A few miles outside Olympia, the capital of Washington, I passed the Sleater-Kinney Road exit on Interstate 5 and, in my excitement at seeing riot grrrls history, completely forgot the band's origins.
According to my revisionist version, civic leaders renamed the street in honor of Sleater-Kinney, the punk group that Carrie Brownstein (who now stars in the TV show Portlandia) and Corin Tucker formed in the 1990s while living in the city. Once in town (specifically, at a ceramics class with craft beer), a local reminded me about the actual order of events: The musicians named the band after the sign, not vice versa.
But the truth didn't shake my faith in Oly pride, which bubbles up like the artesian well water that has been slaking Olympian thirsts for centuries. "Keep Portland in Portland. Keep Seattle in Seattle," said Ned Hayes, founder of Oly Arts, a cultural publication. "We want to do our own thing."
Despite the city's location between two Pacific Northwest juggernauts — Seattle is 60 miles north, Portland 120 miles south — Olympia does not suffer from Middle Child Syndrome. The city has a distinct identity that is more convivial than angsty, although both can exist under one roof. At Encore Chocolates & Teas, co-owner Dean Jones informed me I was standing in the spot where drummer Dave Grohl first performed with the grunge rock band Nirvana. Then he pressed a square of artisanal chocolate into my palm and sent me on my way.
A few doors down, Rainy Day Records general manager Adam Hardaway proudly pointed out the children's play area among the vinyl records and DVD rentals. "We have toys so that little kids will think this place is cool," he said.
Over several days, I gained an appreciation for the community spirit in this city of 52,000 — at the farmers' market and oyster bars, at breweries and coffee roasters, on the capital campus, and along the boardwalk at Percival Landing. When I drove past Exit 108 on the way out of town, I was more convinced than ever that Olympia would have dedicated a piece of the city to Sleater-Kinney if it had thought of it first.
If you can't remember Washington's state number, count the (42) steps to the Capitol Building. The free 50-minute tour covers local and state history, architecture, government operations, and obscured geography.
"Olympia was named after the mountain you can't see because that building is blocking it," our guide, Mark, said of the Olympic Mountains to the northwest, which the Temple of Justice shielded from view.
Inside the Capitol, we learned that the structure contains one of the world's largest collections of Tiffany lights (originally 489 fixtures) and that guns are permitted in most public areas, although metal detectors are not.
"This is the people's house," Mark said. "We don't have security."
He showed us the rotunda, the state reception room, and the two chambers, which varied in decor, down to the floral carpet design: coast rhododendrons for the House and dogwoods for the Senate.
"All good tours end in the gift shop," he said with finality. Then, he left us to browse the shelves for wine, Big Foot, smoked salmon, and other state-endorsed products.
The Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, 10 miles outside town north on I-5, fills every inch of landscape — riparian forest, estuary, wetlands — with critters. The nature reserve is the permanent or temporary residence of birds (more than 250 species), fish (95), amphibians (7), insects (60), and mammals clawed and vision-impaired (Townsend's mole) and flippered and Betty Davis-eyed (Steller sea lion). The wildlife checklist runs 11 pages, but not all of the animals appear in the pamphlet. I had to write in my discovery, the Pacific tree frog, which materialized before my eyes like a Magic Eye 3-D poster.
Along the milelong Twin Barns Loop Trail and its tributary routes, birds swooped, frogs belched, and blackberries jumped off the bushes and into my mouth. On the Nisqually River, a local hiker and I stopped to try to identify a loud buzzing sound. "We call those bird calls 'fishing boats,' " she said.
To tap into the unofficial Oly tagline, "It's the water," go to the source: the Schmidt House and Tumwater Falls Park.
In 1904, Olympia Brewery owner Leopold Schmidt and his wife, Johanna, built the three-story, eight-bathroom hilltop mansion, south of downtown, which is open for tours. By the front door, history manager Don Trosper or alternate guide Bob Crim — who worked for the family for 60 years — will point out the company logo embedded in the wall. (Pay attention to the image of the waterfalls, which will return in the second half of the visit.)
A few original pieces remain, such as a buffet, a file cabinet and a velvet hat worn by Clara, wife of the Schmidts' eldest son. At the park, a short drive from the house, a half-mile trail loops around the Deschutes River and falls, which once supported a power station and a paper mill. On the walk, you can see the tower of the old brewery that turned artesian spring water into potable gold. From mid-September through mid-October, watch the salmon swim upstream and navigate the fish ladders like ninja warriors.
