This past week I’ve been riding my bicycle down from Seattle, along the Oregon Coast, and inland to Klamath Falls where I’ll catch the overnight train to Jack London Square in Oakland, named after one of my favorite fellow wanderers.
On day one, I took a ferry from West Seattle to the tiny port town of Southworth and cycled all day along scenic backcountry byways canopied by pine trees in the southern shadow of the Olympic mountains. By 5 pm, I realized that I wouldn’t make it to the campground before nightfall. And so I started looking for a place to put up my tent where I wouldn’t bother anyone, and where I wouldn’t be bothered myself.
Just past a state prison, alongside a small lake down a long dirt road off the highway, an odd label popped up on Google Maps: the West Coast Latvian Education Center. I was overcome with curiosity and so turned down a dirt road covered with fragrant pine needles. It was like entering a small European hamlet out of Robin Hood, or somewhere along the way from Westeros to Winterfell. Next to a parking lot was a main log cabin filled with smiling blonde children dancing to Latvian folk songs and parents in plastic chairs recording them with their smart phones. Not knowing what else to do, I joined the parents and recorded a video.
I had that unique sensation when you come across something wonderful and bewildering by yourself and wish there were someone else with you to witness it. Half of the people in the hall wore pink and yellow and blue tie-dye t-shirts. Was this a thing among Latvians? Is it a country of hippies? Or a recent summer camp project? And why was there a community of Latvians in the absolute middle-of-nowhere in southwestern Washington? How did they come to purchase this beautiful property surrounding such an idyllic lake and transform it into a 13th century European hamlet?
I had so many questions, but I couldn’t interrupt the performing children and it was getting dark; I needed to find a place to put my tent up. I found an ideal spot facing the lake, next to a gurgling stream, and laid down on my sleeping pad totally content, looking up at the stars between the pine trees between the mesh of my tent. I was exhausted and deeply happy. I recalled a line from the poet Gary Snyder: “Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” This was what I had come for: my first night of the total freedom of life on the road. But there was also a tinge of sorrow and envy. I kept thinking of the Latvians. Here were white people in the United States allowed to have and express their shared ethnic and cultural identity. There was such a strong bond between them rooted in language, music, dance, history and culture.
At least that’s how it seemed to an outsider cyclist passing through. I knew the reality was more complicated, that 42% of Latvians are Russian-speaking, and as Putin’s foreign policy gets more aggressive, the tension between the two groups has grown. And even those who consider themselves native Latvians today are, in fact, the descendants of Finnish invaders. Go back far enough and there are no natives. I wondered, are Russian-speaking Latvians welcome at the West Coast Latvian Education Center? What happens when they start speaking Russian to one another instead of Latvian?
The next day I continued on, cycling through Grays Harbor County, the “Appalachia of the Pacific Northwest.” I stopped at a diner in Elma, Washington with big breakfasts and bigger waistlines.
The day before, the AP published an excellent in-depth report into the death and despair all around Grays Harbor County, which voted for Trump after having voted Democratic for the previous 90 years.
Grays Harbor County lands near the top of all the lists no place wants to be on: drugs, alcohol, early death, child abuse, runaway rates of welfare that pull some out of poverty but trap others in a cycle of dependency.
The signs of poverty and despair were everywhere: filled syringe boxes in every bathroom, tents alongside the rivers with homeless men and women muttering to themselves. Teenage moms and dads wore pajamas and smoked outside of run-down grocery stores. Coming from San Francisco, I felt like I was visiting District 12 from Panem, the exclusive, exploitative capital city from The Hunger Games.
It was a sunny Sunday morning and a pattern quickly emerged as I cycled past so many homes: paint peeling from the siding, toys and machinery and car parts scattered across the lawn, a pickup truck in the driveway, an American flag, a small satellite dish, a chain-link fence, a bulldog barking ferociously, and a sign on the gate of the fence that says something like “No trespassing. Violators will be shot. Survivors will be shot again.” Despite all of this, the residents were overwhelmingly friendly to me. Several gave me water when my water bottles ran dry, and they were eager to ask me about my trip, even if they flinched when I said I was from San Francisco. When I ran into fellow cyclists from France and Switzerland and Germany, they all said the same thing: Americans are so friendly and generous.
There was no shortage of Trump/Pence signs in front yards. From that excellent AP article:
People in big cities, rooting for Trump’s failure, don’t have nearly as much on the line as they do here.
Further south, as I cycled past the small market, liquor store and two churches that make up Naselle, Washington, I received a head nod from a 50-something man spraying fertilizer on his plants wearing an olive green t-shirt with block white lettering: “White Lives Matter.” I thought about these people and their sense of identity, despair and abandonment. To ride a bicycle through their towns and stop in their establishments is to experience their desperation and humiliation in a way that no book or magazine article could every convey. They feel forgotten and without a future, and they’re probably right. The people who settled the Pacific Northwest in the 19th century prided themselves as self-sufficient Republicans, suspicious of the intrusions of government. Then, as the region developed, especially its cities, it became one of the most progressive parts of the country. Now, ironically, Grays Harbor County voted Republican for the first time in 90 years with the hope that it’s the government, a Republican government, that will give them a future once again.
