Where We Come From, and Where We’re Going

For the past two years, I’ve spent part of the holiday season in Rochester, New York. It’s a city whose significance to me is twofold: it’s my boyfriend’s hometown, and it’s also where my maternal grandparents grew up before settling in Toledo. My first trip to Rochester was a whirlwind, leaving no time to map my roots there, but this visit promised to be more leisurely. And so, over Christmas Eve dinner, I casually asked my mother to dig up the addresses of her parents’ former homes, so I could drive by while I was there.

The request struck a nostalgic chord. As we drove to the airport the next morning, I learned more about my grandparents—my grandmother, especially—through her reminiscenses of them as people, not just as parents. How my grandmother, an occupational therapist for most of her twenties, made her way back to work as she raised three kids, beginning by driving across state lines one day a week to her part-time job in a hospital psychiatric ward. (My mother suggested that working with psychiatric patients may have actually been a respite from her lovable but, shall we say, boisterous children.) How she used her earnings from that job and subsequent ones to whisk the entire family away on a European vacation, all on her own dime. How she made moussaka for dinner parties before anyone else in Toledo knew what the heck it was. Hearing these long-buried anecdotes for the first time, I started thinking about all the things I’ve inherited from those who came before me.

When I touched down in Rochester, I took a field trip to see two of my grandparents’ former homes, imagining that by doing so, I could somehow glean a better sense of my place among the branches of my family tree. I saw my grandmother’s rambling house in the beautiful neighborhood of Cobbs Hill, its broad expanse of lawn being attended to by no fewer than three landscapers. I looked through the front window of my grandfather’s cheerful downtown duplex and tried to imagine my mother there as a little girl, being spoiled with chocolate cake for breakfast by her own grandmother.

Delving into one’s family history becomes a meditation on where we come from; a new year, of course, sweeps in thoughts of where we’re going. Predictably enough, “Where am I going?” is the big question I’m now grappling with in my own life—and likely will be for the forseeable future.

But before we left New York, Dan and I headed three hours east to spend a few blissfully unscheduled days in the Adirondacks. There were no thoughts of the future to distract us; only thoughts of the unseasonably un-snowy present. In tiny Northville, we tried valiantly to snowshoe on the gorgeous but melty trails at Lapland Lake, then warmed our chilly toes by the fireplace. We counted blue jays flying before the Sacandaga River’s backdrop; we glimpsed an otherworldly gray horse trotting alone in the open woods; we binged on the first season of Serial over wine and far too much pizza from one of the town’s two restaurants. As the threshold between 2014 and 2015, a dividing line between the past and the always-uncertain future, I’d call it as sure-footed a start into the unknown as any.

Camera: Canonet QL17 GIII
Film: Kodak Portra 400

Hoh Rainforest | Olympic National Park

Of all the places we visited in Washington, I feel most compelled to let Hoh speak for itself.

It was the site of the most otherworldly hike I’ve ever been on. First, we traipsed through the Hall of Mosses, where thick green tapestries hung from solid branches and trees grew, strikingly, straight out of the trunks of their fallen brethren. We took a longer trek, too, on the Hoh River Trail; there, the crowds thinned out and the elevation rose as we walked deeper into the forest. We stopped twice to watch a family of elk graze in a clearing below the path.

Our campsite boasted a stunning view of the Hoh River and the surrounding hills, but we left to have dinner at Sully’s in Forks during the hottest park of the day; the ensuing hamburger and Oreo-dusted ice-cream cone felt really well-deserved after eight miles on the trail. Weaving back into the park at dusk, we came upon more elk: this time, though, it was an entire herd of them that filled a grassy field on the side of the road, letting us gape at them for a full five minutes before bounding into the treeline. It was, for lack of a better term, magical.

The next day, we’d drive back into Seattle by way of Lake Crescent, seeing my brother one last time and gathering up our things before heading home to Chicago. I won’t lie: it felt really, really good to get home after speed-dating an amazing part of the United States, to grab takeout Thai from a familiar restaurant on the way back from O’Hare, and to be greeted at the door by one very happy cat. It brought me a simple yet bone-deep sense of pleasure to rediscover all the little apartment projects we’d successfully toiled over (I’m looking at you, Ikea shower shelf), and to settle so easily back into my trusty seat on the back porch. It’s endlessly reassuring to have deep roots in one place: when you take a lot of care in building a home, it will always comfort and restore you, no matter how much time you’ve spent away from it.

But I can’t deny how much Olympic National Park stoked that fire of wanderlust in me, either. Just a week after we returned, we were already hatching another plan to sleep under the summer sky. Sometimes, my friends, you can have it both ways.

