Between the Misty Mountains

As I begin this account, I sit in a tastefully lit coach car of the Amtrak Cascades, departing in 13 minutes on the three-and-a-half-hour journey from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington. This activity alone makes me unusual, in an American context. Seattle King Street station — the fifth-busiest in the country — carries as many passengers yearly as embark or arrive at Chorley, Lancashire. As a consequence, train travel in America is an altogether more leisurely experience, both in the pace of the trains (none outside the North East exceed 80 miles per hour) and the comfort of the journey — there is, sadly, no dining car on the Pacer from Doncaster to Sheffield.

But while Americans prefer to drive or fly between their major cities, today’s rail journeys have illustrated the main conclusion I’ve drawn from the last two weeks in the Pacific Northwest: this is a huge country.

When I spoke to Americans about my decision to stay in their country’s often-forgotten top-left corner, they universally adopted a look of well-meaning confusion, as though they thought I had made some sort of mistake. This set off my British instinct to explain my way out of social awkwardness and got me flailing around for a reason why I chose Seattle for my first major holiday in six years.

I’d like to pretend it was a noble mission of self-discovery, spurred on by a desire to walk among pine forests and the steely Scandinavian serenity of the Puget Sound. I could have claimed it was spurred on by a curiosity about the region’s counterculture, from the civil rights activism of Portland to the Seattle Underground and the grunge scene. Could it also be the fascinating cultural history of the Pacific Northwest as a haven for outcast Asian communities, from Chinese and Japanese labourers in Oregon, to Seattle’s Little Saigon, to Vancouver’s huge Hong Kong population who fled the handover of the territory from Britain to China in the 1990s? It could. But the problem is that that would be a lie. Mainly, it was the weather, and the fact that I watched and enjoyed .

While Seattle’s most famous cultural export is not exactly representative of the city (the view from Frasier’s apartment in Queen Anne is impossible, and precisely one episode of the series was filmed there) it’s certainly an effective marketing tool. A desire to get the show’s title shot of the skyline spurred on my ill-advised decision to hike up to Kerry Park, miles from my hotel, while severely jet-lagged.

Fiction, and specifically video games, had up until my arrival been the closest I had come to the Pacific Northwest. is set on the picturesque San Juan Islands near the Canadian border. and are both set in Oregon, and built an AR game around a hidden item on Bainbridge Island.

Part of this is the region’s impressive tech industry, but part of it must lie in the slightly mysterious air brought on by its climate, the other justification for my choice of destination. Wedged between the Cascade and Olympic mountains, Seattle has a statistically justified reputation for rain, although in the 11 days I’ve spent here so far, we’ve had just one rainy day. Instead, a kind of misty pall descends over the city at regular intervals, washing out the colour and lending the autumnal, and omnipresent, trees an eye-catching quality.

Even in the cities, it’s green here. Rumbling through rural Washington on this morning’s train, I believe I managed to see all the pine trees in the world. It’s no wonder Bigfoot sightings are most common in this state — anything could be out there.

The surprise my new pals expressed at my showing up as a tourist in their city isn’t unjustified, I suppose. I’d be a little nonplussed if an American travelled 4,800 miles to spend a fortnight in Sheffield. It’s the fact they expressed it that got me — I’m predisposed to expect a certain patriotic self-belief out of Americans, even those of the progressive sort. Perhaps that sprinkling of self-doubt was why I felt at home here.

Even so, travelers who have yet to spend much time in the USA should not underestimate what a different country it is. You will start noticing little things as you arrive at the airport, with the mysterious two-foot gap at the bottom of their toilet cubicles, which I can only imagine arose out of some health and safety rule mandating an escape route for those who manage to lock themselves in the throne room. I should point out for the sake of fairness that this peculiarity seems also to apply in Canada, but it’s certainly an uncomfortable shock for those of us used to the modest three to four inches provided by our Great British Toilets.

This is not, in general, a gloat at oafish Yanks finding themselves entombed while in a compromised position. Believe me, I’ve been British long enough to know plenty of morons — it’s just that all of them still managed to work out how to unlock a door, and I have confidence that our transatlantic cousins could manage the same.

