Mt. Rainier in Washington, our country’s second tallest mountain at 14,410 feet, towered in the distance, but we couldn’t see it. In fact, we could barely see each other in the dense, white fog that shrouded the visitor center parking lot, nearby nature trails, and of course the magnificent mountain we had so wanted to see up close.
Down below, the weather hadn’t been perfect, but Peter, our three sons, and I decided to head up to the visitor’s center and hope for the best. Besides when you fly across the country for a carefully planned three-week vacation, sometimes schedules take precedence over common sense. As we drove through the lush rainforest at the base of the mountain, rising higher and higher, the weather became worse and worse. Rain spattered our windshield, and we glimpsed patches of snow. Dressed in shorts, we began to realize that the leisurely hike we’d envisioned was not likely to occur. We’re stubborn, though, and, upon arrival donned our sweatshirts and headed for a trail the map promised would be an “easy-going amble.”
We walked along a slippery, snowy path through alpine meadows where a colorful array of wildflowers would soon pop from the ground. Now, however, it was blanketed with drifts of snow, some many feet deep. Scott, Japser, and Ross took off in all directions, sliding in their sneakers, not noticing the fifty-degree temperature. Peter and I, wearing boat shoes—not exactly conducive to careful walking on steep, icy trails—proceeded gingerly along a few hundred feet before deciding it was time to turn around. The boys were crestfallen. Peter and I just hoped we could “amble” back to the parking lot without breaking something.
But it was a magical place in spite of less-than-ideal conditions. Mysterious white fog tiptoed around majestic firs, branches laden with snow, while rushing water and our boys’ exuberant shouts echoed around us. I’m glad we went up the mountain that day. For the boys, it was a highlight of the trip. A few days later we would stop by Mt. Ranier en route south on a hot, sunny day and see its northern side with perfect visibility. Somehow I almost liked our fog-shrouded visit better. Knowing the mountain was there and not being able to see it made it that much bigger in our imaginations.
It’s true of all travel, isn’t it? We hear about a place, see pictures of it in magazines, and answer a call within to see it for ourselves. During my backpacking days, I toured Europe and found it to be even richer and more exotic than I had imagined. But sometimes the places we visit don’t measure up to the visions we build in our minds. Our country’s northwestern states, as well as western Canada, had always captured my imagination, and I knew I had to see this corner of the country one day.
For three weeks my family and I were fortunate to explore the Northwest. We flew across the U.S. and drove a thousand miles down and back up the craggy coastline of the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, with only one or two exceptions, the journey proved to be every bit as enriching as I’d hoped. From Washington’s Mt. Rainier to California’s wine country, we saw up close what wonderment the West Coast has to offer.
More than once on our journey I met people who had left the East Coast behind. I can see why. There’s a sense of vastness out west that we rarely encounter in the East. Maybe it’s the mountains or the Pacific Ocean or the towering redwoods. Maybe it’s the weather that attracts folks from far away: a bit cool and rainy in places, but none of that searing heat and cloying humidity that plagues us on the East Coast in summer. Maybe it’s the pride the locals have in their cities and towns, the sense of community that is hard to find among the transient population “back East.” Whatever it is, people are flocking to cities like Seattle and Portland in droves, and I must admit, the idea crossed my mind a time or two.
Seattle, our first stop, somehow manages to be a big city and feel small at the same time. The downtown area borders Puget Sound, dotted with islands from which some of the city’s professionals commute by ferry to work each day. We met Seattle on a rainy day and, equipped with umbrellas, set out to explore. Our first stop was the famous Pike Place Market, a cornucopia of sights, smells, and sounds that included the famed fish throwers at Pike Place Fish Market. Gorgeous, gleaming salmon sailed through the air literally under the noses of tourists watching the show. There was even a gal who held up a sign telling the audience when to applaud the antics of the fishmongers. Our boys stared in disbelief as the men threw fish around like baseballs.
But there was more to Pike Place Market than the flying fish. We arrived on an organic-market day, and the produce looked heavenly. Unfortunately, our hotel had no kitchen, so I sadly walked past the heaps of herbs and salad greens and vegetables. We picked up some apples, though, and they were crisp and sweet. Outside the market, rain continued to fall, so we headed back to the hotel to relax in the jacuzzi and plan our next foray into the city.