After Olympia Brewery closed in 2003, the hops torch was passed to Fish Brewing Co., open since 1993, and its Fish Tale Brewpub, the city's oldest joint of its kind. In 1996, the beer-making operation moved across the street, but you can still drink to the old days in the Fishbowl, the diminutive taproom that features several India pale ales and Spire Mountain ciders on tap. The menu plays matchmaker with its food and drink: It recommends the Organic Amber with the Fish Tale tacos, for instance, and the Mudshark porter with the bangers and mash. To meet the Fish loyalists, snag an invite to the Mug Club room, an alcove lined with members' drinking vessels engraved with such personal truths as "Beer Me Up! and "I Drink I Swim."
Warning: Dillinger's Cocktails & Kitchen, which was named after the Depression-era gangster and occupies a former 1920s bank, might abscond with your fusty drinking habits. Instead of the same old old-fashioned, try the bar's Oaxaca version, a mix of tequila, mezcal, agave, bitters, and flamed orange oil. You can also expand your cocktail repertoire at the 100-bottle rum bar, which adjoins the speakeasy.
The menu for both rooms defies the illogic of the kitchen, which is set in an old teller station and is equipped with an oven, a griddle, two burners, and a cooler. Imbiber favorites include duck confit, mussels in lemongrass broth, and whiskey doughnut bread pudding. On Tiki Tuesdays, the scene goes South and Pacific, with tropical drinks served in head-shaped punch bowls while the wrestling masks of Mexican luchadores watch from across the bar.
Every meal at Spar Cafe should include a glass of water. The restaurant and bar is the only spot in Olympia aside from the Artesian Commons park to offer drinking water collected from an artesian well. (Try a sip at the fountain by the entrance.) The Spar has lived a long and somewhat roguish life as a saloon in the late 1800s; a gentleman's club in the mid-1900s; and a backroom hangout for Nirvana co-founder Kurt Cobain in the '90s. The menu showcases the Pacific Northwest's bounty but also spins the classics. For instance, the kitchen smothers the Take Me to the Moon burger with coffee bacon jam and crowns the truffle fries with black garlic aioli.
Gallery Boom injects the antiques mall model with some youth serum. "I call us a lower-g gallery," said Christine Malek, the owner-artist. "I have people who make knit hats, and then there are chopped-up baby dolls." Malek rents space to about 125 regional artists, who sell their creations for on average less than $100. When I was there, exhibitors included Joelle Montez, who designs ceramic cups in provocative body shapes; the Poshness Monster, a jeweler who incorporates doll eyes and limbs into pendants and rings; Tom Boucher, who refashions clock and camera pieces into LED-lit wall sculptures; and Papa Dick, an octogenarian who sells his 200-plus paintings for $10 each. ("He doesn't want his kids to have to deal with them when he's dead," Malek said.)
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At the Olympia Farmers' Market, a Johnson Berry Farm vendor conducted a short survey before administering a sample to a couple. "Do you like spicy Thai food?" she asked. They answered "yes" and received a spoonful of Golden Raspberry Habanero XXX jam. "My mouth is going to be on fire for an hour," the husband muttered.
Of course, you can find edibles without warning labels at the year-round emporium, open since 1975. Bins and tables overflow with apples, cherries, peaches, homemade sauerkraut, cheeses, potted herbs, breads, mushroom kits, and more. Among the crafts, you can find ply-split braided necklaces and bellowing gourds at Happy Hen Farm, colorful tops and door stops at Wood Loved by Larry, and burlap bags made out of recycled coffee and feed sacks at Healy Originals. On Saturdays, M. Seven Bremner pounds out poems on her Underwood Olivetti. The writer has fielded requests on love, marriage, awkward family conversations, listening to each other, and rain.
You should consider bringing binoculars on a walking tour of the South Capitol Neighborhood Historic District so you can read the small bronze medallions on buildings without trespassing.
The area is a veritable architectural encyclopedia of 20th-century styles. The city website offers a map that highlights 40 structures, including the Joseph Wohleb House, a 1926 Colonial Revival home built and occupied by one of Olympia's most prominent architects; the George Morris House, owned by a Supreme Court justice and later the founder of a fancy ladies-clothing store; and a section of the Old Oregon Trail. After completing the list, cross the bridge into Wildwood and grab a coffee and slice at the neighborly outposts of Olympia Coffee and Vic's Pizzeria.
"Twenty years ago, downtown was grunge," said Hayes, the Oly Arts founder, "and not just in terms of music." Over the years, the grit of the Olympia Downtown Historic District has receded, with independent retailers and inventive restaurateurs stepping in with, say, Betty Boop-meets-Holly-Golightly threads (Hot Toddy) and vegan Mexican brunch (Hart's Mesa). The area supports four theaters; three bookstores, including 80-year-old Browsers; two kid-approved museums that parents can enjoy in their own right; one cider distillery with a "teeny-tiny taproom"; three chocolate shops; and four breweries. If you like to opine on coffee or art, you can attend a public cupping (or tasting) at Olympia Coffee Roasting or vote for your favorite sculpture on Percival Landing. The winner will earn a permanent pedestal in the city.