Wandering the West – Part 5: Crater Lake to Seattle with stops

After leaving Crater Lake on highway 138, I turned east to pick up US-97 for a few miles before striking off to the northwest along highway 58. Much of this way was relatively mundane driving on straight roads through featureless forest until reaching Salt Creek Summit and starting the descent down to Eugene. The road became a bit more interesting as it began to follow the creek on it’s path to meet the Willamette near Oakridge and then followed the Willamette into Eugene. Shortly before reaching Eugene, which I had visited a few years ago when a friend was teaching at the university there, I picked up I-5 again and headed north to Portland.

My goal in Portland was to stop off at Powell’s Books downtown as an appetizer to Elliott Bay Books in Seattle. While I was waiting for the attendant to fill the tank (the joy of Oregon gas stations again…) during a gas stop just outside of the Portland area I casually entered Powell’s into my phone and set my course to the address that came up. As the directions started trying to take me out of the downtown area I realized that I was heading to the Powell’s on Hawthorne and not the main downtown one I was aiming for. I wasn’t in a rush and, since it was a perfect Portland summer Saturday and quite enjoyable to drive down Hawthorne and watch everyone out enjoying the day, I carried on the few miles remaining with the intent of visiting that store and then heading back to the main one. When I arrived, however, I couldn’t find a parking spot and after driving around a bit found myself at the entrance to a Fred Meyer parking lot. Thinking I’d use it as a quick stop to regain my bearings, I pulled in, parked in an out of the way corner and did so. Then I realized I was hungry and figured I might as well pop into the store and pick up something from the deli since I was already parked.

The thought hadn’t occurred to me as I walked into the store that I hadn’t showered or washed my hair in 2 days, but the security guards picked up on it straight away and gave me a more effusive than usual greeting. As I reached the deli counter on the other end of the store and noticed one had followed me, I caught my reflection in the deli case and recognized that I certainly did not visually fit in with the crowd of young families who made up most of the other shoppers. I bought a sandwhich, then left the store and ate it in the van before setting back out to Powell’s main store.

It had only been a few years since I was last in downtown Portland, but as I drove around trying to find a parking space I had mixed feelings on the “urban revitalization” which had taken place during that time. My memories of getting to Powell’s were fairly straightforward with minimal traffic and few pedestrians, and parking was never much of an issue. This time around was quite the opposite; spaces formerly occupied with small independent businesses were now combined into the usual mix of shiny high street shops more in keeping with a shopping mall than a working downtown, and they had obviously drawn a following as the sidewalks were thronged and the first parking I found was over half a mile away and limited to 3 hours.

I grudgingly paid the meter for the full period (wishing I could stay longer – limiting a booktore trip due to parking limits feels absurd), put on a hat (the memory of the impression my hair had made in Fred Meyer fresh enough in my mind to overcome a lifetime of training that men shouldn’t wear hats indoors) and made my way through the crush of people to enter one of the last remaining sacred spaces of book browsing. Powell’s can be a disorienting landscape to those who are not regulars, and I have found it’s always best for me to stop at one of the information stands for guidance to a topic in order to regain my bearings and start to make sense of the store. This time around I asked for beekeeping books, and I was directed to a location where I found several shelves worth of books on beekeeping – far more than I had expected to find even at Powell’s. Powell’s carries both new and used books, and shelves them together. That is part of the magic which draws me there, as sometimes the way a subject was presented in 1963 makes more sense to me than a more recent approach, and having them next to each other makes the comparison much easier. After browsing and selecting my fill of beekeeping books (and fighting off the urge to develop my own history of beekeeping collection), I had recovered my bearings and started off on my rounds of areas of interest – cookbooks, books in german, woodworking, travel, … All too soon did my alarm go off to force me to check out and return to the van before the meter ran out. As I headed back to the van I realized again how much people in the Pacific Northwest know how to enjoy the perfect summer weekends that come up each year, and it was enjoyable being in a space where people seek out the outdoors in the middle of a summer day rather than hide in air conditioned boxes from it.

