Nothing but tumbleweeds around here, huh? I have an excuse this time, above and beyond my inherent sloth: My sister Ingrid and I were tromping about the Pacific Northwest, off on a madcap vacation that encompassed my twenty-year high school reunion, two cities, four flights, four hotels, multiple forms of mass transit (subway, bus, taxi, light rail, monorail), enough walking to destroy a brand-new pair of shoes, a whopping load of nostalgia, a dose of melancholia, some excellent food, some mediocre food, and not nearly enough champagne. Here’s how it went down:
Tuesday, August 9th: After an early morning scramble involving inexplicable subway delays and a frantically-hailed taxi on a dark street corner somewhere in Jackson Heights, Ingrid and I fly from JFK to SeaTac, then hop the light rail to downtown Seattle. Seattle is crisp and cool, though dismayingly sunny. Being Gollumesque by nature, we eschew sunlight and seek out damp, rainy weather. Seattle is determined to thwart us in this regard. Blue skies and plenty of sunshine for our entire visit, blast it.
For the first leg of our trip, we’re staying at the Moore Hotel. Downtown Seattle hotel rooms tend to be a mixed bag -- always overpriced, often underwhelming -- but the Moore is a longtime favorite. It’s basic, but it’s clean, it’s cute, it’s cheap, and it has a fantastic downtown location, right near the Pike Place Market. We hike to a grocery store on First Hill for the components of a hotel picnic: French bread, brie, fresh fruit, champagne. Champagne, we’ve found, is the perfect beverage for drinking in hotel rooms -- it lends a celebratory air, and there’s no corkscrew required.
Wednesday, August 10th: We get up far too early, as is our wont, and have our first of what will be many cups of Seattle’s justly-famous cappuccino. Seattle cappuccino is a work of art, often literally.
We wander over to the Space Needle and surrounding areas, then meander back downtown along the water. A gorgeous Russian tall ship, the Pallada, is docked at one of the piers. We watch dozens of uniformed sailors scrambling up the masts and swarming around the rigging in some kind of elaborate drill. For the next few days, downtown Seattle will teem with Russian sailors on shore leave. They’re adorable, all of them, clean-cut and apple-cheeked and grimly purposeful. We develop an unhealthy fascination with their shopping habits and covertly scope out their purchases: flannel boxer shorts from Ross, tins of butter cookies from Walgreens.
Seattle’s famous Market is glutted with tourists (like us!) all throughout our visit. Navigating the twisty corridors of tiny shops and stalls of local goods is an exercise in frustration. We brave the stampede to scamper into a shop for sandwiches, then beat a hasty retreat back to the hotel.
We’ve packed a chess board. Over the course of our vacation we will play, at a rough estimate, eight billion games in our various hotels. Ingrid and I are dangerous chess fiends.
Thursday, August 11th: We trek out to the University of Washington, stopping along the way for breakfast at an organic café. The place is super-cute; the food is god-awful. I order apple-topped French toast, which is loaded with enough brown sugar to make my molars rot with every bite. As a dessert, it’d be merely excessive. As a breakfast, it torpedoes my blood sugar all to hell. By the time we reach the campus, I’m grumpy and moody. My bad disposition spreads to Ingrid. Only a rousing chorus of Depeche Mode’s “Wrong,” which gets stuck in our heads after we make a number of grievous navigational errors, gets us through the morning.
It is impossible to be unhappy while singing Depeche Mode. Counterintuitive, but true.
After a lengthy and exhausting detour through the Arboretum, we hike it back to downtown, where we sit in a theater and watch Attack the Block. Awesome movie. Seriously. Loved it to pieces. See it, see it, see it!
We brave the Market once more and hit an Italian deli for emergency provisions: salad and panini and an excellent Prosecco.
Friday, August 12th: We board a tiny propeller plane for the quick hop over the Cascades from Seattle to Spokane. The flight tends to be a bit on the bumpy and precarious side, but the good folks at Horizon Airlines ease the trauma by passing out free Columbia Valley wines and local beers. I love Horizon. We catch a city bus and arrive at our hotel in downtown Spokane shortly after noon. Here our trip hits a snag when the harried desk clerk informs us that we can’t possibly check into our room until after three o’clock. Fair enough, but she doesn’t even take a cursory glance at our reservation or check the status of our room before sending us on our way.
A bit stymied, we lug our suitcases down Third Avenue to kill some time over lunch at the Ming Wah. Ah, the Ming Wah. Our Spokane trip is entirely nostalgia-driven -- I was born here and lived here until my high school graduation. We rarely get back to this area, so we’re revisiting places that were important to us in our childhood. Ergo, the Ming Wah. We haven’t been here in probably twenty-five, thirty years, but we both have fond memories of great family-style dinners here with our parents: sweet-and-sour prawns, beef with pea pods, eggrolls, almond fried chicken. Almond fried chicken, which is served in a heavy white sauce, is found in Chinese restaurants almost exclusively in the Pacific Northwest and the Deep South. Couldn’t find it in Los Angeles, can’t find it in New York. It was the stuff of dreams in our formative years, so eating it here is important.
We order the chicken and the prawns, which come drenched in a thick sauce the color of fresh blood. No vegetables were harmed in the making of our meal. It’s pretty awesome.
Tired of hauling our bags around town, we slink back to our hotel. There’s a different, more helpful clerk now on duty. He cheerfully pulls up our reservation and assures us there’s no problem with checking into our room early.
Cute hotel. Snazzy décor. Comfy beds. Worth a little hassle.
The first of my scheduled reunion activities is a tour of our recently renovated high school, Lewis and Clark. Ingrid graduated from there as well, two years before me, so she tags along. It’s a great old building with a lot of history -- back in 1911, at the start of construction, Teddy Roosevelt laid the cornerstone (he laid it backwards, actually, but it’s the thought that counts).
