A few weeks ago, I traveled to Seattle for the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. Over the course of 6 days, I visited sites related to Nirvana and the grunge movement and asked people about their knowledge and relationship to grunge and the 90s. I ate and drank as much as I could afford and even managed to get down to Portland for a day. This post is the second of a 6 part series recounting my 90s adventures in the Pacific Northwest.
I left the apartment Thursday intent on visiting Aberdeen, Kurt Cobain’s hometown, on the way to see my buddy Todd in Portland, and returning to Seattle late that night. I walked on Boylston St. with my camera and shoulder bag in search of coffee and breakfast. Glo’s had worked out okay the day before, so I was headed to Oddfellows, another of Erin’s brunch recommendations.
The sun hid behind buildings on the east, but it was beginning to burn away the cool morning air. I walked through residential streets past Linda’s where I had been the night before. In coffee shops, patrons sat clutching electronic devices, some with pets at their feet.
I came to Broadway, the main drag on top of Capitol Hill, and students were buzzing around Seattle Central College. All kinds of people moved up and down the streets. Across Broadway, I came to the corner of Pine St. and 10th, and found that some clever person had defaced the street signs there.
Defaced Pine St. signs
Oddfellows was right there at the corner. I entered and surveyed my surroundings. Long bench-style tables filled the middle of the open room. A line of stools sat along the bar, and there were two top tables at the front window.
Two workers behind the counter greeted me and helped me with my order. I got the biscuit with a side of bacon and added a cup of Stumptown coffee, a Portland roast that looked ahead to the end of my day.
The place had just opened, and with no one else in line, I launched into the story of my trip and asked for their 90s-related recommendations. They suggested I email KEXP or Subpop Records to ask for interviews, something I did but never panned out (If anyone from KEXP or Subpop happens to see this, I would love to chat with you about 90s music). They also told me about Sculpture Park, where Soundgarden got their name, and a few record stores.
I sat at a two top near the window and typed it all into my phone, then looked up the route to Aberdeen. Soon my food arrived: an enormous portion of scrambled eggs, a biscuit that matched in size with homemade jam, greens with balsamic vinaigrette and my beloved bacon. I ate half the biscuit with the eggs and bacon, taking in greens between bites. The other half I ate with the jam. It was all delightful, especially the biscuit. Some genius found a way to make the outside crispy but keep the inside fluffy and light. I am not kidding when I say it is the best I’ve ever had.
I devoured breakfast and walked with my coffee over Broadway to an Enterprise down Pine St. I went through a half-full parking garage to the office where receptionists stood typing and printing pieces of paper. I handed my license to one of them, and we made small talk while she finalized my rental. I told her about the Kurt Cobain statue in Aberdeen and the project that took me there.
At lull in our conversation, a voice from a few feet away asked for my attention. I looked over and saw a tall, African American man who looked to be in his mid-forties. He told me he was a bouncer at a venue in Philadelphia throughout the grunge movement and had seen the bands I had been talking about in their prime. I asked him what it was like.
“That era was about music more than anything,” he said. “It was people who loved making music, not competing with each other. What set Seattle apart was the amount of venues it had,” he said. “To see Soundgarden live, man, there was nothing like it. Mudhoney was underrated too.”
He went on and on, smiling and starring with wide eyes, as if recalling the greatest time in his life. At one point, I noticed his sentences stopped logically relating with what had preceded. He was just saying whatever came into his head, and I was drinking it in. Eventually he snapped out of it, said goodbye, and walked out to his car.
The receptionist and I exchanged a few more words before I signed my paperwork and went out to the parking lot to inspect my rental. Everything looked good. I threw my bag in the backseat.
Behind me was the exit where the bouncer’s car sat running. We caught eyes, and he continued where he left off: “Man, there were so many good bands back then: Mother Love Bone, Alice in Chains. Man, now you got me reminiscing!” Still smiling, he got in and sped away.
I drove out from the fluorescent-lit garage into the sunlight, and flew south on I-5. Soon Seattle was in the rear view, and I was starring at Mr. Rainier. Then the rain started. It was my first experience with the Pacific Northwestern rain I had heard so much about.
