When I awoke on my dad’s carpeted floor in central Arizona, I had no recollection of any other dream in my life that had been so vivid, nor which had left me in such a state of longing to be somewhere I was not. It was an introduction to a feeling I would grow to know well—of wanting something so badly that I knew I couldn’t have (this would mostly involve girls in the years that immediately followed, as I hopelessly lacked “game” as a middle-schooler.) I promptly shifted my loyalties from the Chicago Cubs to the Seattle Mariners, convinced my mom to buy me a Mariners baseball hat, and started talking about Seattle all the time. I became like that awkward kid from that 1980’s movie who was very good at playing video games, but who couldn’t seem to focus on his gift as a prodigious gamer for his obsession with running away to California.
Or at least that’s how I remember it.
After the passage of an unhealthy amount of time, I finally began to forget about Seattle, and my loyalties shifted back to the Chicago Cubs. The unachievable Kayla Stazenskis and Carrie Parkers of my childhood had left no emotional capacity for Seattle’s unachievability, so I cut my losses and moved on. It was a strange thing, then, that happened twenty years later.
After returning home from our big adventure aboard Nacho, we embarked on a new mission: to find a cool place to live. Sheena and I both received invitations to come back to Flagstaff to work, but knew very well that we couldn’t fall back into the same life that we’d left behind. No, to slowly wean ourselves off of a life of mystery and wonder we would need to add a dose of mystery and a degree of wonder to our reintegration, and to the life that would follow. We decided to take a road trip around the West, on a mission to find the coolest place in North America. Once we found it, we would simply move there. This of course was predicated by the assumption that the coolest place in North America was in the West, which anyone from the West will tell you goes without saying.
So we set off. We visited many places, and to each we said “very nice,” but kept driving. It should be borne in mind that we had very recently, if only for short periods, lived in Costa Rica, Colombia, Buenos Aires, Bangkok, Kathmandu, and Istanbul, and had spent nearly three years roaming from one excellent locale to the next. The bar had been set pretty high. But we were thirsty, and with Nacho as our divining rod, we pushed on.
As we worked our way northward, and the days and mustaches grew longer by the latitude, something in the breeze that came through our open windows told us that we would soon find what we were searching for. At long last the trees returned to the landscape after the empty plains that span three states, and we camped at the mouth of a canyon just beyond Yakima where the shrubs dotted the rising hills like beard stubble. Beyond the canyon the stubble gave way to vineyards and orchards at Ellensburg, and at Cle Elum the neat rows were replaced by pine trees.
As we climbed into the Cascades, stony, craggy peaks grew up on either side of the highway. At the high point where the ski lifts traced the mountain spines into the sky, the road mellowed out, inflected, and then pitched downward. It was then that we crossed the invisible line where the hot air of the basin formed by the eastern plains is met by the cool breeze that originates in Asia, crosses the Pacific, and eventually funnels through Puget Sound to carry the ionized scent of the Salish Sea up the canyon to Snoqualmie Pass. To descend from the Cascades to Puget Sound after days of driving the high western deserts is to feel that you’ve arrived somewhere worth being.
That evening we gathered around an outdoor table overlooking the Seattle skyline and ate tacos with a group of Nacho-friends: blog readers, Westy drivers, a couple planning their own Pan-American escape, and a Kiwi couple already in the midst of theirs. Seattle, we found, has a huge community of like-minded people living adventurous and interesting lives. It is a place of mushroom and berry foragers, fishermen, crabbers, little breweries and big beards. The air is often misty—outsiders call it rain—but the hardy people of Seattle will recognize you as a tourist and secretly label you as a candy-ass if you carry an umbrella. The city is flannel and rubber boots with a healthy dose of class and international flair. Scruffy lumberjack-types share the sidewalks with burka-clad Ethiopians, head-bobbling Indians, Chinese grandmothers, and Eddie Vedder.
As the evening wound down and the sun cast its rays on the iconic skyline, we informed the group that we would be heading out of town to camp at a rest area on the way to Portland. Brian and Kim would have none of it. They insisted we sleep on their couch in a neighborhood called Ballard that had begun as a Swedish-Norwegian fishing village, just north of downtown. Kim jumped in Nacho and steered us from the taco joint on the peninsula of West Seattle onto the Alaska Way viaduct—the most impressive drive in the city, which slices between waterfront buildings on a third-story elevated thoroughfare with views of sea-bound ferries and Bainbridge Island—and finally across the Ballard Bridge to their apartment next to the Chittenden Locks.
From their apartment we walked down Market Street, reminiscent of a main thoroughfare that one might find in a stereotypical Colorado mountain town, to a French-influenced bar called Bastille where we drank Belgian beer and local whiskey. In the morning we strolled back to Ballard Avenue, which had been closed off for the neighborhood’s weekly outdoor farmer’s market. The smell of roasting hot dogs and quesadillas lingered in the air and we sampled homemade caramel and stocked up on vegetables for the road. An old man wearing cowboy boots plucked a guitar and sang Bob Dylan next to a man dressed like the Mad Hatter, who stabbed the keys of an antique typewriter with his skinny fingers behind a hand-written sign advertising “Poems: Your Topic, Your Price.”
Once back in Nacho, we promised Kim and Brian that we’d be back one day, and set off down Market Street in the direction of the interstate. We came to rest at a stoplight in front of the old Majestic Bay Theatre and the sun warmed my arm through the open window. Suddenly a woman on the sidewalk yelled “Hey Nacho!” I looked in her direction, a girl in her mid-twenties walking a dog. She waved happily. “I just finished reading your book!” I waved back and didn’t know what to say, so I said “That’s great!”
As we made our way over Phinney Ridge, with views of Queen Anne Hill, the Space Needle, and Mount Rainier to our right, and with Ballard and Puget Sound behind us, we knew we had found our home. It would be easy to live in Seattle. My cohort of twelve-year-old street kids had grown up and cultivated beards, honed their skills at crabbing, clam-digging, foraging for mushrooms, and pickling things. Wild vines full of plump and delicious berries that lined the roads were so prolific and abundant as to be considered a nuisance. It is a paradise.
Satisfied that we’d found the coolest town in North America—Ballard—we picked up and moved there. It was the first step in taking the lessons that we learned on the road and using them to live more fulfilling lives. It has been a successful and pleasurable reintegration—the perfect way to wake up from a long dream, and now we’re truly living each day.
The other day I was driving home in Nacho and decided to stop at BevMo to see what new and exciting cervezas were to be had. When I pulled up, a guy got out of his new four-by-four Sprinter and went into the store ahead of me. While perusing the Belgian section, I saw the guy eyeballing some Dogfish Head in the cooler. I asked him if that was his Sprinter outside.
“Yeah, just got it.”
“Looks nice. You could take that thing just about anywhere,” I said.
“I know, I’m pretty excited about it. I just don’t really know what I’m going to do with it yet.”
An older gentleman who happened to be passing by overheard our conversation and chimed in.
“Just drop everything, man. Quit your job, load it up, and hit the road,” he said with a glimmer of evangelism. “Just go! Keep going and don’t look back. Do it for the rest of us!” He nodded his head as if to punctuate his advice, and then pushed his cart toward the craft beer section.
I said nothing, but sincerely hoped that he would pick up the baton and run with it. Maybe one day he would look back on that spontaneous conversation in the beer aisle and have cause to tell someone his own story about how he got there.