Thoughts of a lone traveler (Seattle)

16 03 2014

B17, B17, B17… I repeat in my head as I traipse through the airport terminal trying to find my gate. B13, B14, B15, B10? I spin around with an uncensored gesture of confusion and annoyance, march back to the last sign I saw, and look perplexed at the map telling me gate B17doesn’t exist. I rummage through my pockets trying to find my boarding pass. Boarding group B, position 17, gate B12. Damnit, I mixed up the B17 boarding position with the B12 gate. What kind of UI designer would design boarding positions to resemble gate numbers?  Boarding positions could start with a number and be suffixed with a letter to avoid mixing them up, or they could use letters that are larger than the largest gate number, or they could use roman numerals, or be prepended with… I find gate B12 and stop muttering to myself about how airports are designed all wrong.

The bathroom sinks at this airport are these strange Y shaped contraptions. You put your hands under them, and water comes out. You hold your hands vertically in front of them, and it blows air to dry them. It’s the little things you notice when you travel.

Here I am, writing about travel again on my software engineering themed blog. I’m tempted to create a new blog, one for writing about the adventures of life outside of engineering, but why partition and segregate the areas of my life? We show too many different masks to too many different people; I’d rather transcend than encourage that habit.

This time I’m sitting in the Seattle Tacoma International airport, in a giant open room three stories tall with a beautiful wall of glass overlooking the runways and asphalt outside. It would be a wonderful view if not for the solid grey sky sprinkling down rain in a gloomy manner. I’m from Arizona, so in general I love it when it rains, but Seattle weather still doesn’t appeal to me much. In Arizona we have storms: dark clouds and strong winds with the occasional monsoon or dust storm (we call them haboobs). They’re powerful, beautiful, and rare. Here, the sky is solid grey, there’s no wind to be found, and cold rain boringly sprinkles down onto the raincoat covered city goers.

This trip was a bit long and tiring. It started out arriving Monday night with a coworker, followed by three days of death by PowerPoint at a work related conference. Some of the talks were actually interesting, but sitting in the same place for 7+ hours, 3 days straight, will make even the most interesting talks seem to drag on forever. We went to some local restaurants every night, but in general I didn’t get to do any site seeing until Friday. I set up the trip so that I could stay Friday-Sunday on my own time and actually get a change to see a bit of Seattle this time (second time I’ve been here for work, first time I’ve gotten to see anything).

Friday, I slept in, recovering from the PowerPoint induced mental coma of the days past. I got up in the morning with a vague notion of seeing the Space Needle and beginning my use of the Seattle City Pass I purchased (entry to the Space Needle, EMF museum, science center, aquarium, and a harbor boat tour). However, I decide to wander to the south side of Lake Union first in the morning. The lake wasn’t anything particularly noteworthy, but I did run across the Museum of History and Industry, and spent some time walking through there. I stopped at a Goodwill on the way back to the hotel and made the completely random purchase of an orange turtle lamp, beginning the collection of odd souvenirs I’m bringing back from the trip. Hah, turtle lamp! I smile a little every time I see it for no determinable reason, followed by fearing that airport security will complain that it could be used as a bludgeoning instrument, as the turtle is made of a surprisingly hefty chunk of metal with an  orange frosted glass shell.

My energy was already running low when I got back to the hotel, and I decide to pull out my laptop and see if there were any local bands playing that Friday night. Seattle is a city obsessed with music. Posters for local indie bands are tacked onto every light poll and bus stop you come across downtown. Looking online I find not one, but dozens, of local bands playing in various venues. Of all my impressions of Seattle, the best thing I found was the local music. I one by one plugged the addresses of venues into Google Maps, narrowing down the list to a half dozen places within reasonable walking distance from my hotel. I finally settled on a place called the Crocodile, which was featuring Jamie Nova, The Pink Slips, and Into the Cold.

Music! Just what I needed to get my energy levels back up. As an introverted engineer with almost no musical talent, I have the utmost respect and love for singers who go on stage and pour their hearts and stories out. I fell in love with the music by the first singer, Jamie Nova, and ended up adding one of her CDs and a flask to my collection of odd souvenirs.  The Pink Slips featured the pop singing of a 16-year-old girl, and the night was finished off with the more surreal and dark sounds of the 4 women choir in Into the Cold.

