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Sounds of Seattle

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9 January 2013 by Alex Stewart

Freddie Reynolds seeks the soul of America's north-west.

I arrive in Seattle as it's getting dark. From the air, the suburbs below look damp, lost and thoroughly, thoroughly grey. The airport is much the same, though drier, and proves impossible to navigate. My fingerprints are scanned; I locate my bag and reach the shuttle bus some time later. It growls in a lost underground car park of concrete and fumes. $27 return, no change, sir.

Leaving the airport, we pass through the throng of Friday evening traffic as we head out towards the city, driving along a car pool lane on a four-lane highway where a sign asks us to be a hero and report 'violators'. Adverts at the side of the road call out to drug addicts, alcohol abusers and those suffering from obesity. A pick-up truck cuts in ahead of us and, as we brake, I note the clatter of change in the glove box in front of me. The driver's gaze fixes forwards. Concentrating on the road, sir.

And then, just before my love gets lost, we round a bend and Downtown Seattle presents itself to us, shrouded by a blanket of low dark cloud, Hollywood-apocalyptic in the night. The warming yellow of the city's lights flicker like fire, spreading from the towering blocks of skyscrapers, along the highway and through the windscreen, injecting that urban high into a rousing blood stream.

Seattle, USA

Seattle, tucked in the northwestern corner of the great expanse of the United States has, to those coming from Europe at least, remained largely below the radar. A city of over half a million people, celebrated in turn for the commercial exports of Boeing and Starbucks and then the Sub Pop scene and the grunge bands it nurtured. Its fame is strong but muted, and I sense that's just how the Seattleites like it.

Of course, it is also renowned for the clouds that hover over it. Grey and drizzly, the weather is both scorned and celebrated. "It keeps the Californians away," says Travis, a barman who feeds and waters me on the first night, "which is well worth six months of soggy-bottomed jeans."

Travis and his colleague Tyler become immediate friends and enthusiastic tour guides. A double act of enormous smiles and gritty handshakes, they point me here and there and repeatedly recall "another reason why Seattle is awesome". It's difficult, in this company, to stay silent, to stay sober, to stay English. Which suits me just right.

On the street at 5.30 the next morning, the city rolls on. Jetlagged and sore-headed, I take a stroll around the market as it starts its morning dance. Pike Place Market will later bounce with locals and tourists in equal numbers, fresh fish and plump fruits will sit next to chocolate pasta and tourist trinkets of the skyline. Now it's largely quiet, bar the odd cough and thwack of a swinging door. The bleary-eyed vendors are too tired and too engrossed in their morning caffeine to notice me poking around, buzzing on a different time zone.

Pike Place Market Seattle, USA

As the sun rises, the coffee shops flip their signs and the shadowed corners of Downtown rustle with the homeless. It's a day of light and sunny weather, and seagulls soar above in crisp blue skies. Elliott Bay twinkles in the sunlight, a great nothing to focus upon. I find myself at the seafront, drawn towards it.

Native Americans have been here for millennia, and dotted around the city are totem polls adorned with hook-nosed figures peering down. I wander around the art museum, which highlights the shared heritage of this city, in this country of immigrants. Japanese and German and Polish and Vietnamese and Australian and Chinese. Everyone here is from somewhere else.

Before they arrived and the urban world carved up the landscape, this area was covered by thick forest with giant trees, their trunks wide enough to stretch five men, hand in hand, around them. It would have been an imposing and beautiful habitat to discover and roam in, until the timber trade arrived and felled it, to enable an urban jungle to grow instead.

The leaves are now the neon signs of strip clubs, music venues and medical centres, and the plethora of flyers pasted on lampposts and walls and bookshop windows. The trunks are the trucks and the cars that roll steadily down the thick streets, stopping at each red light. And as the privileged ride to the top floors of the highest skyscrapers, the sunlight of finance trickles from the canopy to the grey streets below.

Seattle, USA

The scavengers stand with cardboard banners asking for money or drugs, as others feast on caffeine and Polish dogs and local wine in glasses in bars, and shop for kitsch accessories in antique shops or scrawl blithe notes on coffee shop walls which read 'We have seen the sun!' or 'Jesus likes and loves you, sexually,' or just 'Hope' - as they take a break from typing away at their Apple Macs.

I walk in and out of cafés and then walk and walk some more. The pavements away from the main drags are empty except for rows of newspaper booths and parking meters. When I stop, people talk to me, swapping stories, exchanging email addresses. In the halls of a music museum, I start talking to a young couple from the city, here to "find out more about the city's amazing music scene. Isn't it fantastic?" They're right, it really is. Everywhere are buskers with guitars or banjos and sometimes even a piano. Gig posters are wallpapered along the streets, on parking meters, on benches.

A local photographer talks to me about her job and her life. She shows me some of her pictures, the beautiful landscapes of Seattle's wild outskirts, the nude bodies of its wilder districts. She recounts an episode outside a bar near her house, when two people were shot and killed. She says she hates the gun culture, but her husband owns a gun and she feels safer. I walk home down some of the dark streets that lie off the main drag, past the emptying car parks, the closed shops and the odd whiskey bar, and try to be small and look local.

The next day I find a small and empty beach and, sitting on a log, gaze back towards Downtown. The sunshine is muffled behind thick clouds, but the skyline is as beautiful, as welcoming, as it was when it shone through the dark on that first day. Mount Rainer hovers in the distance and small waves lap at the shore at my feet.

Seattle skyline, USA

For a second, the sounds of Seattle are sucked out into the bay, until a seaplane sounds overhead and wakes me from a daze. I turn and head back into town, to the base of those towers, the machines of curdling coffee and the start of those many conversations.

Traveller magazine cover

Article originally published in

Traveller magazine

Vol 42, No 1, 2012

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