Monday, April 29, 2013

Underneath Seattle

What was I doing underneath Seattle, you ask? Why, taking the famed Underground Tour, of course. I love history. My grandfather was a history teacher and passed his love of the past onto my mother. The four of us kids grew up pickled in the stuff and now those of us who are parents are busy passing the history bug onto another hapless generation.

When I heard that there was a historical district to Seattle and some kind of underground tour of the original downtown, I put it on my must-see list. Pioneer Square is right next to the train station, so on our last day, Caleb and I walked over there while we waited for our departure time.

We couldn't find it at first, and a true Kahrs to the end, I hated to ask for directions. But at last, driven to desperation by hunger, we went to Subway and while ordering asked where we could find the Underground tour. Oh, the bitterness. We were right across the street from it---if I had turned around at the door I would have seen it and never had stoop to asking someone else.

We scarfed our sandwiches and hurried across the street just in time to join the group that was forming. The tour begins in a beautifully restored barroom where the tour guide gives the background of Seattle and how there came to be an underground.

It all had to do with toilets and fire. No, really, that's why. The original founders of the town were interested in a quick buck, not metropolis building. The industry of the town was logging, and downtown was built right at the tide line for ease of floating logs away and unloading cargo. The only problem was that this made it impossible to build a working sewer system. Before toilets, high tide would float out all the outhouses, and after toilets, high tide would cause a pressure backup that would shoot geysers up the backs of the unexperienced. The experienced knew that high tide meant "Hold it."

This went on for a number of years, only getting worse as Seattle grew. But then one day, a civic-minded immigrant named John Back burnt the downtown to the ground in 12 hours. He worked in a cabinet maker's shop and was heating glue that boiled over, igniting the wood chips and turpentine covering the floor. It might not have been so bad if the fire hadn't spread to all the saloons choking the area. Fueled by alcohol, the fire raged out of control.

Amazingly, when the smoke cleared, no loss of human life was reported, but it is said that up to 1 million rats perished in the flames. The fire turned out to be an opportunity to fix the mistakes of Seattle's first hasty construction. Obviously, the downtown area would have to be raised and sea walls put in.

But the city of Seattle put a time estimate of 10 years on the project. All the sad little business owners said "No way!", and started rebuilding at the original levels immediately. The downtown was rebuilt in 3 years. However, knowing that the level of the streets would eventually be raised, they built a main entrance on their ground floors, and another main entrance on their second floors. Good thinking, because the city was working hard to raise the streets.

Dirt was washed down from the bluffs above, filling retaining walls and making streets that were 10-30 feet higher than ground level. This was an awkward time. To shop, you had to climb down a ladder to reach the store. If you wanted to shop across the street, you had to climb back up, cross the street, and climb down again on the other side. Besides all that hassle, barrels would occasionally fall off the street and crush the shoppers below. Not good for business and the people demanded action from the city.

A "temporary" fix was put in place---what were essentially brick bridges joining the street level to the second stories of the buildings. The plan was to fill in the space underneath, but somehow the city never got around to it. Shopkeepers continued to use the space for commerce, even putting skylights in the sidewalks (some of which can still be seen today). In 1907 the space was condemned after bubonic plague was discovered in the passageways. The once-busy sidewalks were abandoned to Vice and Corruption

Eventually, even Vice and Corruption got tired of it down there, and the Underground was largely forgotten until the 60's when the downtown area was restored. Portions of the Underground were cleaned out and made safe for the tours that have continued to this day.

After our introduction to the area's history, our group trundled outside and across the street. We entered the Underground through this unmarked door and down a narrow stairway.

Underneath the buildings is private property, but Underground Tours pays for permission to use certain portions of it as access. The sidewalk passageways are city property and are used to run utilities. We gathered in a dimly lit room for more fascinating information from Tour Guide Dave before continuing.

The walk ways are rugged and uneven. Artifacts from Seattle's past lurk in the dark corners. (Or they were carefully placed there by the tour to give ambiance. Whatever. It LOOKS authentic.) The whole experience has a deliciously adventurous feel to it.

I was enjoying myself SO much. I love breathing in the atmosphere of past generations (or was that mildew?). If there really were time machines, I would so get one!

