Vintage Pacific NW: We’re revisiting some of our favorite stories from some of our favorite former magazine contributors. Check back each week for timeless classics focusing on food, fitness, gardening and more.

Originally published Feb. 21, 2008
By Ron Judd, Pacific NW magazine writer


IT PROBABLY EXPLAINS a lot. Like the madness that grips people during morning commutes in Boston and Philadelphia, and the impenetrable fog that descends upon the brains of otherwise-normal people who take up residence in Washington, D.C. It’s not the air, the water, the food (necessarily) or even the schools. It’s just geography: the sun rising in the east and setting in the west — over land, not water.

Result: People on the right coast of our continent can go for years — lifetimes, in all too many cases — without ever seeing the saltwater reflect a sunset’s magnificence. It makes the Atlantic, for these purposes, a wasted ocean. And it’s just wrong.

Take it from us, the people out here on the upper left-hand fringe, who get noticed by Eastern-time-zone snobs only when the Huskies go on probation: A saltwater sunset is a beautiful thing to be penciling in on your day planner.

For many of us, in fact, it’s a necessity.

You know this is true because you see a surprising number of us out there, on those magic, rosy-dusk evenings, in various states of dress and undress, buttoned down and disheveled, happy and sad.

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We look like we’ve all just been in the middle of something — a painting, a spreadsheet, a pie crust, a string of code — when that surreal orange-juice light peaking through the windows made us stop in our tracks, grab a coat and race for the door.

We know from experience that showtime’s coming fast, and there’s nothing worse than seeing the absolute most spine-tingling Pacific sunset of the season from the front seat of your car, stuck in traffic on the Aurora Bridge.

OK; there clearly is something worse: namely, never seeing the sun set over the water at all — a sad affliction of the entire rest of the nation.

It probably has a lot to do with the temperament of Dick Cheney, that drowned-beaver hair on the head of The Donald and Oprah’s propensity to announce guests by screaming their names at the top of her lungs.

West Coast people know a good thing when they see it, feel it, photograph it and lock it into their memories. And they rarely look a gift sunset in the mouth.

That’s why there’s a literal late-afternoon/early-evening rush hour out on decks, piers, rooftops, boats and bridges these days. Look around: People standing in actual crowds of awed spectators as Mother Nature’s palette of reds, yellows, oranges, purples, blues and blacks rearranges itself in vivid watercolor patterns, never the same way twice.

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Nothing in nature compares to the unrestrained glory of that golden orb sinking softly into the Pacific, settling behind the Olympic Mountains, stealing away behind the trees and above the painted kelp in a cove on Puget Sound.

It’s all about topography. The Northwest’s fortunate mix of rocky shorelines, offshore islands, still waters, jutting mountains and coastal cloud formations combines to create sunsets of truly otherworldly quality. In summer, they’re nightly occurrences, often taken for granted. In an otherwise-socked-in winter, they’re a take-the-kids special occasion.

Nothing rejuvenates a soggy soul more quickly, fully and magically than a winter sunset over Puget Sound. That stunning splash of orange and red dancing on high clouds and painting the water like fire is a promise of what’s to come — and some payback for what’s already been endured. It’s a gift to all of us for surviving the bad times, keeping that hood pulled down tight over our brows, the scarf wrapped tightly around our necks, the gloves always within reach.

Around here, nature taketh away, but when it giveth back — good lord, what a bargain.

Everybody has his or her own special relationship with the setting sun. Some people stare into the glory in the hope it’ll heal some internal wound. Others see it as a reflection of their own joy. Still others stare into it not knowing why, other than that it brings a sense of calm they find nowhere else.

But few of us take the time to appreciate how special it is to partake of such an individual thing in a wide-open, public setting.

A humble suggestion: Standing there on your local pier, taking in that delicious moment when the sun disappears, the winds die to nil, the saltwater goes slack, and all the world seems to take its only one, deep, clean, refreshing breath of the day, don’t get so caught up in the moment that you fail to see what’s around you. That would be a lot of your neighbors, friends you don’t yet know, feeling the same high, walking away with the same buzz, reaffirmed at a gut level that yes, this is The Place.

Knowing the rest of the world will never see things in quite the same light makes the color all the more glorious.