Travelogue: Tacoma, Leavenworth, Spokane, Seattle
Tuesday, August 9th
We leave New York in the wee hours of the morning, catching a shuttle from Grand Central Station to Newark. The first leg of our trip gets us as far as Los Angeles. We’re flying Virgin America, which means we have a layover in the Worst Terminal At LAX™. If you fly out of Los Angeles with any frequency, you know which one I mean; if not, Google “Virgin America terminal LAX” and settle in for some horror stories. It’s dreary and cramped and overstuffed with travelers, and the food options are limited to Starbucks, Burger King, and an overpriced and semi-awful fish restaurant. We’re here for a while, so we go to the fish restaurant, because it’s the only place where we can sit in relative peace. We order salads and glasses of indifferent wine. Tab with tip: $120. This will be the most expensive meal of our entire vacation, and that will include the time Ingrid picks up the check for a leisurely dinner in Spokane, with multiple rounds of drinks, at a sit-down restaurant with two of our friends.
LAX is glutted with bands. We don’t know why. There are two leather-clad bands in the restaurant with us, lugging around their guitar cases and sundry gear. At the booth in the corner are the San Diego-based heavy metal group CAGE; we never manage to identify the band seated directly beside us, but all the members bear a striking resemblance to Lemmy from Motorhead.
Our connecting flight is delayed. Having killed all the time we reasonably can in the restaurant, we return to our crowded, crowded gate and search for somewhere to sit. Tom Colicchio is seated in our terminal, looking roughly as cramped and uncomfortable as we feel. Much as we love Top Chef (and we do, we really do), we do not disturb him. Nobody deserves to be pestered by fans when they’re trapped in a crowded terminal.
Upon arriving at last at SeaTac, we hop a city bus to Tacoma, then leisurely stroll from the bus depot by the Tacoma dome to our fancy downtown hotel. As with last summer’s vacation, we’re staying at the Hotel Murano, which is an oasis of calm. And this time, there’s no child beauty pageant going on simultaneously, so that’s a plus.
Literally no one we meet in Tacoma believes we’re New Yorkers here on vacation. We get the impression no one visits Tacoma recreationally, which is a shame. It’s a lovely town. Run-down in parts, but hell, so are we.
Wednesday, August 10th
We spend the day in Tacoma. We’re planning an eventually move back to the Northwest, and Tacoma is high on our list of possible places to live, because it’s cheap, and the architecture is gorgeous. We take an early morning stroll. Our paternal grandparents, both of whom died before I was born, used to live here in the 1930s; equipped with addresses and old photos, we seek out their former homes. We meet a somewhat down-on-his-luck old gentleman, who greets us courteously and asks us if we’re out for our “morning constitutional”. He wins our hearts by addressing us as “young ladies.” This sort of thing makes us really like Tacoma.
This is Stadium High School in Tacoma. Tacoma is, in places, ridiculously pretty:
We visit Tacoma Book Center, which instantly becomes our new favorite used bookstore of all times. Huge, cluttered, friendly. I would move to Tacoma just to be close to Tacoma Book Center.
Thursday, August 11th
We catch a Northwestern Trailways bus from Tacoma to take us to Leavenworth. Leavenworth, which is nestled in the Cascades, is 150 miles away from Tacoma. On the bus, it takes five hours, most of which is sucked up by the maze of traffic surrounding Seattle. We’re dropped off at a Leavenworth gas station an hour behind schedule.
Leavenworth, for the uninitiated, is a delightful tourist trap, a Bavarian-themed village framed by pine-covered mountains on the banks of the Wenatchee River. We check into our hotel, the irresistibly-named Bavarian Ritz, and head out for a spread of German food—a glorious array of wursts and krauts, accompanied by strong mustard and roasted potatoes—at Andreas Keller. We’re seated in a carved wood booth shaped like a hobbit hole. Our waitress is wearing a dirndl. It’s wonderful.
Our aunt used to live in Leavenworth, so we’d frequently visit her during our childhood. This is our first visit in maybe twenty-five, thirty years. We head to the park and wade in the Wenatchee River, giggling nervously at the vast number of signs warning us about bears. From the number of signs, I can only assume they average about a bear death per day in Leavenworth. We stroll along the main stretch, popping into shops we remember fondly from our formative years. We visit a cheese shop we used to love. The visit gets off to a rough start when the young dude manning the counter offers us a cheese sample, then goes on to explain the concept of Gruyere to us (“It’s a soft cheese, like a Swiss,” he offers helpfully). Okay, that’s a little irritating—we are well-versed in cheeses, and there’s nothing even remotely exotic about Gruyere, for crying out loud—but he’s doing his job. We’re willing to forgive a little bit of unnecessary cheesesplaining.
