Aberdeen: Barren and Rotting, Exactly As It Should Be.
One of the most memorable journeys I’ve taken drove me up the west coast in the midst of a sweltering summer, tucked in the front of a car just too small for my lanky legs, and starving for adventure. This particular journey took Andrew and I up to Washington, into a small and dusty town called Aberdeen. For those who don’t already know (which is most likely the minority), Aberdeen was home to the late Nirvana front-man Kurt Cobain from his birth in 1967 until May of 1987. The town is spacious and downtrodden, featuring pastel homes with shuttered windows, cracking streets, and blank-faced people sitting on porches, just watching the world go by. For any Nirvana enthusiast, Aberdeen is a paradise: it mirrors his erratic, distant persona, verifies the extent of his small-town Stockholm syndrome, and reflects his grotesque lyrics and inner turmoil.
Aberdeen was founded in 1884 by Samuel Benn, and named after a salmon cannery bearing the name of a fishing town in Scotland situated at the mouth of two rivers. Aberdeen similarly sits at the mouth of both the Chehalis and Wishkah rivers. In its prime, Aberdeen was best known for being a prominent logging town. When the Great Depression hit, thirty-seven thriving sawmills were abruptly reduced to seven. That was sadly the least of Aberdeen's problems. In the early 1900’s Aberdeen was already coined the “Hellhole of the Pacific”. Bearing a striking number of whorehouses, saloons, and gambling establishments, it was a hub for crime and delinquency. The murder rate was abnormally high and even Billy “Ghoul”, rumored to have murdered one-hundred and forty men, resided here. Today Aberdeen is home to just over sixteen-thousand people, and their economy still depends on the timber, fishing, and tourism industries to stay afloat. The emergence of Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic from Aberdeen has drawn many tourists from around the world, and Aberdeen has graciously responded by creating a Kurt Cobain memorial park.
What to Expect
I arrived expecting a lot. The entire drive up from Southern California was a long waiting game for what was made out to be the climax of our journey. We had two plans to kick off our initial arrival: see the famous “Welcome to Aberdeen: Come As You Are” sign, and somehow locate the road sign marking the miles between Elma, Montesano, and Aberdeen that was altered to diagonally spell “666” by Kurt and Krist. The welcome sign was an easy find. We accidentally drove past it on the way into town, and a rush of adrenaline from the surprise reminded me of how long I had waited to travel there. I have been a fan of Nirvana since I was a young girl, and often dreamed of travelling to Aberdeen, cranking Insecticide, and paying my overdue respects. The road sign on the other hand was a little more tricky to find. There aren’t any solid directions online so it was a puzzle to scour the map and find what street traversed Elma, Montesano, and Aberdeen. After a handful of wrong turns Andrew and I spotted the sign in the distance. Now I don't encourage this, but we pulled off the freeway and flicked on the hazards to sneak a memorable photo. From the numerous angry honks, we could tell that the drivers did not appreciate out shenanigans.
Without any planning or prior knowledge, Andrew and I happened to visit town on one of the two days that Aberdeen was celebrating Kurt Cobain with a festival. It was nothing extraordinary: there were a few cover bands playing atop a large rig, some booths selling t-shirts and posters, and a small sprinkler set up for the kids to play in. The audience was all of six people, but it felt quite intimate to join his community without feeling like an outsider looking in. Oddly enough, nothing about Aberdeen felt touristy! The streets were mostly empty and everyone was going about business as usual. Even Kurt's childhood home was left alone. The only thing separating his neighborhood from mine was the Kurt Cobain Memorial Park, which donned a large statue of his guitar and a plaque that lovingly reads “As You Were”. The park was small and unkempt - not a particularly emotional sight to see - but right around the corner was the Young Street Bridge.
A small muddy slate underneath the bridge is rumored to be a safe haven that Kurt often escaped to as a young man to find some peace and quiet. Nirvana’s haunting song “Something in the Way” is also thought to be a nod to the time Kurt spent under the bridge. Cars passed overhead, loud engines muffled by the wet concrete. Broken columns jutted out from beneath the river as soft tides slowly licked their sides. I could see how it would be easy to lose yourself there.
I expected a lot from Aberdeen… and was completely fulfilled upon leaving. Although it wasn’t the nicest town, the easiest to explore, or anything like my expectations, I truly learned from it. I think what makes Aberdeen special it's painful normality. Nobody wants to stay stagnant forever; we want to move up and away from our small towns and dusty roads. But Aberdeen will always be there to remind us of where we once were.
So let us know in the comments below if you'd like to see Aberdeen some day. If you've been there, what was your experience like? We'd love to hear about it!