I've always enjoyed taking long walks around Seattle, especially late at night. Nosing around in secluded neighborhoods, sneaking up dark alleys, and peering over fences are not just the stuff of great blues lyrics, they're also the innocent pastime of a bored, curious and solitary type of person. Entertainment options are limited for those night owls who hate TV, and the local geography is completely fascinating at any hour. Over the years I've discovered most every shortcut, intruded upon every hidden houseboat harbor, and tiptoed around every overgrown shack with a yard full of washing machines and crab pots between Greenlake and West Seattle. In my early twenties I would pack two Grolsch beers, a pack of Old Golds, some weed, a journal and a flashlight in my trusty East German gas mask satchel and stay out all night dumpster diving and chasing cats. What a stupid hippy I sound like I must have been. These days I don't drink, smoke or chase cats, but I've kept on wandering the city like a tramp and keep discovering new things. Now that I'm living in the south end of town there's a whole new world to be explored!
Not that I didn't already know about parts of the south end. Both sides of the Duwamish are piled high with fascinating, unguarded mounds of junk and debris enough to make your head swim with delight, if you're delighted by junk and debris. Once I owned a car I started making trips further afield, taking my first dates down to Harbor Island and up the river, driving slowly among the canyons of shipping containers and brightly lit cranes. It was a kind of relationship litmus test: "Isn't that abandoned shipyard beautiful?" The squeamish indie girls had a hard time faking a positive response to that question. "Oh... yes! It's... very, uh, dark. And... weird!"So too have I scoured the railyards and the barren strips along Pacific Highway South watching the wheels of commerce churning. All the crap that makes America great, the DVD players and scented Charmin and Totino's Pizza Rolls, are being shipped and trucked around these wastelands all night so that we citizens don't have to interrupt our relentless bitching about taxes or gay marriage to wonder how we're going to clean our bottoms or satisfy our insatiable desire for Pizza-flavored egg rolls. I've learned more about our great nation by spying on truckers and stevedores at four in the morning than I ever did in a college civics class. In fact, I spent so much time poking around in Seattle's industrial fringe that a well-intentioned friend felt obligated to caution me that the other person most closely associated with those areas was Gary Ridgeway, and that maybe I should find another place to play.
My new neighborhood is suburban, rather than industrial or urban, and there are too many untethered Rottweilers pacing around behind unstable fences for me to be rummaging in people's garbage anymore. Fortunately, I've discovered a whole new landscape to explore. It may sound unlikely, or unappealing, but I've been climbing around the steep, tree-shrouded hillsides that shoulder I-5 from Beacon Hill all the way to Tukwila. Although the deafening roar of the freeway, the periodic sinus-clearing noise of jets taking off from Boeing Field, and decades of illegal dumping all conspire to rob the area of any possible wildlife sanctuary status, it's a nearly impassable greenbelt encompassing an amazing and forgotten land.
We're all familiar with the wooded western slopes of Beacon Hill, home to an ever-regenerating encampment of homeless people the city is bent on destroying. The area has at times resembled a blue-tarp Hobbit forest, with semi-permanent structures and a neighborhood character, and neighborhood problems, all its own. It's easy to forget that I-5 was only built in the sixties, after Seattle was already a hundred years old, and the waves of Elliot Bay once washed up at the feet of Beacon Hill. People have been squatting in these woods throughout Seattle's history, and they've left traces big and small. Further south down I-5, away from the conveniences of the International District, the slopes appear to be a depopulated buffer zone, but I'm discovering a subtle and unpredictable universe within.
First of all, there are houses. Old farmhouses and bungalows, some abandoned, some decidedly occupied, nestled in the bramble or perched on the incline. I stumbled on a house so completely overgrown with vines that the structure itself was hard to discern, and I started to climb up on it to poke around before noticing the wisps of smoke coming from the chimney. Ooops. Pardon moi. Thrashing through the woods I've chanced upon automotive graveyards, Model Ts and Model As, early Chevys, even an old Mercedes, pushed into ravines to rust away, some still with their chrome trim and wire wheels. Another slope hid the rusting remnants of an old boiler and saws from a mill left to rot. Curiously, in the course of one day's bushwhacking I stumbled on six different soccer balls, a volley ball and a basketball, all way back in the woods far away from any trail or house. The only explanation I could imagine was that someone was firing them out of a cannon.
Many of these hidden houses have a very definite "Keep Out" vibe. Not a groovy "mind your own business, partner" tapestries-over-the-windows thing, but a "you won't be the first person buried in this forest" surplus-cop-car kind of feel. When I sense someone behind the curtains I adopt an eccentric-lost-birdwatcher persona and press back into the woods. I was taking my mom's dogs with me on the first few forays, but they're a couple of sissies and I ended up having to carry them through the blackberry stickers. If I did come up against some Rottweiler-toting hard-core customers it wouldn't do me well to be carrying my mom's whimpering dogs over the sticker bushes, so I've started leaving them behind.
Not all the houses are ramshackle and scary. There are horses, goats, pigs chickens and geese, and nicely kept little farms with flower boxes on the windowsills tucked back there too, including one bona fide horse ranch! Who knew there were people raising horses ten minutes from downtown? The reason they can get away with it, I suspect, is that they are actually in Tukwila. The municipality of Tukwila encompasses about nine square miles, which in practice means that it is nine miles long and fifteen feet wide. It actually extends north up alongside Boeing Field and penetrates deep into Georgetown, and part of the I-5 corridor falls within its boundaries. Tukwila's motto appears to be "You Don't Want It? Sure, We'll Take It." Witness Southcenter. My guess is that Tukwila doesn't mind a few horses and goats.
One of these days I may turn up with a backside full of buckshot, but until then I'll be charting this bizarre and neglected terrain in search of magic and mystery. Next up is Deadhorse Canyon.