Down time… sort-of, in Bellingham

In the end, what had become a very complicated WA stay got simplified. The wildfire situation on the eastern slope meant we skipped a planned trip to Lake Chelan and spent a a few days in Bellingham, a time in Vancouver and another bit at Max’s house to end it up. More on Vancouver in another post. Here I want to talk about my son’s home town.

Bellingham is an interesting town. Cobbled together from three separate cities in the 1920’s, it has a decidedly unorthodox street plan, with some major roads changing names and directions two or three times as you move north or south. The section in the middle is called the “numbered streets” and the neighborhood and where Max lives is still zoned as agricultural although it surmounts an old coal mine and is inside the city limits.  There is a highway that curves east of the downtown as it heads north to the Canadian border, and the area surrounding it is urban sprawl, but without the obsessive angularity common to many of the cities I’ve visited out here. There are gridded areas, and roads in the country have a disconcerting way of following a grid even when they move up against rivers (go straight, take a sharp bend, go straight, another sharp bend, another straight section, etc.). In other places it seems that the lesson of transportation was that the river is god’s way of showing us where to put the railroad, and later the road. Here, it’s like a robot who bumps up against barriers , recoils, turns and moves off in another direction was the model for planning.  As in all things observable, however, Whatcom County is eclectic in this, and there are wonderful, twisty, turn-y roads that appear in front of you at times, just waiting for an old MG and a sunny spring day.

With more than twice the area of Rhode Island, the county covers a lot of very different geography. Most of The Northern Cascade National Forest is within its borders and most of the almost 204 thousand residents live in the western third, between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Bellingham is both county seat and market town for everywhere from the Canadian border to the more developed Skagit Valley to the south.

The population is just as eclectic and varied. There are suburban types, who keep all those big-box stores and chain restaurants out by highway 5 in business; semi-urban hipsters who have escaped Seattle or Portland and brought their version of cool to the small city. There are college kids and academics from Western Washington U. as well as a strong community college; farmers of all stripes, from the large-scale berry farmers who grow one crop to those who espouse a growing philosophy that is all about variety and experimentation––small-scale, eat-local foodies. There are fishermen, artists, native people and rabid political advocates of all types (mostly pretty leftist in town. Out in “the county” as the area surrounding the city limits is known, things are a bit the other way, with hippie enclaves scattered about to make things interesting). Perhaps this is true of many small cities, especially ones gifted with such a spectacular natural beauty and wealth of resources, but it’s pretty obvious in Bellingham.

Most evident to me, however, is that there is a downtown culture and then the other world that surrounds it. Green politics is big here, and there is a strong, evident desire in the downtown culture to keep the nature of the place sacred as well as the place of nature. Folks are working hard to make the downtown a very nice place to hang out. Recycling is a religion, but so is balancing life and work. Folks seem to believe that Jesse Winchester wasn’t just singing about “old Vermont” in the line, “what you do all day depends on what you want.” People of all ages here seem to have the idea that time is more important than money. What a concept! …and here I thought it was only old people who had already made their money and students who thought that way! It’s not that people here don’t work hard, they do. It’s just that there is also a lot of volunteering; gatherings at the drop of a hat; all-day bike tours of the city with the word “tweed” as the unifying concept; races from the sky (Mt Baker) to the sea involving skiing (nordic and alpine), biking, running, canoeing, kayaking and, for those who chose to do it, a no-motor-vehicle ferrying of the gear over 30 miles of roads up the mountain to get the whole thing started (I wish I had a picture of the canoe trailers that the bikers used). While many of those who are involved in this stuff are 20-somethings or 30-somethings, many aren’t so young any more. The age of the folks who showed up to help pick beets and corn for the food bank ranged from college kids to folks pushing 70. Max said it was a younger crowd than he often gets. I got to drive the truck.

He talks of community a lot, and I think I can begin to grasp what he means. It’s different from the sense of community that I have encountered back east just as the houses and the towns are different out here. It isn’t church-y, or centered around a single concept. It’s an open, friendly belief in the worthwhile nature of cooperation and in the fun to be had in the company of others. It isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t always work, but I know it means something to those who call this place home.

For my part, I think the world could use a few more places like Bellingham.

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