Life is but a dream when your city is surrounded by water.

I was always supposed to live near the water. A psychic told me so when I was 19. A native Las Vegan, I dreamed of ending up in Los Angeles, but college and life took me far further north, to Seattle.

Kurt Cobain was still alive when I arrived in Seattle in 1993. It was the post-Grunge era. Microsoft was booming. The city was surging in nationwide popularity for its culture and quality of life. My first few months here were eye-opening excursions into a left-wing, indie minded world, eons away from the cookie-cutter strip malls and big box stores of Las Vegas, where we only had two underground record stores and one concert venue for what was then still known as alternative music, and no independent cinemas.

I was attracted to the culture, but I fell in love with the landscape. I found the combination of city skyscrapers, mountains, rolling hills dotted with houses that blinked in the night, unending green—and water, water everywhere—to be breathtaking. It never fails to stun, even now, 25 years later. Walking downtown from Capitol Hill, catching a glimpse of the water and the skyline, I still say to myself, “You can’t beat it.”

Seattle’s unusual topography was created 17,000 years ago by the 3,000-foot-thick Cordilleran Ice Sheet. More recently, it was rearranged by settlers who created a path between the different bodies of water. Although Lake Union, Lake Washington, Elliott Bay, and Salmon Bay had their own ports, traversing the hilly terrain between them proved challenging for horse powered trade. In 1854, three years after Seattle’s formation, Thomas Mercer argued for the lakes to be joined with the Sound. Pioneer Square, a jumbled collection of piers, had become unsustainable. After more than half a century of planning and discussion, the Lake Washington Ship Canal opened in 1917, connecting these freshwaters with the saltwater of the Sound. 

To ride the ferry during the summer is to take a twenty minute journey through Paradise for a few dollars.

The canal was originally built for practical reasons—to ease commerce, to get ships to ports more easily—but the lakeside areas proved enticing to residents and shopkeepers, and the waterways ceased to be merely about purpose. As parks began to dot shores around the city, beauty became a defining characteristic of Seattle’s urban space.

Ballard had been its own town, a slice of Scandinavia settled by Swedes and Norwegians, before eventually voting in favor of annexation with Seattle. John Nordstrom, a Swede, started a shoe store there, which eventually became the department store. Prior to being gentrified within an inch of its life by soccer moms and stay-at-home dads with rarefied tastes in artisanal soaps, Ballard was a blue-collar holdover with actual fisherman hanging out in its bars. At Ballard Locks, where the waters join, you can see the salmon run as they have for millennia, long before this place had a name. 

Loving Seattle meant loving the water and everything on it. I loved the little bridge over the ship canal between Queen Anne and Fremont that made me feel like I was in France (or how I imagined it was in France, since I hadn’t yet visited). I loved how, on some balmy summer nights, you’d get a whiff of salt gusting from the water. I loved that when you drove down the viaduct that took you across downtown, you would speed past the Puget Sound on the left and the towering buildings of downtown on the right. Or how, when you came from the other direction, you popped out of the tunnel and the Sound and the mountain came into view, the port and its cranes on the far edge, Mount Rainier looming large in the background, and the ferries drifting across the water to nearby islands, another world altogether. 

When I first moved to Seattle, I never took those ferries. I was too involved in school, too involved in going out all night and sleeping all day. Of course, many other people were riding them. 24 million passengers a year travel by foot or in a car across the water here, riding 22 vessels that crisscross Puget Sound.

After years in New York and Los Angeles, I saw the ferry as an opportunity for escape. Summers in Seattle are blissful—three months of humidity-free, 72-and-sunny perfection, for which we suffer nine months of darkness and rain. To ride the ferry during the summer is to take a 20-minute journey through Paradise for a few dollars. Watching the sunset sky turn various hues of pink, purple, and orange as Vashon recedes from view is possible for just over $15 dollars round trip for a passenger with a car. A quick $4.50 trip on the Water Taxi from downtown to West Seattle to sip a drink at Marination Ma Kai in Seacrest Park feels like a free vacation day. 

Ferrying can feel like a deviation from the norm. “It’s pretty much the most whimsical way you can possibly get to work,” says my friend Austin, who just moved from Seattle to Bremerton. “If your eyes are open and you aren’t sleeping, it’s absolutely beautiful. And they serve beer.”

Sometimes, he’ll drive his car to the lot, but if he’s late, he’ll catch an Uber to the ferry and just walk on. 

He commutes ten days a month to Seattle, two hours in each direction. The romance of the ride gets lost in his daily grind— queuing up for the ferry and hoping he doesn’t miss the boat (literally). Yet an hour’s journey spent sleeping, reading, talking to fellow riders, or simply gazing out at the window at the vast expanse of water can remind you of the region’s distinctiveness. 

Some people have a psychological barrier to traveling over water, as if crossing a bay is the same as crossing an ocean. In New York, though it’s only a few miles across the bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn, it feels like you’re heading to another planet. Leaving for the city, you’re sucked in, possibly never to return. In Seattle, that feeling is multiplied by the fact that we rely on ferries for most water-bound trips. To get to Bainbridge, Bremerton, or any of the neighboring port towns, you need to take at least one ferry ride. Once you’re on the other side, the city seems very far away. It’s a phenomenon geographer David Harvey dubbed “space-time compression,” a necessary facet of modern life and urbanization: as cities spread across the landscape, our modes of transportation must overcome greater distances with more speed and ease.

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“It’s pretty much the most whimsical way you can possibly get to work … it’s absolutely beautiful.
And they serve beer.”

One ferry ride and you find yourself in the rural simplicity of Vashon Island, with its little strip of shops, handful of restaurants, and tiny wineries selling pretty terrible wine; next, you’re in Port Townsend, a Victorian city by the sea, with gorgeous architecture and worn buildings, a strip of high end gift shops, and not much else to do besides stare at the water as the sun sets. These aren’t just other places. They’re other states of mind.

Traveling by ferry to Port Townsend, I’m struck by the oddness—as well as the mundaneness of the journey. The drab cream and green interior of the ferry recalls a color scheme leftover from the 80s. The smell of burnt coffee wafts from the snack bar. More frequent commuters are revealed by their bored expressions. The view outside my window includes seagulls, driftwood, sky and water that blend into various shades of blue and white, and fog that rolls in then out. The December sun on this day is, for once, bright and present. Before long, we’re headed back. The water and sky have turned inky black. The only thing I can see is another ship, lit up like a birthday cake, passing proverbially in the night. The minutes pass quickly. I go to my car and head back to reality in my city by the sea.

Photos: Corey Arnold

Tricia Romano has been editor-in-chief of The Stranger, a staff writer at The Seattle Times, and columnist for The Village Voice. She received the Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of New York for her March 2006 cover story about sober DJs and promoters.