King County, Washington – A Labor of Love by Karl Childs

King County in the state of Washington is home to the coastal Puget Sound and its well-known cities of Seattle, Redmond, Bellevue, and Mercer Island. In April 2012, through a public policy poll, Seattle was named America’s most popular city. A year later, in February 2013, Seattle was ranked the #2 most literate city in the USA by a Central Connecticut State University study.

It seemed like a perfectly logical place to take my daughter McKell on an educational leave for her 15th birthday. Not only would we enjoy one of America’s favorite locations, but we could learn all about the area. We could find out how Seattle was settled in 1851 by the Denny Party, who worked their way north from Portland, Oregon. Or how Seattle is a derivative of the Indian name Sealth, who was a chief of the local Suquamish tribe when that Denny Party arrived. Or that Bellevue was dominated in the first half of the 20th century by farms known for their strawberries and blueberries.
But truth be told, we weren’t really here for education (don’t tell McKell’s teachers.) We were here to have fun! As a dad who sees his daughter getting older much too quickly, it was a chance to spend some quality time together, to grow closer to one another as we saw the sights and experienced what the region had to offer.
And what we found it had to offer was example after example of good, hard-working people, living in and building communities just doing what they love.
We started our trip in beautiful Bellevue, and I sincerely mean beautiful. The name Bellevue itself is derivative French for “beautiful view”. While living in the desert state of Utah has a beauty of its own, seeing the lush, wooded Puget Sound region of western Washington, gently nestled between two mountain ranges, brings a mystique to mind of misty woods and damp overgrowth filled with vampires and werewolves (think Twilight movies). We enjoyed driving on roads where you couldn’t see more than a hundred yards off to the side because of the trees, as if we were following a giant trail stamped out of the wild by a running Paul Bunyan chasing his big blue ox.
Since we were enjoying the nature and feel of the area, we ventured to our first stop at the 53-acre Bellevue Botanical Garden. We had an appointment with Nancy, the Garden’s manager, but I fear we were late. We got to the Garden on time, but as we were walking up the groomed paths and through the meticulous Japanese garden, we kept stopping with wide eyes and expressions of “wow, look at that!” on our faces. Colorful bushes, blooming flowers, a tinkling brook gently flowing over strategically placed stone steps. I was surprised at how much we were enjoying it, even before we met Nancy and got the inside scoop about the Garden.
After just a few minutes, it was soon apparent that this job and this garden was Nancy’s labor of love. Her excitement and passion of this place was clear as she told us of the different types of plants and flowers, ecologies and history. She told us of the community love and work that goes into growing and maintaining the gardens, how the neighbors were the ones who watch out for the preservation and security of the place. By maintaining and displaying plant collections, all natural to the northwest Pacific, the Garden’s mission, in part, is to demonstrate and educate visitors on local flora and fauna. So Nancy was visibly thrilled when the brand new signs with QR codes and NFC communication worked perfectly, as McKell placed a smart phone against the sign and up popped a Web page discussing the fuchsias we were looking at. Our visit was only a couple of hours, but it was a very memorable and pleasant way to spend a morning. Even for fifteen year olds.
Another of our favorite experiences in Bellevue was at Stone Gardens, sister to the original climbing gym in Seattle, developed by Keith Magnuson, owner and CEO. Keith met us at the front door and promptly took us on a tour of his labor of love, a climbing facility providing a fun, safe place to practice your climbing and belaying, or to increase your skill at top out bouldering, or to simply experience climbing for the first time. Difficulty levels across the 21,000 square feet of climbing and bouldering walls ranged from beginners to highly advanced, including walls that could be hydraulically leaned outwards up to 15 degrees.
After getting into our climbing gear and shoes provided by the gym, Brad, the assistant manager, took time out of his busy schedule to guide us, belay us, and frankly, make sure we didn’t kill ourselves. He explained to us how the multiple colored holds on each wall served a purpose other than just a pretty design. Each color marked a route up the 40 foot walls, ranked according to difficulty level. The 5.6 and 5.7, and even the 5.8, didn’t offer too much of a challenge. McKell would scoot up the walls like a squirrel up a tree, and not to be outdone, I would follow, although not quite so fast or elegant, but still making it to the top. So McKell bumped it up a notch to 5.9. That was my limit, but McKell did it well. Ah, youth.
