Grow up in the Pacific Northwest and you're afforded a built-in sense of direction. At least when the sun is out. Tourists don't necessarily know that the craggy jagged collection of almost always snow covered mountains in the distance are the Olympic Mountains. Or those other hills -- they must be hills, right? So clearly dwarfed by Mt. Rainier, or even Mt. Baker further north? They might not know at first sight that these are the Cascades.
Newcomers look out and see just a bunch of indistinguishable mountains. Both ranges run north and south: the Olympics to the west of Seattle, and the Cascades on the opposite side, creating a massive natural fence between the western and eastern halves of the state.
You grow up around these things and you always have at least a halfway decent chance of knowing where you're going. They are built-in compasses. You know the differences. You know that you may not be able to remember whether it's Pike or Pine that runs one way toward the water, but you will always be able to easily figure out where the water is, based on your view of the mountains.
I never knew how much I'd missed them -- how much I missed their constant presence -- until my freshman year at Carleton. It's not that Minnesota is flat (look, my Midwestern friends would tell me, just a little defensive, there are hills all over the place) it's just that nature opted for ten thousands lakes instead of ten thousand foot mountains. And the rolling hills that make up the miles of farmland surrounding Northfield are a poor substitute for even the non-mountainous ups and downs in and around Seattle. Parking brakes aren't necessary in Minnesota; you don't even need to learn, counter-intuitively, that the wheel points into the curb when you park uphill, away from the curb on the downhill.
I suppose it's the same way with a lot of things: when you grow up with mountains, you don't always notice when they're with you, but it's immediately apparent when they're gone. There's something not quite right with an empty horizon.
To this day, I'm always alert for that last hour or so before landing at Sea-Tac. You're low enough to see the tree lines, the dark deep water of alpine lakes. Look left and Rainier dominates the view. Adams and poor, broken St. Helens peek out, too, with Hood visible further down the line.
The mountains bring you home. They usher you down the I-5 corridor, landing safely a stone's throw from Seattle.