Sep 2015

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 24 Comments

How We Got Here


When I was twelve years old, while sleeping on the floor of my dad’s living room, I had a dream that caused me to fall irrationally in love with Seattle. I had never been to Seattle, and had only a vague idea of its whereabouts (America). In the dream, and in recalling it afterward, I felt a complete sense of liberation. I was a fully autonomous and independent twelve-year-old without a care in the world, and I freely roamed the streets with a gang of other twelve-year-olds amid the deep snows of the Seattle winter. This demonstrates how little I knew about Seattle. In my dream, Seattle had been in the midst of an arctic winter, and I, along with my cohort of street kids, were whisked about the city on its efficient public transit system. This assumption of public transit furthermore demonstrates how little I knew of Seattle.

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.

2014-08-13 - Sultan transfer 001

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.

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  1. Rob

    Nice story, it’s been awhile. I’m glad things are going in the direction you want!

    Comment by Rob on September 28, 2015 at 6:15 pm

  2. gprguy

    Really glad to see that you’ve found a home in the area. We moved to Port Orchard almost a year ago and can’t agree more – this is paradise.

    Comment by gprguy on September 28, 2015 at 6:36 pm

  3. Mike

    Hey Brad Great to here that your now in the neighborhood. Lots of us just across the border in Canada if you get the itch to cross a border. This coming weekend there’s a westy event on Friday in Squamish. Chris from T3 is come up from Portland. De La Syncro. Only a couple hrs of a beautiful highway.

    Comment by Mike on September 28, 2015 at 7:20 pm

  4. @Mike, Canada? Too dangerous ;) We still haven’t ever been to western Cadana – we look forward to our devirginization.

    Comment by Brad on September 28, 2015 at 7:22 pm

  5. Yes. Yes! I’ve been in Seattle since 1992. There’s just something about it. I lived in Ballard for years but now I’m in Laurelhurst. I just know I’m going to run into you guys someday and when I do we have to get a beer.

    Comment by Mark Murphy on September 28, 2015 at 7:24 pm

  6. Nice post! We’ve been exploring Washington for the past few weeks before heading south, and wondered if we’d spot Nacho. We also plan to scout the west for a new place to live after our trip and this area is definitely growing on us. Hopefully we’ll experience some of the “signs” that you guys did to make the decision a little easier.

    Comment by Josh on September 28, 2015 at 7:28 pm

  7. Sebastian Rataezyk

    I started following you years ago on your trip. I once had a vw van. I loved living your adventures vicariously from my new home in Ypsilanti Michigan. My old home, was Ballard. Ya sure ya betcha. As well as other places near there. I was happy when I found that you moved there. Now reading this. It brought tears to my eyes.
    I grew up on a farm an hour esdt of ellensburg. Somehow knowing growing up that I would live in Seattle. Before going to Evergreen. My mother showed me her old apt. She lived at before me next to Ballard high school. I found one just up the street that summer. Worked at the end of pier 57 at a restaurant and laughed when the owner said some day I’m putting in a ferris wheel.
    After Evergreen I came back. And loved it. Ballard sure has changed over the years. I once lesved near that Belgian beer place. The one with the bay windows upstairs. For 250$.
    I still know people in the area. Stop into Ballard Reuse I worked there my last three years in Seattle. Always enjoying your life and stories. I live in a log cabin my self. Ypsirustica on Facebook. Sebastian.

    Comment by Sebastian Rataezyk on September 28, 2015 at 7:51 pm

  8. Lived in Seattle from 2004-2008, loved it. Used to go to Ballard for fun, music at Tractor Tavern (cool place) and if you like burgers try the Red Mill Burgers (Phinney Ridge 314 N 67th St). Best I’ve ever had even to this day. The owner is into the Rolling Stones big time, takes his employees to Rolling Stone concerts. And visit Archie McPhee for some wild crazy fun unique stuff. Have fun and lot of beautiful sites to see and things to free the soul.

    Comment by Steve Collier on September 28, 2015 at 8:00 pm

  9. Lived and worked in Seattle (Pioneer Square) from 2004-2008 for a start up company, loved it. Used to go to Ballard for fun, music at Tractor Tavern (cool place) and if you like burgers try the Red Mill Burgers (Phinney Ridge 314 N 67th St). Best I’ve ever had even to this day. The owner is into the Rolling Stones big time, takes his employees to Rolling Stone concerts. And visit Archie McPhee for some wild crazy fun unique stuff. Have fun and plenty of beautiful sites to see and things to free the soul. My girlfriend worked for the Fish and Wildlife Dept. so we went to familiar places and places mainstream folks didn’t know about.

    Comment by Steve Collier on September 28, 2015 at 8:04 pm

  10. Christine

    Thanks for sharing your story, I love your writings. How about this on a flip side…..I’ve lived in Seattle for 25+ years and have been yearning for find a new home but cannot find it. I travel both by air and road (Vanagon!) but cannot find anything that gives me all of what I get in the PNW. So we try to make big road trips and explore as much as we can all year round. Plan is to travels moths at a time, but I think Seattle will always be our home base.

    Comment by Christine on September 28, 2015 at 8:48 pm

  11. I’ve checked, Christine–the PNW is the best N. America has to offer. If you want to go up from here, you’ll have to drive a little farther :)

    Comment by Brad on September 28, 2015 at 8:54 pm

  12. Hey, I was wondering what had happened to my favorite travel blogger so it is so great to read an update. Good for you guys. Keep updating and let us know your adventures. From what I hear from desktoglory (met them in Peru) you are going have the biggest adventure of your life!

