Two Towns, Two Books…Two Countries?

February 6, 2011

Downtown Portland, Oregon

This last week, traveling in one day from Sierra Vista, Arizona to Portland, Oregon was a bit like stepping from Edward Abbey’s Good News into Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia.  On each count  this is an exaggeration–many more grays exist than either novelist anticipated.  But there are a few eerie similarities between the two towns and the two novels that I love.

Abbey writes in Good News that the U.S. government has collapsed, martial law imposed, and the military junta headquartered  in southern Arizona. Sierra Vista is home to Fort Huachuca, an army post rich in history, most notably the history of the Buffalo Soldier. Today, it is the leading government intelligence center west of the Mississippi.

Sierra Vista is also the historic site of the first MacDonald’s drive thru in the world. The drive thru was created because at that time the soldiers were not allowed to enter any business establishment off post. Soldiers are often seen in restaurants today, and I watched some enjoying local, sustainable food at the Thursday Farmer’s Market on Wilcox Blvd.  But back in the day, this was all they had off post:

The original MacDonald's drive thru. This building was torn down in 1999 to make way for a modern home of the Big Mac.

In downtown Portland, even the fast food is slow. My son and I enjoyed pastured beef burgers and Yukon Gold fries here:

Violettas in downtown Portland offers "slow fast food".

diagram of a Violetta burger

Like so many cafes and burger joints downtown, alcohol flows freely.  It is also common to wander through subtle clouds of cannabis smoke on the streets. Like the Ecotopians in Callenbach’s novel, downtown Portlanders seem to have successfully divorced themselves from the puritanical conditioning of their ancestors. As in Ecopotia, women also seem more comfortable with themselves, only a small fraction wearing make-up or hair spray. Boots yes, heels no.

In Sierra Vista, I had to go to the farmer’s market to get food that was local or sustainably grown.  I only know two people who live in that town who are willing to pay more in order to buy this kind of food.   In downtown Portland, despite the busy Whole Paycheck, most cafes are local or regional and offer organic or beyond organic selections. The words local and sustainable are commonplace on everything from menus to the Tri-Met street cars. Here’s the window of the cafe where I had breakfast one morning.

The Morning Star Cafe, where the eggs are from chickens that were never in cages.

In Abbey’s Good News, there is no gasoline to fuel cars, just a little left for the occasional motorcycle and reserved for the soldiers imposing martial law.  Horses are the primary mode of transportation for the common citizen. In Sierra Vista the private automobile or the taxi are the only options. There are a few bicycle lanes, but it’s rare to see someone commuting that way. Unlike Ecotopia, there are cars in downtown Portland, but the city is hostile to them, almost preferring the bicycle. Tri-Met is free in the downtown area, and there are even special bicycle hangers on the streetcars.

In Good News, just about every citizen who can find one carries a side arm. And just weeks after the shooting in Tucson, Arizona’s governor said there was no need to strengthen the state’s gun laws to allow for background checks. For many, global warning is either a joke or a lefty conspiracy theory. But reality is much more textured than even the best novel. There are shades of Ecotopia in Abbey Country, and plenty of pernicious corporate shysterhood happening in what is the epicenter of Callenbach’s fantasy. For example, Fort Huachuca has begun a water conservation program in its schools and is investigating wind turbines as an alternative to fossil fuel.  Meanwhile, outside of Portland, the great Columbia is being choked with toxins from the vessels that have been abandoned there. It’s widely accepted that nuclear waste has contaminated the river.

Still, there are enough parallels to make me flash on the idea that I’d gone from one country into another, and to remember that in the past month I’ve seen both left-wing and right-wing pundits call for some sort of west coast secession from the U.S.  Is our nation simply too big, or are we its people hopelessly  intolerant of one another?  Will it be possible for those living in such different reaiities to agree on one way of moving forward?

It is the blacks and the whites of life that intrigue us, polarize us, at times frighten us. It is reflecting on them that allows us to glimpse the grays that lie between, and it is those  grays that can give us hope, that can bring us together.  Since I come from northern California, Portland’s Ecotopian nature feels more like home to me. Yet despite the eerie Good Newsishness of Arizona, I cherish the big sky of Abbey Country and  the mountains sculpted by a different architect. It feels like a different country, but it’s still  a country I love.

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Filed under Abbey Country, Essays, Farmers Markets, Sustainability

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