On the Road with Michael and Karen

Part I

As some of you know, my wife and I retired from the world of regular wage labor in the Spring of 2001. Since then we have lived in many places, the last being Portland, Oregon. We spent fourteen months in Portland, along with our twin sons. We were attracted to this city because we wanted to see the Northwest and because of the publicity it has received as an environmentally conscious urban area with a very liberal politics. While the city is surrounded by a green belt of parks, fine for hiking, and while great trees and beautiful flowers abound, Portland’s reputation for liberal politics is mostly myth. Unemployment is very high, wages are low, and workers are treated poorly. One of my sons, a talented chef, was paid a wage much less than half of what he had earned in Pittsburgh and is now earning in Washington, DC., which included several one-day strikes with mass picketing He seldom worked full-time, and the manager of his last employer routinely went on the company com puter and stole hours from workers, a practice which I have come to learn is commonplace in the United States. Working people are almost never mentioned in the local newspapers or discussed by leading politicians. A valiant struggle by unionized workers at the famous Powell’s bookstore, which featured several one-day strikes and mass picketing, got no publicity at all. The labor movement, such as it is, is all but invisible.

And worse than this, Portland is, without question, the most racist city in which I have ever lived. Portland is overwhelmingly white, the “last bastion of Caucasian culture in the United States,” as one local author put it. It is remarkable to observe that almost every homeless person and panhandler (there is a panhandler at almost every major highway exit) is white. Oregon legally prohibited interracial marriages until the late 1960s when the Supreme Court ruled such laws unconstitutional. A small community of Black people came to Portland to work in the shipyards during the Second World War and were promptly housed in substandard buildings on a flood plain near the Columbia River. When the inevitable flood came, many were killed and the entire community was forced to relocate–to an area later eradicated by a highway.

Today, Blacks are more or less completely marginalized politically and culturally. Yet the police are waging war against them. Police constantly harass young black men, and in the six months before we left, police shot and killed a black woman and a black man. The woman and her male companion were stopped by police. The man, a suspected drug dealer, was taken from the car and confronted by the cops. The woman moved from the back seat to the front and got behind the steering wheel. She started the car and was probably about to flee. She was unarmed, and the police knew who she was and where she lived. One of the policemen tried to prevent her from leaving. He claimed that, as he put his arm in the window, he felt that his life was threatened. So, he simply pulled out his gun and shot the woman dead, leaving her kids without a mother. A few months later, two cops, including one who is clearly a psychopath (though presented later as a super Christian by the minister of his fu ndamentalist church), stopped a Black man for failure to use his turn signal when pulling in to a strip mall. The man was apparently high on cocaine, but he was unarmed and did not resist the officers. Within twenty-four seconds from the time he was motioned over by the cops, he was shot dead.

There is a growing Hispanic community in both Portland and the rest of Oregon. But this community goes largely unnoticed, unless you are observant enough to see that nearly all the motel and hotel cleaners, yard care workers, nannies, and lower-level kitchen staff in restaurants have brown faces. There are also Indians in Portland and Oregon, and they have suffered abuse and discrimination longer than any other group.

Despite the relatively small size and as yet political insignificance of minority groups in Portland, the right-wing talk shows and their large white and Christian audiences are obsessed with people of color. The shooting of the two Black persons elicited racist rants for several weeks from the odious local and now national talk show host, Lars Larson, and hundreds of callers. According to them, anyone who doesn’t do what police tell them to do can expect to be killed. Larson said that the police had done society a favor by killing the man since he was allegedly a drug dealer. Larson sponsored a contest for listeners to submit a new state slogan. Among his favorites were: “Welcome to Mexico,” and “Oregon: Habla Espanol?” Remarkably, most people we talked to seemed oblivious to the problem of nearly complete racial homogeneity and thought that having a variety of white ethnicities in town was sufficient diversity for the city.

[A note in passing: It is interesting to observe how close to the surface racism is in the United States. About six weeks after we left Portland, we found ourselves in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In addition to being the state capitol, Santa Fe is a city in which there is very great wealth, and as is increasingly the case throughout the country, a growing divide between rich and poor. Santa Fe trails only New York City in art sales in the United States. There are more than one hundred upscale galleries in town, and matching the richness of the art market, there are many beautiful adobe-style homes of several thousand square feet, sitting on the surrounding hills, and selling for as much as nine million dollars. On the other hand, there is plenty of poverty, hidden in outlying small villages, Indian reservations and pueblos, and in housing developments behind the many strip malls on Cerillos Road, the main highway leading into town from the south. The city has contracted out its jail facilities to a private company, which has become notorious for prisoner neglect, rape of women prisoners by guards and male prisoners, suicides, and the other niceties of imprisonment in this country. The city has already lost several prisoner lawsuits and faces many more. Almost all of the prisoners are minorities. On our next to last day in town, I got a haircut. My wife remarked to the white woman cutting my hair that she hadn’t quite figured Santa Fe out yet. She was talking about the physical layout and the economic makeup of the city. The woman responded immediately that there was a lot of discrimination against whites in Santa Fe!]

