America is still largely a rural nation. And not just in terms of area. Many states lack major cities and most people still live rurally. In states with metropolises, a well-documented trend, the return of Americans to city centers, has been going on for some time. But another trend has continued unnoticed, and it involves far greater numbers of people. Suburbs have expanded into more traditional rural areas, places once dominated by farming and ranching. These so-called exurbs sit some distance from a city but are still connected to it in many ways.
While some of the exurbs resemble true suburbs and should probably be described as quasi-rural, many actually have a strong countryside feel. They’re usually centered around small towns that retain much of their original character. As mentioned in the last post, those living here are an important political force these days, as witness the last election.
In many exurbs it is only a matter of time before they lose any remnant rural feel. A progressive expansion, fed in large part by retiring baby-boomers but also by steady population growth, is pushing aside America’s original rural character. But this blog series is not about bemoaning that loss. I prefer to celebrate what is left, which while inevitably changed from the old days, is still very much intact.
Seeing Rural America – The Pacific Northwest
Let’s start out in a part of the west that will always be special to me. If you have read this blog for awhile, you know that Oregon is where my heart lies. It’s a place I’ll always call home. I was born and raised on the east coast, but I’ve lived by far most of my years there. I’m currently living in Florida, in self-imposed exile. But I’ll return someday.
DOWN (UP) THE WILLAMETTE
In order to see some of the prime farmland of that drew early settlers to this territory on the Oregon Trail (see the Addendum below), start in Portland and drive south up the Willamette River. I know, south upriver sounds strange. Avoid Interstate 5 wherever possible. Instead take the back roads, hopping back and forth over the river using the few ferries that remain (Canby, Wheatland). Visit Aurora, and Silverton, stretching your legs and being wowed on a hike in Silver Falls State Park near Silverton. Continue south past Eugene, saying goodbye to the Willamette as it curves east into the Cascades. The Cottage Grove area is famous for its covered bridges, so get hold of a map and enjoy the photo opps.!
Keep going south, making sure to stop at the Rice Hill exit off I5. Here you should partake of Umpqua ice cream the way it should be eaten. Delicious! Visit the little town of Oakland just north of Roseburg, where I lived for a time. Then divert west from Sutherlin on Fort McKay Road. to the Umpqua River. Then wind down the river on Tyee Road. Drive slow or better yet, do this on a bicycle!
You can keep going to the coast or return to I5 on Hwy. 138. Another detour takes you east from Roseburg up the North Umpqua to Diamond Lake and the north end of Crater Lake. If you’d rather stick with the rural theme and save nature for later, keep going south and visit the rather large but still charming town of Ashland, where a famous Shakespeare Festival happens every summer.
THE OLYMPIC PENINSULA
Let’s not forget the great state of Washington. One of my favorite places in the world is the Olympic Peninsula. It can be visited on a road trip that takes in both nature and rural charm. The towns are spaced far apart here and Olympic National Park covers much of the northern peninsula. But lovely farms still lap the slopes of the Olympic Mountains and talkative waitresses serve pie at cafes in towns like Forks, which retain much of their timber-town flavour. Everybody still knows everybody in these towns.
Lake Crescent (image below) is incredibly scenic and a great place for a swim. At dusk, in certain light, you can sit lakeside and easily transport yourself back to quiet summer evenings at the lake. I wonder when vacations stopped being full of simple pleasures like jumping off a tire swing, fried chicken on a screened porch and word games in the dark, and became all about ticking off bucket lists and posting selfies?
Even areas quite close to the metropolis of Seattle retain much of their charm. Take the back roads directly east of the city and drop into the valley of the Snowqualmie River. Take Hwy. 203 north or south through Carnation, site of the original dairy farm of the same name (remember?). Generally speaking you need to travel either east or, overwater via ferry, west of Seattle and the I5 corridor in order to experience rural western Washington.
I’d feel bad if I didn’t mention the forgotten half of the Pacific NW. It encompasses an enormous region east of the Cascades, one that retains in many places nearly all of its rural character. The Palouse is a perfect example. Lying in southeastern Washington and far western Idaho, the Palouse is wheat-farming at its purest. It is an expansive area of rolling hills, backroads and picture-perfect barns. Despite having become very popular with landscape photographers in recent years, its size means it always feels quiet and uncrowded. I won’t say anymore about it since I posted a mini-series on the Palouse geared toward anyone contemplating a photo-tour. Check that out if you’re curious.
There are so many other routes to explore in the Pacific NW that will allow you to experience the unique flavour of each region. For example a fantastic road trip, again from Portland, is to travel east over Mount Hood. But instead of continuing to Madras, turn off busy Hwy. 26 at easy-to-miss Hwy. 216. Drop into the high desert and visit the little burg of Tygh Valley. Continue east to Maupin on the Deschutes River, famous for its trout fishing and whitewater rafting. Then drive over Bakeoven Road to historic sheep central, Shaniko. Then drop east down twisty Hwy. 218 to Fossil and on to the Painted Hills. This tour, by the way, is popular with motorcyclists in the know. Thanks for reading and have a fun weekend!
Addendum: Pacific NW History
I’ve always vaguely resented the fact that the Pacific NW is divided into two states. I think the Oregon Territory should have been left as Oregon, no Washington. To make 50 states we could have split off northern California (plus far SW Oregon) and called it the state of Jefferson. I know a bunch of people who would be very happy with that!
Native tribes have occupied this region for thousands and thousands of years. In fact some of the earliest remains of paleo-indians in North America come from eastern Oregon and Washington. Now a semi-desert, back then it was significantly wetter, with large lakes full of waterfowl, and the rocky hills bursting forth every spring with all sorts of edible plants.
White Europeans began to take an interest in the area very early on in the 1700s. But they only visited by sea. To the north, British fur trading companies sent parties into the Canadian part of the Pacific Northwest eco-region. But it would not be until Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led a party of young, energetic men down the Columbia River to the Pacific Coast near what is now the little town of Astoria, Oregon in 1804 that the young country signalled its intention to make the region part of America.
In the mid-1800s mountain men of the west, with beaver all but trapped out in many areas, turned to guiding settlers west along the Oregon Trail. The destination these hardy families had in mind was the rich farmland along the Willamette and other rivers of the Oregon Territory. Some never made it all the way, instead stopping in cooler, drier areas like the Baker Valley of eastern Oregon and the Palouse, a dryland farming area in Washington.
Timber harvesting, farming and ranching have long been the mainstays of the Pacific Northwest. If you’ve never read Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Keasey you should do so. It is expertly written and imparts an authentic look at traditional family-based logging in Oregon. The movie is top-notch as well.
But times have changed. The mills are shut down in most places. Private timber lands are still harvested but with few exceptions federal National Forests are for reasons both environmental and economic no longer being cut. The ways in which people here make a living have largely changed from natural resource-based to a mix of technology, tourism and a variety of service jobs.