The excretory strangeness does not end at the cubicles, of which there are in any case a curious shortage. You will find perhaps two per (men’s) bathroom, when even the relatively urinal-happy Brits find room for three or four. Finding the cubicle occupied, you may proceed to the urinal, which you will be perturbed to find is handily placed at floor level, giving you ample opportunities to moisten your shoes.

Where these differences arise is always a curious question — some architect decades ago, despairing at the decisions which led his dreams of skyscrapers and cathedrals down a blind, urine-soaked alley, making an arbitrary decision on the placement of porcelain which continued down through the ages, no doubt. But they all add to the bigger differences that tell you that you are in a strange land.

As you leave the airport and cross the road to catch a bus, you might be mowed down by a truck and killed, cutting your holiday unexpectedly short. This would be because while you are aware that they drive on the other (wrong) side of the road here, training your neck’s muscle memory to look left instead of right before you cross is a bigger task than you would assume.

Provided that you survive the journey to your hotel, you may choose to celebrate with a drink in a local bar. This works effectively the same way as in Britain, you will be pleased to learn, until it comes to the process of paying, at which point you will not be asked for money, but handed your tab, a small folder containing receipts which you can pay off at the end of the night. While this might be intended as a convenience for the heavy drinker, in Britain we manage to get sufficiently smashed while paying for drinks at the point of delivery.

The drink, you will notice, is as eye-wateringly expensive as everything else here. This is partly a result of our woeful exchange rate (thank you, Brexit), but even accounting for the high cost of AmericaBuxx in the current climate, paying $4.50 plus tip for a latte is not a prospect I particularly relish. Then you must account for the 10% Washington Sales Tax, which while not excessive by the standards of our 20% VAT, is not baked into prices as ours is, so still feels like an unpleasant surprise.

When I spent a day in Vancouver, Canada, one of the many delights of that country was how comparatively affordable everything was. I bought an all-day travel card for their futuristic SkyTrain light rail system for the equivalent of £6.05, a filling dinner for £7, and then even let me use my British student card to get into their wonderful Aquarium $8 cheaper than usual. In Seattle those prices would be greeted with laughter, if not suspicion.

Mind you, Seattle’s public transport isn’t bad, as America goes. The country realised some time between the Iraq War and the financial crisis that building their transport network entirely around petrochemicals was perhaps not the winner it once seemed, and cities across America have been feverishly building metros, light rails and streetcars ever since.

The result is that a lot of these systems are both cheap and with shiny new rolling stock, but with the trade off that most of them are still quite limited. The Link, Seattle’s metro system somewhere between the Manchester Metrolink and the Tyne and Wear Metro, operates only a single line, running between SeaTac airport and the University of Washington. Happily, I’m staying just a few minutes’ walk from a Link station and have made ready use of it at an affordable $2.50 per journey during my time in the city, but that option is not available to most of the city.

SoundTransit, the regional transport authority, has embarked on an ambitious plan to scale up the Link, expand the Sounder commuter rail network, and generally improve public transport across the region with a world-class integrated network up and running by 2042 — but that seems a long way distant from this end of the 2020s.

To cite Seattle’s population as its official 750,000 (with a metropolitan area a smidge under three million) does not do justice to the scale of the place. A city of three quarters of a million in America is not remotely the same as a place of similar size in the UK (say, Manchester or Glasgow). The lying perspective of Google Maps had led me to believe that I would be within a moderate walk of downtown, but I’ve not yet summoned the strength to try it. The hills here are steep and plentiful — not an easy overstatement for me as a resident of Sheffield to make. My reading of the city’s history prior to arrival told me that when the suburbs were built in the early 20th century, the city flattened off the hills using fire hoses, a uniquely American solution in its bluntness. Clearly, however, they also took on the American tradition of doing a half-assed job of it.

Even within the quiet, pleasant suburb of Capitol Hill — one of America’s oldest LGBT+ neighbourhoods and home to a selection of fun independent shops, Seattle chains like Dick’s Drive-In and Pagliacci Pizza, as well as a seriously excellent Mexican restaurant (La Cocina Santiago) — you will find houses amazingly spaced out, street numbers that go up by fours and sixes rather than twos, and amazing distances between destinations that look almost adjacent on a map.

Once you reach downtown, don’t look up if you don’t want to feel dizzy from the sheer height of the skyscrapers, which I’m told are not even exceptional by American standards. Certainly Vancouver’s were bigger and more plentiful, but the steep slope that is Seattle’s waterfront will leave you feeling seriously loomed over by the time you reach the Aquarium and the ferry port.

