Perhaps it’s simply a reflection of the world and nation at large, but Seattle’s felt a bit like a pressure cooker lately. This is partly just the natural growth of a city, but even as recently as two years ago (when it was still a growing, booming place) Seattle didn’t feel like it does now. So lately I’ve been craving both the outdoors and simple not Seattle ness. Carless, that can be difficult. Fortunately, Washington State has the largest ferry system in the United States and takes foot passengers. One of the docks is a ten minute walk from my place.
From an infrastructural perspective, the ferries are, hands down, awesome. Cities, small towns, and mountain ranges that otherwise take hours in traffic to get to are accessible by boat. Ferries have many of the same transit benefits as light rail; they don’t get stuck in traffic, they run consistently, and one can read, play on their phone, or even sleep while riding. It’s probably hard to understate what a boon the ferry system is to the local economies, as well as the quality of life for many people.
From an aesthetic and emotional perspective, however, riding the ferry is weird. Many of the ferries have been in commission for decades, lending an air of antiquity. The moment you step on it’s like you’ve been transported back to the 1980s. There are Pac Man Games and old-school vending machines full of chips and candy bars.
All the ferries have Galleys, some large and spacious and some fairly small, depending when the ferry was built. The food and drinks are overpriced, but like movie theaters or music venues, they have you as a captive audience. If you want to smoke, you have to go out onto the deck, where the wind will put out your cigarette and possibly steal your hat.
You will see behaviors on the ferry that you wouldn’t on the bus or train; there’s more room for kids to sprawl out and people routinely sleep in the booths. Nearly every time I go to Bremerton there is someone playing accordion in old-timey suspenders with a hat out for money. Sometimes they’re joined by a violinist. Young couples make out. Folks sit with their laptops and do work on their way home from work. People are jolly, tired, angry, or just zoned out– there are many reasons they’re here, and even on off hours, the boats are full.
I can’t remember the first time I rode the ferry; I’ve been riding them all my life. My Mother grew up in Bremerton, and had family there that we would visit regularly. My Aunt (Great Aunt, really, but who’s counting) Olive lived in a perfectly maintained old house on a hill, cementing in my mind the image of Bremerton as a bucolic land of candies and children’s storybooks. This image is not shared by a majority of Washingtonians. The ferry rides were always fun for myself and my sisters as kids; our folks would let us eat junk food and drink pop that were usually forbidden. Going out on the deck was both thrilling and scary; the wind stung but the water was awesome. My Dad lost at least two hats on different ferry rides, his fashionable headwear a gift to the sea lions of Puget Sound.
After being away for a bit, my first ferry ride back in Washington State was to attend a friend’s wedding in Port Townsend. At the time, I found it depressing; it wasn’t anything like the fun, near-magical lark I’d experienced as a child. Everything seemed drab and melancholy. I was struck by how tired everyone seemed, the strip-mall-office lighting, and how expensive a can of Rainier was. Of course I wrote a poem about the experience, the last word of which was “defeated.” Not my best work.
I wasn’t wrong then, but I also wasn’t wrong as a child. The ferries are a part of people’s daily lives, which means that they take on all the exhaustion, disappointment, and pain of the people riding them. Unless you’re going to one of Washington’s many mini-resort islands, you’re riding with at least a few folks who’ve had a hard day, and probably will tomorrow as well. Washington is one of the few states where people who don’t work on boats have to take a boat to work and while it beats driving, it’s still a commute.
It makes sense that a recently returned native who romanticized “ferry rides” as a kid would be disillusioned. But in the subsequent years I’ve come to realize that while Puget Sound is objectively beautiful, it also reflects your own emotions and experiences back to you. Some trips, the water is an example of serenity, or power, others it’s turbulent or melancholy. There’s a Rorschach test element to standing on the deck, watching the waves, or taking a slouch in one of the booths. Some days the no-frills décor reflects disappointment, other days, groundedness. I find taking a ride on the water a good way to center myself and take stock of my own emotions.
Plus it’s just really pretty, cheap, and unlike nearly anywhere else in the country. Of course they’re going to charge you too much for a hot dog.
Also published on Medium.