Our Time in Iceland

Iceland’s appeal starts with its geology — it’s the only spot where, with dry feet, you can see the meeting of the North Atlantic Plate and the Eurasian Plate — or rather, see their parting. This rift in the earth’s crust offers active volcanoes, and geothermal heat for radical environmentalism or communal bathing; plus a beautifully stark and frequently changing landscape.

It’s a landscape that’s closely linked to a twelve-hundred-year human history, recorded from the very beginning with gossip-column granularity in the Old Norse sagas and other works. They describe the early days of a crowd-sourced DIY justice system and what is now the world’s longest-running parliament. For a lapsed medievalist and sometime student of jurisprudence, this stuff is catnip.

Reykjavik’s working harbor includes museums and a modern concert hall.

There’s even more to recommend the country though. It’s one of those places where people go to watch for the Northern Lights, for example. Icelandair promotes the island as the ideal stopover on any transatlantic journey. The growth of tourism means that good food and accommodations are easy to find — though they may be pricey.  After all, most things that don’t contain wool, fish, or lava need to be brought in from far away.

Thus, traditional fare is somewhat idiosyncratic. We were offered whale. And foal!  And — puffin!  We declined all of these, on the basis of either sympathy or scarcity. It’s worth noting that the small, stalwart Iceland horses, their bloodlines traced as carefully as those of the Vikings, are thought by some to be about twice as numerous as really necessary, perhaps because others join us in refusing to dine at their expense.

One surprising example of local plenty is the tomatoes grown at Friðheimar. The big indoor farm there uses geothermal heat for energy, cold well water for irrigation, and, at any one time, hundreds of workers brought in from the Netherlands.

In white cardboard boxes. Because they’re bumblebees!  The bees, the yards-tall columnar plants, and soup-slurping tourists cheerfully share a one-and-a-quarter-acre greenhouse. Cucumbers are grown there as well and, I suspect, basil.  And those sturdy little horses, right next door.

We can’t claim to have toured the island thoroughly. We had some of our bike stuff with us though, on our way to a different trip, and we rode around the capital with Reykjavik Bike Tours.  On another day, they took us with some mountain bikes out to the Westman Isles, site of one of the earliest human occupations (and the first visit by a foreign scholar).

What a thrill, on that excursion also, to hear the story of Njals Saga retold by our guide, though in somewhat abbreviated form, virtually within sight of Njall’s home at Bergþórshvoll and Gunnar’s at Hlíðarendi.  All but perhaps the oldest Icelanders speak perfect English, by the way, thanks in part to American Forces Television, which arrived in 1951.

On that same outing we visited the town of Eyrarbakki, once a bustling port but now, after the consolidation of the fishing industry elsewhere, mostly a monument to an earlier lifestyle.  It’s the location of the country’s largest prison too, currently home to some of the bankers who helped to precipitate the 2008 financial collapse.  I was moved to observe that Americans, who value deceit more highly, gave their bankers bonuses instead of sentences.

Icelanders are proud of their past, and are good-natured about their tourist-intensive present.  The future is uncertain but they’re in a better position than people in a lot of other places, with a seemingly limitless source of clean energy.

The effects of a warming climate can be seen within their borders, but the causes lie mostly without.  Glaciers currently cover about 11 percent of Iceland; in 2014, the first one of them was downgraded to a snowfield:  it’s no longer thick enough to flow as ice.  In August, while we were there, the former glacier was commemorated with a bronze plaque. The text is “A letter to the future:”

. . . In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.

Of course one of the things that may need to be done, is a lot less air travel.  With Greta Thunberg sailing, instead of flying, to the U.S. at about the same time, we were beginning to notice some flygskam.  We’re hoping to do more rail travel in the future.  I feel lucky that Iceland is one of the places that we got to visit.

