The purpose of our flight to Seattle was to visit very dear friends nearby. We rented an AWD Toyota Venza, similar to but much less stylish than our Jeep Cherokee. It was a little more spacious inside, but was much less impressive with its technology.
Skykomish is a tiny town in the Cascade Mountains east of Seattle, located on the old US Route 2. Its name is an interpretation of the Indian tribe which inhabited the area. We have numerous friends in this place, and it was a real pleasure to pay them a visit. The weather was uncharacteristically warm and sunny - we are used to grey skies and snow cover at this time of year, but neither were evident. How different to the east coast!
A highlight of any visit to Skykomish is the trains. The BNSF (Burlington National Santa Fe) is the second largest freight rail in North America and its northern trans-continental line runs through this town on the route from Seattle to Chicago. The company is owned by the investment company Berkshire Hathaway. We see nothing like these trains in Australia which are kilometers long juggernauts of double high shipping containers. A favourite activity is to walk BJ, the gorgeous Alaskan Malamute, up to the line and watch the frequent trains snake by on sweeping curves and over old trestle bridges. The eastbound BNSF trains have to climb through the Cascade Mountains and we've seen as many as 5 huge engines pushing and pulling them.
One of our walks with our Sky friends was along several miles of an old alignment of this railway. It teaches us what a massive feat of engineering is required to push a railway through the mountains. At least three different alignments have been used over the years, the original in 1893 involved multiple switchbacks, replaced in 1900 by a huge tunnel under Stevens Pass (named after the first principal engineer), and then a much longer tunnel in 1929. The realignments were enabled by improved technology but forced by constant snow avalanches, including one in 1910 which killed ~100 people, the deadliest in US history.
We didn't see much of that in our walk along the Iron Goat Trail but what you do see is lots of the old snow sheds and retaining walls that the early engineers built to try to control the inexorable avalanches. The trail is maintained by volunteers and the Forest Service, and they've done a great job! The trail is named after the Rocky Mountain goat which featured on an old railway logo. One thing to say about following old train grades is that they have only gentle slopes, but getting up to the alignment can be steep. Crystal clear (tannin free) waterfalls and creeks cross the trail at many places, the forest is very pretty and birds abound, but the highlight of this trail is certainly the manifest railway history. Mileposts mark the distance from the railway's origin in St. Paul Minnesota. One can only wonder at the difficulties and the privations endured by the labourers of diverse nationalities who worked this stretch.
Tunnels and snow sheds occupied 75% of the length of this abandoned rail alignment across the Cascades.
From 2005 to 2013, Skykomish town was subjected to a massive toxic-cleanup program by the BNSF Railway. The town had been heavily contaminated by past maintenance and refuelling activities, but it now shows the benefit of this comprehensive renewal program. Sky looks better, brighter and neater than we have ever seen it! The residents are proud of their town.
Another delightful walk was around the back of Mount Baring to Barlclay Lake. Glistening in the sun, this lake looked so inviting that it was tempting to have a swim, but given the water temperature is close to that of melting snow, prudence won out. Quite a lot of walkers were seen on this pleasant trail, even though it was midweek and winter. We suppose they were taking advantage of the spectacular weather!
And then we went to Gig Harbor to see another friend. Is this the most delightful town imaginable? It is nestled around a bay of Puget Sound, and to get to it you have to cross the legendary Tacoma Narrows Bridge, sparking memories of its collapse in 1940 and lessons of the effect of resonant vibrations in a mild gale due to bad design in old Physics text books. In Gig, bare legs were showing, flowers were blomming, kayakers were stretching their winter muscles on the smooth waters, a seal was basking on a wharf, and the place had a decidedly spring feeling.
All airports are constrained by space and budget, but Seattle's SeaTac is a good example of what can be done in a retrofit. The terminals were bright and friendly and the eating options were varied (just as well, US airlines have lousy catering, if any). Terminals are connected by free, driverless underground railway (hello Sydney!). A modern and well organised rental car facility sits at one corner of the airport site and operates with elegant efficiency (hello Melbourne!). Security checks are a nightmare, but there's hardly an airport anywhere which does a good job at this!