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.

Going where time doesn’t exist with M. Wylie Blanchet

“Her voice, forty years after her death, is timeless. In the end, I did not want to get off the boat, or let her go.” Timothy Egan, in his introduction to The Curve of Time: The Classic Memoir of a Woman and Her Children Who Explored the Coastal Waters of the Pacific Northwest, by M. Wylie Blanchet

Whidbey IslandIf you want to read this treasure of a memoir you’ll have to do a bit of work. It’s out of print, so I ordered it from a used bookstore listed on Amazon. I love finding small packages on my doorstep from faraway bookstores. Blanchet and her five (FIVE!) children spent many summers on their 25-foot boat, the Caprice, exploring the British Columbia coast. This, after Blanchet’s husband had been lost at sea on the Caprice – only the boat was found. Driftwood

Often, Blanchet followed the route of Captain Vancouver, who explored the waters in 1792. She read a copy of Vancouver’s diary to her children, and they tried to identify landmarks the sea captain had written about.

They followed no particular schedule except for being mindful of tides and weather, stopping when they pleased to explore little islands, hidden coves and beaches, and secluded inlets and bays that often didn’t show up on the map.

“We were very comfortable in the daytime with everything stowed away. The cockpit was covered, and had heavy canvas curtains that fastened down or could be rolled up. There was a folding table whose legs jammed tightly between the two bunks to steady it….We washed our dishes (one plate, one mug each) over the side of the boat; there was a little rope ladder that could be hung over the stern, and we used that when we went swimming.” Whidby Island

Her stories remind me of our many trips over the years rediscovering nature through the eyes of our children. This is the kind of book you’ll want to read aloud with children and grandchildren. Blanchet’s children were amazingly hardy and brave, often finding themselves with their intrepid mother doing things I couldn’t imagine doing with my children: crawling on a log suspended over rapids, exploring Native American burial grounds (in which bodies were “buried” dangling from trees in nets), making their way along a cliff in fog on a slippery, snowy mountaintop.

Few children today will have these kinds of adventures. Much of the wild, pristine country Blanchet wrote about in The Curve of Time has been developed. “I lighted a fire [on the beach] and piled it up with bark…We always carried a rack for broiling fish. Soon they were spluttering and browning over a perfect fire, which I raked over between two flat stones. We built it up with more driftwood…The Northern Lights were edging this way…and that way…across the northern sky – reaching above us – white and elusive, then retreating hurriedly down to the horizon.”

Langley Public Library, Whidby Island All photos were taken on Whidbey Island.

The quotes are from: The Curve of Time: The Classic Memoir of a Woman and Her Children Who Explored the Coastal Waters of the Pacific Northwest, M. Wylie Blanchet, Seal Press, Berkeley, CA, 1968.


Bald Eagle, Whidby Island

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

Train Dreams

Just steps from our front door, I can see the jagged peaks of Mount Index in amazing detail, lit up by the last rays of sun.

The evening we arrived the mountaintop was hidden in fog.

It’s spring and we’re in the Cascade Mountains in Washington. To me, this is strange, wild, intimidating country. Rivers and creeks are raging because snow is melting in the mountains. We’ve passed by several streams of snowmelt tumbling down walls of rock alongside the highway.

Our vacation cabin is perched on the banks of the Skykomish River. It was raining our first night here, and the rain, together with the rushing river, created quite a din.

My husband built a fire in the wood burning stove, which took the chill out of the air and made everything cozier. After a while, though, we noticed a dull thunder swelling to a roar that soon overpowered the sounds of downpour and river flow outside our picture window. My first, nervous thought was “flash flood,” but when a high-pitched whine of metal on metal joined the mix we realized it was a train.

Train in Skykomish

We are in train country. The legend of the Great Northern Railroad is very much alive here, though nowadays the trains that run are mostly on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line. Twice now, while having lunch at the Cascadia Hotel Cafe in Skykomish, we’ve watched trains pass through, heading east from the port of Seattle with container cars from China, Germany, and Scandinavia.

Several times a day and into the night we hear the trains.

