Pacific NW Cover Story
From world traveler to city rider, Pierre Sundborg finds adventure in the small things
by Linda Shaw photographed by Alan Berner THE STREETLIGHTS still cast an orange glow as Pierre Sundborg stands in the half-light, waiting...
Chart your courseTo plan an adventure aboard a Metro bus go to: http://tripplanner.metrokc.gov
THE STREETLIGHTS still cast an orange glow as Pierre Sundborg stands in the half-light, waiting for the very first bus of the morning.
Tucked in a cardboard pouch under his arm, his four essentials of bus riding: Schedules for each of the four coaches he plans to ride today. A handwritten itinerary. A big map showing all the routes in King County (difficult to find unless you know where to ask). And the free bus tickets he gets for tending the stop across the street, just a half-block from his Queen Anne condominium.
It's 5 a.m., earlier than he usually ventures out. But he must leave now if he's to accomplish today's challenge: Ride route No. 152 from end to end, Auburn to Seattle.
Sundborg's already ridden the No. 151, and the No. 150, and so on down the line. He started with the No. 1 nearly three years ago and just kept going. Along the way, he's jumped ahead once or twice and skipped a few routes. The lonely, dead-of-night runs, for instance. Other than that, he's completed every Metro route up to 152 in order — some more than once if he particularly likes them. He rides twice a week when he can, and figures it will take him another two-three years to make it through the 200s and 300s and the handful of 500s and 900s, which end at 995.
Retired years ago from his job as a network engineer at IBM, he has the time. And confined to the house too long, he gets itchy. But he doesn't go for playing golf or bridge like a lot of guys do. He'd much rather spread out the big bus map, with all its dense, blue lines, and plot his next adventure.
"I like the polar ends of the spectrum," he says. The predictability of the schedule, the unpredictability of whom he'll meet, what he'll see.
THE NO. 18 ROLLS up with half a dozen people scattered inside gripping coffee cups or sleeping, heads bowed. Sundborg takes his preferred seat: On the right opposite the driver, about a third of the way back, or wherever he can get the best view. At this hour, no cars clog the streets. Only a few people are out. Plus a truck or two. And the buses.
He gets off at First and Pike, then heads up to Third to catch the No. 121 to Burien. From Burien, the plan is to pick up the No. 180 to Auburn for the main bus of the day, the 152. He's pleased with his carefully constructed itinerary. Of the four coaches he'll ride, two — the 152 and the 180 — will "count" because he hasn't ridden them before. Yes, he's doing the 180 out of order, but that's OK. It makes the schedule work.
At 69, Sundborg's older than the other early-morning riders, many who appear to be recent immigrants headed to work. Sundborg's dressed for leisure in jeans and a fleecy, royal-blue jacket that he explains is made of recycled pop bottles, a gift from a relative who works for the company that makes them in Alaska, where he grew up. His big, wire-rimmed glasses make him look like someone who loves the complexity of computer networks, but his voice is sonorous like a preacher's. (And sometimes, for fun, he puts on black clothes and walks around Seattle University, where he gets mistaken for his brother, SU President Stephen Sundborg.)
He approaches bus riding like the engineer he was, with a plan and a few, self-imposed rules. He can't check off a route unless he rides its full length — starting at the very first stop, and climbing off at the very last. If a route changes, he must take it again. To get to a route, or get home, he has to take another bus, not his car. The decision to ride buses in order was "just to make it a little more difficult."
He can talk all day about the places he's seen. Like the October morning he boarded bus No. 33 and ended up in the middle of Discovery Park, staring in awe at all the trees soaked in color. He'd been there before, but never in the fall. Or the day he hopped the No. 2 to Madrona Park Beach and dipped his toes in Lake Washington, then skipped a few rocks before getting back on the bus. Or that first time on the No. 60, a favorite he calls the "United Nations" bus because people of so many nationalities climbed on and off as it zigzagged from White Center up to Capitol Hill.