Saturday morning I put on my tourist hat (figuratively, though later in the story there is a hat) and started in on the stereotypical Seattle tourist attractions.  First thing in the morning, take the elevator up to the top of the Space Needle and look around. It was a bit disappointing, since in my opinion, Seattle is sort of an ugly city. Seeing more of it at once doesn’t make it any prettier. Too many of the buildings around here are dull colors, reflecting the colors of the often grey Seattle skies.  Looking off in the distance I see rows of perfectly square buildings with the same bland colors and placements of perfectly square windows. Half of the city also seems to be under construction, with cranes sprouting out of every other building like mechanical yellow trees.

I stop by a random shop and pick up a chain/necklace with a pirate themed guitar pick hanging off it. Another item for the pile of souvenirs, one that fits in quite well with computer security conferences, and might become a permanent feature of my everyday attire. When I try to throw away the packaging I’m greeted with the usual trio of trash cans around Seattle: recycling, compost, and garbage. I still haven’t figured out which cups are supposed to go into compost and which ones go into recycling. Sometimes they call compost “food waste” too. Or maybe that’s different than compost. I dread throwing things away here.

Next, I wander over to the Experience Music Project, a music themed museum. My spontaneous timing works out well, and I enter the museum just in time to see a few songs performed by a local high school chorus. Once I get to the main part of the museum, I’m greeted by a breathtaking cone shaped tower of guitars that stretches two stories high. Over 500 instruments are attached to this tower of music. Many of them are wired to motors, which actually play them. Standing next to it you can barely hear anything, just the occasional flicks of motors and strums of an instrument. The microphones on the instruments pick up the sounds though, and putting on a pair of headphones lets you hear the amazing symphony of the tower. Not just a graveyard of instruments, but an electromechanical giant alive with music!

Sunday, I check out the Seattle aquarium and take a 1-hour boat ride around the Puget Sound. I’m greeted in the morning with solid grey skies and a constant trickle of rain. I’m utterly annoyed at walking in the rain with glasses after a mere ten minutes, and dart into the nearest store looking for a hat to help keep the rain off my glasses. Add a blue and bright green Seattle Seahawks baseball cap to my collection of souvenirs.  I shiver on the top deck of the boat, fighting the rain and cold to snap some pictures of the fog and cloud covered Seattle skyline. I picked the wrong day for a boat ride. Alas, it made for an authentic Seattle experience I suppose.

I finish the day by wandering around Pike Place and seeing the wall of gum. Yes, there’s a wall, covered with gum. Without a doubt the most chewed gum you will ever see in one spot.

Now I sit, typing away at the airport, waiting for my plane home. I’m not sure I like Seattle much. A nice place to visit, but I’m not sure I’d want to stay. Perhaps my mood has been dampened by the long week, grey skies, and delayed flights, but I’m looking forward to being back in Arizona.

Deep Thoughts from a Lone Traveler

31 12 2013

In front of me is the beach of Ventura, California. The sun is slowly setting to my right, somewhat by design, as I commanded my aching legs to briskly walk here again before the sky separated itself into beautiful colors one last time before I travel home. I was compelled to write, and sitting here watching a dog run up and down the sand in front of the sunset seemed the place to maximize inspiration.

The locals are perplexed about why I’m here. I’ve given up trying to explain it, because in the process I realized I don’t really know myself. “Nothing happens in Ventura. You should have kept driving North to Santa Barbara”, they tell me. “You should have went to Vegas”, a man named Matt tells me at a local dive bar. “Very random”, a girl at the beach tells me, as I play with her dog and she waits for someone she knows to finish surfing. I wanted a simple vacation. Biking, hiking, beaches and bars. A little town in California that I fell in love with when I spent a night here seemed the perfect place. I don’t know why I fell in love with it; love is like that, you can’t help who you fall in love with. The locals are perplexed nonetheless.

The first night I ran across a man playing the Star Wars imperial march on a guitar and a homeless beggar with a sign saying, “bad advice: $1”. I found a bar where they ask, “boot or barrel?”, and give you a glass shaped like a boot or a bigger one shaped like a barrel. I eventually ended up at a tiny dive bar with chandeliers made out of bras and only a single beer on tap. I like terrible bars. People bring their girlfriends to nice bars. They bring their families, they go with coworkers after work, they bring their friends. People don’t bring their friends to terrible bars. That’s what makes them the best. You can go there alone, and strike up conversations with the other patrons around you, also alone, not just going to a bar to talk to the same old people but with a different view.

