At the US border, the only thing which interested the border guard was whether we had any fruits and vegetables with us. A few kilometres in, however, we knew we were in the US when MLH braked on the highway for a lane-hopping small truck driving erratically. When we passed the same truck a little later, the driver made a gun with his hand and symbolically shot MLH in the head. Welcome to Washington State.
The first billboard we saw on our way to Seattle was an advertisement for a cannabis shop. Recreational and medical weed are legal, and in a truly American manner, the government has stayed out of it and let the market take over. The result is that cannabis supply stores are as ubiquitous as corner stores. The advertisers must make a fortune, and the local Seattle weekly magazine was announcing ‘Budtender of the Year’. “It’s 90% psychology, 10% mixology” said the 40-something female winner: “you have to work out how the customer wants to feel.” Most of her customers are either cannabis tourists from non-legalized states and countries, or people who haven’t smoked since the 70s, she said. A conference for ‘Women in Weed’ was planned for September – it’s entrepreneurial heaven.
I thought it might take a halo of smoke from a joint to make Seattle prettier – I found it a gritty, unattractive city in the main. Like Toronto, there is a horrible concrete jungle of highways going right along the waterfront. This detracts from the buzzing Pike Place Market, full of fish and seafood, and the original Starbucks Coffee Shop, which had a huge line of tourists waiting outside it. We did enjoy some good seafood in a pub on the waterfront, watched the ferries going to and from the US Gulf Islands, and the crew of a naval frigate dressed in summer whites coming and going from the ship through three lines of security provided by the US Marines.
We spent the next morning touring the largest building by volume in the world, the Boeing commercial aircraft assembly plant. Fascinating. It has 35,000 workers and enough orders for its 787 long haul passenger jets to last until 2020. Interesting to see lean manufacturing at work on such as scale (no photos as this was strictly verboten but imagine six football stadiums side by side with underground corridors to bring in the parts and overhead cranes and pulleys to move things around, and each stadium has three to four planes in assembly). The new planes are made with composite materials, are lighter, take less fuel and can travel further than their predecessors. Airbus, of course, has come out with a competing model.
That evening we went to Ballard, just north of Seattle, to see the locks and the artificial salmon ladder built with the locks about 100 years ago to allow the salmon to do their migration from the ocean to the river to spawn. The ladder has viewing panels, and we watched four types of salmon jumping upstream. The viewers cheered every time a salmon made it. Just like the Olympics.
On our way South to Oregon we diverted inland to Mount St Helens to see the active volcano and drove into some temperature records. 43.5C, 110F. Even MLH was slightly stunned, and a little worried about our water supply. A guide told us about the dramatic eruption of the volcano in 1980, where the whole of the mountain side blew off. Unfortunately, the geologists were expecting an upward rather than sideways eruption and didn’t evacuate far enough. 57 people were killed in a 20-mile radius.
One of the joys of unplanned travel is that you sometimes end up in gentle university towns such as Eugene, Oregon, meeting locals at a pub who recommend visiting tiny towns such as Springfield, Oregon. These towns always have at least one celebrity, and in sleepy, antique-shop-filled Springfield’s case it is Ken Kesey, author of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. The mural celebrating him was impressive; they put it up in four days. It was in Springfield that MLH found a pair of binoculars in a thrift store (for $6!), and presented them to me on a plate, because I had bet him he could not find a pair and if he did, I would eat them.
The Pacific Coastal Highway in California is famous, but I found the section in Oregon on our way to California enchanting. The first part displays the most enormous sand dunes I have ever seen, along the beach and the rivers. They are 100-200 feet high and anchored by pine trees. Next, we drove along the cliffs and through Redwood forests. The temperature dropped dramatically, and fog rolled in morning and night. The small ports serve the lumber and fishing industries. We weren’t thrilled to have found Eureka, Oregon – our motel was grotty – but had delicious fish and chips there and noted the tsunami and earthquake warnings. Better get prepared for the next leg of our trip – California – which after Eureka must be a ten on the Richter scale.