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This article appeared in the June/July 2001 issue of Hooked on the Outdoors.

A Particular Piece of Non-Fiction

(though not necessarily 100% true)

On a Definitely Non-Sleepless Day in Seattle


Michael McGuffin


And suddenly everything Japhy had ever told me about Seattle began to seep into me like cold rain, I could feel it and see it now, and not just think it.  It was exactly like he’d said: wet, immense, timbered, mountainous, cold, exhilarating, challenging.”

- Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums


                “Let’s do an urban ride tomorrow,” Kaj suggests on a Friday.  “We can ride up Capitol Hill, Queen Anne Hill and finish up at Discovery Park.”  Seattle is an excellent cycling city, so despite the repeated use of the word hill I agree.

                It’s now Saturday; I’m standing in my driveway cradling a cup of coffee when a white Saab rolls onto the parking strip and jerks to a stop.  The driver, wearing a gray cycling jacket, blue tights and a forest green Bavarian hunting cap, ejects himself from the mud-speckled car shouting “hey man you ready to ride.”  It’s Kaj Bune.  I moved to the Puget Sound thirteen years ago, and it’s because of locals like Kaj and his wife Maylon that I can’t leave.

                Back when she was training for the Barcelona Games, Maylon, a whitewater kayaker, created a flat-water slalom course by hanging a line of plastic tubes, like wind chimes, from a Seattle bridge.  A decade later her course is still used by competitive paddlers.  This melding of concrete with outdoor sport has created a city where outdoor and urban pursuits blend to create a unique environment.  If Jackson Hole were at one end and New York the other, Seattle would be the fulcrum.  It’s a city where you can run a wooded trial in the morning, kayak beneath a Russian freighter in the afternoon and finish the day drinking small batch beers at an open mike poetry slam.

Kaj trades his green cap for a red helmet, and we roll past darkened homes towards Husky Stadium and the University of Washington Climbing Rock.  “You ever come down to the ‘Rock’?” Kaj asks.

“I used to be regular, but now I suppose I’m more of an irregular,” I reply, as we pass the concrete fin rising out of a corner in the stadium parking lot like a wrecked schooner.  Climbers have an informal, but well-established, hierarchy, and high on that social ladder is the “dirtbag,” itinerant freeloaders who eat out of cans, sleep in their cars – typically ancient Subarus – and, whenever possible, live free.  These junkies go up because they have to, and finishing a “problem” – a strictly defined series of hand and foot holds – can hinge on obsession.  Unlike hip gyms, climbing at the “Rock” doesn’t require a cover charge, and if you go there on a June evening expect to share your problems with a few addicts who climb because of passion rather than fashion.

We jump a curb and cross the shaky drawbridge spanning the Montlake Cut.  Kaj looks over the iron railing and asks if I do any paddling around town.

“If I didn’t I’d only take the kayak out once or twice a year,” I say.  “You have to keep the dust off your spirit as well as your keel,” I add, forgetting that it’s too early for philosophy.  If you never left the shores of Seattle you’d get a fairly well rounded sea kayaking/canoeing experience.  You’d share the water with towering freighters, float planes, ski boats, and curious sea lions; you’d paddle saltwater, fresh water, flat water and big water; you’d pass through locks, beneath piers, around sandy beaches, below skyscrapers and along verdant shoreline; you’d see blue herons, harbor seals, cormorants, and, if you’re lucky, a migrating gray whale.

 “Turn right at the light,” I yell forward as Kaj passes a creeping bus.

We turn onto a residential street lined with brick tudors and Volvo wagons, and shift down for what I call Grannygear Hill.  The houses disappear as we enter a shaded greenbelt.  “There’s some good trail running in here,” I gasp, cranking up the hill, “it’s a park,” gasp, “but I forget the name.”

“It’s Interlaken Park, “Kaj says easily, “I used to do hill intervals here.”  At the top of the park we enter Capitol Hill, an eclectic neighborhood of pampered homes and boxy apartment buildings.  “Let’s cut through Volunteer Park and see if anyone is climbing on the observation tower,” Kaj suggests over his shoulder.  Constructed from the warped remains of a burned warehouse, the tower is a natural climbing wall, and the rough, soot-covered bricks will leave your hands looking and feeling as though you’ve just replaced the brakes on a “68 Microbus.  Local alpinists come up here to practice in “real conditions” - climbing with a loaded pack while wearing clunky mountaineering boots.  The area is deserted, but, like fingerprints at the scene of a crime, a line of white chalk dust circles the tower.  We exit the park at Mansion Row, and pass through one of Seattle’s best preserved old-money neighborhoods.

“It’s coffee time,” I say as we turn towards the glass towers of downtown.

“I know the place,” Kaj says leading me to the Bauhaus Coffee and Bookshop.  The Irish have what they call “pub culture,” and here in Seattle we have “coffeehouse culture.”  The former means that you can’t walk a Dublin block without passing a crowded tavern, the later means that you can’t walk the same distance in Seattle without passing a bohemian espresso bar.

Inside, the Bauhaus smells of old books and French roast.  In other words it smells wonderful.  We order pastries and black coffee.

Charged up on caffeine and crullers we drop into the city center where we weave through heavy traffic towards Counterbalance Hill and the Queen Anne district.  Named for a weight that used to pull trolley cars up its relentless grade, Counterbalance Hill is straight as a taut cable and once committed there is no mercy.  At the top of the hill we enter Queen Anne, where nearly every pedestrian is wearing the same shirt.  “They had the St. Pats Day Dash this morning,” Kaj says referring to the annual run through downtown Seattle.

“It looks like they gave out green shirts again this year,” I reply.

We pass a little-known flower garden, where a friend of mine was recently married, before dropping west towards the railroad yards and the Magnolia district.  A quick climb takes us up to Discovery Park.  “There’s a really good trail run here that follows the beach around the lighthouse,” Kaj says as we continue past the deserted yellow buildings of Fort Lawton.  The Magnolia Bluffs at Discovery Park push into the Puget Sound like an index finger, and with the exception of a few silent birdwatchers Kaj and I have the sweeping view to ourselves.  In the distance a black-hulled freighter sheds her tugs and crosses below the Olympic Mountains, which divide the sea and sky like the lace hem on a blue dress.  “Sometimes you get so wound up looking around the next corner you forget what’s in your own backyard.”  Kaj says pensively.  A moment later he adds, “let’s cross the Locks and do one more hill.”

We pass through the groomed gardens adjacent to the Chittenden Locks and turn onto Market Street.  “Just past Shilshole Marina there’s a road that twists up to Ballard,” Kaj says.  “I call it the ‘windies;’ I used to do hill workouts on it.”  With all these hill workouts it’s no wonder why he’s so strong in the mountains.  The hill is easier than expected and at the top Kaj points to a nondescript brick building.  “I used to live there,” he says, “and see that old brick wall behind the deli, there’s a few good problems on that.”