I feel as if every day I’ve been here I’ve had a realization. Answered a question not by logical thinking, but more an emergence of an idea as my mind wandered without direction, the reigns removed for a few days to give it the freedom to try and figure out life, instead of being commanded to focus it’s attention on some specific problem. My body hasn’t had as much of a vacation. I can’t help but feel it a separate entity, as it seems to have a will of it’s own, wanting to move slower, to stop sooner, to rest, but I compel it to carry on anyway. In the last two days I’ve told it to hike 8 miles across an island in the pacific, bike untold distances across hilly terrain, carry my curious mind to the shops and museums of downtown, and drag my laptop to this beach where I sit.

And I feel compelled to write. The words starting to form in my mind before they had anything to spill into. I wonder if this is why great poets like Walt Whitman, men with soft hearts and hard bodies, speak so highly of the open road. Allons, the road is before us!

The first day’s realization was had walking down the beach. I was planning to take it easy that day, in preparation for a trek across an island the next, but before you know it I had walked for hours along the beach collecting pockets full of sea shells. I like walking to the end of places. The beach is seemingly never ending. Seeing others at the beach gave me the slight desire to stop and talk to someone. I eventually ran across a red headed girl in jeans and a sweater, sitting high up on the sand alone. It was on my way back and she had been there for a while. As I walked up, I hesitated a bit, trying to think of what to say, and then trying to muster the courage to say it. I envisioned myself bolding sitting beside her and saying, “Hello. You look like you could use some company. Or maybe I’m just saying that because I could.”. I was nearly done hesitating, but the moment I decided to walk up, she got up and started making her way back toward the houses above the beach. I couldn’t help thinking, what would have happened if I had come back 10 seconds earlier? I would have met someone new. A local to the area, someone independent that enjoyed walking down to the beach and watching the sunset alone. I would have asked her about good places to go in the area, places to eat, maybe if I was feeling bold enough I’d ask her to have dinner with me. Maybe she would have said no, or maybe we’d just talk for a while and I’d never ask, but the conversation alone would surely have changed the events of my day. Maybe it could have changed the course of my life.

So I had the first realization. I’ve had it before, maybe it’s common sense, but in that moment I saw it with more clarity than ever before. The entire course of my life could have changed if I had been somewhere 10 seconds earlier or if I didn’t hesitate. All of our lives can be traced back to events that could have happened entirely different if you had been somewhere at just a slightly different time. As I walked back up the beach, my mind searched for these moments and thought about how things would have been different, or at least realized they wouldn’t have been like they were.

I once walked into a bar called Mr. G’s and got a drink when I was only a bit over 21 years old. If I had sat two seats further down the bar, I never would have met a man that bought me a drink and told me about being an aircraft mechanic, a traveler, and a cyclist. If I had sat two seats away from where I did, I wouldn’t have had such a great conversation that I felt like going back to that bar. I wouldn’t’ have become a regular, learned how to play pool, met some of my neighbors, and felt such loss when that little bar closed down. I wouldn’t have started to develop the confidence to walk into a bar alone and be able to meet new people. I never would have made a lot of friends that I did. If I had sat two seats down at the bar that day, it’s possible I would have never taken a liking to bars at all, and traveling alone would have been a bit more dull. It’s quite likely I wouldn’t be sitting at this beach feeling the cool ocean breeze, listening to the sound of the water crashing against the sand, and feeling the night creep upon the beach with its ever so cold fingers.

I wouldn’t have the career I do now if it wasn’t for random chance that, as a ham radio operator, I turned on my radio late one night when I was supposed to be sleeping and heard some people joking about morse code. I wouldn’t have found out that the people I heard actually had a youth ham radio club not too far from my house. I wouldn’t have met a bunch of intelligent electrical engineers, software engineers, and people that become roll models. I wouldn’t have had anyone to ask how to make a webpage, and anyone to tell me to learn HTML to do it. I wouldn’t have had anyone to ask how to program, and I wouldn’t have been told by a random friend to learn the obscure language TCL. I later wouldn’t have gotten an internship at Emerson Network Power doing TCL scripting. If I hadn’t turned on a radio that one night, I probably wouldn’t have become a Software Engineer. And if my grandfather hadn’t showed me all of his equipment one day, I never would have become a ham radio operator. I need to thank him for that one day. I can really trace everything in my career back to a conversation I had with him when I was 12 years old, and I can’t possibly imagine how much life would be different if that hadn’t happen. It wasn’t a deep profound conversation either, it was just a random event, the everyday kind of thing you don’t realize will be root of a branching tree that will change the course of your life forever.

