We left Anchorage on a bleak, snowy day in late November. It was just after Thanksgiving, and just before my fifteenth birthday. I remember how bitterly cold it was. I remember snow-topped Atlas Van Lines moving trucks parked in the driveway in front of our house, a stately, three-story slate grey Alaskan chateau on Hidden Lane. I remember sulking, dragging my feet, not wanting to go. I remember little else.
Come to think of it, I can’t even remember where we celebrated my birthday that year – 1995 – sandwiched as it was between Thanksgiving and settling into our new home in Olympia, WA. It’s funny how little I remember from that time. Mostly, I remember the weather: the Alaska deep freeze, the cold Olympia rain, the ice storm that hit with a force shortly after our arrival, the tree branches that froze and crackled and splintered throughout the night, littering the road and falling on power lines, knocking out our electricity. Our new house, situated as it was at the end of a long, narrow peninsula called Cooper Point Road, and then down a private, gravel, pothole-filled path with a sign at the top that warned ‘end of county road,’ was very literally in the middle of nowhere. Which meant that when the ice storm knocked out the power, it stayed out. For days.
And then there was Olympia itself. Upon crossing into the city limits, visitors are greeted by a sign bearing a red, white and blue shield in the form of stars and stripes, proudly proclaiming: ‘Welcome to Olympia, an All-America City.’ True? I suppose so. But mostly I remember Olympia as a small-ish Pacific Northwest town with a bit of an identity crisis. A place where state-workers, government bureaucracy, federal buildings and all of the other trappings of being the state capitol came together with the dreadlocked, hemp-wearing, Evergreen State College-attending hippies, the self-consciously artsy, delightfully quirky PNW hipsters, and the more affluent, old moneyed country club set – the ones who owned boats and waterfront homes and wintered in warmer climates.
When I arrived in Olympia in 1995, from what might as well have been a foreign country – Alaska – I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I was no newcomer to the Pacific Northwest – both of my parents grew up there and I’d spent nearly every summer in Seattle or at my Grandparents’ beach house in Allyn, WA – but Olympia was something else entirely. An odd, eccentric town where all these different and distinct segments of the population intersected, amidst a backdrop of gloom and rain, of tall trees and water-facing cafes and dirt roads to nowhere. I didn’t fit in at all, and yet, strangely, it was exactly where I belonged.
I remained in Olympia for less than four years, bailing as soon as I could to attend college in Los Angeles, and choosing to return only infrequently, on random summers and holidays. And though L.A. has now been my home for many years, there is something unshakeable about Olympia. It was so different than any place I’d ever been before, and so different from any place I’ve ever been since. For the Alaska girl used to the long dark winters where Christmas lights cast a soft glow against the snow, the endless summer nights near the solstice when the sun never seemed to go down, a place where you could go ice skating in your backyard and moose frequently roamed city streets, it represented total culture shock. And for the woman who sought bright lights and bigger things, who has traveled the world, and who made Los Angeles her home – with its vast expanse of freeways and smog and traffic and unnaturally beautiful people – Olympia remains a beacon, a reminder of a more innocent version of myself, a longing for a simpler, more offbeat, more authentic life.
On my last few visits to Olympia, I tried my best to recapture the good old days – the rainy afternoons passed journaling in indie coffeehouses, the outdoor concerts in Sylvester Park with its gazebo strung with white lights, the treasure hunts in the epic Goodwill on the corner of Cooper Point and Harrison, 90’s music blaring over the loudspeakers, the long walks around Capitol Lake, the beautiful boys in too-baggy clothes killing time at the skate park. I’ve tried my best to recapture the Olympia of old, but the truth is, it’s no longer the same. The magic of nostalgia that held me in its grip for so many years while I slogged away in gritty L.A. has withered in the face of cancer and alcoholism and mental illness and hospice. The lighthearted teenage memories of watching old movies at the Capitol Theater and dance parties and bingeing on late night french fries at The Spar now compete with doctors’ visits and funeral arrangements and sorting through the contents of my parents’ house.
The thing about my arrival in Olympia as a fourteen-going-on-fifteen year-old at the tail end of 1995 is that it was perfectly timed. It was so easy to be a teenager there. You didn’t have to work hard to manufacture the tragic angst you so desperately clung to as part of your identity; it was already baked into the cake with the gloomy rain-soaked skies and the tall trees and the grunge music and the drive-thru espresso stands with ironic names. But the thing I didn’t realize about that time in my life – the thing that I could only realize later, with perspective – is that it was actually beautiful. That I wasn’t really as dark or as moody or as tragic as I pretended to be, that I was only playing at it. It wouldn’t be until much later, when I was touched by actual tragedy, when grown up responsibilities eclipsed the teenage worries that had once seemed so heavy and oppressive, that I would truly understand the difference. And then, more than ever, would I long for those bygone Olympia days.
Until next time, friends.