He can talk just as much about the system. He knows, for example, that the No. 358 is the old No. 6, the bus that drove off the Aurora Bridge. And he's noticed a little curiosity: While the bus that leaves Queen Anne as the No. 3 switches downtown to a 4, the No. 4 switches to a 3.
If he had his druthers, though, Sundborg wouldn't be seeing the sights from the blue-vinyl seat of a Metro bus in Seattle. Instead, he'd be off in England, settled into the maroon velour cushion of a first-class compartment on any number of trains. When he first visited England in 1972, he fell in love with the rail system — all those trains headed everywhere, all the time, and on time. Then when IBM posted him there for several years, Sundborg had his chance.
At first, he and his wife, Jean, took "sensible" journeys, picking a destination and finding a train to take them there. Then Sundborg found the English equivalent of Metro's big map — a thick book of all the train schedules — that he bought on the platform of London's Paddington station. He wondered what would happen if they just took the next train that arrived at a station, regardless of where it was headed. Then, onboard, pick another route to take next, and then another.
That's how he and Jean found themselves in the town of Penrith in northern England one fine afternoon, just in time for a sheep auction and a milking contest. And how they discovered the regal ruins of the medieval Conwy castle in northern Wales.
After Pierre retired in 1993, he and Jean continued traveling regularly to England to ride trains. His personal best: nine train lines in one day.
But all that came to a halt in 2002, shortly after his mother had a stroke. A few years later, his dad broke a hip. Then his mother died, and his dad needed some help. Sundborg, the oldest of five siblings, put himself in charge of "bills and pills" and whatever else came up.
Yet as much as he is devoted to his dad, he yearned to travel. His wife, a little exasperated with his restlessness one day, blurted out something like, For God's sake, get out of the house. Why don't you go see Seattle?
What a dumb idea, he thought. He couldn't ride trains here. For one, more trains leave English stations in an hour than chug out of Seattle in a day. That left buses. Crowded, inconvenient, smelly buses. There would be no tea served by nicely dressed waiters in first-class compartments. No biscuits to nibble while watching green hills dotted with sheep roll by.
He'd taken buses in many places as a good way to get to know a new country and its people, but he'd already been all over Seattle. What would be new to learn?
But Sundborg isn't one to reject an idea without giving it a try. Better to take a risk, he reasoned, than miss out on something good. The idea also passed a basic test: What was the absolute worst thing that could happen? He might sit next to a drunk. Someone might throw up on his shoes.
Can I live with that? he asked himself, and answered:
BY THE TIME the 121 passes the Liquor Control Board's offices on East Marginal Way South, Sundborg is the only passenger left. In just about a mile, the dozen or so others have all gotten off. He heads up front, squats by the fare box to ask the driver if that's normal. He tells her the short version of what he's doing: Riding every Metro bus from end to end.
"And why are you doing it?" she inquires. It's the usual question, asked out of curiosity and some doubt about his sanity.
"Because my wife wants to get me out of the house." It's the easiest response, one that usually draws a laugh. But it's more than that.
Travel is, at heart, just a quick way to keep our minds mobile and awake, says travel writer Pico Iyer. That's one reason Sundborg likes the bus. He watches who boards, speculates who they are and where they're going. He tries to figure out the purpose of each route, and what it says about Seattle's economic and social fabric. He stares out the window, too, of course, especially when there's something interesting to see, like the rosy sunrise this morning over the Kent Valley as the bus climbs up Orilla Road South.
"There are rewards," he says, "to being out so early."
He even likes it when his carefully laid plans go awry, and he has to improvise a way to get home.
He could afford to drive — or fly. But then he wouldn't discover nearly as much.
On each ride, he greets everyone who sits next to him with a "good morning" or "good afternoon," and sees where that leads. He's encountered whole bus communities, like the people on No. 35, a commuter run that leaves downtown Seattle just twice each morning for the tip of Harbor Island. The regulars on that bus, he says, know each other so well they pick up the previous day's conversations midsentence.