After exploring one side of the street, we had to go back up to street level to get to the other side. Those same pesky retaining walls are still there! The other side of the street had some of the original banking facade, complete with teller's stall. When the Yukon gold rush occurred, all of that gold came pouring into Seattle. And Seattle did its best to see that it stayed there. Lots of---shall we say---"cottage industries" sprang up, run by entrepreneurial-spirited women.

There was lots more information along those lines, but I will spare you the details. You will have to go and take the tour yourself to find out. The whole experience was loads of fun and if I ever return to Seattle, I will definitely be taking the tour again.

And again.

And again.

I will be a tour stalker. I'm sure they are used to them.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Male Bonding

Our third day in Seattle was a big day for Caleb. He got to spend the whole day with his dad, whom he hasn't seen in about 7 years. Lots of excitement, anticipation, and more nerves than a girl at her first prom.

Caleb (left) and his brother about the age he last saw his dad:

Caleb now:

The one thing Caleb wanted to do with his dad above all else was to go fishing. He and his dad both love to fish, but sadly for Caleb, he is the lone fishing castaway on the desert island of the Kahrs family. So it was going to be a big treat for him to fish with someone who actually liked to do it.

Meanwhile, I gritted my teeth good-naturedly and packed a bag with things to do.

Not. Nearly. Enough.

The artist at work.

10 minutes later:  the artist bored out of her skull and nearly frozen to death.

Fishing is the perfect sport for male bonding opportunities. You stand (or sit) around, not talking much, and staring into space. The only thing that could make it more perfect is the occasional guttural growl or full-body tackle.

Now if two women were getting together after not seeing each other for 7 years, they'd go get their nails done, have a facial, do lunch, hit the shops, and all the while be exchanging more information than two Cray Titan supercomputers.

I asked Caleb about it afterward and he said they'd been having a mind-meld. Okay, then. As long as you both felt bonded, that's good enough for me. I do not have to understand men.

Caleb was the only fisherman to make a catch that day. And all he caught was duckweed.

But from what I understand, fishing is about the experience, anyway. Or maybe that's just what they tell themselves after they don't catch any fish! Still, it was a great day and one that both of them will remember with happiness for the rest of their lives.

I guess that is enough success for anyone.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Seattle Sights...

I came to Seattle with a laundry list of things I wanted to do and see---as usual, I was way too optimistic in what I could accomplish in the time I had allotted. All I managed to accomplish in my 2 full and 2 half days sightseeing was to figure out what I wanted to do if I ever came to Seattle again!

But I took LOTS of pictures. After so long on the prairie, it was nice to be a little hemmed in. And I happen to love urban photography---maybe because I so seldom encounter any urbans at home. You, dear readers will pay the price for my enthusiasm. There is no way I can whittle down my photos to a decent amount, so I am going to post them allllllllllllll. Lucky, lucky you.

Pioneer Square: The historical district of Seattle. Filled with beautiful brick buildings, creeping ivy, fascinating alleyways, tourists everywhere you turn, and a large amount of homeless people. Location of the Underground Tour, my absolute favorite thing we did on our trip. But more about that later...

Seattle Center: The iconic (and expensive to ascend) Space Needle is located here along with several museums and more souvenir shops than you can shake a stick at. We didn't go up to the top of the Space Needle, but we went in the store at the bottom. That counts for something, doesn't it? We were too late to get into the Science Museum, but we did get to admire the exterior of the EMP museum. It is an amazing building; the monorail runs right through it!

Random Seattle scenery: As it turns out, I have somewhat of an addiction to alleyways. They make such nice linear subjects to photograph and I happen to be a rigid, geometrical kind of gal!

Sadly, I wasn't able to take the ferry around Puget Sound or visit the Seattle Art Museum, or go to the tulip festival, or take the Duck Tour, or see a movie at the IMAX, or kayak along the islands, or...or...or...

Oh, well, there's always next time.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Our Seattle Crime Spree

As every country dweller knows, the Big City is a dark place brimming with danger, decay, and degenerates just waiting to corrupt the innocent. It must be so, because within an hour of arriving in the city and breathing its tainted air, Caleb and I found ourselves to be desperate, wanted criminals. This is how it happened....

Because we took the bus into the city, we arrived 2 hours earlier than expected. My dear friend Jenilyn, who was to pick us up, was still an hour and a half away when we surprised her with our happy phone call. "We're heeeeere!" It being rush hour, she advised us to go ahead and take the Link Transit train down to where our hotel was and she would meet us down there. This I gamely decided to do.