My route from Seattle to Aberdeen
I passed Olympia and jumped onto Route 8 to climb toward the coast. Trees thickened on both sides of the highway. I was in the wilderness now. My little car’s cylinders pumped furiously along the steep hills. All the drivers seemed to be going too slow, and I passed them at Chicago speed, feeling invincible. An unmarked police car soon proved otherwise, and I lost 20 minutes of my day and $144.
The rain continued as I neared Grays Harbor, an inlet of the Pacific on the far west end of Washington. Finally I arrived. A sign installed in 2005 by the Kurt Cobain Memorial Committee read: “Welcome to Aberdeen. Come as you are.” I weaved my way up the residential streets and parked across from the Aberdeen Museum of History. I tucked my camera under my jacket and went through the rain into the long white building.
I entered into a open room. Exhibits lined the walls, but the middle was just the exposed wooden floor. An elderly woman pointed out the Kurt Cobain exhibit across from the entrance. It was a humble set up besides the newly-unveiled statue of Kurt crying which sat in the center: a couch he had slept on, some of his T-shirts, and a case with CDs and records in it. In five minutes, I had looked over the entire exhibit and taken all the pictures I needed. It hardly compared to what I had seen at the EMP museum the day before but was a significant step for a town still struggling to embrace its identity as the home of a grunge icon.
The Kurt Cobain exhibit at the Aberdeen Museum of History
Sign reads: “During the time that Kurt lived with the Shillinger family in Aberdeen, he slept on this couch.”
The recently unveiled statue of Kurt Cobain crying at the Aberdeen Museum of History
A man who worked there came out of a back room. He wore brown boots with loose-fitting jeans, and his long-sleeve shirt was tucked in. His belly stuck out slightly over his belt. He had grey hair and callused hands. I imagined he was the patriarch of Aberdeen. He greeted me as I approached him.
“Isn’t Aberdeen a logging town?” I asked.
“It used to be more than it is now,” he replied. “The sawmills are all automatic now. You used to have a couple hundred people working in one, and now you only need a handful. A lot of them are shut down now.”
He pulled out a map of the town with historical sites labeled and pointed to it: “When you come into town Seattle-way, you see a mill on the left, and there’s another one on the other side of town here.”
He went on for a good ten minutes about the mills and the town, pulling out articles and maps as he talked. He loved Aberdeen, and it was fascinating. I wanted to stay there all day, but I began to think about Todd waiting for me in Portland and moved the conversation along.
“What do people here think about Kurt?” I asked.
“Oh, there’s mixed opinions. Niravaaana (he pronounced with a flat “A”) was a long time ago now. Some people my age grew up with all those guys playing in our garages and drowning us out. Kurt’s grandfather passed away about a year ago. You tryin’ to track down some of his relatives?”
He handed me an article outlining all the places Kurt lived after he moved out of his mother’s house.
“I suppose you wanna see the bridge?” He asked.
I nodded, and he pointed me to quickest route to get there.
I shook his hand and thanked him.
“Come back any time and have a look at some of our other exhibits.” he said.
I hopped back into my rental and followed his directions until E Second Street dead ended near the muddy banks of the Wishkah River. I parked on the side of the road and walked into a small grassy area full of Kurt Cobain related sculptures. A sign welcomed visitors to “Riverfront Park” and explained its significance in Kurt’s life:
“Kurt Cobain…grew up just two blocks from this spot. Having spent much of his youth beneath this bridge, Kurt drew inspiration for his music from these surroundings. His song “Something in the Way” recalls his experience under the bridge-his bridge.”
(There is even an urban legend that he lived underneath it when he was homeless)
The Second Street Bridge over the Wishkah River, where Kurt Cobain hung out
I descended to the bottom of the bridge, trying not to slip on the mud as I went. Soon I had escaped the sprinkling rain and stood looking up into the grunge sanctuary. RIP’s and Nirvana lyrics covered the underside. Some graffiti was well done, some written with a sharpie. A sign over the river read: “In Memoriam: From the Banks of the Muddy Wishkah.” It was a photographer’s delight, and I took pictures furiously.
