Get lost in your thoughts, and maybe even a city, and enjoy the adventure without a glowing rectangle.
LET’S GET LOST.
Let’s set aside our phones and tablets and declare a holiday from algorithms that can predict our every online whim, from satellite navigation, from the culture of consultation, from life hacks, from the tyranny of recommended experience and the vicarious thrill of knowing all the cool things other people are saying and doing.
Let’s take the cursor off the “Like” button and celebrate the somehow-decadent proposition that for at least part of every day, we shouldn’t care what everyone else is thinking.
Let’s break down the fourth wall of our breathless, overbearing, 24/7 virtual reality, step outside and take a long walk that ends up wherever we decide.
We used to be so good at finding our own way.
Now we’re too busy following to see where we’re going.
Learning to trust one’s own inner compass, to be led by the gravitational pull of one’s own curiosity, might seem frivolous at a time when GPS, search engines, social media and review websites have us tethered to our devices like space walkers in a carefully plotted and relentlessly tracked orbit. But the risk is that an essential life skill will start to atrophy unless it’s used — the art of winging it.
Today, of course, adults and children alike spend more time than ever on mobile phones, tablets, PCs and other media, browsing, scrolling and sharing their way through their days. Personal technology writer Geoffrey A. Fowler dubbed young people aged 8 to 12 “Generation Touchscreen” because of the time they spend on devices.
But as technology makes the world smaller and more accessible through the touch of our fingertips, perhaps it’s also placing lived experience further out of reach, paradoxically isolating us from each other and our own selves, even as we’re able to monitor our loved ones and even our own footsteps and heartbeats with spectacular precision.
Certainly there’s not only strength but validation in numbers, in knowing where other people are heading and that you are moving in the same direction.
Popularity and approval can also be crutches.
Social media networks want us to believe we shouldn’t make a move until we’ve checked with somebody, that no experience can be complete until we’ve checked in.
According to a recent survey by the web-search marketing firm BrightLocal, 92 percent of consumers read online reviews, and only 13 percent would consider using a business that has a one- or two-star rating.
We are the collective embodiment of the hapless Aziz Ansari character in the new Netflix series “Master of None,” who can’t figure out what to do when he discovers that a taco truck, deemed the best by some foodie websites he’s researched, has run out of food just as he gets there.
But in constantly sourcing the crowd, and crowding the ether with our own thoughts, status updates and approvals, maybe we’re missing out on the fulfillment that comes from quietly taking roads less traveled, hitting the streets and seeing what happens.
CITIES ARE GREAT because no matter how well you know them, there’s always a little mystery, the promise of the shock of the unexpected, waiting around every corner.
In recent years, aimless strolling has taken off as an alternative to the heavily curated, ranked and recommended society we’ve built for ourselves. In the old days, the French had a word for someone who wandered around cities as an end unto itself — “le flâneur.” Today we call it “urban hiking.”
Web developer Michael Allen Smith, who moved to Seattle in 2007, writes about his walks around the city at criticalmas.com, where recurring themes include “Conventional wisdom is often wrong,” “You can’t always trust experts” and “Experience is more valuable than toys.”
At first he used GPS to help learn the streets of his new city, but eventually he began to rely solely on landmarks. Today, the 45-year-old never sets a path before heading out; he doesn’t set distance goals, and he tries to hike alone, rather than with company.
“The benefit of not using technology is you are forced to pay attention to your surroundings,” he says when reached by email. “You discover things along the less-optimal routes that you might not see if you used a map application.”
The late author and cultural observer Walter Benjamin once advised urban dwellers “to lose oneself in a city … as one loses oneself in a forest,” to think of the built environment in the same enchanted way that we think of the wilderness.
In Seattle, we don’t have to venture far to experience wandering on this level. We have, for example, the poetic interplay of the footpaths at the Seattle Japanese Garden in Madison Valley, as well as the “sacred geometry” of the meditation labyrinth at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill and the one nearby at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, none of which leads anywhere, except deeper into ourselves.