After the tour, Ingrid takes off on her own to have dinner with old friends, while I walk out to a brew pub for drinks with my fellow alums. It’s located in a pedestrian-unfriendly, sidewalk-free area on the north side of town. To avoid traffic, I take a Byzantine detour through Riverfront Park, along the Centennial Trail, and across the Gonzaga University campus.
The shortest distance between two points is never through Gonzaga.
Some of my former classmates seem alarmed when I mention I walked to the pub. I’m told it’s not safe to walk at night in Spokane. “This isn’t New York,” someone tells me.
(I don’t know whether it’s safe, honestly. They might be right. I don’t live there anymore, and I respect the judgment of those who do. It felt safe to me, for whatever that’s worth, and anyway, I’m sort of mean and scrappy, especially when I’m out by myself. Regardless of everyone’s well-intentioned warnings, I did a fair amount of night walking in Spokane.)
Saturday, August 13th: Ingrid and I trek over to the west side, almost out to the airport, then climb a big hill to our childhood home. We haven’t been there since… 1987, maybe, and the area has seen a whopping lot of development since then. At the start of the walk, I facetiously predict we’ll need to whip out Ingrid’s GPS before we make it to the top of the hill to figure out where we’re going. We whip it out twice.
Our childhood home was a log cabin that our parents designed and built in 1978. It has changed since then. A lot. The once-bare logs are now covered in green aluminum siding (once you buy a house, of course, you have every right to fix it up any damn way you’d like, and I have no business getting outraged, but… who does that to a log cabin?). We stare at it for a while. There’s no sense of nostalgia here. It’s changed too much. It doesn’t mesh with our memories in any way.
Except for one: The mailbox is the same. It’s gigantic, almost novelty-sized. Now a solid brown, it was originally hand-painted with an elaborate eagle mural by an artistic friend of the family thirty years ago (eagle murals were hip then). There’s no way to discreetly check the underside, which has probably been painted over as well, but there once was a message painted there: “I love you, Ingrid and Morgan.”
On the way down the hill, I wear quarter-sized holes in the soles of my shoes, which I bought in New York the day before we left for Seattle. There’s an obvious pun here about Spokane being hard on the sole.
We hit Boo Radley’s downtown for novelty gifts. We pick up a Spokane Ninja Society t-shirt and, on an impulse, a DVD of Spokanarchy, a fascinating documentary about the fledgling punk scene in Spokane in the 1980s. I have a difficult time explaining to outsiders what growing up here was like, or what the defining characteristics of the city might be. It’s too big an issue, with too many variables, and it’s too complex to boil down into a succinct précis. From now on whenever the question is raised, I’m just going to hand over Spokanarchy (or suggest the asker add Vision Quest to his/her Netflix queue. Not a great movie, but it does have an authentic vintage-Spokane feel).
Tonight is my reunion dinner and dance. Once again, it’s located on the north side of town. A close friend from high school picks me up at my hotel and gives me a ride.
The event is low-key and angst-free. Most of my former classmates look good, like they’ve spent the past twenty years eating the right foods and getting plenty of exercise. Smart and interesting teenagers have evolved into smart and interesting adults. Some have done nicely for themselves in Spokane, whereas some, like me, have flung themselves around the country: Kim is a professor at Pepperdine, Ben is a preservation specialist at the Library of Congress, Michelle is an attorney in New Orleans, Lisa is a police officer in San Antonio.
My classmates vote me Most Likely to Still Listen to Duran Duran. Guilty as charged.
It’s a fun evening, but I’m feeling a little run-down and low-wattage, so I call it an early night. Once again, friends are outraged at the idea of me walking to my hotel. I blithely lie about calling a taxi, then walk across the Spokane River and back to downtown.
Sunday, August 14th: Ingrid and I hike up to our old grade school on the South Hill, then lurch back downtown and check ourselves into a swanky suite at the Davenport Hotel for a single luxurious night. Oh, lordy, the Davenport. A world-class hotel in the middle of Spokane, it’s gorgeous. We drink gimmicky cocktails in one of the lounges, then pick up bad champagne from a local market and order Cougar Gold cheese dip from room service. For the uninitiated, Cougar Gold, manufactured by the creamery at Washington State University, is one of the finest things ever to come out of eastern Washington.
Monday, August 15th: The Davenport is lovely. Our suite is lavish. The customer service is impeccable. The food in the main restaurant is scrumptious. The coffee, however, is burnt and bitter. As we consider coffee a vital and necessary food group, we head to a nearby coffee shop, where a tattooed Shaun Cassidy doppelganger fixes us a couple of excellent cappuccinos. We resist the urge to hum “Da Doo Ron Ron” within his earshot, then catch a bus to the airport.
We are, frankly, a little bit over Spokane by this point. It’s not you, Spokane, it’s us.
Back to Seattle, on an Alaska Airlines flight this time. It’s a much bigger plane, which makes for a smoother ride over the mountains, but unlike our Horizon flight, there is no free beer and wine. Advantage: Horizon. We check into a weird little hotel near the Space Needle.
The Russian sailors have left the city. This makes us sad.
Tuesday, August 16th: We meet a childhood friend for Thai food at the (still-crowded) Market, then slink off to see Attack the Block again.
Attack the Block: Still totally awesome.
Wednesday 17th: We check out of our hotel, catch the light rail to SeaTac, and fly to New York. En route, I play four hours of computer chess on the in-flight entertainment system.
New York is muggy and sticky and stinky. Back home, we find our fuses blown, our refrigerator making ominous noises, and our cat preparing to launch into an epic hissyfit.
Good to be back.
(Special thanks to Ingrid for letting me use her photos. Despite my film-school background, she's the better photographer by far.)