I used to watch the sunrise every Monday, partly because I liked to watch the Puget Sound breathing and see the sun glint on the backs of seals, and partly because I was in high school then, and high schoolers were supposed to hate mornings. It took three minutes behind a frosted windshield to get to the old pier, and, shivering above the starfish that clung to the splintered pillars below, it took long underwear and an extra jacket to keep me there. I would wear my long underwear for the rest of the day, feeling like a fur trapping Superman throughout econ, band, English, and calculus.
The old pier doesn’t exist anymore. A hundred years of salt, sun, and use made it unsafe, and creosote made it a hazard, thus saith the Department of Natural Resources, so barnacled pilings and slimy boards were torn down to make room for a $1.4 million replacement of steel and plastic.
My family made the mile-long walk to the new pier the day after Thanksgiving, past the flashing yellow light, the lumpy ballfield, and the mostly stagnant estuary, following the deep tracks I have left with tires, running shoes, and scuffed sneakers. I rarely bring nice shoes home; a trip back usually means I’ll carry firewood into the house, splash through mud, and help with some project that involves concrete, sawdust, or grease. My family paused to read the sign about the county’s developing estuary restoration, which would be a prolonged, major undertaking for those who lived nearby, and an undertaking that so far could have been mistaken for a water line repair. Even at its full extent, it would still, most likely, be mistaken for any of the other small developments that had invaded town lately: a cluster of new homes, a swanky gym, the town’s first (and universally reviled) billboard. My family agreed the restoration would be good for the environment, but it wouldn’t be good for us. The renderings of the finished landscape didn’t include the muddy pullout where you could park a truck and push your kayaks into the water.
Wide, lavish shoulders painted a fashionable coral led us the rest of the way to the pier. I can’t remember which was wider when I lived at home—the shoulder or the white stripe next to it—but I remember not having enough room for my arms and my body to walk abreast. The road ran parallel to the water, and its new, pink edges shoved themselves between the mailboxes on one side and the concrete bulkhead on the other, cordoning off the waterfront like an asphalt imitation of red carpet, or like one of the roomier depictions of Moses’ path through the Red Sea. The county had hefted eminent domain while I was at college, and in another prolonged, major undertaking, the houses along the road had ceded their front yards to bicyclists and pedestrians.
We shared the pier that day with two fishermen, neither of whom fit the term. The woman told us about her home in Spokane while her brother-in-law climbed on the railing and recited lines from a cartoon. The rest of the day dozed around us. I’ve never heard a siren, or a gunshot, or a shouting match from the pier, and as for traffic, the road hosts single cars most of the time, and those minutes apart. Only when the Seattle ferry lets out do you see a procession.
We walked back along the road, past houses I knew better, in many ways, than the duplex I’ve rented for the past eight months. The home closest to the pier once belonged to the high school marketing teacher; before that, to a lecture-happy voice I only ever heard through the window, a voice who acted as the sole enforcer of the pier’s ten o’clock closure. The next house routinely obscured its tiny yard with an inflatable spider, turkey, or snowman, depending on the season. Beyond that, a stone cottage stacked itself three stories high and draped an American flag above the shoulder, and across from the estuary and below the level of the road, a house that strongly resembled a barn still occupied the basin that one late-2000s flood had revealed to be the low point of this area. The flood had inspired my friends and I to take a local sightseeing trip to ogle the submerged ballfield and the house that had been infamously swamped in four vertical feet of dirty runoff. The high-water mark had lingered on the siding for weeks afterward.
“Do you see many American flags in Seattle?” I asked my family.
“I don’t see any,” my mother said.
A bicyclist passed us on the opposite shoulder, his body compressed into racing spandex that looked as misplaced out here as workboots would in a conference room. Bicyclists often pedaled these roads on weekends, the sight always a little jarring. Their single- or double-file lines stretched a quarter mile, safaris through a land of wide shoulders, little traffic, and a single billboard. This bicyclist pedaled alone, headed up the hill toward the ferry that would take him back to Seattle.