Three years ago I sat at a tiki bar at a wedding reception on Orcas Island, one of the largest of the San Juan islands north of Seattle, supervising the rotating kegs of the beers, ales and lambics for which Cascadia is deservedly famous. My company was fellow keg-hugger types, fierce and brilliant Seattle-area professionals. Most were in their late twenties and early thirties, young but with a bit of experience on them and with their wedding game really hitting its stride.
We talked. Their authorities flowed, wide and rich, like an eight-percent coffee porter: complex, current, global in scope, informed by wide travel and good schools. They were hyperarticulate, conceptually nuanced, keen of wit and reference. In their presence, I found it uncharacteristically easy to sublimate, to erase my own sparring and playful intelligence and to impress no authority whatsoever upon the conversation.
Over the course of several hours and a number of drinks, the modern world was millenni-splained to me in the playfully pedantic “well, actually” cadence of that generational dialect: cinema, myth, climate, Shakespeare and Kurosowa, peak oil, lean project management modalities, protein, coding, and coding with proteins. Marital offices have bid me visit Seattle fairly frequently for 25 years now.
How can you not be impressed by this city on the Sound? Its natural situation is nonpareil even on the 330 days a year when the terrible majesty of Mt. Rainier will not shew. Its cultural engine rivals or surpasses cities twice its size. Its tapestry of cool neighborhoods is endless, intricate and flavorful. Its intense self-scrutiny and civicmindedness make it America’s greatest or at least biggest blue-lab progressive experiment, with white supremacist enclaves seething literally 25 or 30 minutes to the east toward Spokane.
I love Seattle, but Seattle doesn’t think much of me.
How can I explain? To hear yourself speaking as a smartass New Yorker to Seattleites is to appreciate, perhaps for the first time, how deeply embedded in your worldview is the rhetoric of quiescence and defeat, and the habits of subversion. They don’t “do” that there. Jaundice is not among their superpowers. For all its verbal virtuosity, Seattle doesn’t quite know how to process the conspiratorial complicity at the heart of what we call sarcasm. Snark they excel at, of course, but the point of snark is “I know better,” and they do. The subtext of sarcasm is more like, “Nothing is actually what we pretend it is, now is it?” And let’s face it: without that shared assumption of winking complicity, sarcasm is just asshole.
I’m no hardcore New Yorker. I’m from provincial, eccentric New Paltz, but my voice just doesn’t play in Seattle. One theory is that people in the Western coastal states live under such a continuous and brutal onslaught of grandiose natural beauty that it has pounded, stunned and blanched certain kinds of reflective intrigue right out of them. Just a thought.
Anyway, when I did finally open my yap at the tiki bar to let something out rather than in, it was about the safest, most neutral of all subjects, the immediate and observable: Orcas Island, the weather, water and trees. After my first-ever legal purchase (days earlier, back in Capitol Hill), I had taken several hikes alone around the small lakes of Orcas Island. I noted how, to this child of the overgrown, verdant East, the striking thing about the Northwest is how high the canopy of foliage is, how open and uncluttered the lower registers of forest shade, how absent the bramble, how deep and dimensional the visibility. For all of our famous biodiversity, we don’t get that vaulted spatiality in the East. “Yeah,” said one young man, a successful electronic journalist. “I’ve hiked in the East a lot. It’s boring. It’s like a green tube.”
First, nature is not an aesthetic consumable. This generation of Thomas Frank-loving progressives has gone and missed Tom Frank’s main point and commodified the experience of the outdoors, rarefied adventure, and posited that, if you didn’t almost die, you didn’t actually go anywhere. They understand travel, fearless and wide, as a virtue without which selfhood is impossible rather than as an expensive, fuel-intensive indulgence unavailable to most.
Yes, I know everyone at that this damn wicker stand except me has crossed Andean passes and communed with the essence of Alaska (I got as far as Sitka on a cruise ship). Those that haven’t jumped out of Japanese helicopters on snowboards have been part of large-scale efforts to tag and track the venomous tree snakes of Costa Rica. I am impressed. Duly. Truly.
As Wendell Berry wrote, the real naturalists give neither a hoot nor a crap about the aesthetics of vistas and spreads. Nature is not to be accumulated, logged and graded. The Muirs and Burroughses found what they love in every rotting stump, dry reed and plump tick.
Well, I am not a John of their ilk by any means. I walk, daily, with my head down mostly and incipient tunes or essays ringing in my skull, or trying to. I close my front door and within minutes I am on the Wallkill Valley rail-trail. If I am feeling like a gentleman of the village, I head north, petting the dogs whose owners will allow. If I am feeling like a gentleman of the town who would prefer not to meet other eyes, I head south. In either case, I am back home in two hours or less with nary a combustion engine stirred.
Incidentally, Seattle, our neighboring and rival community of Highland, the Huskies, has some lovely new linear parks as well, extended trails that run through the woods under the radio towers on Illinois “Mountain.” This being Highland, of course, the trail is paved and wide enough for a patrol car and an F150 to pass each other comfortably, or perhaps to pull up and chat.
But, Seattle, something big happened to my green tube last year. Thanks to the coordinated efforts of the Mohonk Preserve a somewhat posh Manhattan-based environmental preservation and land acquisition initiative called the Open Space Institute (or the more sci-fi OSI), I can now — without ever leaving protected land — walk out my door, onto the rail-trail, and all the way to the foothills of the Shawangunk Mountains, where your green-tube theory falls laughably to pieces.
I once believed New Paltz was the second most important city in New York. I once believed that my mother, and all the other principals of the 90 Miles Off Broadway community theater company, were famous Broadway actors. I once thought New Paltz had a music scene.
Among all these egocentric illusions of youth disabused rudely by time, one still stands. These mountains, these Shawangunks, barely a ripple on an industrial carpet compared to your Cascades and Olympics, are special, magic, unique, and world-renowned among hikers, climbers and eco-hedonists who prefer their microscale and easy accessibility. They are, I was told by some hippies when I was young, a spiritual node. This I still believe.
The Gunks are not about gaping vistas and the awe of size but about interiority, contour and detail; not the precipitous linear plunge of Snowqualmie Falls but the voluptuous, creamy tiers of Low Falls after a week of rain. Seattle, you couldn’t possibly understand. You are not depressed enough, nor inward-gazing. The miracle of our Gunks is nature imploded. Lush, condensed, spiraling inward, in the way the song of the cicada seems to come from within your own skull. OSI’s new river-to-ridge trail, with its prim and expensive-looking signage, is really little more than a four-mile lope though some corn fields and up a sloping meadow. It is what passes for open space around here. But in enclosed space, we are incomparably rich.
But, Seattle, you are right. It’s a big world out there. Not here, though. One of my first visits to the river-to-ridge trail came on a sad, cold and wet day in late autumn. I walked up toward the cliffs and Skytop, the Stanton Field airport where my father once piloted Cessnas to my right, and further to the right the little outcropping of the Bonticou Crag, site of the stupid and dangerous adventures of every New Paltz youth.
I turned at the highest point of the trail (Seattle, you would have mosquito bites that are higher if you had mosquitoes) and looked back down to the gray village of my youth and my present, the clock tower of my own campus school, the narrow and sluggish north-flowing river, the sewage-treatment facility. For a moment, drifting panels of fog, cloud and woodsmoke created an illusion of depth and distance, when really the whole vista was an issue of a couple of miles. If this were California, that little village in the valley would still be two and a half hours away by car.
For reasons I don’t fully understand, my eyes welled up and I was overcome with a feeling that I hesitate to put into words, but if I had to it would be somewhere between “how beautiful!” and “why, why am I always here?”