But the city is made up of paths waiting to be charted.
The dim lamp outside the Slow Boat Tavern glows like an open secret in a quiet but emerging stretch of Rainier Avenue South, just a wanderer’s leap beyond the busy dining and nightlife strip at the heart of the Columbia City neighborhood.
With its location in neighboring Hillman City, simple décor, floor covered in discarded peanut shells and simple menu of craft beers on tap, the bar clearly isn’t trying to be anything more than a humble hangout.
Bar owner Ken Provost prefers to keep the Slow Boat a bit on the down-low.
A red neon sign hanging above the bar cheekily suggests that Yelp bugger off, only using a much harsher vulgarity that can’t be repeated here.
“There’s a photo of it on Yelp,” Provost says of the sign, relishing the irony. “I feel like anyone that’s worked in the service industry has feelings about Yelp that are not the most positive.”
He has only modest expectations of his customers, basically that they come with a certain level of “good faith,” to use his expression, that his taste in brews won’t steer them wrong.
For the most part, that works.
“People come in and order something without batting an eye,” he says. He’s spotted a few customers writing online reviews while enjoying their pints, though.
Provost moved to Seattle from Connecticut in the mid-aughts and remembers happening upon divey local watering holes like the Blue Moon in the University District, the Comet on Capitol Hill and the now-closed Buckaroo in Fremont.
“They were just cool-looking; you’d see them from the outside and just go in,” Provost says. “I feel like that’s how you did everything 10 years ago.”
Bring up Google Maps to Fremont shop owner Will Sullivan, and you’ll get a mouthful.
“Horrible!” he says with exaggerated disgust.
“The best way to learn a city is to get lost in it,” he says. “That’s part of what makes us human — figuring stuff out and discovering things.”
The same can be said about navigating Sullivan’s tiny tea shop on a quiet side street away from the bustle of Fremont’s business core, B. Fuller’s Mortar & Pestle. The cramped, sweet-smelling, steampunk-inspired shop is a world of wonders despite its matchbox size.
“The first time people come in here, they don’t know what it is,” Sullivan says. “Things and experiences like that are lacking in our culture.”
Everything at B. Fuller’s seems open-ended, a portal to possibilities, to answers for questions you hadn’t thought of yet.
The store’s shelves are stocked with myriad blends of teas, from caffeinated, smoky, Asian varieties to herbaceous ones camphorous enough to clear a throat. Sullivan often prepares tiny cups of tea for his customers to sample and waxes philosophical about tea culture.
He wants to make tea as accessible to the masses as Starbucks has made coffee, to dispel the reputation for pinky-fingered elitism that tea-drinking has acquired.
“It was always a peasant drink — there is a humility to it,” Sullivan says.
The only thing needed to enjoy tea is trust in your own sense of taste and smell.
“You’re already an expert in what you like,” he says.
Sullivan says he practices what he preaches when it comes to exploring the city.
In fact, he doesn’t own a personal cellphone, just one used exclusively to process transactions at the store.
“They’re a drag,” Sullivan says of cellphones. “They take you out of the moment. We should be present.”
IN THE CITY’S Sodo District, gritty streets lined by old warehouses, wholesale emporiums, disused rail tracks and tractor-trailer lots stretch from the southern edge of downtown southward to Boeing Field, and from Interstate 5 west toward the Duwamish Waterway, forming a confusing, pot-hole-filled industrial grid that feels designed to thwart visitors and destroy axles.
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But there are treasures for the intrepid.
In the back of an aging brick warehouse along Sixth Avenue South, Big John’s PFI, formerly Pacific Food Importers, hides a world of exotic foods in its maze of unmarked shopping aisles.