Back to the subject of bumblebees, here’s one we found at work near Reykjavik’s city hall.  I thought at first that it might be one of the guest-workers who had been out-placed, but the gray abdomen suggests that it is Bombus hypnorum, the New Garden Bumblebee, arrived this century from mainland Europe.  The bumblebee of agriculture is B. terrestris,  the Buff-Tailed Bumblebee, which sports a second ginger stripe and a fascinating sociology.  I think we saw some of them on a later part of our trip, in Sweden.

Another Metamorphosis

I wasn’t sure I would ever drive through the new Downtown Tunnel.  Our home lies part-way along its route, meaning that we would ordinarily have to backtrack to get to either portal.  Our kayak, though, dwells at Salmon Bay, well to the north; so a trip to any of the beaches in the south part of Puget Sound may conveniently include motoring through the tunnel — at least until the toll kicks in, some time later this summer.

The birth of the tunnel is linked to the demise of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and that process has a ways to go yet.  Some parts are still standing, while others are completely gone:  the effect is like the isolated buttes that persisted during the street regrades a century ago.  The legacy section in this first picture survives because it is holding up the Columbia Street pedestrian walkway from downtown to the ferry docks (which are themselves being made-over, as the seawall recently has been).  The land that the remnant stands on did not exist when the Denny Party arrived; it was later made from fill.

Fill is now the destiny of the viaduct itself.  When it was decided that the rubble would be placed in the now-empty Battery Street Tunnel, I imagined that trucks would busy themselves backing in and dumping their loads in the darkness.  But no, the choice was made to funnel the debris in from the top.  I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to see those long trucks rumbling by our house.

I caught up with one of the trucks between Fourth and Fifth Avenues. To the pedestrian, it was always the grates in the sidewalk that marked the underground path of Highway 99 — but the narrower openings in the middle of the roadway are, naturally, where the dust goes in. The truck pulls up next to a big metal quarter-pipe-like trough, a spray of water materializes to suppress airborne particulates, and the hopper of the truck lurches sideways to dump its load into the old tunnel below the street.  There’s a video here of such a truck dumping its load, a block away between Third and Fourth Avenues.

Below is my mid-80s picture of the Viaduct from near the Pike Place Market, heading south toward the unsuspecting Kingdome (itself reduced to rubble in 2000) and then veering around to the right:


Eighth Avenue

It’s always had a fragmented existence: Eighth Avenue got tangled up in Seattle’s highway construction boom back in the Sixties, and today it threads implausibly first above Freeway Park and then, immediately thereafter, beneath the Washington State Convention Center.  It’s shown below emerging briefly into the sunlight of Pike Street, only to confuse a couple of tourists before diving back under the Grand Hyatt.

The complexities do not end here, because a block further north the avenue enters the Denny Triangle, intersecting at once with both Olive and Howe, streets from two different grid systems.  Then, within the next half mile, Eighth crosses Westlake Avenue at yet another angle and finally pauses at Denny Park, Seattle’s oldest park and the home of the Parks Department administrative offices.

The first part of this stretch seems pretty placid.  The photo below shows a leafy Eighth flowing between the new U.S. District Courthouse, seen on the left beyond the red brick building, and the Seattle Police Department West Precinct, the short, blocky building a block further along on the right.  The bike lane is a nice touch, but cycle track on the adjacent 7th and 9th will carry a lot more traffic. You can see the trees of Denny Park at the end of the street, and Queen Anne Hill beyond.

This part of town has not always been so refined.  In 1975, up there near where Westlake crosses, across from where the police station is now, I worked at a place called Kangaroo Color Labs, in a building that had formerly been a knitting mill.  Denim magnate M. Genauer was next door.  Raff’s Shoes had a big building nearby, and to the south there was a music store, that is, a store that sold sheet music. There was a Chevy dealer there on Westlake, and a couple blocks north a bar called The Joker.

Viewed from the north, the march of progress is even more apparent. In this photo, taken from just south of Denny Way last February, cranes can be seen working in the street. The low building on the left was a Korean restaurant; it’s closed now, but its sign still marks this corner, as it has since the Seventies. The near building under construction on the right, where you can see a reflection of the Space Needle, spans the width of the block stretching over to Seventh Avenue, where Bob Murray’s Dog House stood for decades.