What happens next, though, is unforgivable.
So we’re shopping in the cheese store, looking for wine and comestibles to bring back to our hotel room. We find a huckleberry Riesling from the Latah Creek Winery in Spokane. We love huckleberries. We love Spokane. We bring our purchase up to the counter. The following conversation with our cashier ensues:
Cashier (with palpable disdain): Ah, I see you’re going for some kind of huckleberry blend.
Ingrid: We thought we’d try it. It’s from Spokane, and we’re originally from Spokane…
Cashier (dead serious): Yeah, I haven’t heard of anything good ever coming from Spokane.
Really, dude? Really? This is the moment when we both start to hate Leavenworth, just a little.
Friday, August 12th
We head back out to the gas station to catch our bus, this time heading further east to Spokane. It’s a hot, hot day, and our bus is an hour late. We’re more or less primed for this—after all, it was an hour late arriving here yesterday. We have time to kill, so I doodle. Here’s my sketch of the gas station, framed by the Cascades:
A biker gang (Apocalypse Snohomish County and the Ladies of Apocalypse) stop at the gas station to refresh and refuel en route to Idaho. We chat with them. They’re Seattle-based, so we ask them for suggestions for reasonably-priced up-and-coming neighborhoods to live in. They make a bunch of solid recommendations. We tell them we’re considering Tacoma. Like a shot, we suddenly have eight bikers telling us emphatically and seriously that Tacoma is not a good place to live.
(There are obvious follow-up questions that should’ve been asked. We drop the ball here by not asking them to elaborate, but at this point we’re a little afraid of the answer.)
Our bus finally comes. Five hours later, we arrive in downtown Spokane. We’re meeting friends for dinner, so we head straight to the restaurant from the Greyhound station. It’s about five in the afternoon/early evening, in a perfectly nice part of downtown. Nobody’s around, except for a pretty young woman in a white lace dress, who is walking down the sidewalk a few paces in front of us. She drops something that looks like a long white scarf, then teeters on high heels into the alleyway. We look at what she dropped: a long stream of toilet paper. She’s standing in the middle of the alley, fully exposed, skirt up, urinating. We feel an immediate protective impulse toward her—how fucked up do you have to be think peeing out in the open on a city street in the middle of the day is a good idea? We love Spokane and always will—it’s the place of my birth, after all—but this is the first of several indications on our visit that some things are deeply wrong here.
Lovely dinner with friends, by the way. The food is mediocre, but the beer list is outstanding (they have New Belgian Tart Lychee sour ale on tap, which I’d been fruitlessly trying to track down in New York all summer; Ingrid orders a delicious Spokane-brewed lemon-basil cider), and the company is great. We tell our friends about the bikers warning us away from Tacoma. They nod knowingly. Oh, yeah, they say. You don’t want to live in Tacoma.
We press for details. It seems to boil down to this: 1) Tacoma is crime-ridden, and 2) Tacoma smells bad (from the paper mill; the phrase “Tacoma aroma” is used). We’re okay with this, because: 1) we live in Queens, and 2) we live by the East River, home of multiple active sewage-treatment plants. We’re totally cool with “crime-ridden and stinky”. Feels like home.
Saturday, August 13th
We’re staying at the Davenport Hotel, which we freaking adore. It’s the most gorgeous hotel in Spokane, which sounds like faint praise; actually, it’s one of the most gorgeous hotels in the world. A slight knock against the Davenport: Unlike our last stay here, there’s no in-room coffee pot. We need our morning coffee, so this is a blow. We make instant coffee with tap water, then head down to the pool for a morning swim. At this early hour (five a.m., because we’re still on New York time), we have it to ourselves. It’s gorgeous.
After breakfast at Frank’s Diner (housed in a restored railroad car; it’s a beloved and enduring Spokane landmark that we somehow never managed to visit during our seventeen years living here), we go for a long walk around Browne’s Addition, which is the most beautiful old neighborhood in the city. We hike down the cliff to the banks of the Spokane River. It’s almost a perfect morning.
Then we walk back along Riverside into downtown Spokane, and things abruptly become less perfect. The downtown streets are torn up all to hell for street repairs; whole intersections are blocked off, with no accommodations made for pedestrian traffic. We hit Riverfront Park, and…well, it’s not good. It’s goddamn ugly now, is what it is. It’s undergoing extensive multiyear construction, with haphazard chain link fences propped up all around. Riverfront is a jewel in the center of Spokane, and now it looks like ass.
