Days 5-8: Olympia, Portland, Salem, Sacramento
The Pacific Northwest train, The Cascades, was as-advertised: European-style, modern and fast. As we zoomed through towns, monitors tracked our journey, similar to airplanes and later on, a mediocre film was shown (also similar). While The Canadian was nice, it was nice in a historical way – here, I actually felt like I was getting somewhere. I wanted to see more of the Northwestern states than just one city, and with no train going to coast, the answer was obvious: state capitals. Thus, my first stop after Seattle was Olympia, WA.
Things didn’t start well for this town when I realized it had an egregiously bad location for its train station (a 40 minute bus ride from downtown), but I got an idea of what a quiet Washington town is like. I got a very thorough tour of the state legislature, thanks to my being the only tour participant, with two guides, both retired volunteers. I learned the oddities of the state constitution, which guaranteed education, prohibited income tax, and mandated part-time legislators. The best part of a personal tour like this was getting to play the piano in the ballroom, which I wasn’t too interested in, but my elderly guide insisted upon:
After that, another 40 minutes on the city bus, and I returned to the station where I got some travel advice from some other retiree-volunteers.
I was eager to experience Portland, which I’ve long read of as being the most well-planned, most bikeable and most environmentalist city in North America. All three of these things turned out to be true, and evident with even such a short examination as a gave it. Unfortunately, though, for a city of 3.5 million, Portland has very little to offer the tourist, especially a car-free tourist who can’t drive to the mountains. It’s kind of like a reversed New York: it’s fantastic to live there, but if you dropped by for a week you’d be bored to tears. Not to be too hard on Portland – the Oregon History Museum was very interesting, containing exhibits that examined the American dreams of returning GIs after WW2, and another that discussion opinions on many of the political issues that make Oregon unique (euthanasia, medical marijuana, land use, etc.), and I found lots to do. I just got the feeling in my mere day and a half that while I could love this city in many ways – as an environmentalist, an urbanist, a political scientist – but as a tourist, not so much.
I read about how Oregon’s well known state-wide land-use planning is being threatened by Measure 37, which requires that property owners who are economically hurt by environmental and planning regulations are entitled to full compensation. Clearly, this is ludicrous, because it assumes that the status quo is an acceptable distribution of costs and benefits; if I were a citizen of this state of citizen-initiated referendum, I’d like to bring forth the inverse law: that is, if I’m economically hurt (say, lost wages due to asthma or property damage due to flooding) by a land-owner’s environmentally destructive property use, then they are required to compensate me (and everyone else).
My host in Portland was a transplanted southerner who’d only been in the city for 4 months. He’s a frequent traveller and we had the kind of conversations that are common at hostels everywhere: where are you from, how long have you been on the road, what countries have you been to, what countries do you plan to go to, let’s trade emails. He claimed that, as a new resident, he was trying to run as his life “as stereotypically Portland as possible”. While this didn’t extend to his new job as a car salesman, it did include him taking me to a rock climbing gym, as a first venture into the sport for me.
After Portland came two more state capitals, with an overnight train (The Coast Starlight, known as the most popular train in America and feels like it too; a sparsely-populated VIA train filled with young adventurers and friendly public servants, this ain’t ) in between. I’m starting to see the similarities between state capitals, but as a politics geeks, I still can’t say no to the next one. It turns out that Salem, OR and Sacramento, CA, are both as sleepy and historic as Olympia; there were, however, different trivia to be learned. Oregon has the inverse taxes of Washington – no sales tax, but heavy income tax. It shares the part-time legislator goal, only sitting 60 days per year – I didn’t want to ask the guide how many millions of budget dollars per day that meant they were legislating on.
Like my other tours, the Salem one included a token reference to aboriginals: “As we all known, the first Oregonians were Indians” – I winced, wondering if that’s how they thought of themselves. I also learned that unsurprisingly, Maria Shriver was the first First Lady to have her own office in the legislature. Sacramento also included the State Railroad Museum, which satisfied my desire for more knowledge of my mode of transport, as well as adding a healthy dose to the “On westward / Manifest Destiny / Hard-working covered-wagon driving pioneers” narrative which all the coastal states seem to share.
From Sacramento, it’s on to a much more exciting introduction to Californian culture: San Francisco. Preview: I’m staying with someone who works for Google!
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