Of course there’s more to Eighth than just the downtown part. North of Denny Park, it’s 8th Avenue North., the street that Glazer’s Camera was on (and is again). Eighth currently fails to cross Mercer, but is reborn at Roy (there’s another big construction project just getting underway there).  When the street reaches Lake Union it turns sharply east to intersect with Westlake yet again, just at the Kenmore Air terminal.

Back where we started, at Freeway Park but facing the other direction, Eighth heads southeast for half a mile, stopping short of Harborview Medical Center. Fantastically, a block marked “8th Avenue” sprouts up again, only to connect 9th Avenue, Fir Street, and S. Washington St in a big arc. Then 8th Avenue S. appears magically on the other side of the freeway, running due south through the International District to the big I-5/I-90 interchange.

By the way, here’s what “my” old block of Eighth looks like today. Our back is to the excellent Bounty Kitchen, and note Seattle’s first Shake Shack at far right.  The Amazon Spheres are a nice addition to the neighborhood.

Loreto Again

We spent the first half of March back at Loreto Bay, after a five-year absence.  The carefree tourist experience was quite enjoyable!  This may be due in part to the fact that our friends Leif and Susan had kept one of our old kayaks for us, gave us mountain bikes to keep for the whole time we were there, kept us company, and drove us to inaccessible places for hiking.

I was reminded, flying in, how vast and rugged are the mountains of Baja California. Visitors have been doing more and more exploring recently, mostly finding routes that the locals and their livestock have been using for decades.  Some of us had hiked up the slot canyon near Ligüi years before, but this time we took the trail along the parallel ridge instead:

On another day we drove up the arroyo San Telmo, thinking to hike a trail there that we hadn’t seen before, but we were driven back by the wind.  It had been quiet for the first part of our stay, and allowed us to kayak on most mornings; but when the Loreto wind gets serious, it can stop most of us creatures in our tracks.  I did manage to bring back from that trip a picture of a handsome fig tree, seen at right.  A human (me) is included for scale.

Another activity normally available despite the wind is dining.  Two of our favorite restaurants in the whole world are on the coast north or south of town.  How heartwarming to have a waiter remember your preferences, or an owner remark on just how long you’ve been away!  (I suspect that Alejandro may have been coached.)

It’s not clear that Loreto Bay has been perfected yet, but it has certainly matured a great deal. There’s shade now here and there, a separate library close to the community center, more owners than construction workers about on the streets. Some of the units in the Posadas are occupied.  The supermercado El Portón, which once seemed like a lifeline and a stepping stone to the backcountry, has closed; but two little stores persist within the development, one of them owned by Pedro Lopez, the local restaurateur and delicatessen owner. The cook at the restaurant there turns out to be Rose, the lady who used to help take care of our garden.

Transportation is another aspect that’s changed a lot. The trans-peninsular highway has been widened from the town to the bridge at El Tular, just short of Nopoló. Gone is the rancho through whose gate we used to access the foothills; but on the other hand, I have met the guy who is building the big storage units in its place now. Parking at Loreto Bay has again become a problem, and has been given a new solution with angled spaces on the west side of the Paseo.  The new trend in bicycle travel is fat-tired beach bikes — you still get plenty of exercise, but more time can be spent in pedaling and less in pushing.

Leif contemplates the view toward Loreto Bay.

The original Loreto Bay concept envisioned most owners renting out their homes when away, through the developer itself; but a change in structure resulted in something of a free-for-all.  We rented a house with a floorplan essentially like our old one, but a block closer to the water — in fact, it’s the one where our friends John and Ruth used to stay when they came down. I liked the traditional configuration, with the extra patio at the bedroom end — it seemed a lot more private than our old place with its big side yard. Check-in didn’t go smoothly — it’s a good thing we had friends nearby and already knew our way around.  One of the security guards is a fellow we used to chat with when we walked in the evening taking our census of the gecko population.