On a recent trip, he asks if his observations are correct. They laugh and tell him he's right. They're like the TV show "Cheers" on a bus, one says. The regulars leave the newbies alone until they've been riding a week. Then Jean, their "crew leader," introduces them to everyone else.
For those who think the buses are full of derelicts, Sundborg has a simple reply:
SUNDBORG STANDS on a sidewalk in Burien, waiting for the No. 180 to Auburn. It's been about an hour since he left Queen Anne. He's ridden nearly every bus that passes by.
The 139? "A tiny little route," he notes, just to the nearby hospital and back.
The 133, he points out, goes all the way from Burien to the University of Washington with just a few stops. And the 560? "That's my future," he says. "That will be dessert."
The No. 180 covers familiar territory, including a building where Sundborg once worked. Without him aboard, it could be a tedious ride past business parks and car dealerships. But he carries on a running commentary about what Kent was like when he lived there, what's changed, the fact that this must be a bus for people who rely on public transportation because it stops every few blocks.
He ducks his head down so he can read the numbers on the bus stop sign.
"Yep," he says, happily. "Just as I thought." There's only one number. To get here on a bus, he says, you've got to be on this one.
The 180 pulls into the Auburn transit station at 7:06, a minute early. That gives Sundborg 11 minutes for a bathroom break and perhaps . . . He looks around, spies an espresso cart. Eight minutes later, he's back at Bay 2, drip coffee in hand, ready for the main attraction of the day, the No. 152 to downtown Seattle.
The 152 retraces a little of the 180's path through Auburn, then winds back through the Kent Valley, past the Iron Horse Casino, Emerald Downs, the Smith Brothers dairy farm. The other riders look awake now, and a soft hum of conversation joins the engine's whine.
As the bus climbs out of the valley, heading up to Interstate 5, Sundborg speculates on who's riding by choice, who by necessity. Concludes there's only three to five in the choice group, based on how they're dressed. That shows, he says, that we still have a long way to get people out of their cars and into more buses. (Buses are so much cheaper and faster to expand, he says, than light rail.)
Not that it's all fun, all the time. Once, a driver pulled over mid-block on James Street, turned off the ignition and left all the passengers sitting there. Another time Sundborg helped a driver escort a drunken man off a bus. And once, when a driver had to slam on the brakes to avoid a car that darted in front of him, a woman fell and cut her leg.
That's been the worst. But there've been so many more experiences he counts among his best. Where else could he join the friendly fray on bus 35 as the group rides to work? Or overhear conversations in Chinese, Vietnamese and Spanish all at once on the No. 60? Or drop into King Donut to scoop up some of "the best apple fritters in the city"?
And "Oh, I have to tell you about a nice thing that happened" while re-riding the No. 74 (because it's been renamed the No. 30). It was Saturday, a day he usually doesn't ride, but he wanted to be on the very first run. On the way back home, a couple with two little boys boarded. The mother, whose accent indicated she might be German or Dutch, had only a crisp $20 bill. The driver told her he had no change and they'd have to get off. Before Sundborg could get up to offer to pay, four other people beat him to it.
"I was so proud," he says.
Iyer says that we travel, initially, to lose ourselves. Then to find ourselves. And to open our hearts and eyes and "become young fools again." To slow down, get taken in. It is, he says, like falling in love.
That's kind of how it went for Sundborg and the bus.
Bus riding can be half boring at times, he says, but something always happens, "and it's always better than what you thought."
In the end, "It's a win-win-win. There are so few of those in life."
So twice a week, from 6 a.m. until about noon, he surrenders himself to wherever the next route takes him. Each trip, a little act of faith that it will yield something good. He engages his brain, gets a little exercise. And always returns with at least one story to tell.
Linda Shaw is a Seattle Times staff reporter. Alan Berner is a Times staff photographer.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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