The sun smiled on us when we returned for a full day of sightseeing in Seattle. We headed to Seattle Center, the site of the 1962 World’s Fair, a place that buzzed with people and excitement. Art galleries, theatres, sport complexes, and concert halls make Seattle Center a haven for culture and the arts. We decided to check out the Pacific Science Center, a huge, hands-on science museum offering over 200 exhibits to delight kids of all ages. There we watched a magic show about dry ice and learned a little chemistry at the same time. Scott found an oversized chess set arranged on the floor and a ready opponent to play against. A health exhibit offered us all a chance to test our balance, our strength, even our blood pressure. Outside the kids played with water guns and rode a bicycle perched up in the air. It was a shame we hadn’t gone there the day it rained because deep in the caverns of the Science Center, we did feel a little removed from the lovely summer weather outide.
To compensate, we enjoyed a picnic by the International Fountain that erupts from the heart of Seattle Center. No ordinary sprinkler, this fountain sits in a basin about fifty yards in diameter and shoots torrents of water toward the sky. Everywhere children shrieked with delight, running in and out among the cascading water, never knowing when streams would shoot skyward and soak them as they rained down. My boys joined the fray, got wet, and dried off in the warm sun as we ate our sandwiches on the lucious green lawn that surrounds the fountain. Periodically through the day, the fountain erupts to music, a carefully choreographed show that was a joy to watch. Looking around, I could see that Seattle Center isn’t just a tourist attraction. Kids from a day care center were there blowing bubbles and getting their ya-ya’s out. Office workers took a noontime snooze in the sun. I found Seattle to be a city full of life.
Later we visited Pioneer Square, a shopping area downtown with handsome brick buildings housing restaurants, taverns, and unique shops. The kids loved exploring a toy shop called Wood Shop Toys, which featured unique wooden toys, puzzles, and trinkets. Even I had fun poking around in there.
As is often the case, we left Seattle without seeing all there was to see. In particular, I wanted to take a ferry ride, maybe explore some of the islands, but we were on a schedule and a reservation awaited us at our next stop: Vancouver, British Columbia.
I had high hopes for Vancouver, but this city unfortunately paled compared to my imagination. Not that it wasn’t pretty. Surrounded on three sides by water, the city boasts dozens of beaches and parks lining its shores. One in particluar is Stanley Park, a lush, green peninsula that features a nine-kilometer seawall. Cyclists and skaters whizzed by us as we hiked its perimeter during our first day, dressed in jackets to protect ourselves from the chilly breeze that blew off the water. We enjoyed a fabulous view of tall snow-peaked mountains to the north of the city as we walked, but it was quite busy on the seawall. It was July 1st, Canada’s Independence Day, and everyone in Vancouver seemed to be visiting Stanley Park.
We decided to hike on the wooded trails in the interior of the park, where it was quiet and peaceful and not so windy. As we hiked along, marveling at the majestic redwoods above us and the lush ferns carpeting the forest floor, a funny thing happened I have to share. The kids were bouncing a ball along the trail, and, as expected, the ball bounced occasionally into the tangled undergrowth that lines the trails. Once it dropped down a steep ravine, but before Jasper could clamber down to get it, I spotted a suspicious looking creature that looked like a snake. A Japanese couple walked by, and we showed it to them. The elder man talked excitedly in Japanese to the younger woman, and they said, “Dangerous. Don’t touch!” and walked on.
Well, the more we looked at this snake, the more we wondered whether it was real. It hadn’t moved a muscle when the kids had tossed a stick in its direction. They begged to go get the ball, so we called Peter, who had wandered ahead, for his opinion. “It’s fake,” he said confidently. One of the boys retrieved the ball and grabbed the toy snake for us to see. It was a good copy, we decided, but I have to laugh at how our imagination got the best of us, as well as the Japanese couple who walked by.
Crowds of people gathered throughout the city to view a fireworks display that evening. We went downtown for the festivities, but decided it was way too packed and went back to Stanley Park for the show. Unfortunately, we were met there by snarled traffic and more crowds. We found a spot on the shore, but sadly our view was mostly blocked by trees. The kids were tired, it was cold, so we left before the show ended, anxious to avoid the traffic jams and to get back to our apartment in the suburbs.
We spent our last day on Kitsilano Beach. The kids tried swimming, but the water was cold. It didn’t look too clean to me, either. We never found the sparkling city I’d envisioned Vancouver to be. Perhaps we’ll have better luck next time.
Next month: Pretty Portland and Northern California.