Archive for December, 2011

Down the Coast 2: All Those Names I Know

I could live in Portland. Easy. I like the place immediately, without even knowing why. I like it despite the brow-level cloud cover, the sprawling semi-industrial areas of the East Side, the damp  cold that goes right through you. There’s just something about it that makes me happy.

Portland is day three in the United States of America, Seattle is the evening of day one and the morning of day two. After checking into a hostel, I meet a potential ride-sharer for a drink. But he is dreadlocked and dour, gruff and a little on edge, and I can’t see myself sharing a confined space with him for any sort of extended period. So, the next morning, on the ferry across the Puget Sound, I send him a message explaining that I want to do this part of the trip on my own. I never hear back from him.

The car to myself, I drive off the ferry and towards north Washington, near the Olympic Mountains. After several sets of directions from several service station attendants and one group of firemen, I find the house I’m looking for: one of four or five places lining an airstrip somewhere outside of Sequim where some friends of Jeanne, Brian and Glen’s live. Both retired, he’s building an airplane in the hanger in the front yard, and she weaves intricate tapestries on looms in the guest room.

They are deeply intelligent both, wise and well travelled and conversation comes easily. We talk a lot about America and they explain some particulars of American politics and culture that can’t really be properly understood from a distance. I tell them I fell like I know a lot about the U.S., even though I have never been here before. I know that Portland is in Oregon because I’ve heard the two names run together on TV or in movies. I have a clear visual image of what San Francisco and L.A. must be like. I know more about the political landscape and cultural nuances of the U.S. than of any other country I have never visited, because every aspect of it has been fictionally presented to me in every medium it can find to be presented in. And because it has all been so well emulated in so many aspects of my own culture. I tell them that, most of all, I’m pretty curious to find out what it’s really like here.

The next morning I find the 101 and follow it all the way to Portland, buying coffee that tastes quite a bit like burnt popcorn at a casino cafeteria not far out of Sequim, and stopping to buy a homemade postcard at a little shop on the Hood Canal. In the postcard, the shop is pictured covered in snow.

The day after arriving, I go for a long walk from the north east of the city back to the south. Portland is divided into four quarters. East of the river is inhabited mostly by students, hippies and hipsters, little stores and bars; the west houses the yuppies and the well off, the main downtown area and a massive park on a hill that spans half the length of the city. I spend most of my time in the east, which turns out to be a good decision. There, the suburbs come in rambling weatherboard, all lilac purples and sky blues, every shades of green and red and brown, all of them similar but each somehow different to its neighbour. There are bike lanes full of bikes and streets full people who smile unprompted at strangers. I find a three-story fittings and lighting store called Hippo Hardware and spend nearly an hour there. The inside is a labyrinth of ramps and little rooms, passageways and basements. There’s a hinge room and a door room, a wall of keyholes, a whole herd of clawed bathtubs. The top story is so crowded with different lamps and light fixtures it’s hard to move around without bumping something over.

On the second day, I arrange to meet Calvin at a cafe in the north east. His reply to my ridesharing ad has told me he was 25, outgoing, heading to San Francisco to hang out with his Aunt. He’s travelling with a BMX bike that can be stowed like a suitcase and a backpack and  he promised that he can properly operate Roger, my car. That he had called my car by name in his reply won him major points.

When he arrives, I like him as immediately as the city he’s been living in the past eight months or so. He’s scruffy and dishevelled, with thin, unbrushed hair that, once freed from his beanie, stands up at all angles from his head. He wears great big gold-framed grampa glasses that are too big for his face but somehow suit him. A fine network of small white scars, which I later find out are from various BMXing accidents, decorate his forehead and  nose. He sits down and we start talking and suddenly two hours has passed, our coffee cups emptied and cleared, and the conversation has barely rested.

The next day is sunny for the first time. I rent a bike from the hostel and go for a long ride, posting up ridesharing ads in the hostel on the west side and exploring the downtown. I find the giant park and casually start riding up into it and then just keep going, expecting any moment for the hills to plateau out into a coffee shop or something and being disappointed at very regular intervals. In the distance, Mount Helen rises in a perfect white triangle from the flat of the surrounds.

At the top, with no reason not to, I go to the zoo. I wander around happily in the cold, seeking out the heated indoor exhibits, giggling at the animals’ facial expressions and reading all the signs about how we’ve fucked up pretty much everyone there’s ecosystem and killed off most of their relatives.

Nick I meet at the hostel. Sitting on the sofa by the reception desk when he checks in, I overhear him say something about driving south.
“Hey,” I say, getting up from the sofa and walking over.
“Hey,” he says.
“You’re driving south? Because I’m driving south.”
He looks at me.
“But you’ve got a car,” I continue, feeling myself start to blabber. “I’m looking for rideshare people but if you’ve got a car, that won’t work. Anyway. Yeah. When were you thinking of leaving?”
He shrugs. “A day or so.”
Everything about him is loose. He’s quite tall and stands straight, but his posture is comfortably slack and rounded. He swings in his movements, his limbs rising and falling with loose intention. The conversation moves forward easily.
“Maybe we could convoy it or something?” I suggest, after we’ve been talking in the reception area for a good 20 minutes.
He shrugs. “Yeah. Maybe.”

Later, we meet Calvin for a beer to talk about the trip. We take my car and drive to where he is, which turns out to be so far north it’s not even east any more. We get predictably lost with my bad directions, but make it in the end, and the three of us start in hungrily on the $2 pints of PVR, pore happily over maps, and make plans. Later, Nick and I find some live music in a venue closer to our hostel. The first band, playing when we arrive, is good and messy and fun – all fluoro colours and funny sunglasses – but the second just sort of bashes at their drum kits and laptops and makes animal noises. I watch a girl on the lower level of the bar play with a glowstick inside a balloon for nearly half-an-hour.