The town of Loreto itself is reassuringly familiar.  Once-endless work on the Malecon is finally finished.  I was glad to see the guy who cleans windshields in the parking lot at El Pescador — his existence seemed precarious when I first met him a dozen years ago. The frutería that we once considered essential is long closed.  On one of our last nights we dined at the relatively new “Mi Loreto.”  It needed pointing out to me that this was the old juice bar El Cañaveral, once a favorite cycling destination, and where we used to buy our lemons, but now with more walls — for protection from the wind.

Here are a few more snapshots. For the dolphin pictures, you’ll need to visit our other blog.

By the way, one of the very first things I saw when we got to Loreto Bay was my old bicycle, parked by the security office.  It has a kick-stand now!  What an amazing link to our days under the desert sun.


The Tunnel Ride

As of this moment, Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct and Battery Street Tunnel are closed forever, to be replaced by another tunnel bypassing downtown altogether.

So we just finished riding all three of these on our bikes — and by “we” I mean Alex and I and about 12,000 other people, in a giant era-changing celebration organized by the Cascade Bicycle Club.

Where the Viaduct met the old tunnel.

Fortunately, the start/finish was just a few blocks from home.  The tunnel’s northern portal is part of a maze of public and private construction that has for years been re-shaping South Lake Union, and which on this day again permits crossing State Route 99 on Harrison Street, for the first time since 1954.

It was the Nisqually earthquake of 2001, though, that spelled the end for the Viaduct.  Damage left the structure unsafe until repairs could be made, and foretold what would happen in the bigger event that is sure to come. Years were spent debating replacement options, and then more years nursing the world’s largest tunnel-boring machine along deep beneath downtown, and now — after a three-week closure of a major highway — an 18-year overnight success!  (The celebration day for pedestrians was yesterday — there were nearly 100,000 of them. about the number of vehicles the road used to carry.)

Riders exiting the Downtown Tunnel’s south entrance.

The viaduct was one of those things that people loved to complain about.  Our Governor recently said that it separated the city from its own heart (the waterfront).  But the viaduct was really handy for going places, and, once you were downtown, it provided shade in the summer and protection from the rain for the other 90 percent of the year.  The new tunnel will be a magic carpet for somebody who lives on Queen Anne Hill and works somewhere south of the stadiums, like I used to — but there’s no place to get on or off in between.  Anyone who lives or works downtown — or delivers produce to the Pike Place Market — may be looking for a new route.  The distance from the city to its “heart” will remain the same, but now will include, at grade, much of the old traffic.

The whole trip was about thirteen miles, including our brief commute, and only took a couple hours; we were back home by about 11 A.M.  The weather was cold for Seattle, being in the 30s, beginning to cool off following an unusually warm January.  I wore nearly all my winter gear and it was more than adequate in spots, there being 800 feet of elevation gain, at grades up to 6 percent.  By three in the afternoon we noticed that it had started snowing — in time for Seattle’s historic first rush hour with its new Downtown Tunnel.

Below is a panorama from June, 2017, showing the top deck of the Viaduct on the right and, on the left, a new staging area for tourists ready to descend upon the waterfront.

Copyright Scott C. McKee

Year-End Wrap-up 2018

What could be more festive than the Christmas tree here at the Lofts?The former library area downstairs has been made into counter space where one might use a laptop.  The books there were dusty old sets:  Colliers Encyclopedia, like I had as a child, and a collection of Nobel acceptance speeches that I would sometimes read while waiting for a visitor.  Our new library features more modern choices, many donated by residents.

Not all of our year was spent inside.  Faithful readers will remember our trip to Southeast Asia early on; but then, toward the beginning of Autumn, we loaded the bicycles on the car and set out on a rare (for us) road trip.

