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The Clean Skies of Seattle

Published
August 29, 2021
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I WAS only going to be in Seattle for 36 hours. I found a place in 2nd Street in the City Hostel in Seattle. Seattle is a sprawling metropolis and the largest city in the state of Washington. It was founded in 1852.

When I arrived, it was raining torrentially. This is apparently quite normal. But the city is also famous for the clear blue skies that come after, with no dust or haze.

Thankfully, the weather settled down enough for me to do a walking tour of the city. This was an organized tour, after which you gave a donation at the end of what you thought it was worth. A typically eccentric, US West Coast way of doing things!

We went around for two hours, and I was told all about the history of the city. Seattle was named after the local Native American Chief of the Duwamish tribe, whose name is spelt Si’ahl in modern Duwamish spelling. Other variants of his name that survive in local placenames include Sealth, as in Camp Sealth

Chief Seattle, or Si’ahl, was born around 1786 and lived until 1866. He got along well with the early American settlers, which is why they named the city after him. Seattle was originally a logging town, and the settlers chopped down hundreds of one- and two-thousand-year-old trees on the site of the modern city. It’s not clear what Chief Seattle thought about that. The well-known environmental sermon supposedly given by Chief Seattle in 1854 called ‘This Earth is Precious’, which ends in the words “the end of living and the beginning of survival,” and which appears in whole or in part on many a hippie-type poster, actually comes from the script of a historical drama penned by the Hollywood screenwriter Ted Perry; a soliloquy that Perry himself later came to regard as corny and patronising.

The food was amazing in Seattle; I could get a decent seafood meal for about $10. One I vividly remember was wild salmon chowder with prawns. It was delicious! There has been a huge boost in the number of restaurants over the last few years, and they are encouraging people to eat there with happy hours and things, like that so it’s a great environment. It’s good for the economy because there is a lot of competition. It’s all really good.

Seattle has an incredible music industry. The city has been the stepping-stone for many famous rock bands including Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. There is a lot of theatre and live music all around the inner city which makes it a great place for a night out.

The waterfront of Seattle is amazing. There is huge change going on there and an eco-park being built. They are removing the Alaskan Way freeway and putting it underground, which makes it more pedestrian friendly.

There was a huge fire in 1889 which destroyed the whole central district. A lot of the inner city still consists of the brick buildings that replaced the wooden buildings immediately after the fire. These had a style similar to what I had seen in Vancouver.

I went to Pike Place Market, where the very first ever Starbucks café was opened in 1971. This old and famous market was renovated in the same decade by the local architect and heritage conservationist Victor Steinbrueck, who also designed the city’s famous Space Needle.

On the western outskirts of the city there are the amazing Olympic Mountains, where they have a lot of skiing and snowboarding events.

To the southeast is the highest and most famous mountain in Washington State, Mount Rainier, a huge volcano which has a reputation as one of the most potentially dangerous volcanoes in the world in terms of its size, likelihood of eruption and mudflows, and proximity to a big city. In the meantime, it is a hive of outdoor activities and winter sports as well.

I managed to catch a ferry out to Bainbridge Island, which was full of trees turning the rich hues of autumn. There was this friendly girl from Germany who was in a wheelchair and travelled around the world on her own. She was so inspiring!

I did see some indigenous art works in the museums which was great too. One thing I wonder about is why so many place names in North America seem to be English-language ones which are often banal and endlessly recycled, while the indigenous ones have vanished from the landscape. This is true even in the Pacific Northwest, which is otherwise proud of its indigenous heritage. Just about all the placenames in Seattle are English-sounding.

A little further south, Portland, Oregon, is named after Portland, Maine, which is in turn named after Portland, in England. And then there are all the Sunnyvales and Fruitvales, in Auckland and northern California alike. Explorers with a naval background like Captains Cook and, for that matter, Vancouver, were like John Milton by comparison: fond of names like Disappointment, Deception, Obstruction, Foulwind and Flattery. Even so, the indigenous names are still lost in such cases.

Indigenous place names are better preserved, in the original language, in New Zealand than in many parts of North America. This is perhaps because of the somewhat better shape in which Māori indigenous culture survived, as well as the early formalization of Māori as a written language. When the main body of colonists arrived New Zealand already had Māori place-names which were written down on maps and in deeds. New Zealand is like Hawai‘i in that respect.

Marijuana is decriminalised in Seattle: you can buy it but you can’t smoke it in public.

Seattle introduced a minimum wage of $15 about three years ago, to be phased in progressively, which I thought was interesting. Certainly, the economists think so and its effects are being closely studied.

I was busy organising my trip to Yosemite National Park, so I was a bit preoccupied with that, I think I saw most of the things I needed to in Seattle. So that was all fine, and it was time I got on my way again.

I could have caught the train all the way to Merced, the gateway to Yosemite. But with all the stops and changing trains, that would have taken 24 hours: far too long! And so, it made sense to take a break part-way in San Francisco, where they say the future happens first.

Note: In 1993, Nancy Zussy, at that time the State Librarian of Washington State, wrote an essay describing the evolution of successively more apocryphal versions of Chief Seattle’s January 1854 speech, which first appeared in a newspaper in quite a different form to the Perry version in 1887, its publication delayed for some reason by more than thirty years. See, as of the time of writing: http://www.synaptic.bc.ca/ejournal/wslibrry.htm#.WYU404SGOM9

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