Running to catch the sunrise in Seattle

Contributing WriterMarch 15, 2014 

SEATTLE — I'm on the streets before dawn, racing the sun in a city famous for its gloom.

My destination: Louisa Boren Park. It's two mostly uphill miles from my hotel and the name that came up first in my search for "best places to watch the sunrise in Seattle." I'm a little too goal-oriented sometimes, perhaps, but it keeps me from wasting jet-lagged hours in my hotel room.

I head east toward the blueing sky over Capitol Hill, one of the seven hills that define the city's landscape.

I'm visiting from Louisville for a conference, and to see friends, who, to a person, described the sunny forecast for the week, with phrases like, "This isn't normal," at least not for winter, when the sun sometimes hides for weeks behind drizzly clouds.

Most of Seattle's rain falls in the winter, which can see more than three times the precipitation seen in the summer months. The same weather forces that produce that rain also keep the city's temperatures mild year-round. The average high in August is 75 degrees; the average low in January is 36.

It feels about 40 degrees as I jog up the 900 block of East Pike Street and pass two men in ragged clothes standing next to a shopping cart stuffed with blankets. (Homelessness is a big challenge for the city.) I watch as one of them turns on a portable stereo that blasts a rock/hip-hop fusion mix.

The other man has long, dirty blond hair and is wearing sunglasses and an oversize, tie-dyed open shirt. He faces the empty street and starts dancing.

He combines hip-hop moves with some defiant, improvisational elements, and I don't know whether to clap, donate, interview him or run.

I run.

I won't speculate about their motivations, but Seattle does have a certain laissez-faire carpe diem spirit that has long encouraged artists and innovators. It was also perhaps a factor in helping pass the 2012 referendum that made recreational marijuana use legal in Washington state.

When I reach 15th Avenue, the sky is getting lighter and I try to hurry, but the sidewalk slants up until I reach the top of Capitol Hill, where I'm breathing hard, though my caffeine-addicted heart is also set aflutter by all the options the area affords — Victrola Coffee, Caffe Ladro, a little breakfast place called The Wandering Goose.

I want to sample them all — why am I hurrying again? Because I've found I like moving with a purpose, a destination, even a time limit, God help me. According to the Internet and my phone, I have about seven minutes if I want to watch the sun rise in the Rain City.

To shield myself from temptations of ill-timed espresso love, I dash over to 14th Avenue, where I continue heading north and can't help notice the houses of various sizes and types, mostly gorgeous, some with a view of downtown and Puget Sound. Man, I could live here, I think.

Of course, many visitors have that thought. Seattle's city government estimates the population has grown by more than 100,000 people since 1990. Capitol Hill, whose clubs once hosted Kurt Cobain and other grunge musicians, is considered one of the most livable (and, as it happens, gay-friendly) neighborhoods in the city. According to the real estate website Trulia.com, the median sale price for homes in Capitol Hill's 98112 ZIP code is over $690,000.

I see a thicket of trees up ahead with grass behind it. It's the park. I've made it!

No, I haven't. This is Volunteer Park. Darn these Seattleites and their love of greenspace. Throwing beauty in my way. Don't they know I'm trying to sightsee?

Now, I have no choice but to admire the façade of the Seattle Asian Art Museum, and mentally review the schedule of the conference sessions I'm ostensibly here to attend to see whether I'll be able to work in a return visit during business hours. I won't, I realize, so I have to content myself with admiring sculptor Isamu Noguchi's Black Sun, a donut-shaped outdoor sculpture through which I can see the Space Needle and the Olympic Mountains to the west.

Where is Louisa Boren Park again? I fumble around on the phone map only to conclude that it's over-there-ish, past the museum and a playground and across Lakeview Cemetery. The graveyard is the resting place of father-and-son actor-martial artists Bruce and Brandon Lee, as well as many of Seattle's prominent early families. The names on many of the headstones mirror those on some of the city's streets: Terry, Bell, Denny, Boren.

Louisa Boren belonged to one of the early pioneering families who came here in the 1850s. (Seattle was a boom town for timber long before tech.)

It's just after sunrise when I finally reach the park named in her honor. The park is mostly wooded hillside that slopes down toward neighborhoods, some of which I can tell aren't as nice as this one. Beyond them lies Lake Washington and in the blue and orange distance, the Cascades.

Their jagged silhouettes blend with the scattered clouds behind them and in the sun, even when I squint, I can't quite tell mist from mountain. Still there's something grand and awesome about the view and standing here, looking up and out and down makes me feel big and small at the same time. Somewhere in the city below are monuments to the Native American tribes who have called this area home for at least 4,000 years. Did they gripe about the winter gloom? Probably. I imagine some of them standing on this very spot. I watch the sun come up.

Maybe they thought, as I am, that it's time to eat a good breakfast, and that a sunny morning in Seattle is something to celebrate.

Graham Shelby graduated from Bryan Station High School and the University of Kentucky. He lives in Louisville and can be reached through his website, Grahamshelby.com.

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