Across Lake Washington from Bellevue, on the floating bridge that is State Road 520, lies Seattle. Our first experience in the city was at Pike Place Market, a home grown farmer’s market turned permanent. Farmer markets are often entertaining, vibrant, and of course delicious, but considered rural and small. However, Pike Place Market is the “soul of Seattle”, featuring all local produce, plants, food, crafts, and wares. The only national store allowed is Starbucks, simply because of the company’s origins being from Seattle.
We experienced the market by taking a food tour offered by Savor Seattle, the company featuring the tour guides hoisting the pink umbrellas as a beacon for their group. While I am not one that typically likes to go on guided tours, preferring to find my own way around towns and countryside, when you place the word “food” in front of it, the “tour” suddenly becomes much more appealing. Even starting at the gum wall on lower Post Alley, where both sides of the alley are covered in old chewed gum, didn’t dampen my appetite or anticipation of trying the local treats at the market.
We encountered the famous fish throw at Pike Place Fish, sampled Frank’s Quality Produce (where neither McKell nor I can remember having had better, sweeter, juicier peaches), beat the long lines at Pike Place Chowder, and tried samples from many other places. For us, the tour created a personal touch, a more intimate connection, with each shop. In just a couple of hours, we found many more labors of love as we rooted for, worried with, and joined in the celebration of the passion, work, and sacrifice that went into each place.
Right after our food tour, since we now didn’t need to eat lunch, we left the market and walked up 5th Avenue to Pine Street, where we hopped on board the Seattle monorail. After all, who doesn’t love to ride a monorail. For $2.25 a person each way, it was an easy and fun way to get to the Seattle Center, where the Space Needle and other attractions are located.
Because, of course, we had to visit that paramount icon of Seattle, the Space Needle. We were lucky enough to have a CityPass, which allowed us two trips up the Needle within 24 hours. If you have the time to spend in Seattle, purchase a CityPASS. You’ll save almost half off all the entrance fees if you can get to all the venues it offers, and skip to the front of the line in many cases. If the attractions appeal to you, it’s well worth the cost.
One of the CityPASS attractions that appealed to McKell and I was the EMP Museum, conveniently located right next to the Space Needle. EMP is a non-profit museum committed to exploring significant moments, events, and individuals from contemporary popular culture. For example, they honor the Seattle native Jimi Hendrix’s legacy with artifacts such as costumes, instruments, photographs and more. They displayed artwork and movie memorabilia in the Fantasy: World of Myth and Magic exhibit, and offered the chance to yank the tail of a dragon, eliciting an “oh daddy” eyeroll from McKell at the enjoyment it gave me. Even the building is cool, designed by the famous architect Frank O. Gehry.
McKell’s favorite was the sound area. We spent quality time in different sound booths, learning how to play and then jamming out on electric guitars, drums, and keyboards. Although completely with no talent, I got to show McKell how to rock out on the drums. I’m sure I’m not being asked soon to join any band, but it was fun pretending.
One of my own personal loves is food, evidenced by my eagerness to go on the food tour. We wanted to eat well on our daddy daughter trip, so we spent a bit of time looking for good restaurants. Our favorite, arrived at by a bit of luck and finding its high Zagat rating online, was Izumi, a Japanese restaurant and sushi bar. We sat at the bar, so only experienced the sushi, but it was wonderful. I have to give a shout out to Chef Shito, who refused to make anything as trendy or chintzy as a rainbow roll, but would make any roll or sushi to order. So I asked him to build me a unique roll all made up to be just like the trendy, chintzy rainbow roll, which I love dearly. Chef Shito was entertaining, talkative and talented, and next to the good food, he is a great reason to stop by, say hello, and enjoy your own made-to-order maki sushi roll.
McKell and I loved our trip. We ate together, played together, and experienced some sights that are beyond the everyday. I know McKell learned something about Washington and King County, so it did turn out to be an educational trip for her. But I hope, as her father, the time spent together will be the most cherished memory and learning she has. After all, she is my own labor of love.