OREGON AND WASHINGTON
If you like green and wet, you will love Oregon. It is a damp symphony of natural beauty and relentless rain. Lots of rain. At times it feels like you are in the coldest tropical forest in the world, with Caribbean-style sunshine one minute and chilling heavy showers the next, roads suddenly awash with water then, as quickly, steaming dry under the hot sun. But it is indeed beautiful. Very beautiful.
We were excited to visit this special state, and not just because it produces some of the finest Pinot Noir in the world, but because it is often spoken about as if it is America's holy-of-holies for nature-lovers. However, driving through on Highway 84 from Idaho in the east, the first few hours were, to be honest, completely forgettable. Treeless scrubland stretches on either side for miles, the monotony broken only by the occasional dramatic 2,000ft climb - all the time dragging the long-suffering Mini behind our 30ft RV - quickly followed by an equally harrowing 6% descent where we expected to see the little car rush past us. But after 100 miles, relief is at hand. You eventually reach the banks of the magnificent Columbia River which forms the impressively wide border with northern neighbor Washington. Suddenly, everything changes and the pandemic fir trees claim every inch of land and Oregon's lofty reputation as a sylvan heaven is restored.
As the river cuts through its gorge towards the Pacific, the freeway and railroad lines cling to its every twist and turn; it is a wonderful drive as you head towards Portland and the coast. There are remarkably few points at which you can cross north into Washington State and one of the best and longest standing is the famous Bridge of the Gods at Cascade Locks. This steel cantilever bridge, now carrying a $2 toll, is high enough that, in September 1927, Charles Lindbergh was able to fly under the span with typical barnstorming bravado in his Spirit of St Louis, four months after he became the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic in the same aircraft. In the old days, there were raging rapids here which disrupted the passage of ships as they passed up and down the river, and in the 1920's a lock was built. Nowadays, the ugly hydro-electric dams on the river have changed all those dynamics making the lock totally redundant.
The Columbia River - Oregon nearside, Washington on the far side.
The whole area is looked down on by the regal volcano, Mt Hood, the highest mountain in Oregon. This snow-clad cone is 11,240 feet high and has the dubious reputation of being Oregon's 'most likely volcano to erupt'.
To explore this noble, sleeping Vesuvius, you take the tourist route cleverly called the 'Fruit Loop' out of a lovely town called Hood River, passing by the bountiful orchards and vineyards that thrive here, stopping only to buy the local cherries. Then you head straight on, all the time climbing through the conifers in a National Forest, until you reach the extraordinary Timberline Lodge at 6000ft. This mountain hotel, together with its cavernous Swiss-style heavy wooden interior, was built between 1936 and 1938 under the Works Progress Administration, a scheme to set up just to create work for the unemployed during the Great Depression - a capitalist’s version of socialism. It sits just above the tree line on the south of Mt Hood and is a unique and highly popular skiing retreat. One big reason for its popularity is that the slopes are operable for almost 11 months a year. After our visit in June, there was a 10 inch dump of fresh snow and the ski-lifts got even busier carrying the equipment-laden alpine enthusiasts up to the top of the ski-runs just to slide all the way back down again. Some of you may recognize the exterior of the building - this was the focus of haunting opening scene in the Jack Nicholson creepy flick, The Shining.
To the west, there is another unmissable scenic route alongside the highway that takes you to a series of dramatic waterfalls, with names like Horsetail Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and the amazing Multnomah Falls, the tallest in Oregon (bottom).
But it is the coastline that holds Oregon's greatest wonders. Route 101 runs south to north along the beaches, through the lush forests and into fascinating Pacific-edge towns - like Cannon Beach. This is a calm and cute village, full of all those little shops that make a vacation memorable. The beach is vast and sandy, and watched over by the aptly-named Haystack Rock which straddles the tide-line.
Seaside is another small hamlet but is less than remarkable while Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia, is also underwhelming and could and should do better but is currently packed with average restaurants whose greatest contribution to the gourmet seafood culinary menu is fish & chips. We couldn’t get our claws on a Dungeness crab anywhere.
But the coastline is a special glory of nature and, when not raining, makes an unforgettable drive.
Of the three sibling US states that border the Pacific Ocean, California is the party animal, full of opinion with a smokin' joint in one hand and a glass of decent wine in the other. Oregon is less obtrusive, a rugged outdoor type, who prefers to hike mountains and keep its counsel. Meanwhile, Washington is the more nerdy one, the internet whizz full of youthful hope and ambition and very proud of its post-Yuppie success. For here in Seattle burns the fire that heats the modern e-world. Microsoft employs no less than 40,000 people in the area, Amazon 25,000, and they are all sustained by Starbucks coffee which was spawned here. As you drive into Seattle, Boeing (the biggest exporter in the US in dollar terms - it has come a long way since old William Boeing saw his first flying machine in 1909 and set about building his own) stretches out before you, currently a giant plane park for hapless 737 Max's dressed up in a range of international airline liveries, presumably all returned for safety checks, something that is certainly getting the attention of the 45,000 employees who work here.
Make no mistake, Seattle is a terrific place to visit. Pike Place Market is up there with the best for the title 'A great free stroll'.
