After Vancouver Beth and I took a bus south toward Portland, in the north of the state of Oregon, stopping briefly in Seattle and grabbing lunch in the Pioneer Square district, which has all sorts of little cafes and curiosity shops and was a district we hadn’t seen first time around. From Seattle to Portland we took an Amtrak train through the ‘Cascades’ range of the North West coast, however we spent most of the trip trying to watch the in-journey movie, the new Chronicles of Narnia film Prince Caspian. I say trying to watch the film because sat in our carriage there was an American girl of i’d say 19 or so, who decided it would be a good idea to tell the people sat in the seats opposite her entire life story. That she didn’t know the people opposite her didn’t put her off at all, nor did she care that her booming voice meant the rest of the us were subjected to her incessant drivel. And when I say incessant, i mean she almost literaly did not stop talking for the entire two hours she was on board. Biological anatomists should probably get hold of her and cut her open to examine this unprecedented lung-power, thus doing a dual service to both the scientific and commuter communities.
Although that girl was an extreme example, I have noticed that Americans in general have no qualms about bearing their souls to complete strangers so long as what is discussed is vacuous and boring (so in many cases the subject is their own life-experience and narrow world-view). Of course there are many interesting and intelligent Americans, but they tend to keep quiet and to themselves in public places (as Tocqueville noted nearly 200 years ago, come to think of it). However it is culturally striking – you rarely get British people opening up like that to complete strangers, but I reckon getting on public transportation in the US there is a 50% chance somebody around you will be chatting happily away about intimate details of their history. I guess if you like to meet new people and hear their stories this is a good thing, but if you’re a misanthropist like me who only wants to talk about books and politics, then it gets pretty irritating.
Anyhow, Beth and I made it to Portland (only and hour late) and were met there by the wonderful Michele Gamburd who drove us back to her house for dinner and conversation. Michele is Professor of Anthropology at Portland State University, and has a specialist interest in Sri Lanka, having previously published a book enitled The Kitchen Spoon’s Handle: Transnationalism and Sri Lanka’s Migrant Housemaids and has a forthcoming work entitled Breaking the Ashes: The Culture of Illicit Liquer in Sri Lanka. Beth and I learned an awful lot about Sri Lankan culture from both Michele and her mother – also an anthropologist, who is still sharp as a tac despite being in her 80s and having recently suffered a stroke – but also about about the difficulties faced by small American universities like PSU, in terms of funding, workload and managing to keep and retain the best students and researchers.
The following day, Beth and I spent the morning and afternoon in Portland, mostly just wandering about looking in shops and eating ice cream because it was so damned hot (Oregon apparently experiences solid rain from September through May, but for the three summer months everything becomes scorched). Portland is a nice city – it’s clean and relatively calm, and as it is not at all a tourist hot-spot it felt like we were seeing an example of “genuine” American culture and life. Actually, the most extreme case of liqueur sale vigilance I have seen yet was in Portland. When I bought a bottle of wine in the evening to take back to Michele’s, the guy at the store demanded to see both mine and Beth’s IDs, as well as insisting that we provide an address at which we were staying, and informing us that if we drank on the street we would be liable to a $300 fine. I think he was just being a little over-zealous and perhaps that isn’t the norm of Oregon, but as we were hardly about to crack open a bottle of merlot and drink it on the sidewalk at 5pm it all seemed a bit silly.
The next day Michele gave Beth and I a lift to the Hertz car rental depot on the other side of town, where we had reserved a “small economy car” for pick up so that we could drive down the Oregon coast to San Francisco. I was a little doubtful that they’d hire to me – I don’t have a US driving license, English people drive on the other side of the road, I’m under 21 and male, etc – but they basically didn’t bat an eyelid except for adding on a premium for my age. We said our goodbyes to Michele and were led outside to our “small economy car”. When I say “small”, bear in mind that this is America:
That’s not what I call a small car, it’s what I call a great big bloody massive huge Leviathan of a vehicle. Anyway, I was a little apprehensive, not just about controlling the Behemoth but about driving on the incorrect side of the road – but after a few practice laps around the quite blocks driving on the incorrect side of the road started to feel like the most natural thing in the world and I got used to it quicker than I expected. Harder to get used to was the complete absence of a clutch – Americans basically all drive automatic cars, apparently because the concept of gears is too challenging, perhaps? – and for the first day my left foot kept coming down on thin air every time we came to a red light.
We decided to drive north up to Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia river, about 80 miles from Portland where we stopped for lunch on the Washington side in a state park over-looking the Columbia. You can’t really get a good sense from these pictures, but the bridge here is enormous. The Columbia must be a couple of miles wide at this point, as it took us several minutes to cross on the bridge:
After Astoria we drove South down highway 101, which takes you right down the entire Oregon coast and into California. Yoy might be wondering why on earth we wanted to drive down the Oregon coast of all places – well here’s the answer:
You’ll notice in some of the above pictures – taken at Cannon Beach – there is a huge amount of cloud hanging just off the coast over the Pacific Ocean. This is typical of the North West coast, right the way from Seattle down to San Francisco. On hot afternoons it hangs just off the coast, but on cooler days and mornings before the sun burns it off, the area for a few miles in from the coast will be unbelievably foggy. Furthermore, the fog is very low-lying, so you can often drive out of it by taking a road up a mountain. The variability of weather in this part of the world is astounding and like nothing I have ever seen before, giving the entire area a unique feel to accompany the awesome sights…like these:
After seeing all that we drove as far as Lincoln City and started looking for a place to stay. We pulled into the “Ashleigh Inn”, a fairly expensive looking motel where I thought it might be worth trying a long-shot – and we hit gold. The lady on the counter told us to wait a few minutes, and when the lobby was cleared of other people she whispered that as it was after 9pm they could offer us discount rates, due to the fact the management would rather have rooms filled for less than left empty for nothing. So we get to stay in the most enormous and well-furnished hotel room I have ever stayed in for just $30 each:
Although this is only about half the room in this shot, you get the idea. Anyway we went out to get some food, and although the Chinook Winds Casino restaurant had just closed, we managed to find a diner that was still serving food before calling it a day.