Camera: Mamiya 645AF
Film: Kodak Portra 400

Lake Quinault and Kalaloch | Olympic National Park

We set out for the Olympic Peninsula with all the necessary provisions one might need when escaping into the wilderness: too many groceries for the three days we’d be spending there, and more than enough pastries to fuel us through an otherwise uneventful three-hour drive. We headed west on I-5, watching the towns we passed get smaller and smaller, chewing on caramelized hockey pucks of tender kouign-amann and impossibly flaky croissants from Crumble & Flake.

We paused in Aberdeen, the fishing village where Kurt Cobain was born, less because Kurt Cobain was born there and more because it seemed like the last moderately-sized town we could buy gas and lunch in before Route 101 snaked into the forest. Al’s Hum-Dinger was the last outpost before Aberdeen thinned out into its outskirts, so we ordered a burger, a haliwich and fries at the waterside counter. Our very kind cashier calculated the tax on our bill by hand, then sent us back to sit in the car while everything was fried up. She banged on the shack’s Plexiglass wall when it was done; outside, it was misty and cool, with wisps of fog hanging over the water.

And then we headed inland, into Olympic National Park.

Our first stop was Lake Quinault; we hiked for a few hours, first through the cool, mosquito-infested air of the rainforest, emerging by the sunny shores of the lake itself, then passing the Lake Quinault Lodge before looping back into the trees.

That night, we made camp at Kalaloch, where we’d reserved an oceanside spot. The campground was completely full, but our spot was big and bordered by trees and felt very secluded nonetheless. We built our first-ever fire—more of a nail-biting affair than I’d bargained for, but ultimately successful enough to grill three hot dogs and two s’more marshmallows apiece. The salty wind left curls in my hair, which by that point smelled very much of smoke, and we fell asleep to the sound of gently crashing waves. I only had one nightmare about all the tsunami evacuation zone signs we’d passed on the way in, which I considered a victory.

The next day, we woke up to beams of sunlight streaming through the morning fog. Over bleary-eyed bowls of granola, we made friends with a chipmunk, then drove into Queets to take showers in a gas station, which was approximately as enjoyable as it sounds. And then, there was nothing left to do but get back into the car and head to Hoh.

Camera: Mamiya 645AF
Film: Kodak Portra 400

Seattle, Day Three | Fremont Again, and Ballard

There was no workout the third day of our Seattle trip; no, not a chance. Instead, there was chocolate, and lots of it!

But first, predictably, there was some more fighting for parking. I’m convinced that the only reason I didn’t arrive in frustrated tears for our tour of Theo Chocolate was because I had a cup of really excellent coffee in my hand from Caffé Vita, and had eaten more than my fair share of a marionberry and peach muffin with it. (Marionberries! The former D.C. resident in me was amused at the thought of Washington’s infamous former mayor, and the rest of me was just impressed by the PNW’s produce selection.) But the parking gods smiled upon us at the last second, and we arrived at 10:29 a.m. for our 10:30 tour.

Hairnet securely fastened, I was immediately impressed by our theater professional/tour guide Tristan’s ability to make me forget about how much I disliked driving in Seattle; he was armed with good humor and numerous chocolate samples, which may have helped. Between all of the tasting, a thorough explanation of cacao farming practices, and a walk-through of the factory floor and confectionery, the tour was one of the highlights of a trip stuffed full of highlights.

We met my brother for a farewell lunch at Paseo, toting our Caribbean roast pork and caramelized onion sandwiches away from the crowds to Fremont Peak Park. We ate quietly, blissfully distracted by our sandwiches and the view of the city, the water, and the mountains—a view that I can’t imagine would ever get old. We split another chocolate bar, just because.

After hugging Jamie goodbye, we stopped into the Book Larder to peruse their vast selection of cookbooks, buying one for a friend’s birthday and another to keep for ourselves. I was blown away at the breadth and depth of their library, but was glad I hadn’t gone in hungry; flipping through glossy pages plastered with tantalizing photos of grilled meats and ice cream cones wouldn’t have helped the cause.

For the rest of the day, we headed off to Ballard, the last neighborhood we wanted to tour before leaving the city. We started at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, which connect the Puget Sound to inland freshwater lakes, and spent a good long time breathing in the salty air and watching salmon pass through the fish ladder.

I’d promised Dan a belated birthday dinner at The Walrus and the Carpenter, where he could try the first insanely fresh oyster of his young adult life. We lined up right before the doors opened for dinner service, and by the time we had glasses of vinho verde in hand, the place was full, buzzing with the laid-back, lively chatter of a really good dinner party. Icy oysters were followed by a carrot salad with honey and hazelnuts; then buttery, tender scallop tartare with an airy dill mousse; then spicy fried oysters that seared off the roof of my mouth; then steak tartare topped, terrifyingly and deliciously, with a raw egg yolk; then a wedge of cheddar cheese nestled among vinegar-preserved cherries; and finally, a white flag. We walked around the cute little record and poster shops of Market Street and Ballard Avenue for hours while we digested, dangerously near comatose.

