Fleeing my rock for the City of Subdued Excitement

Sailboats scoot across Bellingham Bay.


When I flee the seemingly endless winter on Center Island and seek a place with more live humans, I guess you might call me an “off-my-rocker.” Kind of goes along with living in a cabin called the Nuthatch.

Anyway — forging prosaically on — when I need to get away and have just a day, I like to go to Bellingham.

This week I decided a necessary grocery-shopping trip would be a good opportunity for a northward pilgrimage to the City of Subdued Excitement, as Bellinghamsters like to call their town.

OK, I mean, right there — not only does the place have a great self-deprecatory, tongue-in-cheek slogan, but residents go by a name that conjures a vision of a town full of anthropomorphized rodents driving around in little cars. I appreciate a community with a sense of humor.

They also have almost as many craft breweries and brew pubs as Bend, Ore., which everyone knows adds significantly to the quality of life.

When my family returned from a 1990s sailing trip to Mexico after two years of being off the grid careerwise, Barbara and I realized we could start afresh wherever we chose. We hoped to make a go of it in Bellingham, a congenial college town on a beautiful bay, a half-day’s sail from the San Juans and practically in the shadow of Mount Baker and its razzle-dazzle ski area.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. Newspapering was my life, and I did get hired and worked for one day at the local daily, the Bellingham Herald. But I was young, a bit cantankerous, and just returning from the freedom of the wild seas. That first day on the job, after I’d expressed enough disagreements with the corporate policies of the Herald’s parent company, Gannett, one of America’s worst newspaper chains, the newspaper’s H.R. director and I mutually agreed that it just wasn’t a match made in heaven. So my family sailed south into Puget Sound and I ended up at The Seattle Times. A happy ending, as it turned out.

From a viewpoint along Chuckanut Drive, the road to Bellingham offers panoramas of islands and saltwater in a varied palette of blues.
Chuckanut Drive curves

But I’ve always enjoyed visiting Bellingham, about which I wrote numerous travel stories for the Times. These days I like going even if only for a quick trip to the sole Trader Joe’s in Northwest Washington. From the water-taxi dock in Anacortes, it’s an easy hour’s drive.

I got a pleasant sunny day for this trip, and I found time to get off Interstate 5 and chug northward on scenic and serpentine Chuckanut Drive, the original northbound road that skirts the base of the Chuckanut Mountains, a foothill spur that geologists say is the only place the Cascade range meets the sea. It adds only about 15 minutes to the trip, but it’s a superb quarter hour. Starting from the Samish Flats, where I saw a fluttering flurry of snow geese, my red Civic snaked along boulder-strewn cliffs, passed chattering waterfalls and skirted moody panoramas of islands and saltwater.

An overwater boardwalk is part of the waterfront trail crossing Bellingham’s Boulevard Park.

Reaching town, I navigated the old-town Fairhaven district and pulled off at Boulevard Park. A narrow strip of land between the bay and the main north-south railroad tracks, the park offers shoreside benches, picnic tables, a kids’ playground and a waterfront path and overwater boardwalk that stretches miles into downtown. It’s my chosen stop when I pack a lunch. On breezy days, I’ve watched kiteboarders fly high out in the bay. The park even has a good, locally run coffee shop. Very civilized.

After lunch, my day was devoted to grocery shopping. But if you’re there with more time, Bellingham has a bunch of fine museums, dedicated to history, art, and even electricity (the eyepopping Spark Museum); a distinctively spired performing arts center (the 96-year-old Mount Baker Theatre); a variety of pleasant walking trails (such as a waterfront amble on Lake Whatcom), and the aforementioned breweries.

The excitement, though tastefully subdued, is earned.

Source: Google Maps