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Flameout at the Flagship

Sunday, 09 July 2023, Bonney Lake WA

After the incredible hike yesterday, I felt energized, full of vigor. Yes, I was ready to tackle one of the most challenging - the scariest - task on my agenda. Time to dive into ... navigating Seattle traffic!

I plead innocent of scheduling a drive to downtown Seattle - home to the third-worst traffic in the US, after NYC and LA - for the fun of it. My need for rental equipment (backpack, sleeping pad, tent, backpacker stove) caused me to check with REI, and their flagship store downtown was the only place renting them. Besides, how bad could it be on a Saturday at mid-day?

The answer: coming from the north, not bad at all. No congestion slowed me from arriving at the required exit. The store sat just off the I-5, squeezed into an urban block bordering the freeway.

I have to say, I've shopped at many REI stores, some large, some small. The store in Denver, which used to carry my bike books, had taken over an old trolley building and automotive museum, and had oodles of floor space. For Seattle, though, they upped their game. The three-story store sat on top of a parking garage. Wrapping around the building they'd landscaped a 'wilderness' park to get you into an outdoorsy mood. The elevators from the garage delivered you into the midst of a micro-forest, with trees stretching to the sky

framing a three-story waterfall-cascade. A mountain-biking trail weaved through the grounds, so that cyclists interested in how a bike might perform could try it out on terrain features they might see in the wild.

I made my way to the main entrance and asked for directions to the rental department. "Go down this main hall till it ends, then turn left, through the door and down the stairs. You can't miss it."

Didn't even need my GPS for guidance! I descended to the lower level, noticing the lay of the land. At one terminal an employee handled a customer's order. A Helpful Employee (HE) answered questions from another customer standing by a display rack. A Patient Customer (PC) stood by another terminal, awaiting his turn.

After a minute, the HE finished answering the questions, and headed my way. "How can I help you?"

I demurred. "Actually, I think the other person was here first," pointing to PC.

HE walked over to PC, talked with him for a short time, nodded his head, then came back to me. "Now what can I do for you?"

I explained that I had reserved rental equipment online, so he led me over to another terminal to pull up my order. "Let's see. You have a backpack, a tent, a slee..."

The quiet and decorum of the room suddenly shattered. "I NEED TO TALK TO A SUPERVISOR NOW! I'M TIRED OF WAITING1" Looks like PC is now Impatient Customer (IC).

Someone from the back room hurried out. "We're getting someone, sir. It'll just be a minute."


The clerk scurried back and moments later, a female supervisor came out. "Sir, I'd like to..."

IC must have dealt with her before, and he got even louder. "GET AWAY FROM ME, BITCH!" Fed up, he now retreated to the stairs. "I'M DONE HERE! YOU CAN KEEP YOUR DAMN TENT!"

As he left up the staircase, the HE helping me shook his head. I offered, "If he doesn't have a tent, he can't be a happy camper..."

Making sure I could make 'happy camper' status still concerned me, though. HE grabbed my items from inventory and showed me the basics. The backpack had numerous pockets scattered about, more than I recall from my older (and heavier) pack at home. A short tutorial on packing the pack ensued. "The key is to put lighter stuff - like the sleeping bag - at the bottom of the pack, and heavy stuff midway up. If your center-of-gravity is too low, your hips will ache. Too high, and you're more prone to tip over. To fine-tune where the pack sits, you have these four pairs of straps you can tighten or loosen."

I asked him about the stove. "It's a simple model, easy to use. Make sure to stop at a convenience store for a Bic lighter to get it started; we don't sell them here." He paused, then added, "Hopefully they'll have a fuel cannister for you to buy upstairs. The city of Seattle just changed the rules on how stores can sell flammable fuels, and we regularly run out of them."

I thanked him, put the pack with my goodies inside on my back, buckled up, and headed upstairs to enlist aid from another helpful worker. "What else am I missing? What else do I need to pick up?" I asked the lucky worker.

He thought about it, and mentioned a few things that popped into his mind. "Trowel? Toilet paper?" Already covered. "Water filtration?" Picked that up in PA. "Headlamp?" Of course. "Bug juice?" Oh, good catch! The bugs had likely woken up and started biting by now. "Parachute cord?" Ahh, memories of Congaree, when that emergency supply had proven so important. Luckily, they still had a handful of fuel cannisters left.

Time to put on my chef's hat, and choose gourmet freeze-dried (or are those terms mutually exclusive?) meals for the wilderness. REI had a large selection, and it took me several minutes to decide. Add several power-bars and energy-gel snacks to my stash, and I was ready for the world.

But was I ready for the Seattle traffic? Heading south, cars started piling up immediately. I avoided one collision, then got mired in the mass driving south on I-5. Won't I miss this tomorrow? Not hardly. It only took two GPS re-directs due to exits closed or under construction before I found myself in more rural climes. After a stop at the convenience store to gas up, get my lighter, and grab some jerky for lunches, I made my way to my airBNB room for the night.

The hostess was not home, but she left a welcoming party in the form of a large black cat named Toothless. The friendly feline quickly let me know we'd be sharing the room tonight, and she'd be the surrogate fur ball for the two cats I'd left behind.

I quickly got to work, spreading my gear on the bed and determining how and where - and in what pocket - it would reside. Sleeping pad and sleeping bag side-by-side on the bottom, and the tent (sans poles, which got tucked in an outside pocket) in the center. Then the stove. Food and utensils in a stuff sack on top. I placed each item, then removed them and rearranged, hefted the pack, added more, changed my mind. By focusing on the packing, I could avoid dealing with the real question: what had I committed myself to? (And should I be committed?)

Finally satisfied with the pack, I took the stove, the lighter, and the fuel out back to see if I could figure it out. Extend the legs, find a level spot, screw in the cannister, turn the feed... Flick the Bic, and the stove roared to light. Looks like I'm set!

Summer (my hostess) recommended Hops & Drops for dinner, so I motored back a mile to fuel up. The hostess at the entrance flashed me a big smile, and when I asked for a table for one, she led me to a table mere steps from her station. "So, what brings you here tonight?"

I know, I should be ashamed of myself, disrupting her whole evening. When I told her about my parks project, her jaw hit the floor. She peppered me with questions until she had to go handle other customers, but every few minutes she would return and engage me again. Before long, she told my waitress, who then also stopped to chat. (Or was it my debonair, grey-hair good looks that attracted the young ladies? No, probably not.)

Now I'm resting for the challenge tomorrow, stroking Toothless, trying to calm the inner thoughts threatening to keep me awake. Just focus on the mountain...

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