Graffiti on the underside of Second Street bridge over the Wishkah River
Graffiti on the underside of Second Street bridge over the Wishkah River
Underside of Second Street bridge over the Wishkah River; Sign reads: “In Memoriam – From The Muddy Banks of the Wishkah”
Rain pitter-pattered on top of the bridge, and cars hummed by occasionally. I was alone save the single otter I saw moving in the water. I plugged my headphones in and found “Something in The Way,” a song written about Kurt’s time in this very spot:
Underneath the bridge
the tarp has sprung a leak
and the animals I’ve trapped
have all become my pets
and I’m living off of grass
and the drippings from the ceiling
It’s okay to eat fish,
cause they don’t have any feelings.
The song captured the feeling of that dreary, spectral moment. I played it again and again. I walked around and read graffiti. I took more pictures. I just stood there. For a moment I felt outside of time and somehow nostalgic for an era I had never experienced.
I didn’t want to leave, but Portland was looming. I returned to the park to read the signs and took in one last look at the bridge, amazed this was the kind of place Kurt had come from.
Plaque of of Kurt Cobain quotes in Riverfront Park in Aberdeen, WA
An empty guitar stand with a sign reading “Kurt’s Air Guitar” in Riverfront Park in Aberdeen, WA
Just before I hit the main drag out of town I saw a small drive thru coffee stand in an open lot. My mediocre cappuccino softened the idea of three more hours in the car but made it a difficult reality for my bladder.
I drove through the intermittent rain. Occasional sunlight broke through the clouds, until they gathered again and blocked it out. Traffic came and went. Finally, I crossed over a bridge and into Portland. The Colombia River snaked through the urban center below, with as many trees as buildings along its banks. There were bridges running across the water in every direction.
My buddy Todd was waiting for me downtown. I had originally told him I would be in around 1, then 3. Now it was past 5, and the day was getting lost. I found my way down into the city and parked. I stepped out of my car and felt the sprinkles of rain again. In that moment, I understood that these famous rains were nothing like furious Midwestern storms I had pictured them to be. They were only annoying and made everything dark.
There was Todd walking up the street. I knew him from time we spent together at an American school in Jerusalem, more than two years ago now. He had always talked big about his city and now had the chance to introduce me to it.
After a brief bathroom stop, we walked down the street to McMenamins, a Portland phenomenon. Todd explained that the brothers McMenamins bought old buildings and refurbished them into gastro pubs and other awesome shit, all supplied with their own craft beer and liquor. This particular McMenamins was Zeus Café, a small gastro pub. We drank and devoured appetizers during happy hour. All my years in Chicago made me forget happy hour existed, but it was everywhere in the Pacific Northwest. People expected it and made decisions by it.
We left and walked with full bellies to some other Portland staples: Stumptown, Powell’s and Voodoo Donut. Powell’s was enormous, and the Bacon Maple Bar rewarded our hearty wait at Voodoo.
Voodoo Donut’s revolving case of deliciousness
Unsure of what to do next, I texted my buddy Mark who suggested we visit Multnomah Whiskey Library. Todd and I agreed but the entrance evaded us as we walked up and down Alder Street. Finally we found it, only a sign and unattended door that opened to a long hallway. We walked up several flights of steps to another door where groups were passing the time as they waited for a table. The host ushered us through the door into an open brick room. Scattered tables and lamps created spaces for conversation and imbibing. It was wonderful, but the most unbelievable part was the library hung over the bar. Hundreds of whiskeys and other liquors sat so high on the shelves that bartenders used rolling ladders to reach them.
Todd and I were seated, and our server handed us menus that looked like books. There was no way I could decide with that many options, so I asked the server for something local. He brought me McCarthy’s Single Malt from Clear Creek Distillery in Oregon, a delicious whiskey.
The bar and liquor inventory at Multnomah Whiskey Library
By now I had decided to stay in Portland for the night, and Todd ran me past Walgreens to buy a toothbrush on our way to another McMenamins. This one was at the Kennedy School, and it was unbelievable. The brothers bought an old elementary school and converted its classrooms into pubs, bars, and restaurants. There was a cigar lounge, movie theater, and one wing was even a hotel. We sat in one of the still-open restaurants sampling their beer and appetizers while I struggled to create a category for what I was experiencing.
We finished the evening at another dive and left for Todd’s house, passing over the southwestern hills that separated Portland from its suburbs. As I closed my eyes for the night, I thought of Gus and Erin and everything I had left to do in Seattle. After the morning in Portland, I would return north to stomp around the Emerald City.