The Pacific Northwest has long been a place for escape — whether it’s hiking through forests thick with fir trees, tasting the saltwater spray from the bow of a whale-watching ship, or simply sitting back and enjoying a steaming cup of good coffee. Lately though, well-off folk have been moving here en masse, escaping their urban metropolises to two main port cities, Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington.
Before the venture capitalists and other moneyed interests displace the funky people who built these places and forever alter the function and feel of these two inimitable cities, we wanted to visit Portland, see Seattle, explore the surrounding areas, and talk to the people that turned the Pacific Northwest into a charming corner of our country. Behind the wheel for the journey was Epic Drives host Justin Bell, who set off from Portland in an all-new 2017 Genesis G90 to follow the coast up toward Seattle, then north to the San Juan Islands.
In 1971 Oregon’s then-governor, Tom McCall, said, “”We want you to visit our State of Excitement often. Come again and again. But for heaven’s sake, don’t move here to live. Or if you do have to move in to live, don’t tell any of your neighbors where you are going.” Portland’s population grew by 111 people every day from July ’14 to ’15, and more than two-thirds of that growth came from outsiders moving in. About 2.4 million people now live in the Portland metro area, with the expectation that another 400,000 people will move there over the next 20 years. “I’ve always found people from up here a bit secretive about their part of the country,” says Bell. “As if they know something we don’t.”
Bell calls Portland “a beacon of sustainability and urban renewal” but points to the expensive, trendy, modern buildings “erupting” from city streets, which has led to an extremely mixed and eclectic populous. We see a strange, poor soul running up and down the street screaming, “Welcome, Aunt Gladys! Hello, junkies! Hello, homeless drug addicts!” On the sidewalks are beautiful men and women wearing well-fit suits. Behind them, shaggy-looking young people wear beat-up backpacks and walk slowly as they smoke pot. “Even the scary-looking punks, with all the tattoos and piercings, even they give you a smile,” says Bell. But as new-money buyers gobble away at the heart of the city, lifers are moving to more affordable edges of town.
More and more Portlandians are setting up along Division Street, which is east of downtown, just across the Willamette River. The wonderful Tidbit court, lined with all flavors of food carts, taps into Portland’s “sub-culture of street food,” as Bell calls it. Hipsters have opened up small-batch, sustainable shops all over, and the area is as attractive as any other post-industrial spot we’ve come across. This trendy alcove also happens to be home to Renovo Hardwood Bicycles, which, according to Bell, “makes top-notch racing bicycles out of wood.”
The owner of Renovo, Ken Wheeler, is as delightful as his incredibly intelligent dog, Elwood. Wheeler got his start in aeronautic engineering before deciding to found Renovo. “[These are] engineers who decided that wood, quite simply, was the best material to make their unique and highly desirable bicycles,” says Bell. Wood flexes and works as a natural vibration damper, which means a wooden bicycle frame can help a rider feel less fatigued—especially important for racing bikes. Wheeler calls what he and his team does “hands-on, old-world craftsmanship.” Each bike is assembled, joined, and finished by hand. Wheeler jokes, “A bunch of youngsters keep me young, and we’re teaching an old material new tricks.”
After visiting Renovo, Bell gets back in the Genesis G90 and starts north toward Seattle, saying, “We should expect more from the products we live with and drive. Why shouldn’t we demand the latest in technology coupled with a use of organic, natural materials beautifully finished?” Like the Genesis G90’s Nappa leather interior or real wood trim. “The G90 has definitely drawn attention driving around,” says Bell. “But no one’s stopped to ask much about what we’re doing. People seem to get on in their own world. There seems a transient nature… you watch the world go by while taking care of your own business.”
“Evidently, a lot of growth in Seattle”, says Bell as he looks up at the construction cranes perched high above the city’s buildings. “I hear people up here are more focused and ambitious,” says Bell. “I’m not sure I’ve seen a city that’s so obviously in motion.” Like Portland, Seattle is thriving; its population has grown by more than 70,000 people since 2010, and it’s now the 18th largest city in America.
Bell heads down to the water, climbs aboard a sailboat, and does his best to be a natural seaman but fails miserably. With some help with the crew, though, he gets the boat leaned over to one side, charging through the water at a good clip, which piques the racing driver’s interest. “I always thought sailing was a bit lame, but I must confess that this is one of the most naturally adrenaline-filled experiences of my life,” says Bell. Back on land, just along the water’s edge, is one of Seattle’s most remarkable spots: Pike Place Market.
Opened in 1907, Pike Place is one of the oldest continuously operated public farmers’ markets in the country. Seven years after the Great Seattle Fire burned the city to the ground, the Klondike Gold Rush started. Seattle became the last port before Alaska, and the city’s population swelled. Farmers worked hard to keep up with demand but saw little money in return, selling to middlemen who controlled the price of their goods, so one weekend eight farmers went to personally sell their goods at Produce Row, where Pike Place Market now stands. Some 70 farmers showed up the next week, construction of an arcade building began, and Pike Place came to life. It’s now home to adorable stores like La Buona Tavola, which sells high-end truffle goods, and Frank’s Quality Produce, which has been in Frank’s family for four generations.
Leaving downtown Seattle, Bell sets off for the 10,781-foot-high peak of Mount Baker, an active glaciated volcano sitting on the northern edge of Washington. En route Bell says the G90 is “so quiet that you wonder if the engine’s on until you accelerate.” He does just that as he and the G90 climb Mount Baker Highway. The higher in elevation you go, the thinner the air becomes, which can take a toll on the performance of turbocharged cars; the G90’s twin-turbo V-6 makes an impressive 365 horsepower and 376 lb-ft of torque when it’s at sea level. Elevation, though, has no effect on handling. “It’s great fun going through switchbacks,” says Bell. “The [G90’s] chassis responds very well.” Bell gets out of the G90 at Artist Point, an overlook at the very end of Mount Baker Highway, and soaks in the dreary-but-beautiful panorama.
San Juan Islands
Bell takes a ferry from the mainland to San Juan Islands, which were settled in 17th century and have become a “weekend haven for unworldly tech wealth” that has flooded into Seattle. “A special breed of people live out here,” says Bell. “You’d have to live life at a slower pace, wouldn’t you?” Not really. “I’ve got lots of history on this island and lots of family,” says architect Geoff Prentiss, who still lives on Sun Juan Island after growing up there.
He now designs homes for his new, well-heeled neighbors without forgetting the values he grew up with on San Juan. “People like to have their own privacy,” says Prentiss. “I like to see nature. I don’t like to see things that remind me of urban existence.” Prentiss tells Bell he’ll take him to a couple of San Juan houses he’s designed, so the two get into the G90. “It’s a very design conscious interior in [this] car,” says Prentiss. Bell asks Prentiss what he thinks of San Juan today. “I love the way it was, I miss the way it was, but I’m one of the people contributing to change it by building people new houses,” says Prentiss, “the right ones that fit into the landscape.”
“What this trip has done for me has raised my level of standards,” says Bell. “I’m realizing I should expect more from life.” Maybe that’s because Bell met someone like Ken Wheeler, who makes us appreciate and adjust out thinking about things often overlooked, or Geoff Prentiss, who holds onto his way of life because he wholly believes in it. Or maybe it’s because Bell didn’t expect enough from the Genesis G90 he drove from Portland to Seattle and beyond. “I’m way more impressed by the Genesis G90 than I thought I would be,” says Bell. “It’s right up there with some of its European competition. The G90 has a composed, confident style that completely matches my experiences of traveling up through the Pacific Northwest.”