In a kind of parallel journey to my vacation, I’m reading Train Dreams, a novel by Denis Johnson about a logger and laborer who worked for the Pacific Northwest train companies of the early twentieth century.

The Pacific Northwest is a surreal and dangerous character in Train Dreams, as much a character as Johnson’s protagonist, Robert Grainier.

Photos of loggers

I thought about the life and times of Grainier when we hiked the Iron Goat Trail, along the now abandoned Great Northern Railway bed. On plaques along the way, old photographs depicted loggers like Grainier taking down giant cedar and fir trees.

Grainier grew “hungry to be around….massive undertakings, where swarms of men did away with portions of the forest and assembled structures as big as anything going, knitting massive wooden trestles in the air of impassable chasms, always bigger, longer, deeper.”

Yet Grainier also saw the great mountains and forests defeat the ambitious plans of mere humans. The land defeated him, too, in a very personal way, but he learned acceptance and, finally, a kind of reverence for the terrible beauty of the land he lived in.

The Iron Goat was the last spur of the Great Northern Railway, crossing the Cascades at the treacherous Stevens Pass. (I found Stevens Pass stunning the first time we drove through, going east at sunny noon, but on the late afternoon return trip, when it was foggy, overcast, and raining, I could hardly stand the vertigo.)  Disaster Viewpoint on the Iron Goat Trail marks the spot where, in 1910, an avalanche swept two snowbound passenger trains into the Tye River below, killing nearly 100 people.

Snowshed, hiking path

To alleviate the dangers of avalanches, the railroad companies eventually built snowsheds, huge retaining walls to protect trains from tumbling snow. My husband and I walked alongside an old snowshed on our hike.

We knew our hike would be cut short because a sign at the trail head indicated an avalanche had made the trail impassable a half mile in.

Sure enough, just a few feet from where the snowshed ended, we could go no further, thanks to a wall of hard-packed, dirt-encrusted snow.


Snowmelt avalanceh

Loggers photo: D. Kinsey Collection, Whatcom Museum of History and Art, Bellingham, WA.
Quote from Train Dreams, Denis Johnson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011.

Listen to a trailer of Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, the audiobook published by Macmillan:

Mount Index
Mount Index

Please excuse my language (Blame it on Dear Sugar)

Cheryl Strayed, author of the memoir Wild, is otherwise known as Sugar, the advice columnist for The Rumpus, an online culture and literary magazine.

Cheryl had been writing the column anonymously until this past Valentine’s Day, when she “came out” just as her newly published memoir was rising to the top of the bestseller list.

The Rumpus is a clever, intelligent magazine. I’m a bit too old for it, or it’s a bit young for me, so I’m not a regular reader, nor do I follow Cheryl’s advice column (which is not your ordinary, everyday kind of advice column). But somewhere along the line, I came across a piece of wisdom I liked that Cheryl gave to a struggling young writer who’d sent a letter to Dear Sugar.

This bit of wisdom went viral and the people over at The Rumpus decided to put it on a mug. I ordered the mug and it came in the mail yesterday.

I’ve read all kinds of books about creativity and writing to keep my own writing going and because I’m fascinated by the creative process. A couple of pages on this site are devoted to books about writing and creativity, and I’ll be featuring some of these on Books Can Save a Life as time goes by.

But sometimes just a short, pithy, to-the-point kick in the pants is all I need.

So I’ve got my new mug sitting on my writing desk, ready to be filled with coffee or tea on a moment’s notice.

Write like a m*****f***** mug

I would say this is Cheryl’s approach to writing, to walking, to life.

Wild is to be made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon.

There is a fabulous interview with Cheryl over at Bookslut, but beware of spoilers. You may want to finish Wild first, before you read it.

Hey, is anyone reading Wild? If so, let us know what you think in the comments below.

I’m heading off to the land of Wild (the Pacific Northwest) later this week to attend a medical librarian conference with some of my colleagues (profoundly intelligent readers, all of them). Then some vacation time with family, where I’ll be reading other books with a Pacific Northwest theme, exploring Seattle (including The Elliott Bay Book Company), and the surrounding terrain. Watch for posts and pictures!