There’s no place on earth quite like the twenty square miles nestled around Puget Sound’s most southern inlets. Here you’ll find fir-fringed lagoons, lush rainforest, cascading waterfalls, rolling hills, bubbling Artesian wells and beaches of every hue: brown, grey, tan and even beige. The urban landscape is just as stunning with its array of bars, taverns, bars, bars, taverns and bars. In Olympia’s suburban zones you’ll meet noisome housemates and wanton raccoons living together in homes that are as dowdy as they are lugubrious.
How did this place get so cool? It all started twenty thousand years ago. Olympia marked the southern extent of a towering mile-high glacier that rolled down from Canada, carving out the Puget Sound. What arresting force prevented the last ice age from plowing into Oregon and California? It was something. It was something in Olympia.
The details of the ice-stopping force remain geology’s greatest unsolved mystery. However, today an ice cream stand on the corner of Custer and Capitol marks the place where the glacier was stopped. Some believe it was a powerful spell cast by a massive Mima mammoth. Some believe that spell still lingers, explaining mysteries such as Olympia’s national standing in coffee roasting and roller derby. Cynics use the enigma to explain pervasive coolness, cold shoulders and icy stares.
One thing’s for sure, whatever stopped the giant glacier didn’t stop the first white people. By the middle of the 19th Century, thousands of long-time indigenous people were killed or moved to internment camps on Squaxin Island to make way for forts, fences, streetlights and strip malls. When the first settlers ran out of arms-reach natives, they turned on each other. In 1846 Olympia had a white population of two. It was just Levi Smith and Edmund Sylvester. The duo divided the city 50/50 and got along just fine. Fine until 1848 when Smith had a “canoe accident” and “drowned” and Sylvester got all his land. Over the next few decades Sylvester generously donated large tracts to his friends. He also named, platted and effectively created the city. This kind of suspicious generosity is still common in Olympia, a home to a large population of over-educated creative sarcastics who offer a bounty of difficult to gauge satires and ample helpings of passive aggression.
No matter what motivates your short or long term residence in Olympia, this guide will help you plan an experience that is cost-effective, time-efficient and lackluster. We recommend reading the guide cover-to-cover before making decisions and craft an itinerary that makes the most sense for your budget and timeframe.
Like every other guide, this one is divided into sections. We cover the five main neighborhoods: Westside, Deep Westside, Eastside, Downtown and South Capital. There are sections on restaurants, shops, hotels, and adventures including indoor, outdoor and mental. There are even sections for kids, hospice patients and vegans.
Risks and challenges
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