The poverty and despair diminished when I crossed into Oregon and stopped for a fancy, overpriced brunch at a hipster coffee shop in Astoria with a rack of magazines about travel, meditation, design, and living purposefully. The Oregon coast is still able to survive on tourism and the wealth that seeps over from Portland and Eugene. I fell into conversation with a French woman who had just completed the Transamerica Route, cycling across the country in three and a half months. I asked what it was like for a French woman who worked for a marketing agency in New York City to cycle across middle America by herself. She said I was exaggerating any differences between the French and Americans. “People are people,” she shrugged with typical French nonchalance.
I cycled south along the sublime Oregon coastline and was still thinking about the Latvians and their happy, proud sense of identity. I was thinking about the despair and poverty and humiliation of Grays Harbor County and the guy with the White Lives Matter t-shirt. I wondered if anyone has written the great American novel about a group of proud, recent immigrants and a group of poor, white Americans and their mutual (competing?) fight to maintain a sense of identity that gives their lives meaning and purpose in small-town America. Surely this novel already exists? And then I spent the next few dozen miles writing scenes of the novel in my head as I stared out across the scenic coastline.
That night, at a small state campground just north of the total solar eclipse, I re-read a 2009 essay by Paul Graham about “Keeping Your Identity Small,” which argues that the fewer labels we attach to ourselves, the more accurately we can see the world around us. An obvious critique of the essay is that it’s easier for some people to keep their identities small when they have fewer labels imposed upon them, though in 21st century America, I’m not sure who doesn’t have labels imposed upon them. Still, to Graham’s larger point, we all have a choice as to how many labels we assign ourselves, how attached we become to those labels, and how they influence our opinions. It occurred to me that I spent much of my 20s trying to construct an identify for myself, a way to describe myself and situate myself in the world. And now in my 30s, I find myself wanting to shed that identity, to detach from the labels, to merely be and observe.
In Waldport, Oregon, I grew sick of the all the RV traffic on the 101 and decided to turn inland along a small backcountry highway that climbs the foothills up along the Alsea River. All was quiet and peaceful. An owl flew overhead, crossing the highway as I rode past. Blackberry brambles lined the road and I snacked on a handful every ten miles or so. When my legs burned with fatigue, I pulled over and dipped my feet into the cool, flowing river. I could imagine black bears pouncing on salmon as they slip their way upstream to sustain their species. And I thought: this is the core of my identity, the natural environment of the West. And by the West, I mean from Whistler, Canada down to Chiapas, Mexico; from the Pacific out to the Colorado Rockies, the Grand Canyon, and the Sierra Madre that runs south from Sinaloa down to the border with Guatemala. This is my homeland. This is my identity. Not as a hiker or a cyclist, but as a lover of douglas firs and redwoods and torrey pines and palm tree-lined lagoons.
Finally, I crossed the 5000+ feet summit of Willamette Pass where dust-covered hikers of the Pacific Crest Trail stream across the highway. On my last day, I rode south to Klamath Falls’ train station, a final 80-mile push along a straight, flat highway exposed to the blistering sun. I was cheered on all day by decorated buses and vans with pink streamers on their way to Burning Man. In the taverns and markets along the highway were the mostly sullen faces of Native Americans, silent like ghosts from a forgotten past.
In our obsession with identity and immigration politics, it’s amazing how rarely we bring up Native Americans — not as an abstract idea, but as real people, Americans, living in this country far before any other immigrants. On their faces I saw the same despair and sense of abandonment that I saw in Grays Harbor County, Washington. Except they don’t have a champion in the White House, and they probably never will.
As I came into Chiloquin, Oregon, I rode over a staple, puncturing my rear tire — always the rear tire, the most difficult to change. I had to walk my bike the final half-mile under the scorching sun to the local hardware store, where I patched my tube in the shade. I asked for restaurant recommendations and the owner told me, “well, if you’ve never seen yourself a powwow, then you oughtta head down to the high school and grab yourself some of them Indian tacos.”
Officially called the Annual Restoration Celebration, the three-day festival brings together all of the regions tribes for song, dance and fun. The teenagers wore their tribal name proudly on their t-shirts while the children and adults danced in traditional dress when their tribe’s name was announced over the PA. They danced proudly and passionately, their heads held high. Just like at the West Coast Latvian Education Center, I felt a tinge of envy that these young people grow up with such a clear sense of identity, even with all the poverty around them, even with the odds stacked against them.
But today, the last day of my journey, I was happy just to watch them and enjoy the moment. Every performer needs an audience, and I was grateful to be part of it.