Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Early Reflections on the Great Northwest

The Great American Northwest! It doesn't take long to exhaust one's personal arsenal of adjectives when describing this land, the people and such incredible diversity of climate, geology, or culture. With the exception of warm ocean water, the region is blessed with an intense richness beyond the far fathoms of a wild dreamer's imagination. For the first white Americans, the northwest certainly began as a dream. In blazing the early paths into an untamed, rugged, and truly wild west, those early settlers left a richness that colors our history and will forever define the core legacy of America's pioneering spirit.

Long before the 19th century began, the Shoshone warriors were some of the first tribes believed to have inhabited the land. Among all the Native American tribes, the Shoshone were considered to be some of the toughest and most skilled - possessing advanced tactics whether it was in battle or trade strategies. Many of the region's historians note that the northwest territory would have been much more difficult to settle if the tribes hadn't fought amongst themselves as much as they did.

Eventually, there came the mountain men, pioneers, and trappers in trade of beaver pelts and other hides. Gold was soon discovered in many of those same streams and gulches - igniting a national excitement whereby the mid-1800s, Americans began feverishly pushing west to the land of Oregon, a land of absolute freedom and free to claim, a land of milk and honey, a land of manifest destiny.... Despite one in ten dying along the way, the idea bubbled beyond biblical proportions, far flung fantasies, and exaggerated claims that electrified the atmosphere and buzzed across newly strung telegraph lines. "...there was a species of madness among us...", described a frontiersman at the height of the frenzy.

Well, so goes my super-condensed history of the early settlement era in the northwest... It's difficult to resist after a visit to the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center outside of Baker City and the countless other museums, cultural centers, historical landmarks, and most importantly, the story-telling old-timers (pardon the pun) that have intrigued my interests along the way.... but really, history is impossible to ignore when attempting to connect the dots of our days, because drawing lines that start with an awareness of our past, ultimately allows us to shed a bit of ignorance and realistically face the future better informed. I'll try to come back later and wrap this point.

Fast forward to today and there's a lot to be said about "the northwest life". I could numb fingers on keyboards all day, but as most residents would tell you, it's one of those things you just have to experience in order to fully grasp. Not withstanding, I'll proceed with two years of mid-twenties fast-paced living and a bike tour under my belt as sufficient credentials to convey (or at least intend to convey) a valid impression.

If you want ocean, marsh, swamp, pond, lakes, rivers, rapids, streams, creeks, cascading waterfalls, scree, talus, snow, ice, glacier, active volcanic peaks, lava rock, scrub, sand, canyon lands, then you can find them all moving west to east between the perpetually misty mank cloud coastal harbors and sunny dry desert star dust.

If you enjoy Kenyan cuisine or Japanese sushi, Korean BBQ or hearty stews, incredibly fresh caught seafood or the world's finest brews, then you will find an unmatched global platter of culinary creation at its absolute best. Whether you're a green bean vegan or bloody rare carnivore, you can not only exist, but thrive off of the healthiest locally grown cornucopia that undoubtedly includes organically grown fresh produce, but arguably the most supreme grade A+ beef to roam the land. It would be difficult to match the happiness and health of the Oregonian cow. The food alone is reason enough to live here.

If you prefer to associate with the farmer Joe's or coffee shop Shmoe's, then you can find them and all their third cousins and cool kid friends in between e.g. abolitionists, separatists, hard-core libertarians, neo-cons, old-fashioned traditional trustworthy conservatives, salt of the earth farmers with more intimacy and soil soul than Loa Tzu, true cowboys, true big man ranchers, small farm self-sustainers, hill billies, hermits, rednecks, renegade rednecks, silver spoon jacked-up truck daddy boy rednecks, simple people, good simple people, good honest people, good honest hardworking people, striving renaissance men, yogis, weekend warriors, sci-fi computer game techno geeks, cool geeks, reclusive geeks, super moms, super 80-hr family negligent life dedicated worker dad, slackers, system-drag-down slackers, active-aware suburbanites, common suburbanites, oblivious suburbanites, aware-but-don't care suburbanites, hypocrites, NIMBY-liberals, weirdo, wacko, emo, goth, snob, radicals, free radicals, deconstructionists, tree huggers, other separatists and other abolitionists (that claim difference but really the same as those first mentioned, just a change of clothing and music preferences), etc, etc, etc. If we could only remember that we are all God's children.....

If you want adventure, recreation, sporting, or pursuit of the extreme -once again, it's here. But sparing another agonizing non-comprehensive list, it is quite possible to immediately detect the presence of a northwest outdoorsman by the content of conversation with respect to his or her exploits with nature. Specifically, it becomes most apparent with a sometimes extensive knowledge of snow and avalanche conditions, or maybe the preceding mountain cloud formation weather warnings to incoming warm and cold fronts, or you know for sure, and it is most blatantly displayed in a detailed description to some special ski expedition of dropping from helicopter into wild back country slopes to cut fresh new lines atop untouched hoarfrost that has the unforgettable euphoric feel and sound of a continuous champagne glass shattering with each clean turn taken en route to a warm lodge and rosy cheeks of the apris ski.

It seems to be an amalgamation of various elements herein that constitute one of several possible, but all distinctive modes of northwest living. It's a way of life, a way of spirit that infects and is then perpetuated by its inhabitants. Although I have neglected to mention much about the arts, the presence of that northwest soul is pervasive in much of the region's music, craft, and canvass. It doesn't have its own genre and it's not quite a style, but you feel it, and know it's there. It could be a mid-90s Modest Mouse sound of slight spooky strange sadness that sings from your speakers while simultaneously sending imagery of a winter's drive beside icey cascade skylines that echo frozen during the frigid dark dampness of January...or a smirky Seattle sarcasm that happily radiates with the bi-polar painful hide-n-seek sun dance of June just to name a few.....it's hard to overstate the affect that northwest nature and climate has in carving the culture. Summers are often breif, but they perform the most dramatic tranformative magic when illuminating the land and enlivening the (west of the Cascade) people from a nine-month shroud of clouds. The option to flee east of the range for the vinyards, orchards, and dry desert sun relief is always an option that many take advantage of. But such unforgiving juxtaposition and sharp contrast creates surprising results - bringing out the best and worst in people...whether reflected in the bliss had upon the alpenglow summits or steel cold ice axe attitude of the tired and hungry bivouaced mountaineer. Or revealed through closed closet creations of all the diligent mad scientists and starving artists that somehow harvest that gloomy cloud power to focus and forge their genius and authenticity.

That "spirit", a pioneering spirit evolved, seems to have begun with those early settlers, and has since seeped permanently into the rock, infiltrated the water, and permeated the air that blows between mountain passes, across prairies or urban avenues. Maybe since there is no more territory or "physical" west existing to explore, that the new frontiers are of imagination, mind-body, body-mind and the never ending pursuit to push boundaries further into those realms be it artistic, technological, personal fitness, or the ultimate game to juggle them all....a game so many here are determined to win.

Just some early thoughts to let loose before pedaling further away....

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