Never judge a book by its cover. Or a city by its television coverage. So the saying goes (sort of).
But reputations exist for a reason. Almost no one in the known universe has been everywhere and done everything. We live vicariously through each other and depend on preconceptions to define the world we know. We use other people’s recollections and impressions to get a sense of the world we have yet to see.
More important than reputations themselves is what we do to challenge them. Reputations, generalizations, and preconceptions are not perfect facsimiles of the universe. The hidden nuances and unexpected deviations are what give life texture. Hunting these nuances out and being receptive to them is what we call being open-minded; it’s what adventure is made of. Over the past two weekends, I have pushed myself to get out and do – to see how the reputation of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest really stacks up – to find adventure. And just maybe learn something along the way.
The Weekend of Belonging
Seattle has a chilly reputation. Some people call it the Seattle Freeze. This term describes the tendency for Seattleites to be at once both furiously considerate and oppressively reserved. As one article puts it, people here are “polite but distant. Have a nice day. Somewhere else.” But it’s not quite that simple.
Friday evening was filled with the smooth sounds of big band soul music rolling across a perfect grassy lawn. Crowds murmured, pulsing with the crescendos of the trombones. With a microbrew in my hand, I was enraptured by the people all around me enjoying the South Lake Union Block Party festivities. As I waited for a friend to arrive, I soaked in this perfect feeling. Sure the line for beer was long and there weren’t any fireflies, but the weather was topped only by the atmosphere, the conversation, and the overwhelming sense of belonging.
Saturday’s evening adventure rivaled Friday’s. I found myself relaxing in front of a screen just below the iconic and much beloved Space Needle. The sense of belonging once again dominated as I reveled in a thoroughly nerdy movie and the perfect weather. As my friend and I were heading back to her car, we overheard some passersby wonder if we had just left a rave – that was the vibrancy and lightheartedness of the evening.
To compliment these social outings, the rest of my weekend was spent engrossed in the pages of books. Saturday was rounded out with a trip to my favorite Seattle bookstore and by the time Sunday night rolled around, I had finished three books – filling in the final slots on my Summer Book Bingo Card. I went to bed Sunday night feeling delighted and fulfilled.
After such a weekend, it was hard to feel anything but wonderful. Camaraderie was equally matched to the quiet moments waiting for friends or reading in the park. Conversations ventured from passing formalities to detailed assessments of the state of society. At no point did I ever feel unwelcome or isolated. Some might view Seattle as an aloof, exclusionary club, but to me it feels more like a respectful bonhomie. It’s a city that encourages you to be content in your own skin. Seattle invites you to be happy alone – together. To me, that is perfect.
The Weekend of Adventure
The Pacific Northwest more generally has a reputation of outdoorsmanship. Everyone wears flannel, can start a fire by rubbing two sticks together and knows how to catch a salmon with their bare hands, probably. I am the least outdoorsy of everyone I know here. The last time I went backwoods camping was in elementary school. For everyone else, it seems like going hiking or camping or paddle boarding are typical night and weekend pursuits. So with some instigation from my sister, I decided to put my rusty outdoor skills to the test.
There is plenty of incredible hiking and camping near Seattle – but for various long-winded reasons, my sister and I decided to hit up the wilderness in southern Oregon. Over a four-day weekend, my sister and I found our way to Diamond Lake, hiked up to the shoulder of Mount Thielsen, and then took a leisurely morning drive around Crater Lake. We slept in rolling meadows and ate our trail food cold in an effort not to burn the forest down. We drank water staight from mountain streams and navigated using only a paper map. In all we slept out for two nights and hiked more than 20 miles before returning home exhausted and ready for a shower. The last day of the vacation was spent playing with my parent’s puppy dogs and working in my beloved garden. Another perfect weekend to rival the previous one.
During our hike, my sister and I learned a few crucial things:
- We are really bad at judging distance and time. At every possible opportunity, my sister and I failed to properly evaluate how much further we had until our next rest spot or the next junction in the trail. First we stopped short 200 yards, then 50, then 10. We would stop to look at the map, grab a sip of water and prepare for another 15 minutes of hiking, only to find our destination was literally around the next bend in the trail.
- There is a difference between National Parks, National Forests, and US Wilderness Lands. Federal land management agencies have split up the land they control into distinct categories, each with its own laws intended to protect these incredible natural spaces. But, these categories can overlap or butt up against each other, so over the course of our hike we passed through a park, a forest and a wilderness and sometimes more than one at a time.
- There are mosquitos in Oregon. Or at least parts of Oregon. Though I’m not entirely convinced that my sister didn’t bring them with her from Washington DC – I’ve never so much as heard a mosquito buzz in Portland or Seattle, but they ate us alive near Diamond Lake. Next time, bug spray.
- I also received a crash course on long-distance thru-hiking. Part of our route took us on the Pacific Crest Trail which runs from the Mexico border to the Canadian border. We met people who have been hiking the trail for months (in fact, a Botswana RPCV hiked the same section of trail on her way to Canada just a few days before we got there… small world). I always knew people did this – I grew up not too far from the Appalachian Trail – but its a cultural constituency I haven’t considered in a long time.
Mostly importantly I learned what I already knew – I enjoy physicality. I enjoy pushing my limits and seeing how far I can go. It’s one of the reasons I love doing mud runs so much. Hiking is just an endurance mud run, without as much mud. I also reminded myself of the joys of disconnecting, of enjoying silence and not knowing what time it is. Growing up in the fast-paced, overly ambitious East Coast, I can see the appeal of immersing myself in the natural world. I was also exposed to a world where people don’t care how fast you hike or how far you go – no matter your level of experience they’ll wish you a “Good Hike” before continuing on their way. The Pacific Northwest, Seattle included, is about just that: a community of individuals doing what they love and encouraging others to do the same.