As we zoom our way down the Oregon coast into the redwood country of northern California on our trip back home, it occurs to me that, culturally speaking, our little family vacation was probably a failure. That is to say, a trek north from Santa Cruz to the 49th parallel — about a thousand miles one way — renders many rewards. But culturally diversity is not among them.
Yes, we skated along the edge of the country’s conservative interior enough to see a few perplexing billboards and pointed bumper stickers. But for the most part, the West Coast north of the Bay Area all the way to the point where Sarah Palin until recently presided is, politically speaking, pretty darn mono-chromatic. In fact, if we were ever to redraw state lines to reflect political leanings, we in Santa Cruz County would likely belong to a thin coastal blue-state strip that runs all the way to Bellingham, North America’s answer to Chile (Latte-topia, perhaps?).
Essentially, we’ve hugged pretty close to the Tofu Belt the whole way and that’s a shame, because in travel you want the friction of dropping in from another culture and playing the stranger in a strange land, at least a little bit. In our case, no matter where we were, we never felt very far from home, and not only because we were never more than a hour’s drive from the nearest Trader Joe’s. The people we met along the way were recognizable to us, in a cultural way. They were the kind of people we see every day. I know a few cranky types who might call our route the White Liberal Safety Zone.
Four years ago, we took another family vacation, this one to Chicago along Route 66 much of the way. That was during the turning point of the Bush years and the Cultural War was at fever pitch (Isn’t it still?). That trip gave us occasion to pass through a differently cultural landscape from the Central Valley across the desert Southwest to Texas, Kansas and Missouri, and back across the Dakotas, Montana and Idaho. It was a red-state jubilee, and it was great fun, even if we were made to feel occasionally like godless degenerates (Actually, people we met along the way were very nice).
But my daughters were younger then, still lost in their “American Girl” haze (ask someone who has preteen girls in the house). They were, in fact, oblivious to the political electricity that zinged through the air when you’re driving through Texas with California plates in an election year. Now, of course, they are much more politically aware but a trip north through Latte-topia gave them no real reason to face people who believe differently than they do or to question their assumptions. Every place we ate had a vegetarian option. Every place we visited spoke a language we understood. The stories of “birthers” and screaming protesters at health-care town-hall meetings were all faint background noise, like rumblings from some far-away country full of inexplicable people.
However, we did the see the diversity of lifestyle within the West Coast blue-state matrix itself, from the upscale, gay-friendly businesses flying the rainbow flag in chi-chi shopping districts in Vancouver, to the scraggly, dread-wearing, beatific hippies singing off-key in jam circles in the public spaces of Arcata. I feel that the between the four of us, we could easily write a “Field Guide to West Coast Liberals.”
What I want for my children is that they understand the differences between people in different parts of the world, and I would hate it if this trip might have underscored a complacent smugness in them. I make no apologies for rearing them with liberal, open-minded (and open-hearted) values of respect and wonder. But those values need contrasts and challenges, and very few of those await for kids like mine in places like Seattle and Portland.
We had enriching experiences in other ways, however, from the dazzling Asian-dominated enclaves of Surrey, B.C. to the beautiful little shops of Ashland. Mount Shasta, Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier all loomed in the middle distance to remind us of the fragility of all that surrounded us. I had perhaps the greatest baseball experience of my life, watching the Seattle Mariners win an extra-inning game on a walk-off homerun in a ballpark of breathtaking design. I jumped into the gorgeous emerald green waters of the Smith River at the Oregon-California state line as a gesture of completion back in my home state.
And, we had occasion to visit a place near Portland called the Grotto, a lovely Catholic retreat set against a magnificent basalt cliff face. We took an elevator up to the top of the cliff on a Sunday morning and gazed down 100 feet to a Mass taking place below use, a God’s eye view to be sure. Suddenly, I flashed back on our previous trip, to a roadside religious shrine in Texas, in which a man had built a replica of the tomb in which Jesus was interred (and from which he rose). That was as spartan and basic as Protestant America gets, while at the Grotto, the ornate statuary spoke of a distinctly Catholic form of devotion. We strolled reverently around the grounds, ending up at an enormous edifice made of marble and glass, called a meditation temple, which jutted out from the cliff looking out over the Oregon country side. The dominant view from the temple were the planes landing at Portland’s airport, and if you looked hard enough, you could see on a close-by adjacent street, a pink-canopied adult bookstore. There it is in a nutshell, girls, I announced in a mood for grandiosity. It’s America in a nutshell, quiet high contemplation having to exist cheek-by-jowl with noise and low entertainment.