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Discovering a buried history in an unfamiliar place

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As my best friends— Cesar Beltran and Ryan Dunshee— and I entered the magical world of twentysomethings, we made it a mission to break out of our normal day-to-day routines and engage in fun activities once in a while. Our self-proclaimed goal has taken us to the scorching deserts of Las Vegas, Nevada, where we partied until dawn at a music festival called Life is Beautiful, to the windswept west coast of Santa Cruz, California, where the cozy small-town environment humbled our young minds.

Still, these trips remained close to Los Angeles— our home.

So, we were very excited to board a plane together last month and venture north, to Seattle, Washington, which was farther north than any of us had been. Planes scare me— or at least they used to. However, this fear should be irrational to me. Ever since I was 8, I had found myself more times in the skies than I can count, with destinations that were way over the border— Colombia, Chile and Panama, just to name a few. Fast-forward to my 22-year-old self; I now consider myself a veteran of flight and am no longer afraid.

As I peered through the window of the plane, I noticed how much greener Seattle was compared to LA. Granted, Washington’s closest neighbor is Canada— known for its cooler pine-tree-filled topography— but as our plane left California, the land below was only one color: tan.

Photos by Sebastian Echeverry | Signal Tribune
To me, Seattle’s skyline looks like Long Beach and San Francisco rolled into one.

Our wheels hit the tarmac of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, a fairly modernized airport with large windows, which allowed us to take in even more of Washington’s evergreen views. After a quick continental breakfast— which lacked eggs or sausage, to my demise— we began hunting down our Lyft driver who would take us to Sixtr— the company we had used to rent a car. Travel in the 21st century has become quite convenient. An airport employee informed us we could find Lyft and taxi services on the third floor of a parking garage.

As we sat in the designated waiting area for pick-up, we began to notice that almost every single Lyft driver arrived in a Toyota Prius. At first, we chuckled, joking that it was just another liberal stereotype we had heard of back in California. It wasn’t the car itself that perplexed us, but rather the sheer volume of the same car type. However, as more cars rolled into the garage, we began to think it had been mandated and not coincidental.

The world at street level in Seattle is quite different from that in the underground tunnels there.

Our driver, sporting a gray Prius, answered our question for us. He said that any driver servicing near the airport must utilize an environmentally friendly vehicle in order to reduce carbon emissions that airplanes are already producing. It was a green solution we were happy to learn about, given our concerns about the environment.

Traffic was quite light in Seattle at 9 in the morning— a pleasant surprise for any Angeleno. As we turned around a bend on the highway, we were greeted with Seattle’s skyline. It looked like Long Beach and San Francisco rolled into one. The port was teeming with cargo ships— an awesome reminder of America’s economic might. To the right of our car, the mermaid from Starbucks’s logo stared back at us from the top of the company’s headquarters. Just on the outskirts of the high-rises sat CenturyLink and Safeco fields. Being soccer fans ourselves, we were excited to see the stadium where American national Clint Dempsey and the Seattle Sounders played the sport we cherish.

We disembarked from the Lyft ride, and after a quick stroll through downtown, we reached the place where we were scheduled to pick up our car. Sixtr and Co. had given us a 2017 Chevy Malibu to cruise in— not too shabby. Cesar had brainstormed the idea to rent a car in order to venture away from the urban noise and explore Washington’s forests and hiking trails.

Our next stop was to meet our Airbnb host, Kelly. The room in which he was hosting us was modern and sleek. It was two floors with a lovely terrace all to ourselves, and it was located in a relatively quiet neighborhood called West Seattle. This place was going to be our home for the next two days. It was also the place where I met the love of my life— Abby, Kelly’s beautiful chocolate Labrador. Kelly left us to get settled in, and we began unpacking our bags. We plopped ourselves onto couches and chairs to catch up on sleep before we headed out into the city.

The mermaid from the Starbucks logo stared back at us from atop of the company’s headquarters in Seattle.

Our first activity was to attend Seattle’s underground tour; the meeting point for the tour was in a section of the city called Pioneer Square. While on this journey we learned about the miles of catacombs below the bustling city streets of downtown Seattle. The tour guide taught us much about the city’s rough beginnings.

As we traversed the tunnels, our tour guide told us the old broken windows and empty rooms we were peering into used to be the first floor of the buildings above us. In 1851, Arthur Armstrong Denny landed on the banks of West Seattle, and he is credited with founding the city. At first, everything seemed calm. The weather was pleasant, and there weren’t major concerns about Native Americans in the area. However, our tour guide told us that during the winter, Denny quickly learned why the natives didn’t want to live where he had made his establishment. The strong gusts of winds knocked over their settlements and blew down the trees around them. So, he took his party of settlers over to Elliot Bay— which today is known as downtown Seattle.

Originally, much of the buildings were composed of wood, until a man by the name of John Back caused the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. A Swedish assistant in a woodworking shop, Back was heating glue when the substance spilled over and ignited the building. The man attempted to put the fire out with water, however, his efforts only caused the burning glue to spread quickly, and soon other buildings got caught in the flames. Our tour guide told us that over 29 blocks of the city were burnt to the ground. This called for city officials to mandate a new zoning ordinance to rebuild the city only using structures made of bricks.

Due to sea-level imbalances, the low mudflats where much of the city was built caused buildings to sink deeper than anticipated, so the first floors would sink and become basements. Early on, Seattle was named a lumber-focused town. However, the Klondike Gold Rush placed Seattle on the map as the No. 1 pit stop for supplies before miners headed deep into the mountains. The town grew quickly, and very little was done about crime in the town. Our tour guide said that many murders were committed in the alleyways in which we found ourselves during the tour— a chilling thought, given the eerie sense I had felt when I was down there.

Our tour ended back at street level. A large totem pole greeted us as we lingered around Pioneer Square. It was a different world above— filled with coffee shops and restaurants— however, its past persisted. The tour gave us a clear picture of the strong-willed nature of Seattleites. In that moment I thought, “Perhaps that same will power is what got Seattle-based brands like Starbucks and other business giants their big breaks.”

In the words of our tour guide, “If you have a bad idea, stick with it until the end.”

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Discovering a buried history in an unfamiliar place