In Olympia, It’s Still the Water
Olympia is different—same as it ever was.
An artesian well sounds like something out of a fairy tale, but Olympia’s is little more than a lead pipe in a parking lot. Instead of a bucket-and-rope setup, a two-inch pipe pours like a faucet onto a stretch of blacktop behind Fourth Avenue. It never stops, every minute dumping 10 gallons of water that burbles up from 90 feet underground.
On a sunny spring day, the stream of Olympians carrying empty tubs and bottles to the artesian well is almost as steady as the water itself. Some look itinerant, bathing by dipping heads and hands under the flow. Others are stocking up, pulling water-cooler bottles and empty milk jugs from the back of pickup trucks. Skateboarders wearing every shade of black—this town reminds you how many shades there are—cup their hands for a quick drink of the cold, crisp liquid, and a young woman wanders out of a nearby storefront with a glass pitcher in hand.
The logo for Olympia Beer has read “It’s the Water” since 1902, crediting a similar artesian well a few miles from this parking—lot aquifer, even though the signature brew left town (and the state) in 2003. The old Olympia Brewhouse, a stately redbrick edifice at the foot of Tumwater Falls, looks the classic haunted house with plants growing through shattered windows, rusty gates, and battered roofs.
But it was always the water here; native tribes once harvested shellfish from Budd Inlet, the fat finger that forms Puget Sound’s southernmost tip. In 1850, Americans staked out a commercial waterfront town. Seattle founder Arthur Denny reportedly called it “the greatest and about the only place north of Portland” when it was made the state capital.
Since then Olympia has been surpassed in size by Seattle (and 20 other state metro areas), but has cultivated a reputation. It’s best known for an idiosyncratic art scene—this is where people fashion jellyfish costumes out of foam bits and pipe cleaners to march in the annual Procession of the Species parade.
There are almost as many species on procession at the Olympia Farmers Market, a covered, open-air complex abutting the city’s industrial timber yards. Buskers with white-kid dreads pick guitar strings from the performance stage, then give way to a funk-inspired bluegrass band. When kiosks open for Thursday–to–Sunday stretches, shoppers haul produce, bread, local meats, and craft purchases in reusable bags. The town centers on state business—there are some 24,000 government employees here—but there are more Birkenstock sandals than suits.
Ecofriendliness is more than a habit in Olympia; it’s practically a governing ethos. This is the home of “greeners,” named for the alternative scene at the Evergreen State College, whose mascot is a phallic mollusk, the geoduck (check worn Volvos for bumper stickers calling it the “Ever Strange Green College”).
It’s Evergreen interns that staff the gardens at the Fertile Ground Guesthouse next to Olympia’s library; the students do herbal studies as they maintain rows of vegetables and greenery. Inside the hundred-year-old Fertile Ground house is a sauna built from sustainably harvested cedar and redwood and a library that owner Karen Nelson hand-plastered herself. On a tour of her B&B’s grounds, she describes the Commons, a space she’s creating with the house next door to host CSA pickups, natural food workshops, and tool shares.
Evergreen’s most famous son is Simpsons creator Matt Groening, but he left town after graduating. Calvin Johnson, on the other hand, has been a part of Olympia’s cultural fabric since before he even enrolled. In the ’70s, the local teen was a punk fan, musician, and DJ at local station KAOS; after graduating from Evergreen he founded K Records, which once defined the West Coast independent punk scene. Kurt Cobain tattooed his own left arm with the company logo, even though the label turned down his demo tape (Cobain got over the rejection and signed Nirvana with Sub Pop, another Olympia-born enterprise).
Johnson fairly embodies Olympia’s fiercely independent music scene. He now operates K Records out of Olympia’s old synagogue, these days releasing albums in small batches and digital downloads instead of cassettes. He has undeniable punk-rock bona fides—he once asked Henry Rollins, when the Black Flag front man heckled him midshow, “Didn’t your mother teach you any manners?” But outside of band practice, he’s soft-spoken and sits almost preternaturally still. Wearing a white scarf, plaid shirt, and denim cutoffs, Johnson considers his hometown. “You’re only going to make music here if you want to,” he says, noting that few Olympia acts become rich and famous. “There’s a lot of creative energy here…it feeds on itself.”
The music scene here has always been well fed. In the ’90s it spawned Riot Grrrl culture with Sleater-Kinney and the Gossip; today it’s represented by what Johnson calls “a lot of good heavy music” and bands like Broken Water and Christian Mistresses. This month, Seattle writer Mark Baumgarten releases a chronicle of the Olympia scene called Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music. But Johnson says he probably won’t read his own biography. When asked where Olympia’s music scene will be in five years, his answer is typically literal and laconic: “Olympia.”
That’s the thing about Oly; it’s hard to describe it as anything but itself. It’s smaller than Portland, weirder than Tacoma, a bigger player than Spokane. Olympia Beer may have been exported out of state, but what arose in its place is even more, well, Olympia: Fish Tale Organic Ale. As one brewer says from Fish headquarters, “ This is the Olympia Brewery now.” The organic grains and hops, by the way, aren’t just ecofriendly; they make the malt slightly sweeter.
Murals painted in electric blues and oranges coat the exterior of Fish’s brewery and brewpub. There are more than a dozen such exterior walls downtown, one expressing solidarity with Rafah, Palestine, in honor of an Evergreen student activist who died while protesting in Gaza. Another reimagines the cast of Star Wars as bubble-faced cartoons. Every inch of Olympia, it seems, needs to express itself.
For a long time, the parking-lot artesian well expressed nothing more than water, but this year it gets its own coat of many colors. Local artist Jennifer Kuhns has gussied up the concrete stanchions around it with fish murals, installed with volunteers she crowdsourced over Facebook. The water source is still basically a pipe in the ground, but it’s getting a little prettier.
And true to Olympia style, all comers to the parking lot express something a little different. Besides the usual greeners—adorned with tattoos or stretched earlobes, army pants or peasant skirts—are suburban moms exiting minivans and tourists road-tripping from Alaska. After a dog laps from the surging stream, a woman in a pink pantsuit leans over to fill her bottle, taking care not to get her beige pumps wet. It’s everyone’s water.
500 Capitol Way S, Olympia, 360-357-6677;
222 Capitol Way N, Ste 103, Olympia, 360-352-1175;
Fish Tale Brew Pub
515 Jefferson St SE, Olympia, 360-943-3650;
Olympia Olive Oil
321 Fourth Ave E, Olympia, 360-878-9571;
610 Water St SW, Olympia, 360-709-9090;
Fertile Ground Guesthouse
311 Ninth Ave SE, Olympia, 360-352-2428;
Fourth Ave & Jefferson St, Olympia