Oregon is a greatest hits of Cascadian geography: you get the ocean, you get the forests, you get the rivers, you get the fields full of elk. You get a buffet plate of the outdoors, a little of everything. What does it mean to love the outdoors? I’ve thought this at every national park where we’ve stayed, and here, as we wind our way through tree-lined roads, I wonder it as we search for cafes and the first result shows a large piece of wood carved into the shape of our bigot president, two grinning men on either side of it with not a trace of irony. Is this a form of love, to someone? Is shooting a deer and holding up its horns a form of love? Is bulldozing a lawn into a mountain love?
Every time I have been to Oregon I feel as though I am peeking behind the curtain of another way of life – or maybe it’s a glimpse at my future? A life I could live, or could currently be living in another reality. What is it though? The best of the worlds I’ve grown to love? Close enough to California, but a little more mountainous, a little more crunchy, a little more genuine.
I do not feel this way in Portland. We don’t like the coffee. Surprise. We patronize a stationary store that is aspirational, towards what I’m not sure. We are the only people inside, with these clean corners, these bright white walls matching bright blank pages, with pens in any color, with straight lines and high contrast. We don’t match here, with our grungy skin and muddy shoes, with woodsmoke still clinging to our clothes. Is this peak capitalism? A minimalist, sleek shop designed to make you desire more notebooks, more pens, more instruments of work and productivity. A store that promises if only we purchase the pencils with the seamless erasers (which I do) we will become better workers, be one step closer to 30 under 30 or a loft in Williamsburg or the ability to take vacations and stay in real hotels.
Rounding the corner back to our car, fleeing the perfect workers we might be (fresh notebooks and pencils in hand) there is a couch on the street corner, bearing a spray painted monster face with jagged teeth and a happy, menacing smile. The couch is a faded beige paisley, dirt stained and full of history. I love this couch. I feel a kinship with it. I love it from a distance, afraid of the bedbugs and substances that are probably lurking beneath the surface, scurrying between the puffs of stuffing. I hope the former owners of this couch didn’t purchase something new, something minimalist from Restoration Hardware or wherever it is that people buy nice new furniture from nowadays. We don’t have time to linger, so we wind through the cutest neighborhoods we could never afford, and laugh for hours, for days to come, at a pro-life bumper sticker that makes no sense.
I would crawl into that mountain. I would crawl into that stream. I would crawl into that bookshelf with the ladder. I would crawl into that garden. I would crawl into that pale pink sunset. I would crawl into the bowl of grapes. I would become Oregon. I would be happy.
We talk about what it would be like to live in a small city, like our hosts, content at home, cooking from the garden, traveling often. It feels so far from reach. It feels like all these things we are seeing are too distant, even though they are right here. We are driving and the coast is beautiful and cold, blowing sand into our eyes and our food like it appreciates the compliment but isn’t interested, thanks. The people we see are harvesting. The people we see are hotboxing. The people we see are busy living. Where we don’t see them, their absence isn’t marked like it was in the South, by churches and abandoned buildings. Instead, the trees and the waves seem relieved, like they can breathe here.