The sun has set now, the light nearly entirely gone. The temperature is dropping, my body starts having a will of it’s own again, urging me to find shelter, find heat, to stop commanding my slowing fingers to keep typing on this cold beach. I need to buy a better jacket.

The second day I had a different realization, my mind satisfied for a while with answering the question of how I got here, done tracing events back to their sources. Off the coast of Ventura, over an hour by boat, there’s a chain of islands called the Channel Islands. The biggest of which is called Santa Cruz island, and there’s a road that runs 7+ miles from a place called Scorpion Beach to a place called Smugglers Cove on the other side of the island. I hiked across it, against the will of my complaining legs.

The cold got to me. I’ve retreated to the hotel lobby. Interrupted by bodily concerns mid story, how rude. I could keep the action and thought to myself, but this is a story that’s still happening. It’s a story of past and present intertwined, it’s a story of thoughts without purpose. The lobby is actually somewhat crowded. Three girls sit across the way; I’m tempted to ask them what they’re doing for New Year’s, they look like they’re going out soon. It’s about 6 hours until 2013 ends in this little town. No idea what I’m doing tonight. They have glow stick crowns. Where did they get glowsticks? Ah, they’re leaving. Another moment of hesitation. A world that could have been. A world maybe not better, but different. An older couple is asking if there will be fireworks tonight. It appears the answer is no. Nothing much happens in Ventura. The lobby is busy though, maybe some overheard conversation will give me some tidbit of information about what to do tonight.

Where was I? Ah yes, the second realization. After hiking around the island, I was on the boat ride back. I brought a book, but I found it too difficult to pull myself away from living in the moment and retreat to a world of fiction, however unremarkable the moment was.

I moved to the very front of the boat and stood with some others at the edge, holding onto the railing, the cold wind blowing hard against us, watching the texture of the ocean ahead. The ocean has a texture to it; I never knew that. I’m not sure what causes it. Some parts were smooth, some parts were rough. Some sections were darker than others. Some glistened like a perfect undulating puddle of liquid glass, other sections were filled with floating plants and algae. The texture would change quickly. You could see it coming, see the boundary, and then see where it went back to the old texture.

There are chips and salsa? I think the lobby might have beer too. Explains why it’s so crowded here. Some guys just walked past to their rooms with a cooler of beer. I guess they gave up on the idea of going out, nothing interesting happens in Ventura after all. A girl also walked by with a painting. An older couple just gave a girl a glowstick halo. Her boyfriend just came back, looked confused, and the old man said “did we de something wrong?”. The man replied, “Nah! If anything you did something amazingly right!”. The older couple laughed and asked if he wanted a glowstick too. Now we know where the glowsticks came from.

So there I was, standing on the edge of the boat, watching the texture of the ocean. I saw another man, alone, doing the same. Noticing him made me notice how few solo travelers there were on this boat. The boat had dozens of couples, families, groups of friends. Only a handful of people going alone. Maybe only the two of us. Why do so many people insist on doing everything with others? It seems woman are the worst. Most of them would never dream of going to a movie, going to a bar, or going on a road trip by themselves. I spent the rest of that day with the question in the back of my mind. I rejected ideas like people wanting someone near by to talk to or genuine concerns for safety. You don’t talk in movies and they’re quite safe, yet people still fear going to them alone. I think it runs deeper than fear of being different by being there alone too.

Eventually that night the answer came to me. I’m not sure if it’s the correct answer, but it seems to have a sufficient amount of explanatory power. I think we’re conditioned to be dependent from birth. We spend the first 18 years of our lives only doing things with family and friends. Do kids ever go to the movies alone? Go to dinner alone? Go to a party where they don’t know people? No, parents would never allow that, and it really just doesn’t come up to begin with. From a combination of parental fear and social tradition, we spent our childhood only doing things with family and family approved friends. Then we move out. We live on our own. We become independent. But most people still want to do things with others. To find friends to cling to, to find significant others to take with them. Maybe our entire culture of dating has actually come about from people not being independent enough to do anything on their own. Why should people be expected to drastically change the way they do things when they move out? It seems to explain the situation. It’s a hypothesis.

