A solo adventure in Seattle

by Jennifer Nice
Experiential Passage

How do we go about turning into the people we were meant to become?”

~Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face

As my mom would say, I had a bee in my bonnet. A quiet, yet insistent buzzing that became impossible to ignore. Finally I verbalized it to Jason a couple of months ago: I wanted to go on a little trip by myself. Just a short, affordable getaway. The thought of heading out on my own with no ambitious itinerary and no responsibilities…an opportunity to just “be” – became a very attractive idea the more I mulled it over. Don’t misunderstand: I LOVE traveling with my family, my spouse, my sisters, my girlfriends, family friends, couple friends, etc., etc. It’s the only kind of traveling I’ve done for, oh, about my whole life. And that, it became crystal-clear, was the point. I needed to create this opportunity for myself for a multitude of reasons.

As my faithful readers know, Semester at Sea imprinted on my heart and soul an insatiable yearn to GO. In some ways I think I wanted to replicate (or at least scratch the itch) that feeling of arriving in a new place and be inside the moment – for better or worse – while the adventure unfolds.

Thankfully, I have a very understanding, capable, and supportive husband. With his blessing, it took me about one hour to fit the puzzle pieces together and devise a serendipitous plan. Window of 3 days with no deadlines? Check. Train tickets from Portland to Seattle? Check. A way to and from Union Station to home? Check. A low-cost place to stay within walking distance from the train station? Check. It was obviously meant to happen; everything fell into place easily. I reveled in delicious anticipation for the week leading up to my departure.

I was already in Portland with my mom and sisters, so it was convenient for my mom to drop me off at the train station. Do you know I had not ridden the train from Portland to Seattle since I was 10 years old?  Unfathomable, considering all the other countries I’ve ridden on trains in the past year! Anyway, I don’t plan on waiting another 30 years to ride the Amtrak Cascades again. Compared to driving or flying, the train was a piece of cake: Arrive 30 minutes early. Scan your e-ticket in the kiosk for your boarding pass. Stand in line for 5 minutes to get your seat assignment. Walk out to your train car. Stow your bag, then sit back and watch the world cruise by.

Talk about hard choices – relax and read? Journal? Or just be? I chose the latter for most of the 3 1/2 hours, writing in my notebook when the spirit led me. The most scenic portion of the ride was between Olympia and Tacoma, where the track ribbons along the shoreline. Milky sunlight danced on the placid, silvery waters of the Puget Sound while the snow-dusted Olympic Mountains loomed in the distance. It’s such a strange sensation to gaze west and see those mountains!

The train arrived in Seattle about 15 minutes late but still well before dark. I hoisted my lug of a backpack and set off for the 1.88 mile trek to the hotel. Except – I exited not according to my Mapquest directions, as I didn’t recognize any of the street names. Quickly I noticed that the main exit was closed off due to construction, so, trying to breathe easy and regain my bearings (Jason is the direction doctor whenever we travel) I rounded the block and got back on track.

View from my hotel windows.

Hoofing it at as fast a clip I could manage with my hefty pack, I was glad to be doing it in the daylight. The section next to the train station bordered on sketchy, for a single female traveler but within a mile I reached the downtown core. It was interesting to note how much more aware of my surroundings I was traveling by myself, visually and auditorally. A couple of times I stopped to snap a photo (and didn’t feel like I was holding anyone up!) – a grove of trees in a city park donned “sweaters”; the glowy sunset flaring behind the Sound…unfortunately these pics were lost when my phone spent the night in our driveway my first night back, but that’s another story!

My room on the far left, second from the top – all 6 windows!

The Camlin awaited at the end of my trek, a restored historic (1926) hotel situated on 9th and Olive, across from the Paramount Theater. Thanks to bonus time (booking a room on short notice)at Worldmark, lodging set me back only $45/night, including tax! My studio corner room on the 9th floor boasted 6 windows, a wall bed, and mini-kitchen. Once settled in (I love to unpack immediately and transfer clothes to drawers, regardless of how brief a stay is!) my rumbling stomach reminded me I hadn’t eaten in several hours. Wishing that I’d made it to Trader Joe’s in Portland to pick up some provisions, I tried to figure out what to do for dinner. I recalled a conversation with my mom the day before about eating out alone.

Picture of the Camlin’s original construction in my room.

My mom worked as a flight attendant in her 20’s and again in her 50’s, so has eaten in restaurants by herself lots of times. In fact, she enjoys it. I, on the other hand, tend to feel sorry for people when I see them eating by themselves. When I mentioned that I’d probably get food and bring it back to the hotel room, she declared, “Eating take-out in your hotel room is depressing!” That statement echoed in my head when I called the Dragonfish Asian Cafe (one of three restaurants listed in the room’s info binder) and asked if they did take-out. The voice on the other end replied yes, but the tone implied that it’s not the norm.

After studying the map, I headed out with the intent of finding something gluten-free to satiate me and carry it back to my adorable room and relax. And what do you know – the Dragonfish Asian Cafe was literally 2 blocks from the Camlin. I glanced at the window menu, noting the happy hour specials, and kept on strolling. Then-I heard my mom’s voice (again) and promptly turned around, thinking, why not? It is the year of the dragon, after all, so I took this to be a good sign.