From Portland I resumed course north on I-5 toward friends in Lakeview, whom I would be visiting with for a couple of days. Driving north through familiar landscapes from my time in Seattle started to make this leg of the trip feel like a homecoming of sorts, and when Mt. Rainier came into view my mind switched into a “I’m home” mode. Memory took over, and I nearly missed my friends exit because in my mind I was heading back to the apartment in downtown Seattle where I had lived for several years.

Following an enjoyable evening with my friends, I slept in a bit and had a lazy Sunday morning discussing current events with them before setting off to meet some other friends in the Seattle area for lunch. Again, the trip from Lakeview to Seattle also felt like a homecoming, and as the city came into view on yet another perfect Pacific Northwest summer day I momentarily forgot I wasn’t still living there.

I find that returning as a visitor to a place where you once lived for an extended period is always a touch awkward. For the most part you will have either done all the typical tourist activities or else look at them with disdain, but there may be a couple you want to do again. There may well be friends there to meet so you pick a favorite spot out of maybe 15 or 20 options, and feel regret at having not been able to go back to the others. Neighborhoods which were once vibrant may well have dulled, and dull neighborhoods become vibrant. There are many things you might want to do for old times’ sake, but depending on the time available you might not be able to even consider them. Such was my visit in Seattle. I would have loved to have dropped my van off in the old parking garage and wandered the waterfront and downtown areas as I did when I lived there. I would have liked to have stopped by Jack’s Fish Spot at Pike Place market for my standard Sunday order of half a pound of Penn Cove mussels and see if after a gap of several years I was still recognized as a regular (though I had no place to cook them). I would have loved to take half a day and go play in the Cascades on one of numerous favorite hikes. But I could have stayed in Seattle a month and still not filled my list of things I would have loved to have done again, so after lunch I kept my focus on the goal of the pilgrimage: Elliott Bay Books.

My timing could not have been worse. The “new” Elliott Bay Books location (though it’s been there long enough now to be well established) is in the center of Seattle’s Capitol Hill district, and was within walking distance of my old apartment downtown. I had never driven there, nor tried to park. On a perfect Sunday afternoon for people to be out and about, I found that parking was a nightmare. After having eventually found a spot in a garage at $5 per hour “only” 6 blocks from my destination, I set out for the turnaround point of the trip. Along the way, I asked someone why there were so many people around, and received initially a blank stare as if they couldn’t believe anyone would ask such a silly question and then the explanation “The Pride Parade is today.” Suddenly the parking nightmare made sense – Capitol Hill is the geographic center of Seattle’s GLBT community, and I found myself there on the day of that community’s biggest event.

Elliott Bay Books was an oasis of calm within the festive atmosphere of the area, and I made full use of the fact I had finally gotten there to browse most of the store and gradually weigh myself down with nearly 2 grocery bags of books. When I lived there I Had a rule that I could only buy a book after I had finished reading the one I had last purchased, but given the time and expense of getting there it he first place that rule went out the window and I gave myself the pleasure of what has probably been my most expensive single day book shopping spree since buying college textbooks.

Though I do love Elliott Bay Books, now that the sentimental memories of the old store in Pioneer Square have finally been purged and I see it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t live within walking distance, I have to admit that Powell’s is the better bookstore. The old store was similar to Powell’s in layout – gradual expansion across most of a city block by tapping into adjoining buildings and creating a rabbit warren of interconnected spaces and close to it in size, resulting in a vast range of titles. The new store is tiny in comparison to Powell’s, and while it also has a very well curated selection of books there just isn’t space for the range they used to have. It remains an excellent bookstore, but sadly I can no longer class it as a giant among bookstores.

With the object of my pilgrimage attained, I headed back to my friends in Lakeview for dinner and a stroll through Steilacoom. On Monday morning I waited until rush hour was over, then headed back into the city for a few more stops before meeting some friends on their lunch break at Smartypants in Georgetown. From there it was time to begin the trek homeward.

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