Go east, young man
Most Portlanders know that if you really want to see the American West, you've got to go east from here. A recent trip to northeastern Montana provided some much needed perspective.
It's a hard land -- rocky, sandy high plains, hot as blazes in midsummer, and (I hear) deadly cold in winter. There's a unique beauty under the big sky, but the civilized side of the place has fallen on very hard times. It's never really thrived economically, and the last decade has been particularly harsh. Many of the scrappy towns along U.S. 2, known locally as the "high line," seem well on their way to becoming ghost towns. One grocery store each, maybe two or three gas stations, three or four bars, a motel or two, one old-fashioned cafe if they're lucky, two banks, maybe a car dealership or two, a handful of fast food joints. Not a land of opportunity, or of hope, except among the stubbornest, strongest individuals in the community. There's big talk of turning the two-lane highway into a four-lane, but it's truly impossible to see why, as there's hardly enough traffic through there to justify more than one lane with some turnouts.
Lots of Indian country, where time stands still in ways both good and bad. Grace and mystery and spirit and struggle and failure and desperation all together, coming at you so fast it can't all be processed by a white man.
South of there by several lonely driving hours, Billings looks as though it is getting by. A couple of regional hospitals, a nice little airport with a runway that can handle big jets, a downtown business community that's hanging tough. It's got a palpable spirit, reminiscent to me of downtown Portland in the 1970s, or Reno in the '80s. The volunteers still hang the flower baskets from the street lights at eye level. Lots of nice, accessible street art, which wouldn't last more than a week in most big cities. Historic neighborhoods walking distance from the court house. A terrific place for a visit.
The food ain't fancy, but it's cheap and good. You like steak or river trout? Well then, you came to the right place. But don't be looking for anything on the menu that wouldn't have been there 25 years ago; you won't find it.
The small scale of the cities and towns, the vastness of the spaces that separate them, the tight connection of the human enterprise to the land, the closeness of the current population to the area's history, all provide a charm that no longer reaches to where the sea breezes blow. In Montana you don't celebrate the Lewis and Clark bicentennial in a climate-controlled museum or a fluorescent-lit lecture hall. You let a beautiful native of the area take you down the road to a breathtaking swimming hole she knows on the Missouri, where you share the water with just a handful of kids and their folks.
Then you come home to the Rose City, and the next day the cupboard's bare, and you take a short trip over to a gorgeous New Seasons Market, and you pick from the finest food and wine that you can find anywhere, and head back to the house to walk barefoot through your garden, where it's so easy to grow everything, and after a simple dinner that couldn't be bettered in all the restaurants of Paris, you open all the windows to the delicious Oregon cool, and it may not be high plains quiet, but it's still quiet enough, and you can't see many stars, but you can still see enough, and you sit there and you realize how good you've got it.