My table for one was very comfortable, thank you very much. The server treated me politely, my sushi and chicken satay were scrumptious, and the whole experience bordered on the visceral. As usual, pushing myself outside my comfort zone proves to be something that I look forward to doing again.

Dinner at the Dragonfish positioned me well for an independent expedition the next day. Skimming through my “Hidden Seattle” book helped me discern which neighborhoods to traverse. As you can see from the photos, the Emerald City was blessed with a spectacular February sunburst the entire duration of my stay. Unbelievably, I even peeled off layers a couple of times under the brilliant azure sky. It was like a direct injection of vitamin D to my veins, which will hopefully tide me over for a few months!

Seattle’s downtown core provided my artery of exploration and I soon found myself melting into the shoppers and browsers at Pike’s Place Market. The soul of Seattle since 1907, more than 100 farmers and 150 craftspeople call Pike’s Place home! From the buttery warmth of a Russian bakery, and salty, briny fresh-caught seafood, to smoky coffee and crisp Jazz apples – all those aromas called up a glorious memories of Hong Kong, Shanghai, Manaus, Chennai, and Ho Chi Minh.

I wished that my getaway included a shopping budget, but it didn’t, so I was content to browse, talk to artisans, and snap some photographs. Soon it was time for a coffee break (all that hard work!) and I sipped a mocha at an outdoor table, contemplating my gift of a day. The original Starbucks is at Pike’s Place, but I think it was a block away (I just consulted a Google map to be sure.) Not surprisingly, Starbucks is EVERYWHERE in downtown Seattle.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to share a bit of relevant family history. My dear Aunt Molly (my dad’s older sister) and Uncle Harry met, married, and raised their four kids in Seattle. We spent many a memorable visit with them growing up, which is how my love affair with this city began. Sadly, both Molly and Harry passed away in the last 3 years, and I found myself missing them both as I reminisced on my wanderings. Now, my dad and mom also dated, and spent the first year and a half of their married life in Seattle. When my parents met, my dad was living in a grand lodge of a house on Queeen Anne hill, along with a group of bachelors, nicknamed Highland Hall. My Uncle Harry also lived in Highland Hall many years before my dad.

So, I wanted to try to locate this Highland Hall that I’d heard about through the years. The monorail transported me to the Seattle Center (where the Space Needle, Experience Music Project, and a myriad of museums, etc. are located) and from there I relied on my map and my feet, heading up, up, up Queen Anne hill. One of my favorite pastimes when traveling is simply to walk endlessly and see what I see. The sunshine, clear air, and steep streets invigorated me.

Queen Anne hill is a fitting name for the fanciful and stately 19th century homes that comprise “old Seattle.” Quite accidentally, Highland Drive intersected my path (I hadn’t noticed it on my map) and between consulting my handy smartphone, asking for directions, and finally getting my dad on the line, I found Highland Hall! The little victory reminded me of when I hunted down my mom’s upper west side apartment in Manhattan about 14 years ago (she lived there the year before she met my dad in Seattle!) I love imagining what my parents’ urban, carefree lives might have been like before all the family responsibilties commenced.

Street view of Highland Hall

Back view of Highland Hall, including the “conservatory.”

With my mission accomplished, I rested my weary feet for a bit at Kerry Park and let the postcard vistas mesmerize me. A stunning photo with views of the city and Mount Rainier, if I do say so myself!

Once back downtown, my leaden legs walked on by two street musicians jamming away on their drums. Something familiar about the rhythm and beat made me slow my gait and I listened hard….what was it?? About 20 paces past, it hit me. Ghana! I retraced my steps and dropped a fistful of change into their basket, the memory of those vibrant Ghanaian drummers resonating somewhere deep in my conscience.

The remainder of my trip allowed me two heartfelt visits. I took a cab my second night to my cousin Mark and his wife Mary’s home for dinner. They are parents to sweet Zia, age 2 1/2, and will welcome a baby in August. Mark’s parents are Molly and Harry who I mentioned earlier. Molly died one month before Mark and Mary’s wedding and Harry died when Zia was 5 months old. We had a wonderful time, and I believe Molly and Harry were there in spirit!

Mark, Zia, and Mary McGuane

On my second and final morning, I let myself wake up without an alarm. My original plan was to take the bus to the International District (similar to a Chinatown but representative of many Asian cultures). However, I found that I just wanted to savor my last precious hours of “being.” Instead, I took my time getting ready, then sipped Starbucks (of course) while I browsed at Barnes and Noble. At noon a college friend, Tanya, met me for lunch. I hadn’t seen Tanya in close to 20 years, and thanks to the beauty of Facebook, we were able to connect in person. We seem to have even more in common today than at the University of Redlands. Hopefully we’ll see each other again soon – her niece goes to college at Linfield, here in McMinnville, Oregon!

Tanya graciously dropped me off at the train station. The ride back wasn’t the least bit melancholy – on the contrary, I relished the opportunity to process the trip and reflect what I learned and how I’ll synthesize the experience with my daily life. I would like to share this poem that my daughter wrote. (It’s published on her website that she shares with her friend. How appropriate that Sunday’s train ride allowed me time to get caught up on her writing. I’m beginning to comprehend how she possesses a writer’s soul!)

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