Our first objective was Mt. St. Helens, so we spent some time near Randle and some more at Castle Rock.  We’re still searching for just the right pair of hiking boots, but we did the hike up to Norway Pass nonetheless, and then another one part way around Coldwater Lake, seen here.Then we left Washington altogether for the fine little college town of Forest Grove, Oregon, where we spent several days cycling and one day visiting the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum at McMinnville, current home of the Hughes H-4.

Our furthest reach was Newport, on the Oregon coast, for a reunion with a college roommate.

On the trip home, our last stay was in Astoria, at the Cannery Pier Hotel.  This panorama shows the view from our room, with Washington in the distance across the bridge.  The ship that’s docked there in the photo is a Princess, but the one before it had been a Disney cruise.  As it departed, the ship’s horns played “It’s a Small World.”  

Second Avenue Again

The two-way bike lane along Second Avenue, the stretch between Pike Street and Denny Way, was completed late this winter. We can see bits of the new path from our window, and it saves us a lot of trouble getting back home from downtown. Here’s a view southward from near the northern terminus.

We were away on vacation when the work was finished, but there wasn’t a celebration to miss anyway:  the City, embarrassed by the cost of this section, didn’t make a fuss. There were big changes to the pavement itself, plus new signalization at several intersections that previously had only stop signs.

These pedestrians are shown at the crossing with Broad Street, which is planned to become a tourist-friendly link from the Space Needle down to the waterfront parks. At present it’s a bicycle trap with fissures big enough to swallow a 28mm tire.

Below is a view from near Blanchard, looking back in the opposite direction along Second.

It’s hard to tell much about the bike lane from this photo — the path is hidden on the other side of that row of parked cars on the far side of the street. But just beyond the nearest intersection you can see the planters that separate the bike lane from a left-turn lane for cars, right in front of the green sign of the famous Crocodile Cafe.

I’ve chosen this view because I happen to have another from about the same spot, taken 34 years earlier.  In this older picture the Crocodile is still the Athens (it was sometimes called Nick’s, or the Acropolis).  Toward the far corner of the same block one encounters the Hawaii West Tavern, where I broke up a fight on the sidewalk one night, then the Rama House, where I first learned to eat Thai food, and then the famous Mama’s Mexican Kitchen, still open now, under new management, though threatened by redevelopment.

In August of 1984 I stood at the window of Mama’s with a waitress called Blythe and watched what was surely the last parade of circus animals in Seattle.

I happen to have pictures of this area because, through most of the 80s, I lived a block further north in the Lexington Apartments, the closer of the two doorways in the brick building shown below.  The Lexington and Concord had been built in the 1930s, with single working people in mind.  My room had a genuine Murphy Bed, and there was an actual ice box too, that is, besides the plug-in refrigerator, there was a built-in cabinet with a slotted bottom to drain melt-water from a block of ice.

The shorter building to the left of the Lexington had been the office of One Reel Vaudeville Show, the organization producing the annual Bumbershoot festival on Labor Day weekend. Next door for years was SARCO, the Small Appliance Repair Company, and, on the corner at Wall Street, a real estate office, which is still thriving there.   Here’s what the old block looks like today, again with the new bike lane between the parked cars and the curb:

One obvious difference is the trees. The City began beautifying Second Avenue not long after I moved in. The first step was to install banners on the light poles, lauding the neighborhood. These quickly frayed and faded in the winter wind and were eventually removed.  Much later, they added a row of cedar trees, but the contractor planted the wrong variety. Those trees soon died and turned brown, but stood for years nonetheless, until replaced by the current successful evergreens.  The deciduous trees came later.

For more information about Second Avenue have a look at our earlier posts, Our bikes in Seattle and Speaking of Second Avenue.

Hong Kong

We decided to be rich for a few days — even though it might mean some poverty later.  The best place for this seemed to be Hong Kong, and in particular “our” neighborhood, the International Financial Center. That’s basically a world-class shopping mall with skyscrapers sprouting out the top and a vast transit center beneath. The tallest building in the picture below, Two International Finance Center, stands at the eastern, left, end, and our hotel, the Four Seasons, a couple blocks to the right, at the western end, eclipsing the building with the noticeable mast on top.