    Comment by Karie on September 28, 2015 at 11:13 pm

  13. ernesto

    bello simplemente bello

    Comment by ernesto on September 29, 2015 at 9:22 am

  14. Chris

    Yup. “… goes without saying.”
    We Californiacated Lopez Island (San Juan Islands, WA) 10 years ago from SoCA because I, since the age 16 and after a road trip with mom in the station wagon with 4 younger sisters to Mexico City, had seen beauty and declared I would one day live in a beautiful place. Check.
    Love your books and blog. Thank you.

    Comment by Chris on September 29, 2015 at 8:21 pm

  15. Your first book inspired me to retire from medicine, buy a Westy, and explore the backroads of America. I’ve even blogged about my travels at vannagone.blogspot.com, but my adventures pale in comparison to yours. And I can’t wait to read your second book for more inspiration. So thank you from the bottom of my heart.
    And you are right, Seattle is the best place to live in America. I moved here 28 years ago from the east coast and have never regretted it. In addition to the natural beauty and proximity to outdoor activities, a bonus of living in Seattle is the large and extremely helpful community of vanagon owners here.
    I live in the neighborhood just across the Ballard Bridge from you, Magnolia, very near the largest and most beautiful park in the city, Discovery Park. So if you and Sheena are ever hiking in the park, please stop by afterwards for a cold local brew or glass of wine on my deck overlooking Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. It would be a small thank you to the couple who inspired me!

    Comment by mark on October 1, 2015 at 6:23 pm

  16. That’s awesome, Mark. It’s funny how a small seed can get planted in our minds and then grow into a completely different kind of life. We’re happy to have been that seed. Looking forward to checking out the view from your deck!

    Comment by Brad on October 1, 2015 at 6:42 pm

  17. Mom

    I hope this blog doesn’t encourage TOO many people to move to Ballard! Remember what happened to Prescott when Money Magazine declared it to be among the top 10 most desirable cities in which to retire? Good-bye quaint town, hello metropolis! Yes, I love visiting you in your new home. A great choice…and way easier to visit than Thailand! :-).

    Comment by Mom on October 5, 2015 at 2:57 am

  18. shauna

    Hey, I have happened on your Nacho tale from time to time, and was recently looking to update our rear bumper on our 85 Westfalia vanagon since we got rear-ended, saw how you made your own and then saw a recent post. Welcome to Seattle, I grew up here and your story of finding Seattle brought tears to my eyes, I feel the same way about the Pacific Northwest–lucky for me it has always been home. We have owned our 85 Vannie-bus for 15 years and taken her on many adventures- West Coast and around America our son has grown up in the back seat. Just wanted to let you know your writing touches a cord in me, our home now is Whidbey Island and it is a great place to explore doors always open, thank you for your tales!

    Comment by shauna on October 16, 2015 at 10:39 pm

  19. andrew johnson

    awesome. welcome to the northwest. my wife and i live on san juan islands and love it here. it’s a really special spot surrounded by the beauty and majesty of nature. we recently purchased an “84 westy. it’s currently being cared for @ peacevans in seattle. i just found and read your blog, and the wife just pulled in…i’ll share with her and read more soon.

    Comment by andrew johnson on December 8, 2015 at 6:18 am

  20. Gianni

    So … four years of this stuff. FOUR YEARS! To the month. I read about beach camping in Baja, choked down Sheena’s recipies, called the aduanna on Brad’s various smuggling operations, lived thru a Subaru heart transfusion, Europe … well, whatever, got stranded in affluence on a private island, and watched roots start to grow in a small colony of the kingdom of smugness. I stayed on board. I persevered. I bought the damn book!

    And yet at the end of it, my reward is still not knowing Nacho’s super secret security feature. Thanks.

    Comment by Gianni on December 11, 2015 at 6:38 am

  21. Brian

    Welcome! We moved to Frelard (by the very same BevMo) a few years ago and are pretty satisfied with the whole setup. I’ve since grown a beard and purchased some rubber boots, so I guess you could call me a convert. There’s still lots of good back roads to explore around here- the I90 corridor, the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route (seriously, look this one up), the dry side, etc. The Noble Fir, across from Bastille, is a “travel bar” with an awesome beer selection and a crazy library of maps and travel books. Hope to see you guys around.

    Comment by Brian on December 21, 2015 at 9:41 pm

  22. Jack

    My God…..this is the most annoying gush about Seattle from a newcomer I’ve ever read.

    “It is a place of mushroom and berry foragers, fishermen, crabbers, little breweries and big beards.”

    Its a place of bearded pristine-logger-boot-wearing wannabe lumberjacks, cell-phone-staring blue-badge wearing amazon zomnbies, and triple-non-fat-latte sipping patagucci clad yuppie transplants. Yeah, Ballard used to be where blue collar working people worked and lived, but now its the place wear $8 pints of beer and $450 dress shoes can be purchased by white collar douchebags. All those people you think are “foragers, fishermen, crabbers” etc are actually just homeless people living in RVs in the nearby light industrial area.

    Comment by Jack on March 6, 2016 at 5:39 pm

  23. You seem like a real holier-than-thou douchebag, Jack.

    Comment by Brad on March 6, 2016 at 7:56 pm

  24. JJ

    Jack, pour yourself hot cup of STFU!

    Comment by JJ on March 19, 2016 at 12:55 am

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