Letter From Washington

Rain O’er Me

It’s winter in Seattle, time to play in the disagreeable drizzle.

Summer visitors like to say that it doesn’t rain that much in Seattle. With a thumb in the almanac, they’ll tell you that the city collects less annual precipitation than New York City, which is true. What they don’t tell you is that come November, as the last supersaver flies out of SeaTac, the clouds roll in from the Pacific Ocean and hang around Western Washington like the stink of a dead rat in the wall. The inexorable damp persists until June and washes away the civility that Northwesterners wear like hand lotion. Managers snap at their departments or turn scarily morose; the cubiclebound browse Webzines (hello, reader!) and engage in marathon e-mail bitch sessions. It feels like nobody’s showered or shaved for three days.

Few artists have captured the condition well. Robert Altman came close in the opening scene of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, his Western in which Warren Beatty rides through a shower into a logging camp whose residents resemble nothing so much as wet cats. However, no account of the Northwest’s soaked misery surpasses that of the great American explorer and abysmal speller William Clark, who recorded his observations nearly 200 years ago. Clark spent a winter on the Oregon-Washington coast, which is to rain as the Antarctic is to snow. “Rained all the after part of last night, rain continues this morning,” he wrote in late 1805. “We are all wet cold and disagreeable.” During their coastal wintering, Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery enjoyed a total of 12 days without rain. At one point it poured 11 days straight “without a longer intermition than 2 hours at a time.” The word “disagreeable” is repeated like a mantra in Clark’s journal. It’s a curiously evocative description; “miserable” would be the natural choice, but Clark’s word captures a quality of the Northwestern damp that, as Ken Kesey once wrote, you have to go through a winter here to understand. The stuff puts you on edge. About the ninth or 10th day, everybody looks at each other and says, “God damn it’s been raining.” This is what William Clark felt, I think. On Nov. 15, 1805, he wrote, “The rainey weather continued … from the 5th in the morng. untill the 16th is eleven days rain, and the most disagreeable time I have experienced. …” Cold, wet, cooped up, and hungry. I imagine Clark waking to the sound of skyspatter on the morning of Nov. 16 and thinking: “I can’t believe this shit.”

Ithought we’d settled the fight between free will and predestination with a sophomore reading of Erasmus, but lately, it’s popping up all over life’s syllabus. For the past couple of years my family, born of an Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandmother, has been cracking wise about who got Gram’s gene. Now they tell us that anxiety has its own causal gene, which has spawned so many jokes about worrying about carrying the worry gene that I’ll spare you my own. The coming of the rain has only added weight to the sinking realization that I’m about as free as Pavlov’s best friend, acting as it does as cold evidence of geographical determinism–the idea that the landscape shapes the human culture that thrives within it.

There are two cultures in the state of Washington: dry and wet. Both are determined by the raw fact of mountains and an ocean. The Pacific Ocean generates warm, moist air, which flows into Western Washington and bumps into the Cascade Mountains. The air condenses into clouds; it rains.

The fact that we’re locked into this bowl of rain has given rise to some of the Northwest’s distinctive (read: “bizarre”) subcultures. A few years ago, writer Tim Egan branded as “Northwest Noir” the dark, damp movements that creep out of this moldy greenhouse: grunge music, Twin Peaks, serial killers. The alternative to Egan’s alternative is the equally strange culture of people who, given eight months of February, choose to fly straight into the teeth of the beast. I’m talking about the REI Army, those legions of gear-obsessed soldiers who suit up every weekend and drive into the hills, dead set on hunting down and killing their God-given portion of wilderness transcendence. Over the past couple of years I’ve joined their ranks. Enlistment begins with the $500 purchase of a Gore-Tex jacket and rain pants, and thereafter requires monthly tithes for boots, socks, gloves, goggles, trekking poles, interior-frame backpacks, gas stoves, and a really cool wrist altimeter.

REI recently cashiered its funky Capitol Hill warehouse store for a palatial flagship pavilion visible from Interstate 5, the Space Needle, and probably the space shuttle, too. The store’s prime attraction is a three-story climbing pinnacle that looks like a schmoo constructed of stucco. Shopping in the new boot-hut-cum-theme-park is daunting, a little like leaving the roadside chapel for Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral. And while the soul of local outdoor culture still thrives at the new store, this is not necessarily a good thing. Just below the happy nature’s-bounty song promoted by REI lies the low hum of outdoor culture’s ugliest trait, a possessive paranoia that keeps outsiders out and insiders in. A humorless sense of moral superiority is de rigueur, fostered by the belief that those of us who go out and stomp the natural world under our Vibram soles are healing Gaea while the rest of the world is tearing her down. Anyone who began hiking/climbing/skiing/boarding the day before you did is considered an experienced pro; you and all those who purchased their fleece jackets the day after you did are pathetic wannabes. A rock climber who trains with some of the world’s most experienced crag-hangers recently told me she still considers herself a novice. “I figure you’ve got to put in 20 years before you get past amateur status,” she said. Nothing commands instant respect in Seattle like a low REI number. The co-op’s membership list began with No. 1 in 1938 and now runs into the low 4 millions. Jim Whittaker, the first American to climb Mount Everest, is No. 647. I am No. 3,538,286. I bear the shame every day of my life.

In Japan, climbing Mount Fuji is a rite of the Shinto religion. A sign near its summit reads, “Only a fool has never climbed Mount Fuji; only a fool has climbed it more than once.” Washingtonians haven’t based a religion on climbing Mount Rainier–yet–but, in all other ways, it assumes the prominence of Fuji in local culture. We name beers and baseball teams after it, which gives you some idea. Like the Japanese peak, Rainier draws 10,000 fools every year who strap spikes to their feet and attempt to walk nearly three miles in the sky. Last summer I was No. 10,001. Climbing Rainier is a rite of passage for some Northwesterners, an obsession for others. Some fathers take their sons up it before their 10th birthday. Local climbers with ego-insecurity issues often scoff at Rainier. Nothing but a long hike, they say, putting me in mind of the old Monty Python skit about who grew up poorest. Climbing with shoes on your feet? Ooh, luxury!

In a sense, the climbing of Rainier has become the sacred rite of REI culture. It is a long, brutal slog up dangerous gable-steep glaciers in which at least 50 previous aspirants are buried. Those who make it up (“summit” as a verb) are offered the cruelest sort of spiritual enlightenment: the realization that there is no spiritual enlightenment on mountain tops. If I had kept a journal on the summit, it would have read remarkably similar to William Clark’s: “We are all cold wet and disagreeable.” I may have added two words. “Get down.” Sometimes rites of passage, like the experience of suffering, lead to great wisdom. And sometimes, suffering in the wilderness is just suffering in the wilderness, and the only wisdom you gain is the knowledge that you don’t want to do it again.