The third realization dawned on me today, when I picked a random direction and biked. No destination, just a direction, and eventually I had to give up on that direction and go somewhere else. There are mountains to the north I wanted to bike in, but I kept finding dead ends. One road north dead ended at a farm, another to a logging camp, and a third into a gated community that I nearly got stuck in. I tried a few codes at the gate, found out that 1234 worked, and went through. Then I realized it didn’t go anywhere interesting, and there was no keypad on the outside. The fence itself was the kind created from spear like sharpened pieces of metal. I found a way back eventually, but the ordeal turned me off on the direction of North. I decided South was a better idea.

At some point I stumbled across miles and miles of strawberries. Strawberries as far as the eye can see. Strawberries farms are actual rather bland scenery, especially after miles and miles of them. What world would have transpired if I had biked East? Too many variables to ever know, but I would’t be writing about strawberries.

A girl with a black cowboy hat walks past on her way to her room. I can’t help but stopping to smile. I think I like hotel hobbies. I never knew hotel hobbies were at all interesting. Imagine the world that would have been if I had brought a better jacket was still at the beach.

On my way back, I saw an old farmer on the side of the road selling strawberries and avocados on the side of the road I was biking on. I decide to stop and buy a box of strawberries. Best decision of the day. They were the best strawberries I’ve ever had in my life. Maybe that experience removed the stigma in my mind regarding eating food from some guy selling it on the street. Oh imagine the world that may now be! Maybe one day as an old man I’ll die from eating a bad breakfast burrito from a man on the side of the road, and it’ll all trace back to choosing to bike South instead of East today.

When we were sailing out to Santa Cruz island, we ended up getting there nearly an hour late, because we kept stopping to observe things. First, we stopped to see some sea lions sunning themselves on a big orange buoy floating out in the ocean. Second, we saw a huge flock of birds, and after heading in that direction we found that they had gathered because a huge pack of dolphins were hunting in the area. We slowed down and let the dolphins follow along in the wake of boat. Finally, when we had almost made it to the island, we came across the four grey whales swimming past. We stopped and floated for quite a while, watching them come to the surface for a few moments. They would come up every ten seconds or so three or four times, taking a breath each time, and then dive deeper, staying under for around five minutes.

The next day, sitting on the side of a road in a completely unremarkable location, eating a box of strawberries, I had my third realization. I was comparing the experience on the boat with the experience of seeing dolphins and whales at Sea World. The experience on the boat was amazing, and the strength of that experience was partly because of the serendipitous nature of it. There hadn’t been a whale spotting for days, and the fact we ran across four of them like that was somewhat rare on this particular boat trip. We live in an on-demand culture. We want entertainment now. We want to see a whale now. We want to hear a story now. We want to micromanage and plan our lives. The best experiences are the ones that were unplanned though. The best experiences are the ones where you can’t guarantee you’ll see something, or that something will happen, but you place yourself in a situation where something could happen, and if that something does, it’s so much better than the canned on-demand version. Oh serendipity! How so many of the good things in our lives can be traced back to it.

It’s 5 hours until the end of 2013 now. I’ve apparently been typing for an hour. Nothing terribly interesting is happening in the lobby now. Someone took the chips and salsa away. The impulse to write has subsided, the beast well fed for now. Maybe these realizations can be combined to form something more coherent later. Something about how the tiniest events can change the courses of our lives, how the best things in life are when the courses of our lives are changed not from some on-demand desire being fulfilled, but because of patience and putting ourselves into situations setup to make interesting things possible. And of how traveling alone, parental upbringings and social conditioning be damned, is the best kind of travel.

An older lady that works at the lobby restaurant asks if I’m okay, since I’ve been rather quiet. I smile and assure her I’m fine. As I get up to leave, she says, “no you don’t have to leave!”. I tell her that’s okay, I’m going to wander downtown to see if anything interesting is happening. Probably not, nothing interesting happens in Ventura. She asks me if I’ll be back at the lobby for breakfast tomorrow. I tell her yes, and she wishes me a safe night.