of Massachusetts as soon as possible. So when the goat dairy farmer offers me a month-long stint on her farm, I don't hesitate. I jet across the country with a friend who's Tahoe-bound and am settling into the camper within a week.

After a mere couple of weeks among the goats, though, I'm going stir-crazy. The camper, the flies, the inactivity of this sleepy town are driving me nuts. I solicit the help of a depressive yet mechanically-savvy Deadhead who's friends with the goat farmer and buy the first car he presents me with. It's a 1985 Dodge Diplomat, a retired old-school police cruiser complete with searchlight and decal. Again, it's not what I had in mind, but the price is right, and it appears to run. I fork over $800 of my summer savings and prepare for a backpacking weekend in Tahoe with my cross-country conspirator.

So back to that highway in the foothills. I have escaped, temporarily, and freedom is in the air. My tenure at the goat farm is almost over. This weekend, I'll finally get a taste of the much-anticipated Sierras, and in a week or so, I'll be making my way to a new farm, which in my mind can only be better, much better, than where I am now. And if it's not, I can always sail away in my cruiser.

I have escaped the shrub-covered foothills and am climbing into the mountains. My heartbeat quickens as I pass the 2000 foot elevation marker. The road begins to twist and turn. For the first time in a month, I enter an honest-to-god forest. The trees tower over the roadway, creating a cool, shaded tunnel through which I hurtle upwards. I have just passed the sign announcing 5000 feet when thick grey smoke starts pouring out of the vents in my hood. I pull over and pop the hood. When I step out to survey the scene, I'm alarmed to note that my engine is actually aflame. Armed with overpriced organic cider from this morning's farmer's market, I douse the blaze, to no avail. I am in the middle of nowhere, northern California, and the car that I bought a week ago is on fire.

I remove my belongings from the car's trunk and stand back. To my astonishment, cars continue to drive by for what seems like a long period of time. Finally, a concerned citizen comes to my rescue, but his fire extinguisher is no match for the veritable inferno emanating from my hood. Eventually, the fire is too impressive to ignore, and traffic stops in both directions. People emerge from their vehicles and join me in spectating. The windows explode one by one, and the flames surge upwards, dangerously close to the canopy of this dry western forest. One of my newfound pals snaps my grinning image in front of the blazing car. All things considered, I feel like I'm handling the situation pretty sportingly.

Forty minutes later, when the singed remains of the cruiser have attained a fairly uniform grey hue, the volunteer fire department arrives on the scene. I answer their questions.

What make was it? 
A Dodge Diplomat. was grey, right? 

Well, miss, you should be able to get a ride into town with the tow truck driver. 

I call the insurance company to report the loss, and they tell me they're going to send an agent out to confirm that the car is, in fact, totaled. After surviving an unexpected snowstorm in the Sierra backcountry, I return to the goat dairy and call the insurance company yet again. You got the car in storage? Good, we're gonna send someone out there sometime this week. The next time I call, they are indignant. Your policy didn't cover fires, they tell me. We're not sending anyone out there.

My coolness is starting to dissipate. I call the storage folks and tell them to destroy the car, and learn that they have been charging me $100 per day to keep my wreck of a vehicle in their lot. It's been there for ten days. My summer savings are all but exhausted, and I'm only a month into my gap year adventures.

I'm not about to crawl back home this early in the game. I call my sister, who has just completed a summer of volunteer work with the Forest Service in rural Idaho and is in the process of moving to Seattle with her boyfriend. They're currently crashing on the couch of a friend's friend, but if I'm really desperate, I could crash on the floor temporarily.

I'm as desperate as I've ever been.

Looks like I'm moving to Seattle. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sweater Vest Smackdown

I am seven miles into an eight mile run when I encounter the first stoplight of the afternoon. I sidle onto the curb beside a well-dressed young lad who looks like he's straight out of a Land's End ad, sweater-vested and khaki-panted, and toting a scrunched-up paper lunch sack, to patiently wait for the light to change. I have learned to wait, semi-patiently, for the light to change. This does not come naturally. I am from the Northeast, after all. When I first arrived in Seattle with the intention of staying, I was amused and slightly disconcerted to note the serenity with which pedestrians waited at traffic-less crosswalks until the signal turned green. Didn't they have somewhere to be? Couldn't they see that NO ONE was coming? I did, and I could see, and I wasn't going to idly stand by while valuable time slipped through my fingers. I crossed the street as I damned well pleased.

But several months have passed since then, and I, ever flexible, am trying to adapt. I stand politely next to Mr. Sweater Vest and wait. A minute passes, the light turns green, and I am off for this run's final mile.

A few seconds later, I catch an argyle-patterned blur. The sweater-vested one zooms past me on the sidewalk, lunch sack still in hand. He darts ahead with surprising speed. My ego protests, and I give chase, but there's no catching this one. He cruises into the distance, and I bemusedly make my way home, wondering at the contents of the magical sandwich bag.

Don't get me wrong; I chose Seattle. After a geographically stable childhood in small-town Massachusetts, I spent my 13 post-high school years roving from Montreal to New Hampshire to California to Washington to the Canadian Arctic to Montana to West Africa to Vermont to West Virginia to France to Michigan to Oregon to East Africa, with lots of to-ing and fro-ing in between. My backpack is worn out. I sold my skis, and my beloved road bike, after hauling them from temporary home to temporary home five too many times. I don't know who my mayor is, and have missed just all about all of my friends' weddings. For a good while the adventure of all that movement was worth the inconveniences, but somewhere along the line I realized that there might be advantages to a bit more stability (it might have been the night when the miniature bed on loan to me from the French school district collapsed beneath the weight of an unsuspecting houseguest).

My adventures are by no means over, but I'm increasingly feeling the need for a semi-permanent "place to hang my hat" (à la Bruce Chatwin) - a place from which to base my exploits, where I can store not only my headgear but also my new bicycle and my eventual skis, where I can invest in a bed that won't fail me at crucial moments, around which I can build the sense of community and self that I realize more than ever is important for my sanity. Chatwin was a bit cavalier about said place, but I was pretty deliberate about Seattle. First and foremost, it's ringed by exceptional mountains and glacier-green rivers, the most beautiful landscapes I know. It's full of ambitious, active, outdoorsy folks who aren't afraid of a little rain. It's an internationally-minded place, home to some of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country and a significant refugee contingent, including a sizable population of "Lost Boys" from one of my beloved former homes, South Sudan.

I did not come here to be a hipster. In truth, I make a pretty pathetic hipster. If you have a hipster mustache, I am probably already laughing at you. I do like cupcakes, but damned if I'll fork over three-fifty for one. Don't ask me to swing dance, even if I do look kinda cute in my decidedly unhip jeans and sweater combo; my stumbling and fumbling will totally mess up your hard-earned hipster moves. How do you pedal so effortlessly by me on that unforgiving Seattle uphill stretch - are your hot pink knee socks turbo-charged?

Maybe I'll adjust in time, but meanwhile, please join me as I gape and gawk at all that I am not, and reflect on the long and winding path that brought me here, the fabled land of hipsters - Seattle.