Though it would cost a bit more, we had asked for a room on a floor above the 35th, insuring a magnificent view.  But the hotel had overbooked, maybe for the New Year, and offered us one on just 18 instead.  To make up for the disappointment, they gave us a suite — and one that included privileges at the Executive Club. Having now seen how the Other Half lives, I think I am beginning to understand what makes money so attractive.

Here’s what our sitting room looked like, except that you can’t see the the foyer with its elegant little half-bath:

Also not obvious are the hidden ports for electronics, or the portable controls for the sheers and the curtains on the windows.  We operated these once, for the thrill of it, and then left them all open all the time, using Kowloon as our night-light.

On this trip we had begun seeing “Do Not Disturb” signs that operate electrically instead of relying on cards hung on the door. Here, there’s a switch not just by the entrance, but another set by the bed so that you can change your preference without getting up.  I would be surprised if the “Please Make Up Room” signal didn’t light up in the attendant’s room as well.

I reckon that the suite is about the size of our entire condo back in Seattle. It has two or three times as many chairs — and definitely three times as many television sets, once you notice the little one set into the mirrored wall at the foot of the tub. The walk-in closet is perhaps better called a dressing room:  it’s large enough to have its own artwork.

The suite lacks a kitchen — but of course there’s an excellent one on the other end of the phone line. Also, there are complimentary breakfast, afternoon tea, an early, light supper, and snacks available at any hour, at the Executive Club.

It’s there, at the Executive Club, where they have that magnificent view — they’re on the 45th floor.  The remarkable thing may be the service though. The person who holds your chair for you at breakfast isn’t so much a waiter as an administrative assistant.  They’re eager to discuss your plans for the day and to help with anything involving scheduling, transportation or communication. As soon as you give your room number to one of them, they all address you by last name and title, no matter when they see you.

We were able on several occasions to wrest ourselves free from this heaven of hostelry, the first time shortly after our arrival, when we made our way into the open air to have dinner at another luxury hotel several blocks away. On our return, judging ourselves now quite the Old China Hands, we did some window shopping. Besides all the designer clothing shops there’s a big Apple store, and one just for Leicas. Quite near the entrance to the hotel there’s a BVLGARI sign — also the name on the give-away toiletries in our bathroom. We acquired some chocolate at one of the many boutique shops. The more pedestrian outlets tend to be on the transit levels.  There’s a Mrs. Fields within a stone’s throw of two 7-Elevens, for instance.

Our very best purchase was an Octopus card for each of us, the equivalent of our ORCA transit pass back home — except that it lets you ride more kinds of transport, gets you discounts on some of them, can be used to make purchases at many stores (!), and then refunds your unused balance when you’re ready to leave town.

So we used our cards to go to some of the typical tourist places.  We rode the Star Ferry over to Kowloon (see again that picture at top) and visited a couple of nice parks there.  We took the tram (a long wait and a separate ticket) up to Victoria Peak.  We rode the subway all the way back out to Tung Chung on Lantau Island and then the cable car to Ngong Ping  for the classic aerial view of the airport and a look at the world’s largest statue of Buddha.

The next-to-last stop on that train line is the connection for the local Disneyland resort. An excited little girl with her extended family boarded after we did, and I started to offer my place to a mother or aunt; but Grandfather signaled that I should remain seated — it’s age, not gender, that gets you special treatment here. As they all got up to leave we wished each other a good day.

At one time Hong Kong sounded far too exotic for me, but it’s one of those places that allow the traveler to sample just the desired degree of foreignness. It offers  what could be a valuable experience to many Americans:  to find yourself in a situation where 1) nobody looks anything like you, and 2) nobody gives a darn.

Victoria Harbour — Executive Overview