Simply being in Downtown is an exhausting experience. Between the frequent sidewalk closures, the steep slopes, the distances between destinations, and the sheer number and volume of people, I found I couldn’t spend more than a couple of hours there at a stretch without needing a long time in a quiet room.

Happily, the Seattle Central Library was more than happy to oblige. One of the pleasant surprises I was not prepared for, given the general paucity of American public services, was the quality of their libraries. Used to the British tradition of limited opening hours, their facilities being first in front of the axe when local government cuts come through, I expected the American offering to be even worse, but I was completely wrong. Even the small branch library in Capitol Hill was open seven days a week, with decent hours even on a Sunday. It offered a great selection of books, including new releases, bookable meeting rooms, spaces with plugs and free WiFi for people working on laptops (like me) and was clean, well lit and comfortable.

The Central Library was a 10 foot cuboid of grandeur, with a quirky neon colour scheme and a slightly ominous floor painted entirely in bright red like something from a David Lynch film (sadly, it was filled only with meeting rooms).

An immediate observation you make on arriving is that the libraries are very popular with the city’s homeless population, which in common with other big US cities is depressingly large. America is not a country generous with its public spaces, and it’s noticeable just how many businesses even in this most progressive of cities are uncompromising in advertising their lack of public bathrooms, and often restrict access behind coded locks (a practice, sadly, which I’ve found making its way into some café chains in the UK).

Homelessness in the USA is one of those social evils which seems to go unmentioned due to its prevalence. It’s hard not to see them, on most major streets, not just (as in our cities) in the centre, though there they proliferate in seemingly innumerable tent cities. Homeless people do seem, as a rule, to make it easier not to notice them here. They are quiet in a way that homeless people in Britain are not. In two weeks I was not once asked for change even by those sitting in shop doorways, where in Sheffield I am regularly stopped in the street while walking. This might be a result of more aggressive law enforcement, a less obliging public, or simply greater resignation to their situation.

It might be that, the threshold for becoming homeless being lower in the USA due to their higher cost of living and comparative lack of public safety net, those who are homeless here are proportionately less given to intense mental illness or substance abuse that can make the British homeless more visible. But I wouldn’t know, because after a couple of days I also became acclimatised to it, just as the thousands of Americans around me did.

Perhaps I can explain it by reference to the city’s climate. When the rain comes down, you can do something about it, put up an umbrella or duck into a building — but if you’re thrown into the Puget Sound, suddenly the wet is dense, and omnipresent, and the problem seems too big for one person to fix.

I feel guilty for it — it is, after all, my country too — but like so many others, I haven’t translated that guilt into action, beyond voting for the Democrats and hoping that someone, some time, can do something. When America does anything, it does it big time. Its inequality is no exception.

Part of the responsibility for resolving the homelessness crisis lies with the local authorities, and working in political communications meant I was delighted to arrive in Seattle during their local election campaigns. These are not the quaint affairs we know in Britain, where retirees point at potholes and attend street markets for a few weeks before a couple of thousand voters in their tiny ward cast their votes for the party they always vote for.

For one thing, elections are officially nonpartisan — this helps provide some level of competitiveness between candidates, as the city is furiously Democratic in Presidential and Federal elections. Some ballot boxes in Capitol Hill reported returns of 100% for Hillary Clinton in 2016, so it perhaps wouldn’t be fair to the city’s few Libertarians and Republicans if they had to fight under their traditional colours. For another, the city council consists of just seven members (rather than the several dozen standard in British council elections). This means each ward, boringly numbered rather than given a geographic name, contains over 100,000 residents — more than a UK parliamentary constituency, which combined with the geographic size of the city makes campaigning a serious undertaking.

As such, the main medium of campaigning seems to be the yard sign, culturally equivalent to the British garden stake, only mounted at ground level on flimsy wire rather than at head height on a mighty two-by-four. The nonpartisan campaigns mean that each candidate must develop their own brand identity rather than relying on party colours, helping along a sense of vibrant pageantry we simply don’t find amidst the Labour posters and Lib Dem diamonds of Sheffield local elections.