A mainstay since the 1970s for Seattle chefs and foodies, particularly lovers of Mediterranean fare, Big John’s maintains the scruffy, unpretentious eclecticism of a Middle Eastern bazaar, with jars and buckets of bulk herbs and spices; shelves of every imaginable flavor of preserves, inexpensive cheeses and odd sweets; along with multitudes of canned fish, pasta, olive oils, vinegars and legumes — much of it tantalizingly unfamiliar.
What few signs there are in Big John’s are mostly handwritten ones pointing to specific items or bearing fun aphorisms. Under a sign that reads, “Big pieces of chocolate below,” someone has written a Henry Fielding quote on the wall that says, “Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea.”
“We’re not pretty, we’re not exclusive, we’re not foo-foo,” store manager Donna Bolles says with nothing short of pride.
But like halva, a sesame-paste snack that Big John’s sells in versions made in Greece, Lebanon, Turkey and Brooklyn, the store is a bit of an acquired taste.
Some people just don’t get it at first, Bolles says. “People come in sometimes, and they don’t know what to do — they’re overwhelmed.”
Bolles has watched panicked customers’ faces as they ponder the store’s cheese case, desperately consulting the Internet via their cellphones to read up on particular varieties and figure out what other people think of them.
But to Bolles, the fretting can be a bit much.
“I’m like, ‘Honey, don’t worry about it,’ ” she says.
“Everything has to be fed to you” these days, Bolles says. “We’re all intelligent people. We can figure it out.
“If you enjoy eating a cheese, who cares what other people think about it?”
Deeper into Sodo, under the Spokane Street overpass and among concrete road pillars as thick as cedars, the semi-trucks roar so loudly the sound nearly drowns out the banging and clanging inside the blacksmith shop where renowned custom kitchen and hunting knifemaker David Lisch is holding a class for a handful of students.
He smiles broadly when he sees his unannounced visitors by the door. He’s as surprised to see two reporters in this hideaway of a workshop, where Lisch makes daggers so intricately etched they could be museum pieces, as we are to discover it.
“All the students I have, I’ve found them on my own,” Lisch yells over the din of his blazing forge, where he heats steel blades to a glowing softness that allows hammering and shaping. “Nobody even knows there’s a killer knife school in Seattle!”
Lisch and his wife, Andrea, are planning to move the studio and classes to Yelm, where they will have a much larger, and perhaps even harder-to-find, space.
Lisch says his marriage was born of wandering and serendipity. He met his wife at the Sunday market in Fremont 18 years ago and, for their first date, they went to a scrap-metal yard to dig around for parts for a bed. They never got around to making that bed, but they did make a life together.
Farther on, along Utah Avenue South, a sandwich board for Seapine Brewing beckons. The 3-year-old brewery, which recently moved into the hangar-like building where it now resides, has tables and a bar in front and giant fermenting tanks in back. But it doesn’t stand out in the corrugated metal jungle that is Seattle’s industrial core.
“We get calls and they’re like, ‘Where the hell are you?’ ” says Seapine owner Drew Colpitts.
But Colpitts likes to keep things under the radar. The “If you build it, they will come” approach suits him just fine.
That philosophy seems to underpin the vision of the handy skateboarders who built a skatepark nearby under the Spokane Street overpass. The swooping, curvy structure appears to grow, pearlike, from the concrete of the roadway itself, a sight that inspires double takes.
On this afternoon, guys in baggy jeans and sneakers swirl around the park’s walls and valleys like pinballs in an arcade game, stopping, and sometimes crashing, on a dime. Meanwhile, caravans of freight semis heading to and from the Port of Seattle rumble a few yards away, a visual and sonic contrast to the swishing skateboard ballet.
Each time one of the skaters rolls straight down into the pit, it’s as if he’s leaping off a cliff, only to glide, with gravity-defying grace, up the steep side of an opposing wall.
Over and over again, he must fearlessly map a new course.
And for every attempt, he must lean on the only thing he can trust in the breakneck frenzy of the moment — his own good judgment.