We received directions to the depot. Just walk around the construction, over the sky bridge, cross the four lane street, go past the Starbucks (of course), turn left, take the elevator down to the tracks and grab any train going south. And do it while hauling 3 suitcases and 4 bags.

No problem.

I knew we had to have exact change, so I let the first train go while we hunted through and found all our dollar bills and quarters. When the next train arrived, we were ready. Hustling through the door, we found the luggage area already mostly filled. Caleb was able to leave two suitcases there, but he had to hold the last one on his lap. He still had it better than I did---I had to stack all four bags on my lap, one on top of the other. Only my eyes were visible over what looked like a mutant pile of duffle bags. Can you say Public Transportation Nerd?

As stop after stop passed, commuters getting on and off, with no sign of a conductor to collect our fare, I began to get nervous. I didn't want to ask and look like an inexperienced dweeb (or should I say, even more of one!), and besides, I couldn't really move anyway.

When we reached the SeaTac airport, the train stopped and all passengers were requested to disembark. It was the end of the line. Hmmm. Maybe you were supposed to pay when you got off? Caleb and I gathered our suitcases and stepped off the train. Immediately I say two uniformed officers with vests emblazoned something like, "Fare Enforcement Officer." Choosing to throw myself on their mercy rather than pursue a life on the run, I went up to them and asked, "Where do I pay to take the train?"

They looked at me and you could tell they were storing this one up to tell the guys back in the office. "Um, you're supposed to pay before you get on. See those machines located, oh, everywhere? Use them to buy a ticket next time."

But....but....can't I pay now?

No, I couldn't. It was the end of the line, with no way to redeem myself from my shame.

Sigh. There was nothing to do but drag our luggage down to street level and wait for our ride. Thankfully, Jenilyn had purchased Orca cards for Caleb and me to use during our stay. All we had to do to prevent further crime sprees was wave our cards in the direction of any and all card readers we saw. Our unorthodox methods seemed to work, but I still don't think we had it quite figured out before we left----the computer must have hated trying to calculate our travels and fees!

My cheeks still flushed with embarrassment, it was time to explore the city. The first place we went was to the Seattle Aquarium.

It was nice to smell the salt air again. Not that I smelled it that much in California---in spite of living only a couple hours from the ocean, we visited only every year or so. Now I have to drive even farther than that just to get to the nearest mall!

 Fun with the jellyfish tank! The aquarium has them displayed in an arching tank that you can walk around, under, and behind. I love jellyfish---totally cool.

After that, we wandered up to Pike Place Market, an iconic open-air market that has every kind of vendor you can think of. It is famous as a place where they toss the fish. Not, as I thought, from boat to stalls, but from displays to counter. When a customer wants a fish, the whole fish is taken off its bed of ice and hurled to the butchering/weighing counter. Interesting, but very fishy smelling. I liked the long bank of flower vendors better.

But Caleb really appreciated the bakeries....

We also saw the Gum Wall, a dubious icon where, for whatever reason, people started sticking their gum on the wall. Now it is covered in a disgusting explosion of color and texture. a windowsill.


After we were done exploring the market we hit a couple more shops and ate at a delicious cafe before heading home to our hotel. It was lots of fun, and definitely a workout for our legs. I'm not used to climbing that many hills all in one day! Nothing left to do but post our pictures on Facebook and rest up for another fun day of sight seeing tomorrow....

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

10 Things You Should Know Before You Ride Amtrak

Last week I broke out of my usual, humdrum, routine existence to take a trip to Seattle with Caleb. To make things even MORE exciting, we took the train, a mode of transportation we've never used  before. I had lots of great advice from local friends on what to do, bring, and expect. This helped us immensely, but not everyone has access to my friends so I feel that an online tutorial would be a helpful contribution to the world.

10 Things You Should Know Before You Ride Amtrak

Number 1: Begin and end your journey at a stop that checks luggage. To save a few bucks, I went to a non-checking station. Believe me, when they say carry-on, they mean it. Your suitcases are your responsibility to get on and off the train. And they don't give you any too long to do it, either. Something about a Train Schedule----it's tuck and roll, baby!

Number 2: Even if you are a good traveler, be prepared for some disorientation if this is your first time on a train. The train is constantly in motion, and not just in a forward direction. It tosses in Up, Down, Back, Forth, and I'm pretty sure there were some spins mixed in there, too. I have a stomach of steel due to years of reading books on tortuous mountain road trips, but even I had to sit and get used to the new sensations before I dared crack a book.

