In January 2001 I drove a small white Ford pickup truck from Montreal, Quebec, to the far northwest corner of America. A week after arriving I rented an apartment in Bellingham, a small mountain town located 90 miles north of Seattle and to my mind one of the most beautifully situated cities in all of America.
Bellingham sits protected on a slope above a wide bay whose mouth lazily gapes open into the Puget Sound. To the east rise the lumbering spires of the Cascade Mountains, white topped and glistening, while looking west the eye sees green tussocks of mountains slipping like the shells of slowly departing turtles into the black cold waters of the Pacific.
I was 23-years old when I arrived. Despite my age I was more child than man, and I was full of excitement and a pulsing sense of selfish expectation: a feeling that the world could be hewn to my demands for the simple reason than that the demands were mine.
Eleven years later I’m on the short watch to turning 35 and I can’t help think of the old joke: To prove the existence of God make a plan—you’ll know He’s there when you hear Him laughing as things go otherwise. Somewhere I’m sure a pantheon of deities has not only been proved into existence but has received a decade-plus of merriment out of my behaviors. The least I can hope is that their guffaws were occasionally mixed with empathy.
I only lived in Bellingham for six months. Jobs were difficult to come by and I spent the great majority of my time either hiking in the nearby mountains or anxiously smoking cigarettes while wondering if I should have spent my quickly dwindling money on them.
Eventually I moved down to Seattle and after bouncing around some finally ended up working in restaurants and bars, positions I’ve held for several years now. When you work such jobs an inevitable outcome is that eventually you will tire of humanity to the point of actually hating the whole lot. And so, after too many weeks of work I fled Seattle this past Sunday via an early morning train that zig-zagged north along the Puget Sound until I had returned to where I started.
Not much has changed since I lived in Bellingham. There are different names on some stores and restaurants and a few buildings have been repainted but on the whole it still feels like a sleepy version of an aging Midwestern city, and as I walked the streets I kept thinking of a place not far from where I grew up: Toledo, Ohio.
The abandoned wood mills and paper factories that scar the lips of Bellingham Bay like crackling cankers remind me of the empty factories that stretch in dilapidated effigy across much of The Rust Belt, each in their way indicative of the end of an American way of things. Like Toledo many of the shopfronts in downtown Bellingham sit vacant, though the ones that are open here offer more liberal wares than their Midwestern counterparts: yoga clothes, an acupuncture studio, a food co-op, multiple coffee shops.
The people are different than folks in Ohio as well: up here they’re nearly all white, generally physically fit and fall into one of two categories: the overly earnest hippy-dippy kids in their 20’s dressed in hemp clothes and scuffed sneakers or retirees in puffy down jackets walking well-groomed dogs and shopping in the boutiques.
In either city there’s the same unavoidable sense that there should be more going on than there actually is.
And even though I didn’t intend it when I wrote it, looking at it now I can’t help but feel as if that last sentence sums up not only Toledo and Bellingham but the past 11-years of my life as well.
A thought like that can be a barbed invitation to self-pity, and as anyone who has ever been hooked into a bout of depression will tell you the nasty thing about the Self isn’t only its Moloch-like insatiability but that it’s one of the few things without a rock bottom to hit upon. So I’ll try and sneak out of the grip of those sticky warm tentacles and Bing Crosby things by Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate-ing the positives of my trip:
I got to spend some time with old friends, who kindly put me up in their lovely mother-in-law suite, now formally known as the Kato Kaelin Wing. I wandered about town, dawdled in coffee shops, played foosball, read several books, listened to lots of Leon Russell albums, went for a snowy hike and generally unwound from the stresses of daily life. In that way it was a perfect trip, and I came back to Seattle later in the week refreshed and invigorated.
As for the 23-yo me and the discrepant disappointments between his hopes and this present reality, I’ll save those beans for spilling at a later time. As ever I wish I were able to conclude in a more upbeat, Oprah-tastic manner: say if I were perhaps able to draw pithy refrigerator-magnet lessons from my thoughts, though the truth is I’d rather drown in a tar pit than become an issuer of such banalities.
For now let’s close by hoping along with Nietzsche that a day will come when I’ll have lived in a way that is all I would have willed. Until that time arrives I’ve a word for the gods I’ve already proved with my feckless plans: I’ve got some ideas of what to do next, so make room for more companions.