The next morning, I pick up Calvin and we drive downtown to meet Nick. He’s sitting in a cafe with a British backpacker named Alex, who had occupied the bunk above him at his previous hostel in the west side of the city. They had struck up conversation at 2am one morning after being woken up by a few bad dorm mates and from there had organised the rideshare. Calvin and I sit down. The day is creeping its way towards noon but we are four now, nearly ready to go, fortifying our young bodies with breakfast and bad coffee, periodically feeding our respective parking metres, until it’s eventually time to climb into our very own cars and strike out freely, happily towards the coast.

Down the Coast 1: Welcome to the United States of America

Seems like everyone who’s crossed it has an U.S. border story. In Seattle, there was a whole hostel pubcrawl worth of us, each with our own special rendition when the topic came up.

As with most, my border crossing didn’t go well. I crossed at Vancouver, driving South on the I5 towards Seattle. When we pulled up, the loud American traveller I had picked up from a ridesharing website was eating an apple and laughing at how nervous I was.

“It’s fine!” she kept saying. “God, you’re so funny how scared you are. Just relax! It’ll totally be fine!”

The car in front of us finally pulled away to drive merrily into America and we pulled forward. The man in the booth looked down at us as sternly as he could. We passed over our passports – her battered American, my Canadian. He looked at mine for a long time.

“What do you do?” he asked me.
“Sorry?”
“What do you do? For work.” He gave me a hard look.
“Uh, I’m a writer,” I said, deciding that it sounded better than post-student or out-of-work bartender.
“Will you be writing in the States?”
“Yeah, probably,” I said. He gave me another one of his looks and I realised my mistake. “Uh, I mean, not professionally. Not for money or anything.”
“Because, you can’t write in the States. You know that.”
I nodded as earnestly as I could. He looked at me for a moment longer, before slowly passing his gaze over my car.
“That an apple?” he asked my companion.
“Uh-ha,” she said.
“Got any more of those?”
We shook our heads.
“Right,” he said and pulled out a pen. He started filling out a yellow form. “Ok, I’m going to need you to pull over the side there for a car search. So, pull in on the left over here. Park your car and give them this slip.” He handed me the yellow piece of paper with our passports. I took them, panicking quietly to myself as I put the car in drive.
“It’s totally fine!” my traveller assured me. “Relax!”

I parked, found the apple I had in the back seat, and started rushing through it as casually as possible on the walk towards the giant, white, bureaucratic border building. The American deposited her apple core in a flower pot at the entrance.

Inside, the U.S. border guard at the counter looked exactly like a U.S. border guard. Buzzcut, overweight and stony-faced, he was not impressed by the apple I was trying so desperately to finish.
“Uh, do you have a bin or something?” I asked.
“Hey Anne? Anne, can you get Mike over here? This girl’s got an apple here I’m going to need him to have a look at.” Anne left to go get Mike. “Got any more of those?” he asked me.
“No,” I said. “No. I’m pretty sure.”

He stared on the questions. He was a man who liked people to stay where they were, it seemed; people who just stayed put and simple.
“So, you’re one of those people, huh?” he said to my companion after she had finished telling him about how she had been teaching in Thailand and wandering around South East Asia for the past several years. “You just travel around like that? Just go from place to place all the time?”
She nodded.
“But how do you support youself?” he asked angrily. “How do you get the money to do that?”
She told him she worked for it. She taught.

Mike was taking his time with the apple, so we kept talking. I don’t remember how we got onto Germany but a dull light came on behind his eyes when we did. He had been stationed there, he told us, once right before and once right after the wall came down. He knew all about those attitudes over there, all about the people who had them. He lightened up a bit after that, after we talked about his military days for a while. Finally, he and mike pulled on some gloves, told us to take a seat, and marched out to my car.

“My Australian passport is sitting right on the centre console,” I said, watching them pass through the sliding doors.
“So?”
“I dunno. Just might complicate things,” I said. “I just want to go through. I wonder if I have any other fruit.”

When they returned, Mike was carrying the slightly demented apple I had pulled from Jeanne, Brian and Glen’s tree before leaving Victoria and forgotten about. They called us back up to the counter.
“Sorry about the apple,” I said. “I completely forgot about it.”
The border guard waved it off. “OK, so you’re fine to go through,” he said to my companion. “You’re just an American citizen returning home.” He turned to me. “You, however…” My stomach dropped. “You’re a writer. Now, you might think it’s fine to pick up a writing job here and there in the States. It’s not. You can’t write while you’re in the states.”
I nodded dumbly. “No worries.”
“Alright. So you’re OK to go through.”

On the other side, we stopped at the service station a little down the road to use the toilet. The American traveller bought me a small bottle of cider to celebrate my first time entering United States of America. At the counter, the lady was friendly and talkative.
“This is your first time in the U.S.?” she asked, amazed.
I nodded.
“Well then. Welcome! How was your first experience here?” she asked, indicating towards the restroom.
“Fine,” I said. “Just fine. Much nicer than the border.”
“Well, I’m glad. I haven’t been in there for a little while. It gets so messy sometimes, I tell you. The Orientals – they’re the worst.” She shook her head. “I tell you, they just go ahead and pee all over the place. Terrible. Just all over the seat and everything.”