The North-West

ONE The Grand Depart

We have the perfect day for the Grand Depart for 1863 – one of the not-so-frequent sunny days in Seattle and the water around us is sparkling.

swan in a trail of sunbeams
Sparkling Swan
(c) Meirion Harries

The Captain is loading what appears to be too many tins of salmon; absolute heresy here, but not my favourite – unlike the song she is humming – Smells Like Teen Spirit, one of Nirvana’s more famous grunges:

I feel stupid and contagious / Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto, an albino / A mosquito, my libido
Yeah, hey …

Grunge music was, of course, born in Seattle so the Captain was delighted that our journey should start here. I told her that Seattle was also the city of Ray Charles and Jimi Hendrix but that made little impression. Perhaps I should have mentioned her favourite comedian, Mitch Hedberg – and that this is the birthplace of Gypsy Rose Lee and her wonderfully-named sister, June Havoc.

Gypsy Rose Lee
New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Palumbo, Fred, photographer. / Public domain

Seattle’s history is a 170-year-long romp of boom and bust: at the lowest moment in the depression in 1971, some realtors put up a billboard reading would the last person to leave Seattle, please turn off the lights’. This dark humour raises an important question about the right of cities to exist. Coming from ancient London, I feel in my bones that a city is permanent by nature – but then you look eastwards to Detroit where the crash of the motor industry brought abandonment and rewilding.

We had a rewilding treat this morning – a coyote and two chubby cubs trotted past us amicably as we ambled to the marina. This remarkable small wolf was around long before the ancients arrived – a smart, adaptable survivor that is present now in cities and towns across the United States. The multiplying carnivores here have generated their own Carnivore Spotter to record sightings of urban coyotes (and black bears, bobcats, cougars, red foxes, raccoons, opossums, and river otters).

The city’s boom and bust history reflects pulses of development. Abundant natural resources have helped – timber from the glorious forests, gold from the Klondike, and fish from a once-full ocean. The geography of Puget Sound has provided the wherewithal for a major port and shipbuilding operation – boosted now by trade with Asia. But if the city is to avoid an Ozymandian fate, then hope rests with the latest developments – high-tech ventures like Microsoft (Bill Gates was born here) and the biotechnology companies.

tall grey office tower
Day 1″ Amazon’s Seattle headquarters
(c) Adamajreynolds / CC BY-SA (

And, of course, there has been a century of Boeing – currently entrusted by NASA to build a super-powered rocket to carry humans to Mars. Readers of the German blog will be pleased to know that William Boeing’s father was born in Germany in a town to the south of the Ruhr. Disowned by his family when he emigrated to America in 1868, William’s father rose from day labouring to considerable wealth – enough to send William to a smart prep school in Boston and on to Yale.

William left Yale in 1903 to go into his father’s lumber business and made more money buying up forests around here and shipping the timber east through the newly-finished Panama Canal. Overcome by fascination when he first saw a flying machine in Seattle in 1909, William learned to fly and he bought his own seaplane. When this was damaged and he was told that spare parts would take months to arrive, he decided to build his own.

The city remains a haven for start-ups: many are in tech and clean technologies which has enabled Seattle to commit to being carbon neutral by 2030 – the first American city to do so. People like it here: there is a mix of races, though ‘whites’ predominate (70%); the LGBT community is large – around 13%; the atmosphere is tolerant and progressive. In a city powered by high-tech brains, creed, colour, sexual orientation and even taste in music are irrelevant. Also, people don’t seem anxious – somewhat surprising given that they ingest more caffeine per capita than anywhere else, except perhaps in Bologna’s Caffe Terzi.

This is, of course, the hometown of Starbucks – founded in 1971 though the original owners sold out in 1980 to Howard Schultz, a remarkable businessman whose family foundation helps unemployed youth and military veterans. Rather like William Boeing, Schultz had a moment of life-changing fascination – for him, it was the expresso bars of Milan and so he turned the original store selling coffee beans into a chain of coffee houses. But he had to fight: as he pushed stylised caffeine down the West Coast, across the country and into Canada, coffee wars flared, pitting Starbucks against big players like Dunkin’ Doughnuts and McDonalds.

But by 2014, Starbuck’s caffee latte had inflicted such damage that McDonalds publicly acknowledged that its rival was “winning the coffee wars”. The fight is not over: last year Dunkin’ Donuts dropped the ‘Donuts’ from its name to appear more ‘beverage focussed’ and committed $100 million to the battle against their ‘arch-enemy’.

We had coffee made by Ethiopians yesterday – after a delicious supper of injera (deep brown, sour fermented flatbread made with teff flour) and wat (a thick stew of chicken, onions, ginger and berbere spice). But there was dismay this morning: we had to settle for waffles, butter and maple syrup because Kafe Berlin has shut down. A great pity – partly because a slice of Prinzregentorte beckoned and partly because it was in the German House, a beautiful building on the National Historic Register where, in the 1890s, prospectors from the Yukon had their sacks of nuggets moulded into gleaming bars of gold.

The name, German House, reflects the important German presence in this part of the world: sadly, I could not persuade the Captain to unleash her electronic Harley for a run down to the very Germanic Uniontown, famed for its eponymous spring Sausage Feed festival that has scented the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains since 1954.

I must stop: a trolley loaded with Imperial Rye from Seattle’s Reuben’s Brews needs attention. With this last contribution to our stockpile loaded, we shall cast off and head up the Puget Sound and turn left toward the Pacific Ocean.

Some links that you might like to follow up:

Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit

Gypsy Rose Lee – original footage –

A really good travel guide to Seattle by Expedia –

Inexplicably, Expedia fail to mention my favourite NFL team – the Seattle Seahawks – so here is Super Bowl XLVIII, the Seahawks’ first title –

A CNBC film explaining how Starbucks became an $80 billion Business – – the Seattle Urban Carnivore project aims to explore how mammalian carnivores live and interact with people across urban and suburban areas in the Seattle region.

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