It was a friendly town, full of sturdy Norwegians, micro-brew aficionados, and liberal latté drinkers. A small city; you might even call it provincial.
Where was it? Not in France. Nor in Norway, but nice try. Believe it or not, it’s in the United States. You know it as Seattle, a port town somewhere north of San Francisco, in a part of the country called The Pacific Northwest. Yes, people live way up there, people who aren’t Canadian, people who apparently like it when it rains. Often.
Despite the wet weather, Seattle actually has a lot to offer. Catch a ballgame at Safeco Field, with its retro look and seldom-opened retractable roof. Stroll through Pioneer Square in search of the original Skid Row (actually, it’s Skid Road, used by the timber industry long ago). Peruse the shops at Pike Place Market, ride the ferry across Puget Sound, or visit the Seattle Aquarium.
Every summer, during the short period of relatively dry weather known to locals as “August,” the city explodes in a series of street fairs. The wildly successful Fremont Fair in particular has nearly outgrown its neighborhood. These fairs culminate in a citywide festival called Bumbershoot, held over Labor Day weekend at Seattle Center, the site of the 1962 World’s Fair. The 74-acre fairgrounds play host to music, dance, food, crafts, art, and crowds. The event draws more visitors than the Playboy Mansion would for the final table showdown of the World Series of Strip Poker.
We first experienced Bumbershoot back when the Seattle skyline consisted of just the Space Needle and “the box it came in” (the Smith Tower). Now, the festival is so well-known, it attracts big-name bands like REM and Elvis Costello. Even Spinal Tap played there. Local and international performers share twenty stages over the four-day weekend, come rain or shine.
When the weather cooperates (which it does more often than not, surprisingly), the festival can be a terrific weekend getaway, full of flavors, sights, and distractions that are guaranteed to delight and engage you. If you’ve never been to Seattle, this might be the time to go.
Assuming you can stand the crowds, that is.
Bumbershoot is Times Square just before the ball drops, twice over. It’s Gay Pride Day in San Francisco times ten. It’s a day game at Chicago’s Wrigley Field times fifty. Bumbershoot is standing-room-only crowded. It’s get-your-tickets-months-in-advance crowded. It’s Rome-after-the-Goths-arrived crowded. It’s the ultimate nightmare for agoraphobics.
We tried to keep an open mind, but every direction we turned, we found a stage or a food vendor or an art booth or a busker or a mime or a lost, screaming child. While we generally don’t mind rubbing elbows with our peers, at Bumbershoot, we were forced to rub elbows, knees, and more embarrassing body parts with anyone and everyone—from pierced, tattooed teenagers with spiked orange hair to staggering six-foot-four good ol’ boys sloshing beer to children with runny noses looking for a shirt to wipe them on.
We found ourselves drifting with the tide of humanity simply because it was impossible to fight the current. Then we needed a map (and a canoe) to get to where we thought we wanted to go in the first place. Eventually, we threw the map away and traded the canoe for a brewski in a beer tent, content to let the circus come to us. It did, with all the colors and flavors we could imagine. And then some.
By the time we decided to go, we realized we had overstayed our welcome. We’d just finished listening to the faint chords of a distant band that we really wanted to see, and the carnival food that tasted so good going down now churned in our stomachs. The sun had scorched all exposed skin, and our sense of personal boundaries were forever damaged.
We came away from the festival with a new sense of wonder at the human race, not to mention tangible evidence of the overpopulation problem. We left with bruises and stains from the joyful, seething pack of humanity and its heaping portions of desert foods. We exited with the knowledge that Seattle has many charms, although we questioned whether we chose the right one to explore.
Lessons Learned: Crowds normally don’t bother us, but Bumbershoot crowds scare us silly. If you won’t take our advice and stay away, at least book early and wear your best Seattle Grunge when you go. By the way, to catch one of the well-advertised main acts, you’ll either have to claim your seats hours early or run with the drunken stampede at show time. If you drink as much as everyone else, of course, it won’t matter.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 3
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 3
Inactivity Guide: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 5
Fun Fraction: 4/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SeaTac)
Native Population: 585,000
Normal Attractions: Seattle Art Museum, Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle Aquarium, outdoor festivals, poetry slams, music, and coffee.
Final Point of Interest: Another Seattle festival, Hempfest, regularly draws over 100,000 people.