Thursday, December 11, 2014

Blue Highways

On my first trip through Oregon I took the scenic byway at State Route 234 into the Blue Mountains.  I wish I had a more sizable camper shell because I could have spent much more time there.  It was spellbinding.  As it was, I camped at Whitman National Forest.  I was reading William Least Heat Moon's book at the time.

Years later, I read Francis Parkman's The Oregon Trail, charting a trip he took in 1846, which followed a well-traveled route to the West Coast, originally set by Lewis and Clark along the Missouri River.  Much of the route was still in British hands at the time Parkman traveled it, but two years later the Oregon Territory would belong to the United States.

The vast territory included all of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and parts of Montana and Wyoming.  It was primarily occupied by the Nez Perce, but many other indigenous people lived in the area, particularly along the Pacific Coast.

Russia had laid claim to the coastline years before, with settlements as far South as the San Francisco Bay area, but it was the Hudson's Bay Company that had active interests in the region, with the United States working out a deal with the British in the late 1840s to divide the territory.  The northern parallel remained contested for many years afterward.

Statehood followed in 1859, further dividing up the territory, as Washington and Idaho had been split into separate territories, although not admitted into the Union as states until many years later.  Oregon came in as a free state, but its two senators were pro-slavery Democrats, not surprising since both Joseph Lane and Delazon Smith came from the Midwest, which was known for its "Copperheads" at the time, snakes in the grass as depicted by Harper's Weekly.

Out of this rough and tumble history a state began to emerge in the late 19th century, driven largely by logging and game interests.  Ken Kesey marvelously depicted a logging family in Sometimes A Great Notion, a somewhat autobiographical account of his coming of age in his adopted state.

Oregon has a rough-hewn liberalism, driven more by a fierce sense of independence than by any ideological position.  It is kind of a left-leaning Libertarianism that appeals to both moderates and liberals as well as a few conservatives.  Oregonians love the outdoors, and you feel this when you pass through the towns and cities.  There is a lot of woodland, divided by the tail end of the Cascades as they merge into the Sierra Nevadas.  Mount Hood is the tallest peak, looming over Portland, which is one of the most progressive cities in America.  It's unofficial slogan is "Keep Portland Wierd."

I didn't spend too much time in Portland, but I liked what I saw.  For all of Seattle's professed liberalism, Portland seems to be one step ahead of its sister city to the north, especially when it comes to microbreweries.  You won't find any better beers in the country than in Portland or along the Pacific coast towns.  My favorite is Shakespeare Stout from the Rogue Brewing Company in Newport, Oregon.  I had to spend the night there.

The coast line is amazingly diverse from tall rugged cliffs to towering sand dunes.  I remember stopping off at one beach and walking out at low tide to a rock outcrop covered in pulsating orange and purple starfish from top to bottom.  A seal played in the distant surf.

It is really hard not to love this state, especially now that it has made marijuana legal.  Not that anyone really gave two hoots about it before.  Pot had been decriminalized since 1973.  At worst, you would pay a small fine if caught with a lid on you before the new law passed this November, which made it completely legal.  This is one of the few times Washington got the jump on Oregon.

Whatever your tastes, you will definitely find something to like in Oregon.

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