Downtown Spokane, on an August weekend, is almost deserted. It’s creepy. There’s a disturbingly high proportion of openly drug-addled people and/or people with untreated mental illnesses on the street, which means we see a great many people stumbling around while mumbling or shouting incomprehensibly. Since there aren’t many other people about, this quickly becomes unsettling. New York (and Los Angeles, where I lived from 1991 to 2011) obviously also has a large number of mentally-unstable people out and about, but because it’s such a big, crowded city, the effect is diluted. If you have two people on the sidewalk shouting obscenities in a crowd of thousands, it doesn’t really matter. If you have two people on the sidewalk shouting obscenities when you’re the only other person around, it’s a problem. The whole situation makes us feel glum and helpless—these are people who need help and access to robust public-health resources, and for whatever reason or combination of reasons, they’re not finding these things in Spokane.
Ingrid is meeting with some old friends that evening, while I’m heading off to a bar for a small, informal 25-year reunion with my high school classmates. It’s a fun evening. I see people I haven’t seen for a quarter of a century, like my seventh-grade science lab partner Joe. Or like my brilliant friend Chris, who is a lawyer in Nairobi and who is the only person we meet on this entire visit who thinks living in Tacoma is an awesome idea. You’re a good egg, Chris. You understand the stealth appeal of Tacoma.
Sunday, August 14th
Even though I had a very late night (after the reunion, I headed over to a classmate’s home to continue the reminiscing, then caught a cab back to the Davenport), we’re up at five AM again to use the pool. We love swimming, and chances to swim in New York are pretty rare. We catch the city bus from downtown to the airport. Our flight to Seattle is canceled, grumble, so we spend far too much time in the Spokane airport waiting for the next one.
When we finally reach Seattle, we’re low on vim and vigor. We catch the light rail from the airport to downtown and check into our hotel. For this last leg of the trip, we’re staying at our old standby, the Moore. Our room has almost no water pressure (impossible to shower, very difficult to bathe), and there’s no air conditioning, and the rates have gone up, but still, we’re downright fond of that place. We’re feeling antisocial and vaguely unwell, so we run out for Chipotle, grab a bottle of champagne from Walgreens, and huddle inside our stuffy but pleasant room, watching the Olympics on Canadian television and recovering.
Monday, August 15th
We head out early for a walk along the waterfront, angling it north through Queen Anne. Seattle’s population has exploded in recent years, thanks to a booming tech industry (Amazon is well on its way to taking over most of Seattle), and the city has become very crowded and very, very expensive. It’s still beautiful, though. Blue water, pine trees, Mount Rainier in the background… There’s a reason why Seattle is so beloved by so many. We cross from Queen Anne into Magnolia, then head over to Ballard, which is high on our list of possible places to live, thanks to the abundance of coffee shops, brew pubs, wine bars, bookstores, and cool old buildings. We wander through Fremont to visit the troll under the Aurora Bridge:
Then we make our way to the University of Washington and catch the new light rail extension back to downtown. We have a few minutes back in our hotel to freshen up, then we catch a bus to the Microsoft campus in Redmond, where we’re picked up by the legendary Durandy and whisked off to the Duran Duran archive.
Durandy is the consummate host. We spend a lovely afternoon at the archive, going through his vast collection of Duran paraphernalia.
Tuesday, August 16th
After a morning walk out to the Space Needle, we take the light rail to SeaTac, whereupon we discover our flight has been delayed due to fog. We’re concerned about this, as we have a fairly narrow connection in San Francisco. No worries, the flight attendant assures us—our flight out of San Francisco will probably be delayed, too. Oh. It’s… well, it’s a rough travel day. Exhausted from the trip and under the weather, I spend the day being whiny and snappish and feeling very, very sorry for myself. Once we finally make it to San Francisco, we find our flight has been pushed back an hour, which isn’t so bad. An hour passes, and it gets pushed back another hour. And then another hour. Our plane is at the gate, all ready to go, but severe thunderstorms are expected that evening in New York, and air traffic control is trying to figure out when it’ll be safe to land. It’s frustrating, and again, I am not at my cheerful best. We try to hit all the right pleasure buttons while waiting out the delay—we eat carne asada tacos and pick up sourdough bread, wine, and chocolate for our return—but I’m still cranky and miserable. I do my very best to make Ingrid cranky and miserable, too.
Our flight path back to New York takes us on weird detours over Canada to avoid the storm. We pick up an extra hour or so of travel time, which we mostly spend watching the Olympics and stewing in self-pity. We arrive at JFK at about two in the morning in the middle of a wild downpour. Not having the strength to deal with off-hours public transportation (it takes three subways and an air train to get home from JFK), we catch a cab.
Our apartment is damp and sweltering—New York had a heat wave while we were gone—but everything is more or less in one piece, and we haven’t been overrun by cockroaches in our absence, so that’s all good. We’re both very sick and very exhausted. Nonetheless, it’s good to be home.