This indoor parade of fish stalls, flower and fruit stands and bijou touristy kiosks is a joy, with good restaurants on every corner. It may not have the entertainment charm of Covent Garden in London, but makes up for it in an authenticity that just makes you love it. Along with the thousands of others who flock here.
One route into the Market is via the narrow Post Alley, a curious (and we felt vomit-inducing) corridor literally covered in multi-colored chewing gum. As they say in Yorkshire, England - 'there's nowt as queer as folk'.
We came here to Seattle on our honeymoon, eight fabulous years ago, and since then skyscrapers have shot up like crazy, all competing for light like trees in a glass forest. This glittering downtown growth shows that Seattle is doing extremely well, thank you, but like every successful tekkie city in the US it comes with casualties. And they are just a few streets away.
Being Sunday morning and with the city's streets devoid of all traffic, we set off leisurely on foot to find the best Dim Sum brunch in town. Chinatown here is just a mile south of Pike Place Market and so we strolled off down 3rd Avenue with shrimp dumplings and spring rolls on our minds. As the big shops turned into small shops, and the frontages turned from classy to scruffy, we were shocked, to the core, to see the sheer number of homeless gathering on every corner, in every park and along every sidewalk. It was tragic to see, men and women, young and old, black and white, each one with a story that few want to hear. Later, we saw the countless number of bivouac tents scattered around the outer roads, by junctions and under bridges. We have commented before on how America has the greatest divide between rich and poor and Seattle is a microcosm of that. If the movie was remade today, it should be called 'Homeless In Seattle'. It was all the more obvious this Sunday morning, as the busy workers were having a day off, leaving the wretched to claim the streets for themselves. It was like seeing the detritus on an estuary mudflat after the tide has gone out.
But we had some great dim sum anyway, at a tiny, cheap and not-particularly-cheerful Chinese café called the Harbor City, the sort of 6 table gaff that Anthony Bourdain would get excited about. The only noise was from the four maniacal Chinese women staff standing almost on top of each other behind the counter but shouting at the tops of their oriental voices as if they were each in a different county. And we were joined by a friendly, fearless sparrow who flew in and out of the door with impunity every 90 seconds, each time leaving with a fluffy chunk of Sandie's Char Siu bun in its mouth. But the food was excellent at 70c a piece.
Warning: Seattle is an exhausting place to explore, with hills that compete with San Francisco. To save your knees and calf muscles, you would be advised to stick to the lower streets and look out over the harbor and its islands from a comfortable seat in one of the more inviting restaurants.
This walking thing can be very tiring.
Whale watching is one of the highlights here, but it is expensive costing anything up to $150 each to spend four hours on board an upmarket tourist troop ship in Puget Sound looking for Humpbacks, Minkes and Orcas. When you see one in the distance, you will inevitably hear an excited yelp followed by a corporate reverential gasp as if a holy apparition had appeared. We were not particular lucky on our own aqua-safari as the whales seemed far less interested in seeing us than we were in seeing them but we did get to encounter the odd (far off) Humpback and a pod of Minkes. Wouldn't it be nice if nature was just a bit more co-operative.
As we had travelled from our Key West home at the bottom right corner of America, about 2,500 miles away as the Bald Eagle flies (somehow we took a few off-piste turns as it took us 16,000 miles) and as far south as you can go, we felt the need to reach the diagonally opposite top left corner and we did just that on our boat trip. We followed the US-Canada border down the center of the Puget Sound and felt a momentary sense of achievement that we could go no further.
But Washington is not just about Seattle. We had earlier driven up the West Coast, alongside the Hebridean inlets and through the few small but definitive fishing villages which still exist today (South Bend for example - great for oysters). This is another great drive, all the time skirting Mt Olympus crowned in snow and seated in its very own National Park.
Later we drove east, passing through the wine country around Yakima, where the well-irrigated vineyards glow a verdant green set against the less interesting background of parched hillsides. Interstate 90 proves to be a truly beautiful drive as you pass Spokane and head through the mountainous terrain into Idaho and Montana, all the time accompanied by splendid rivers, stunning lakes (especially at Coeur D’Alene) and a million noble fir trees.
So it is from Washington State that we can go no further west. The ocean has put up an impenetrable barrier that calls for us to turn the bus around and head east. We do this with heavy hearts but the call of Mt Rushmore, the Great Lakes and perhaps a trip north of the border to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia lifts our spirits. Thank you again for joining us. We are setting off along the northern route later this week and hope you can find a second now and again to join us as we look for more stubborn little corners of this incredible country.
In the town of Seaside, Oregon, is a half-decent Thai restaurant. It lurks on the side of the road bang next to an 'adult' shop, a secretive chamber for grown-ups with a curious sense of nocturnal adventure. The reason we mention this is to give our explanation for the name of the restaurant which clearly had come out of a Siamese think-tank of its owners and staff. One name must have been yelled out in a eureka moment and clearly proved irresistible for those around the table yearning for home delights back in Bangkok.
It's name: Thai Me Up.
Well, it amused us... perhaps they'll start a chain.