In retrospect, I’m pretty sure I had some sort of death wish when I made us get a molten chocolate-peanut butter cake from Hot Cakes to eat while we watched the sun set from the beach at Golden Gardens. But I’m glad we ended up there, watching the sun dip behind the mountains, listening to the beats emanating from an amateurish drum circle and spooning warm bites of half-baked cake batter and ice cream into our mouths (until it got too chilly to stay, and we drove on to Chuck’s Hop Shop to buy beer). Because really, is there any better way to watch a sunset?

Camera: Mamiya 645AF
Film Kodak Portra 400

Seattle, Day Two | Downtown, Queen Anne and Fremont

On our second day in Seattle, we woke up early to the morning sun streaming through our little AirBNB’s skylights. A ten-minute drive later, we were standing on the starting line of the running path around Green Lake; the forested, immaculately-maintained loop around the sparkling water was an even 3.1 miles, making for the perfect celebration of the eight weeks of Couch to 5K training we were completing that morning. Other early-morning joggers shuffled along behind and ahead of us, and the sun was still hanging low in the sky; for the next thirty minutes, I almost forgot about the heat wave that would soon be settling in like a third wheel for the rest of our trip.

Soon, we were tucked in among the towering bookshelves at the flagship Top Pot Doughnuts downtown, tucking into a blueberry fritter, a chocolate doughnut slathered in salted caramel, and a maple-frosted cake doughnut. (The 1.5:1 pastry-to-human ratio is a theme that runs predictably through most vacations I take.) We washed it all down with gulps of coffee, rationalizing every sugary bite with memories of our earlier 5K victory.

Satiated, we took on the busy plaza surrounding the Space Needle, looking up briefly to admire the view before heading into Chihuly Garden and Glass, a museum built to showcase Dale Chihuly’s intricate and inventive blown-glass pieces. The museum was tiny but utterly worth a stop: I’d never seen anything like the backlit installation draped like a canopy across the ceiling, or the greenhouse bursting with floating glass flowers, or the canoes overflowing with Technicolor glass ornaments, or the garden filled with glass sculptures planted alongside lookalike flowers. We walked through once, then backtracked, then wandered through our favorite parts again, marveling at the years’ worth of projects that added up to a life’s work.

My brother met us downtown, where we detoured through the Olympic Sculpture Park before driving to Pioneer Square for lunch. I’d heard amazing things about Il Corvo, a weekday lunch spot that dished out three different plates of fresh pasta every day. Between the three of us, we ordered everything on the menu: maccheroni all’Arrabbiata for Jamie, squid ink gigli with salsa verde, sardines and bread crumbs for Dan, and pappardelle with pancetta, turnips and turnip greens for me. Everything was showered with mountains of Parmesan. And since each meal cost $9 apiece, it was a satisfying lunch on a couple of different levels.

Always thinking about the next meal, we stopped by Rain Shadow Meats and began to assemble the building blocks of dinner. The sandwich we bought there—spicy roast lamb leg held between slices of sourdough, slathered in pesto and topped with cucumbers and pickled fennel—was by far the fanciest thing we’d end up getting. After fighting tooth and nail for parking at Pike Place Market, the rest of the picnic came together in a matter of minutes: raspberries, Rainier cherries, sugar snap peas, Beecher’s cheese curds, and a potato and cheese hand pie from Piroshky Piroshky. Done and done.

We all grabbed blood orange ginger beer from Rachel’s Ginger Beer across the street, and fought tooth and nail for another parking spot on a steep hill near the Seattle Central Library. (Aside from “too many pastries,” the other theme of this trip was “fighting for parking.” Such is life!) I don’t often equate “library” with “must-see tourist attraction,” but this was the coolest, most modern take on a public reading space that I’ve ever seen, and completely worth the stop. We rode the elevator up to the 10th floor to gaze down through the atrium at the countless tiny, tiny readers below, and made our way back down a series of escalators, pausing to gaze over the railings at all the public art and architectural marvels.

As dusk settled in on the city, we checked out a potential picnic spot in Queen Anne; Kerry Park boasted gorgeous skyline views but was a bit too small to share with the high school cheerleaders practicing there. Parting ways with Jamie, we sat down in the grass at Gas Works Park instead, and it was just right. Plus, it was right by the Fremont Troll, whom we called on as the sun was setting. At Fremont Brewery, we finally—finally!—stopped moving, sipping our respective beers and marveling at how ridiculously full the day had been, but how glad we were that we’d made every stop: these were neighborhoods truly worth getting to know.

Camera: Mamiya 645AF
Film: Kodak Portra 400