Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Road Trip: Seattle to Portland

Upon touching down at SEATAC, my preconceptions about Seattle seemed like they were going to be shattered. The sun shone brightly in the sky and a warm breeze ran through my hair as I exited the terminal. Clouds were visible on the horizon, but none were dark enough to indicate rain. Hopping on the rental car shuttle, I was looking forward to my first trip ever to Seattle, keeping my fingers crossed that I would be able to find a suitable vehicle to accompany me for the trip. My stay was to be brief - a client meeting that afternoon, some time on my own, capped off with a drive from Seattle to Portland, OR where I would be staying for the night. All in all, the trip would be two solid days of hours spent on the road, although luckily I would be able to connect with a friendly face in Portland for lunch before departing from PDX on a flight home.

Arriving at the rental car facility, I skipped the counter (thank you National Car Rental for your Emerald Aisle program) and headed straight down to the cars to scout out my options. Having just recently driven a Ford Fusion, I decided to skip those, which eliminated about a dozen cars. Next car I came across was a Dodge Stratus - pass! Behind me, the horde of people that had been on the rental car shuttle with me had started to make their way down to the cars and I knew I would have to pick soon or be stuck with the dregs. Continuing down the aisle, I finally came across a wine red Hyundai Sonata. Winner! I quickly placed my luggage in the trunk and got settled in, seat adjusted, phone synced, and ready to go.

Leaving the parking structure, I merged onto the freeway and cruised towards downtown Seattle for my meeting. As I entered the city limits, those clouds that had been so innocuous in the distance had suddenly appeared overhead, menacingly blotting out the sun. Without warning, the sky opened up and drenched everything in sight. The wipers, even at full speed, were barely able to keep up. Luckily, I was not far from my destination and soldiered on, hoping that the rain would clear before too much longer. Of course, by the time I found a place to park and grab a bite to eat before my meeting, the clouds had dissipated and the sun was hanging out in the sky again.

After my meeting, I decided to head towards one of the most famous landmarks in Seattle, the Pike's Place Fish Market. Again, this being my first time in Seattle, I wanted to at least see this most touristy of haunts. While I was too late in the day, to be able to see the fabled flying fish, I did at least get the opportunity to explore the market and check out its many levels, which I did not realize existed, having only ever seen the icon images of the market in TV shows or movies. And as much as I find Starbucks coffee to be mediocre, I could not resist the urge to set foot into this landmark location, which looked out this day onto the gleaming sapphire waters of Elliot Bay. In the warmth of the late afternoon sun, I strolled down the street, looking oddly out of place among the tourists in my suit and tie.

Sitting down for dinner, I plotted out my route for the trip to Portland while the sun dipped lower in the sky. By the time I stepped out to pick up the car, a stiff breeze had picked up and a chill filled the evening air. Keys in the ignition, GPS up on my phone, I set off, cruising down I-5 with the sun little more than a bright red sliver on the periphery of my vision.

The sky darkened quickly as I made good progress. While this stretch of freeway is usually a nightmare during rush hour, by waiting a bit, I had managed to avoid the usual crush of traffic and was making good time. The problem with I-5 is that it is probably one of the most dull stretches of road on the West Coast with its flat and straight stretches easily hypnotizing drivers into a soporific stupor. If time had permitted, I might have selected a more scenic route so that I could watch the sun sink into the waters of the Pacific, but with an early morning meeting, I needed to be in Portland tonight to get some sleep. And so, I pressed on, the playlist from my phone keeping me company.

Darkness had descended by the time I crossed the border into Oregon, just in time for the sky to open up and soak the roads, slowing traffic and dampening moods. The Sonata felt plenty competent, so I pressed on, undeterred by the precipitation. As I rolled off of the freeway into the heart of Portland proper, the rain stopped just as suddenly as it had started. The remainder of my drive was uneventful as I pulled into my hotel for the evening, out by the bank of the Willamette River. Exhausted from the full day of travel, I fell promptly asleep when my head hit the pillow.

The next morning, I was awakened by the sound of the MAX, Portland's local mass transit light rail system, rolling by outside my window. Refreshed from the night's rest, I prepped and got checked out to head to my morning meeting. Driving through the streets of Portland, traffic was light, but pedestrians and cyclists were plentiful. The southwest sector of the city, where my meeting was to take place, is filled with local mom and pop shops with a sprinkling of large department stores for good measure. Finding a place to park was a simple affair that morning, with plenty of available spaces and the oh-so-convenient digital payment system.

After my meeting, I found a place to grab a bite and some coffee to provide a jolt for the rest of the day. With nothing on my schedule until lunchtime, I wandered around the city by foot, taking in the sights in spite of the drab gray sky and constant threat of rain. Over by Pioneer Square, which was overrun by hipsters that morning, I paused for a few moments to watch as some street performers were warming up to entertain the lunch crowd. Everything about the city felt smaller and cozier compared to where I have spent the last couple of decades and the penchant for socially conscious living is tremendously high, with locally sourced everything available at even the local corner store and a regular farmers market around lunchtime in Shemanski Park. In fact, this is where I was to meet a friend to grab some lunch. We got Thai food from one of the local food trucks. It was good, cheap, and well worth the few minutes wait in the rain, even in a suit and tie.

Feeling quite full and happy to have had a chance to see a friend, I picked up the Sonata and headed for the airport. The car had been a reliable, if somewhat forgettable companion during this trip. It certainly drove adequately, but did not stand out in its driving feel, performance, or comfort. The styling is still worthy of praise and even with the smaller wheels, it draws attention for its sleek lines and rakish roof. Having one available as a part of our long-term fleet, albeit one with the turbocharged engine, means that I am quite appreciative of just how far Hyundai has come in the last few years.

As for Seattle and Portland, these two cities in the Pacific Northwest are both unique and yet similar. Both cities are archetypes for conscientious living, although Portland is by far the poster-child for alternative transportation with its easily accessible MAX light rail and the near omnipresence of cycling infrastructure everywhere. I think both cities would be fun to come back and visit, but in different ways. Seattle strikes me as a bit more urban and would be fun to come and check out its many sights such as the Space Needle, the monorail, and the public scultures. Portland, on the other hand, I want to come back and ride as a cyclist, immersing myself in the cycling culture that apparently involves the consumption of a great deal of excellent food and locally brewed craft beer. Either way, I look forward to visiting the Pacific Northwest again, but almost certainly on two wheels the next time around.