They don’t just elect councillors in America, you see — on a frankly ill-advised 23 kilometre walk from the university to the zoo and back via the gloriously strange neighbourhood of Fremont (which proudly displays a Lenin statue rescued from a Czech scrapyard) I counted yard signs for the city council, for the King County Director of Elections, and for the local school board. On a bus through Bellingham, Washington, in the far north of the state, I saw immense poster boards for local sheriff, though Seattle is sensible enough to have a proper police force.

The Democratic Primary is getting underway too, and posters and badges are starting to make themselves felt. In Capitol Hill, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has a few posters visible, understandable given the resonance with that community of America electing its first openly gay President (there have long been rumours about James Buchanan, though as he was partly responsible for the descent into civil war, I can see why there is no clamour to claim him). Elizabeth Warren also has badges on display, while some mysterious Bitcoin-mining Zorro has been flyposting Andrew Yang posters on local lampposts.

Except for one contrarian old man at the airport, I have seen no MAGA hats on display, and have generally tried to avoid bringing up the White House’s current occupant with those I’ve met. As I’ve mostly been lurking in America’s most liberal corners, it seems unlikely I would be overheard by a gun-toting fanboy, but I felt it better not to risk it.

Unavoidably, though, there have been things which have made me uncomfortable. A Mexican family travelling on my bus back from Vancouver were held up for half an hour at the US-Canada border — though they were eventually allowed through. A Chinese student was interrogated at the same border post just ahead of me. I have a British accent and have never lived in the USA, but I have the correct passport, so I easily sail through. It’s not hard to wonder if the questioning at Blaine, Washington would be different if I was a different colour.

I wonder if part of this discomfort is the real visibility of social distinction in the USA. Transgender people and older gay couples are visible here in a way I haven’t seen anywhere in the UK, which speaks more to our cultural conservatism and general sense of reserve than being any sort of criticism of the Americans. Indeed, between this and the election pageantry, it’s a rather wonderful American trait to be able to stand straight-backed, fearlessly proclaiming one’s immovable convictions where a Brit might quietly withdraw.

Unfortunately, this loudness does extend to other areas of American life, regardless of social setting. As I write, two women sharing my Amtrak car are repeatedly playing the same evidently hilarious Vine clip again and again, without speakers, such is their desire to share their joy with the whole carriage. I have shared British trains with less disruptive hen parties. Similarly, my trip to Target, a store without comparison in the UK which I can only describe as like John Lewis if it were operated by Poundland, saw me browsing the electronics section for a replacement pair of headphones while being regaled with a man’s weekend plans from the next aisle over at about four times the appropriate volume.

I must confess that this is one of the biggest things which has turned me off moving to this country, wonderful though it is in so many ways. It is mostly the fault of my autistic brain and only-child upbringing that I deal badly with excessive noise, but it is a fact I cannot change, and a large American city is perhaps not the best place for quiet reflection. Some of my favourite days out were wandering undisturbed through the spacious parks of Vancouver, passing some hours on the sleepy Bainbridge island, or pottering around the incongruously large Beatles exhibition at, of all places, the Oregon Historical Society. By contrast, a trip to the city centre had me back in my concrete-walled hotel room at 3pm with the lights off, willing the world to shut up for five minutes. Alas, the steely British silence is one trait I do not ever expect the Americans to adopt.

This is a big country. In volume, in scale, in intensity. Visit for a week and it becomes immediately obvious just why their culture was able to take over half the world in the space of a few decades. It is an addictive, energetic, constantly surprising country.

The Pacific Northwest is one of the world’s most beautiful environments, and in its rainy, mountainous terrain the Americans and Canadians have carved out gleaming cities, endlessly vibrant communities, a thriving economy, while preserving so much natural beauty, humble local history and a variety virtually unheard of back home.

Within the space of an eight hour train journey, you can travel through the gleaming futuristic metropolis of Vancouver, through the bustling, thrilling hugeness of Seattle, to the almost European clanging of trams, sidewalk cafes, art deco architecture and sense of charming post-industrial grime that accompanies hip, rebellious Portland. This is the land they call Cascadia, and it’s wonderful.

I’m almost 4,000 words deep, and we’re pulling into Seattle, so I’d better stop. But I can’t do it justice — come see it for yourself.

Freelance writer and graphic designer. Once worked in politics.

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