State of the States
I must admit to a fundamental, lifelong disability—provincialism. To my way of thinking, there is little in America that can match the raw beauty, astounding contrasts, and visceral appeal of most of the western states. This is particularly true when one takes the time to carefully explore this vast area rather than merely pass through it. With this kind of intimacy, the personality of the American West takes on a certain relief that is inescapable.
For example, California has long stood apart from the rest of America, both in the minds of Californians and the rest of the country. Those who live in Northern California fully understand that the southern part of the state is akin to an alien implant behind one’s ear; it’s both an annoyance and a constant reminder that the intruders from down there can reach out at any time and snatch an unsuspecting northerner from his or her bed. The only point of contention is what constitutes that island of oblivion termed “Southern California.” The farther north one travels in California, the larger the southern part of the state becomes. The only way to avoid the schizophrenia is to cross the state line in some direction. That leaves only two choices: Oregon and Nevada.
Nevada is not the jewel of western America. Other than a tiny pocket of unexpected beauty in the eastern part of the state (known as the Ruby Mountains), Nevada is essentially sterile. It main claims to fame are Las Vegas, the indisputable capital of excess in the western world; Reno, the poor man’s version of Las Vegas; Area 51, the top secret military airbase in southern Nevada that everyone in the Americas knows about; and a collection of exotic wildlife that runs to jackrabbits, lizards, and the occasional desert tortoise. There are, of course, a few other attractions that are known to locals, such as “the loneliest highway in the world,” Mustang Ranch, and the Winamucca Potato. However, despite the lure of such cultural gems, Nevada should be best known as the most direct root from California to Utah and point beyond.
To the north of California lies Oregon, where the citizens are renowned for their dislike of all Californians, northern or southern. Oregon is an interesting and frustrating state. The coast is stunning while the eastern part of the state looks like it could have been carved from the remnants of Nevada. It harbors truly picturesque and livable towns, like Ashland, while still managing to offer up one of the most chaotic and avoidable cities in the West—Portland. Unlike Nevada’s fate, Oregon is more than the gateway to Washington, but it is in obvious need of an attitude adjustment and some mystical intervention to turn the Portland pages back about thirty growth years.
When one crosses the state line and enters Washington, it becomes immediately obvious that north is better than south. This is something that Californians inherently understand and Oregonians endlessly fuss, fume, and foam about. This is not to say that Washington is a perfect destination. It has been blighted by cites like Tacoma, which could easily have been an alien adoption from Southern California. However, this state also offers one of the finest cities in America, Seattle, and incomparable beauty across the northern stretches and along the Cascade mountain range. Moreover, Washingtonians have a fine attitude, at least in comparison to their southern neighbor. There is no evidence of California-license-plate phobia and their collective noses are in better proximity to the ground. All in all, Washington is a destination, not a causeway, and a place where it is a pleasure to idle away large pocketful of time.
To the east is Idaho, one of America’s undiscovered jewels. This state has regularly received a bad rap in both the American press and via urban legend. There is a general perception that Idaho is filled to brimming with neo-nazis, crazed survivalists, and hoards of uncontrollable vigilantes. Those who believe these stories are confusing the state of Idaho with the city of Los Angeles. I have been traveling to Idaho for more than twenty-five years and can attest that the crazy factor in this rustic state is nothing compared to you-know-where, California. The southern part of the state