Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Summer in Seattle

The summer has teased us in the Northwest. We've enjoyed perhaps five days of truly sunny and warm weather, though that has not slowed the parade of tourists who cheerfully pay to ride "The Ducks" amphibious vehicle past landmarks and splash into Lake Union, duck-billed quack noise-makers to mouth. It clogs sidewalks with shorts-clad, shivering clusters pointing cameras at gliding ferry boats, Pike Place Market fish-throwers and now, my birthday delight this Monday, the new "Seattle Great Wheel," a Ferris wheel of climate-controlled glass gondolas that allows views from the Cascades to the Olympics.

I was given a choice of activities for my birthday, but our avid patronage of civic attractions and especially, arboreal retreats, left little in town to serve my yen for "N and D" ("new and different"). And then, I remembered the Wheel.

Open since only June 29, the 175-foot ride has changed the silhouette of the city, visible from the West Seattle Bridge, ferries in The Sound, the Space Needle and anywhere on the waterfront. It's a white metal frame by day, but for special events at night glows with spiral-moving colored lights--on July 4th, red, white and blue, reflected to sparkly effect in Elliott Bay.

My photo of Seattle Great Wheel from ferry
We got to Pier 57 about noon, to minimal line for the $13 tix, though finding parking underneath the soon-to-be-demolished Viaduct (Highway 99, a double-decker noisy blight ruining the entire length of the downtown Seattle shoreline) was time-consuming and ultimately, expensive. But the line to board moved well, and soon we entered our glass-walled, roomy car, equipped with its own air conditioning.

The 20-minute ride was glorious, as before our eyes a low-hung, overcast morning cleared to blue skies and expanded views. Inside, we scrambled positions snapping videos, Instagrams and panoramas, a set of exclaimers brandishing iPhones, zoom cameras and point-and-shoots.

After our memorable ride, we joined the throngs sauntering along the water, and entered Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe, where famous oddities hang from the rafters and offer their hand-lettered placards in old-fashioned glass cases. My son, who had just discovered that Narwhals are real (rather than mythical) was stunned to see a double-tusked representative on the wall. My souvenirs were stills of the formaldehyded 8-legged pig, taxidermed Siamese twin calves and Sylvia the mummy.

Of course, all this came immediately after SeaFair, the month-long air-and-water races and displays that culminate each summer with a window-rattling visit by the Navy's six exhibition F/A-18 Blue Angels jets, who cause happy gridlock by closing off the busy I-90 floating bridge during two days of practice and two of aerial daredeviling. I'm among those who thrill at their wing-grazing flight expertise, gaining skeleton-vibrating ecstasy from the sounds of sheer power and energy that their overhead passes and maneuvers create.

My best SeaFair pic ever! An eagle with the Blue Angels!
This year, I watched Friday's practice with hundreds of others seated on the sunny (that day) shore of Lake Washington. It's nearly the same show every year, but never a "been there-done that" moment as the sky-scratching force engages the region. Love those guys; love that they remind us of the strength of our military, and acknowledge their beneficiaries seated below them, cheering and gasping with wonder and joy.

Though so far, Seattle's summer is a weather dud, almost always too chilly to swim or cultivate a tan, to the rest of the nation, sweltering and suffering in unbearable heat and humidity, our drizzly cloud-cover looks pretty alluring. You know the joke: "Seattle has two seasons--August and the rainy season." Did you notice that every outdoor scene in "Sleepless in Seattle" featured drenching downpour?

Those of us who live here treasure our sunny days, and even the phenomenon known as "sun breaks." When one occurs--a momentary glint through temporarily parted clouds--we stop what we're doing and turn our pasty countenances to the window, or leap up and run outside to gain fleeting doses of Vitamin D before pregnant gray nimbuses crowd together again.

Or, we ignore the forecast and embrace the day. Seattleites are runners, climbers, hikers, skiers, boaters and bikers. None of us carries an umbrella, ever, though there are three or four in the car trunk, and a dozen more in the closet. You know a tourist not by his street map, but by his umbrella.

We're an optimistic bunch, scheduling Shakespeare in the Park, outdoor farmers' markets, even car washes, seldom cancelled due to inclement weather. Summer is a season of assumptions that our vivifying lengths of daylight will overcome any obstacles from the sky.

Photo by me at the Bellevue Botanical Garden
And so the Seattle Great Wheel is an appropriate celebration. It is certainly uplifting, gratifying, vision-expanding and reminding of the circular nature of all experience. Just as the summer comes to its warm and caressing pinnacle, it, like gawking tourists in gondolas, begins its descent. I notice already a tinge of orange in the maple leaves by our front door; the dawn comes a little later and the sunset a little sooner. The hydrangeas fade and echinacea blooms, and soon the tourists will thin on the waterfront as the Wheel continues circling round and round.

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