 Number 3: Should your stomach not settle properly, the bathrooms are downstairs and come in small, intimate, and pocket-size. They have a tiny, violent sink that sprays water everywhere and a tiny, violent toilet that gets rid of your, shall we say, "business" with a great sucking roar guaranteed to terrify small children. Hint: Do NOT attempt to potty train on Amtrak. Your progress will be set back YEARS!  As an added bonus, the charming little locks have a tendency to jiggle out of place from the rocking motion of the train. If you are not vigilant, this can lead to some unexpected moments of community.

Number 4: Moving about the train has its own, unique challenges. As I've already mentioned, the train is constantly bobbing around. If you're not careful, you are only one bump away from finding yourself sitting cozily on the lap of a complete stranger. Great for meeting guys, but I decided I would rather stay upright, thank you very much. Turns in the tracks are also loads of fun. If you don't know one is coming, the train will make the turn and you will still be walking in a nice, straight line----right into the wall. This should be avoided during the hours alcohol is served. People might get the wrong impression.

Number 5: Exploring the train is not only allowed, it is encouraged. You are free to walk up and down the cars and visit the viewing car, also known as the Lounge. But in between each car is a Yawning Pit of Doom waiting to claim you as its next victim. The cars are joined by some kind of flexible attachments that move and shift with the train. You can occasionally see gaps of up to 6 inches along the walls, but the floor seems to stay pretty solid. It's still very exciting to cross---like something out of Indiana Jones!

Number 6: You will be happiest if you bring a blanket and pillow. This was one of the handy bits of advice I was given ahead of time. I followed it---after a fashion. Not wanting to look gauche, I brought a light blanket and a small, delicate pillow. Caleb, in the throes of teenage self-consciousness, refused to bring anything. Big mistake. I quickly saw that the more experienced (read: sophisticated)  the train traveler, the bigger the pillow. The people that went back and forth on the train all the time practically had their whole bed sets along! 

Number 7: If you are planning an overnight trip, you would be wise to put yourself through a bit of conditioning first. To get ready for the experience, simply fold yourself up and place yourself inside an envelope. When you can sleep comfortably in there, you are ready for the contortions of finding a comfortable position on the train. And I even had two seats to spread out in! To be fair, it IS more comfortable than sleeping upright in a car all night. After you have developed the ability to sleep soundly in your little envelope, begin having someone come by every couple of hours and wake you up. This will simulate all the stations the train stops at during the night. The conductors do their best to be quiet as they move around helping passengers disembark, but each stop means people moving about the train, getting on and getting off, rustling luggage, and speaking in loud whispers. Not the most restful sleeping situation ever---but if I wanted that, I should have forked out the dough for a sleeper.

Number 8: Be prepared for a very communal travel experience. Not everyone wants to socialize, but there is always someone near you that is happy to chat. In the dining car they seat everyone at tables of four, so you will often find yourself sharing a table with some of your fellow travelers. Caleb and I took only one of our meals in the dining car (dining cars are NOT the most inexpensive dining ever), but we chatted with a very nice gentleman from Oregon who was on his way to Saskatchewan to do genealogical research by his grandparents' farm.

The view from our breakfast table
Our bus.
Number 9: Be flexible. The best laid travel plans can sometimes go awry; our "straight-through" train to Seattle had to end in Spokane because of a landslide on the tracks ahead. At 2:00 in the morning we had to switch to buses for the remaining 5 hours of the trip (And I nearly left our suitcases on the train---remember the whole "carry on/carry off" concept? Only checked baggage was moved to buses by Amtrak employees). After 2 1/2 hours we stopped at a gas station to stretch our legs. Just after we re-boarded, a passenger had a seizure and we had to get back off and wait for the ambulance. That poor man was left in Ellensburg while we continued on to Seattle---his travel plans certainly had some bumps along the way! Thankfully the tracks were open for our trip back because otherwise we would have missed some of the prettiest scenery...

Number 10: Taking pictures on the train is a very moving experience. As in, you are moving along at 70-80 miles per hour. By the time you press the shutter down, whatever you wanted to take a picture of is usually long gone. But if you can catch them, there are some gorgeous views through the Cascades. And a few in the mountains passing back into Montana. But not much after that. So don't even bother. Take a nap or something. 

No offense, Great Plains.