The one really good thing about Portland and the Northwest is the physical grandeur which is close by. During our fourteen months there, we took full advantage of this. In case you are ever visiting the region, here are some, but by no means all, of the places most worth a trip:

—Crater Lake: This is a National Park in southern Oregon about three hours inland from the coast. The result of an enormous volcanic eruption, Crater Lake is 2,000 feet deep and as beautifully blue as you will ever see. To local Indians it was a sacred site, and the Indians kept its existence secret from the white settlers (for fifty years, after which whites discovered it by accident). The Lake is especially stunning when the rims are snow-covered, which can be well into summer.

—Mt. St. Helen’s: Twenty-four years after the mountain blew its top, the marks of utter devastation are everywhere. You can take some nice hikes around the mountain, always imbued with both a sense of doom, from the bleakness of the landscape (burned trees can be seen seventeen miles from the eruption, and a stream, much altered from its original course, flows through volcanic waste), and of hope, as you see elk grazing in the valley and wildflowers and some small trees growing once again.

—Mt. Ranier: This is another National Park, but in Washington State, only three hours from Portland.. Mt. Ranier stands some 14,000 feet tall, completed covered by glaciers, almost glowing, most spectacularly in the light of a full moon. Near the fine lodge at Paradise, you can walk in summer among perhaps the most beautiful array of wildflowers in the country. In the fall, the groundcover turns into a quilt of reds, browns, and yellows, rivaling the turning of New England’s autumn leaves.

—Olympic National Park: This park in northwestern Washington has it all: snow-covered mountains along Hurricane Ridge, near the town of Port Angeles; a true rain forest on the western side of the Park; and miles of unspoiled coastline, with gigantic haystack rocks and tide pools filled with star fish of many colors. Our favorite beach, one on which you can camp, is Shi Shi beach, which can be reached by going through the reservation of the Makah Indians. Also on the Makah reservation is Cape Flattery, the northwesternmost point in the continental United States. The waters around this cape are rough and the land is undermined by water caves. As we stood on the platform the Makahs have built and looked out toward Vancouver Island, we could imagine the Indians hunting for whales, standing in their wooden boats. Today the impoverished tribe has reinstated its hunt (which, given that their production has always been for use and attuned to the rhythms of the natural world, has n ever threatened the existence of the whales), in part as a way to inculcate its culture in the young. This has caused an outcry among some (white) environmentalists, most of whom have shed precious few tears for the devastation of Indian society and culture by their white ancestors.

—The Columbia River Gorge: although the Columbia is much dammed and not the wild river it used to be, the great gorge through which it flows is full of side canyons with streams and more waterfalls than anywhere else in the United States. We especially like the trail at Eagle Creek, very close to the Bonneville dam.

—The Lodge at Mt. Hood: Mt. Hood overlooks the city of Portland, although it is often hidden behind the area’s infamous cloudy skies. The lodge at the mountain’s ski area was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Great Depression. The builders were trained in the wide variety of crafts needed to make such a fine structure. All throughout the West, CCC works abound (roads, trails, buildings, bridges, etc.), and their fine craftsmanship shows what could be done still today through public initiative if only the will were there.

—The Oregon coast: Highway 101 traverses the entire Oregon coast, from Astoria (where we saw a Finnish workers’ club) to Brookings in the south. The coast is dotted with accessible and well-maintained state parks, and it is possible to hike along the rocky coast as well as on the mountains which often come right down to the shoreline. One of our favorite areas is the sand dunes, which stretch for fifty miles, beginning at the town of Florence on the central Oregon coast. Some of the dunes are over 500 feet tall, and the coast in front of the dunes is a great place to hike for miles without seeing another person.

We left Portland on April 30. We packed our car with a few IKEA bags (large sturdy plastic bags you can buy at IKEA stores) of clothes and personal supplies, several laundry baskets full of food staples (most purchased at the city’s numerous natural food and farmers’ markets), lots of good beer (Portland is a beer lovers’ paradise), a cooler, kitchen utensils, and a two-burner hotplate. Our goal was to travel around the southwest and west for four months, staying in cheap hotels, hiking as much as possible, observing the social situation, and cooking as many meals as possible on our hotplate. We determined not to eat bad food, and I determined not to gain weight.