I found enlightenment in the Pacific Northwest

In May, I happily stumbled on the secret to enlightenment when I attended the Medical Library Association (MLA) annual meeting in Seattle and vacationed with my family in the Cascades.

It all started with MLA speaker and best-selling author Steven Johnson, who told us about a theory he encountered while researching his latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.  (Steven is a great speaker, not to mention that he reminds me of one of my favorite Downton Abbey characters.)

Some believe the 18th century’s Age of Enlightenment occurred, in part, when the middle class switched from alcohol to coffee and tea as their beverage of choice. With clean drinking water scarce, people drank ale or wine, even for breakfast. When coffee and tea imports became available, many switched from alcohol – a depressant – to caffeine, a stimulant.

Coffeehouses, where “ideas [could] spill from one mind to another,” became popular, according to Johnson. “The coffeehouse was a multidisciplinary space.” (So are libraries, he said, in a nod to his audience.) People from all walks of life who normally would not encounter one another engaged in “a diversity of conversations.”

So, coffee and tea led people to a kind of hyperactive exchange of ideas, which in turn led to innovation.

Johnson predicts that the internet and social media are a new kind of global, virtual coffeehouse spawning another great age of innovation.

I experienced coffee and coffeehouses on an entirely new level during my stay in Washington. In Rochester, New York, we don’t have drive-through espresso kiosks as in the Pacific Northwest. They are ubiquitous in the Seattle area, even on the edge of wilderness. Up in the Cascades, if you need a dentist, quick, or someone who knows how to repair a transmission, you may be out of luck – but you can almost always find a cup of coffee.

My theory is, there is so little sunshine people need the caffeine to keep going.

At any rate, I also noticed that the Pacific Northwest has thriving literary communities. People here really appreciate books, and they love coffee, and they love combining the two.

For me, the combination of exceptional coffee, great bookstores, access to the internet and, last but certainly not least, absolutely stunning scenery and fresh, mountain air, was so invigorating. I felt the ideas flowing. Like I was on the verge of my own personal enlightenment.

The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle

The Elliott Bay Book CompanyWe spent several hours visiting The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle’s largest independent bookstore, which also has (of course) great coffee. Elliott Bay has a full roster of book signings and author readings, and a terrific blog. Here is what I bought there:

The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, by Karen Armstrong

Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel

Pearl Street Books & Gifts in Ellensburg, WA. Pearl Street Books & Gifts

I wanted to see the high desert on the eastern side of the Cascades, so we drove to Ellensburg, WA, where we discovered the delightful Pearl Street Books & Gifts. Owner Michele Bradshaw is passionate about books and literature.  She and I talked about our reading interests. Michele enjoys making recommendations, and it’s obvious she puts a lot of thought into creative, customer-responsive bookselling.

I liked the Magic Table, a display of enticing best-sellers and high quality fiction and nonfiction. Quality is apparent on every shelf and surface in the shop, where carefully chosen books are displayed cover side up. Michele has put together a number excellent book collections, including young adult, children’s, fiction, memoir/biography, and Pacific Northwest authors.

Pearl Street Books & Gifts also hosts 11 book clubs, a tea club, a knitting club, and yoga workouts.

While I was there, I bought:

The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America’s Deadliest Avalanche, by Gary Krist

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, by Timothy Egan

Booklust to Go, by Nancy Pearl

Queen Anne Books

Cover of Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott

Climb, climb, climb Queen Anne Avenue in Seattle and you’ll be rewarded at the top of the hill with tree-lined streets and all manner of shops, including Queen Anne Books. On the shelves are literally hundreds of hand-written staff recommendations, the sign of a great bookstore. Here, Windee recommends Anne Lamott’s latest book about her new grandson, Some Assembly Required.


Seattle Central Library

The Seattle Central Library, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and a local architectural firm.

I had a great time this spring walking the Pacific Crest Trail with Cheryl Strayed (who has just inspired Oprah Winfrey to revive her book club!), sailing the waters off British Columbia with M. Wylie Blanchet and her children, clearing forest trails with Ana Maria Spagna, and observing life through the eyes of the characters in Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams.

In June: The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

“Today I shocked the lawyers, and it surprised me, the effect I could have on them.”

This is the opening line of The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (first-time, best-selling novelist making her debut at age 57, wrote novels in secret for 25 years when the kids were at school), which I’ll be reading in June.

Highlights from the jacket copy: 1914. A bride on her honeymoon. Adrift on the Atlantic Ocean. Not enough to go around. A power struggle. Choosing sides.

Will you read it with me?

Quote from: The Lifeboat, Charlotte Rogan, Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2012.

Living on the edge of wilderness

Cascade wildflowersI’ve been keeping company with Ana Maria Spagna’s essay collections, Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw; and Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness while we’ve been vacationing in the Cascades.

After college, Spagna made a commitment to work on trail crews for the National Park Service in spring, summer, and fall, and to travel during the winter months. Eventually, she settled in Stehekin, Washington, a remote town in the northern Cascades, where she and her partner built their own house. I believe she still works the trail crews several months out of the year.

I tend to romanticize what it would be like to call such a place home. In her essays, Spagna captures the glamour and majesty of living surrounded by natural beauty, but she also writes about the never-ending challenges.

Ana Maria writes about how Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, tree huggers and loggers, religious fundamentalists and atheists get along (or don’t) in a small community.

There are the forest fires, flash floods, and avalanches. There are the costs incurred to keep residents of these areas safe from natural disasters, costs often borne by taxpayers who live in more populated areas.

It hadn’t occurred to me that precautions to prevent forest fires may cause the buildup of flammable, dense growth that could result in The Big One, a massive fire that destroys everything.

Spagna’s writing is important. She’s a voice from another world, the last bastions of nature, a voice whose wisdom we need to hear.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“I visited the Magic Kingdom thirty-seven times before I turned nineteen, and by then I craved something, anything, that would be the antithesis of Disney, the real thing. That’s what I found on the highway: places you can count on, places where in the morning without fail, there will be coffee at the gas station heading out of town….[and] people who….were honest, if quirky, and unexpectedly generous, and they lived an ethic that the land itself, no matter how pretty, can’t teach…..The Golden Rule.”
View from Spirit Lake trail
“These places…wilderness areas, national parks – are supposed to transform us, make us new…..they do not continuously dispense spiritual wowness like a fountain….I stripped myself of everything to be out there–out there!–and the problem with being out there is that then it is not out there anymore. It is more like in here….you can’t be made new at home.”

Quotes are from Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw, by Ana Maria Spagna, Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, 2004.

Bridal veil falls

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