I was drifting on the surface of the moon. I stood on the deck of a ferry chugging toward Seattle, a five-year-old lost in a crowd of lumbering adults clutching umbrellas. The towering form of my mother moved in and out of the fog, pushing politely through knots of passengers, reaching out to hold my hand and fuss with my raincoat. Far away, my father leaned against the ferry’s railing, holding his hand to his brow and looking out for the first sign of Seattle.
The ferry’s purring engine hauled us through a silent world of barnacle-clad seas.
Based on the harrowing tales told by relatives back East, I’d originally imagined my first ferry ride as an excursion fraught with peril. You’re moving to Washington? they’d sputtered in their New Jersey accents when my mother talked about our decision to move. Don’t you know how much it rains there? After months of hearing tall tales about the American West (all of which, it seemed, involved New Jersey bumpkins tripping into bottomless gulches or being trampled in buffalo stampedes), the prospect of doing something adventurous like riding a ferry was unbearably exciting. I remember the first time we drove onto the boat, how our car nosed through the gaping mouth at the stern and found a place to park in a belly of swinging ropes and steaming pipes. When I pushed my way out onto the upper deck, I expected to see frontier ruffians drooling into spittoons. What I found was something muted and cold, a quiet and austere beauty tinged with a nagging lonesomeness. Whenever I think of that first ferry ride, I imagine the hasty sketches of William Turner, especially his later watercolor, “Boats at Sea.” Like the ethereal shapes in the painting, I felt as if I were evaporating on the deck of the ferry, as if I were fading into the misty hills of the Puget Sound.
It’s strange that I should regard ferries with so much awe. There’s nothing terribly unusual about them, after all: ferries have been a major source of transportation in the Puget Sound for more than a hundred years. While the current, consolidated system didn’t launch until the 1950s, smaller companies provided regular ferry services by the beginning of the 1900s. I wish I could have seen those original ferries at work; I imagine them as cheery tugboats captained by crusty mariners who smoked meerschaum pipes and accepted bartered pigs and chickens as payment. While this fanciful portrait is a product of my own imagination, the fact remains that ferries have been an integral part of life in the Puget Sound for many years, and they’re unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Indeed, the current ferry system serves eight counties and transports more than 20 million annual passengers.
Despite their significance, I never thought much about ferries until my parents’ divorce. After it happened, my mother moved across the water to Olalla, my father stayed in Burien, and my siblings and I moved between the two households each week. I remember sitting up on a hill one night and watching ferries traversing the Puget Sound. Their bobbing lights cut through the falling twilight, illuminating the watery chasm separating my family. I knew that, somewhere on the far shore, one of my parents was living, eating, and sleeping alone in the dark trees. I imagined a ferry’s route drawing a border across the water, severing my family into diplomatic and equal halves.
Later, when I was older and more arrogant, I took ferries to Seattle to visit girlfriends. I won’t screw up this relationship, I reassured myself with a teenager’s earnest pomposity. I won’t muck things up like Mom and Dad. When the inevitable breakups came along, I blamed it on the girl, on the lousy weather, on the other guys waiting on the far shores of my ruined relationships. I blamed it on the ferry for being late, for dumping me on the rain-splattered dock well after my girlfriends quit waiting for me.
I left home after high school, heading out into the world with the certainty I would never return. I made my getaway on the back of a ferry, perched at the prow like Ahab riding the White Whale, shaking my fist at the receding shore with dramatic egotism.
I learned a thing or two while I was abroad. I learned that Portland gets as much rain as Seattle; I learned that sharing a ramshackle house with college students does not make a person an independent adult; I learned that Irish ferries are approximately one fourth the size of Washington State ferries and must manage water far more treacherous than the Puget Sound. (I learned this lesson while clinging to the side of a vessel departing from Connemara. Bug-eyed, trying to resist the urge to puke, I held onto the ferry’s railing as the boat’s nose plunged into the wind.)
I learned the extent of a Texas parking lot, how it can stretch to the horizon like a dried seabed. I learned that, after a certain span of years, it takes more than a ferry ride to get home.
Returning to the Puget Sound after many years, I decided to take the ferry to Seattle. I walked onto the deck, feeling the familiar buck and sway as the boat slid through the mist. Shapes of people moved beside me beneath the black mushrooms of umbrellas, and I joined the crowd at the railing, waiting for Seattle’s monolithic skyline to loom out of the fog. I thought about that first ferry ride many years before. I tried to remember what my mother said to me when she found me in the crowd, tried to recall the precise angle of my father’s body as he leaned against the railing.
We drifted into Seattle’s harbor beneath a sky heavy with rain. The silence around me was alien, unearthly, better suited to the pockmarked surface of the moon.
Author’s Note: This piece is the first part of a new essay series called Living in Washington State. Be on the lookout next month for the second entry: Coffee.