The concept of a “hometown” has always been a bit trickier for me than for some people I know, perhaps because I’ve made it more complicated than it needs to be, and yet I find myself grappling with it time and time again. I was born in Portland, Oregon, raised in a small town about an hour outside of it, and spent 12 years of my life attending school in a slightly larger (though still small) town adjacent to that one. Because of this, and the fact that few people outside of Oregon have heard of any city other than Portland, I’ve always felt a bit conflicted when telling people where I’m “from.” For the sake of introductions, saying that I hail from the Rose City is typically the easiest way to go; it’s not completely untrue, and usually earns me at least a bit of “cool” cred with my peers (“Oh, I love ‘Portlandia’!” is something I hear frequently.)
As I’ve gotten older, the idea of home–its definition, its significance, its meaning in the life I currently live–has shifted and reconfigured itself more times than I can count. My physical home, the place I return to twice a year or so, is 1,000 miles from the city where I spend most of my time residing, a place to which I feel infinitely more connected, and yet I know I can’t quite call myself an Angeleno, not yet anyway. I haven’t quite earned that title, but maybe, hopefully, someday I will have. For now, my family is in one place, my career and education another, my high school friends all scattered to the winds and wherever I may find myself after graduation as uncertain as throwing darts at a map. And so I mention all of this to say that these days, the place I feel most connected to, perhaps naively, perhaps too ambitiously, is the West Coast in its entirety.
Admittedly, I’ve always felt a strange pride about it; while the East Coast is all jumbled and disjointed, a jigsaw puzzle without rhyme or reason, the West Coast is composed of just three pretty magnificent states, with Oregon nestled snugly in the middle. My family has never traveled much, a source of frequent friction on my behalf, but growing up, I at least had the West Coast to call my backyard, my playground, my great outdoors. Some of my fondest childhood memories include weekend trips to Seattle, summers spent camping beside Washington lakes, baking in the sun of Oregon’s High Desert, snowy winters in Bend and Sunriver out east, forested drives to Northern California, and one glorious summer spent in Los Angeles.
Despite being encompassed by only three states (though people not from around here can often only remember the Golden one,) our beautiful Pacific coastline is still well over 1,000 miles long–an easy fact to forget until one is actually making the trek. I had the opportunity to do just that this winter, winding up Highway 101 from Los Angeles back to my hometown. After a semester of pent-up wanderlust and a finals season that made me, despite my love for LA, quite frankly just want to get the hell out of dodge, I was eager to hit the open road (after one last stop at the Santa Monica Pier and end of Route 66, of with which I’ve always been a bit enamored.) Though our overall roadtrip weather was certainly less than ideal, I was so grateful for the chance to get out of the city, reconnect with nature (and my road trip buddy, my twin brother!) and indulge in an endless amount of roadtrip requisites (and general favorite life necessities) including endless amounts of coffee, music and picture-taking.
The first half of the first day of the road trip was spent finding creative ways to make two-and-a-half years of my college life fit into a sedan older than myself, so we were only able to make it to San Francisco rather late that night. We’d agreed to take this road trip at a leisurely pace though, partly for my own relaxation, and partly for the sake of my dear old car, so I didn’t mind at all. We did make a pit stop sometime that first afternoon in Santa Barbara, where we began to part ways with my beloved Southern California weather. I’d only driven through Santa Barbara before and was glad we stopped at the pier; it was an absolutely gorgeous afternoon, and the town itself is so peaceful. It felt like a blend between Southern California’s South Bay beach cities and the sleepy coastal communities with which I was so familiar in Oregon. After a waterside lunch of fish and chips, we were on the road again for what felt like an interminable amount of time until reaching the Bay.
I’d made the trip from LA to San Francisco before, but I had to admit that this particular stretch seemed inexplicably long. Nevertheless, we crashed for the night and awoke bright and early the next morning to brave what was my first experience with real winter weather this season. We were hit with frigid cold and pouring rain the minute we stepped out of our hotel, but, undeterred, we pressed on into the city for a day of sightseeing. After a failed attempt at trying to see the city from the Twin Peaks scenic lookout (completely blanketed in thick gray fog,) we made our way to Union Square. Much to my surprise, parking was plentiful and affordable, and we were able to mill around for a bit and take in all of the holiday sights. Between the giant Christmas tree in Union Square (and one that looked like an actual Redwood in Neiman Marcus,) cable cars rattling through the streets, and the hustle and bustle of the sloping, slick city sidewalks, I was feeling particularly giddy about the Christmas season in San Francisco.
By the time we made our way from Union Square to the Fisherman’s Wharf, the weather was unfortunately taking a toll, even for us hearty Oregonians. My cheap umbrella (somehow the only one I could find in the entire mall where we made a pit stop) spent most of its time inside out, and we were practically up to our ankles in standing water. A warming lunch of clam chowder bread bowls at Boudin’s Bakery offered some respite from the rain, and though I can’t say that this winter stop in San Francisco was necessarily as pleasant as my trip in June, as we were headed North, I did get to actually drive over the Golden Gate Bridge this time, and even in the rain it sure was breathtaking. We were also able to stop at Fort Point National Historic Site, the Civil War army barrack right under the bridge, which particularly appeased both my inner history buff and paranormal enthusiast (I imagine there’s at least one ghost there, anyway.)
We said goodbye to San Francisco in the late afternoon and slogged our way through the driving rain up to Eureka, situated among the Redwoods. Though the ride was mostly rural small towns, and made almost entirely in the dark, it was still beautiful and peaceful. The 101 North winds through sloping farmlands, jagged mountains and, of course, towering Redwoods. As we would find out the next morning, we had unintentionally driven through the most postcard-worthy trees in the night, but even by dark they were still impressive, and as we wound through mile after mile of dense forests, passing road signs and billboards advertising “Mystery Hill,” Sasquatch souvenirs and UFO sightings, it was hard not to be overcome with just the slightest sense of other-worldliness and wonder.
After realizing that we had missed the most impressive of Redwoods, and that the rain would not relent for us to try and appreciate the rest, the remainder of our trip was a bit of a wet, gray slog. It took us three days just to get out of California, and as soon as we crossed the Oregon state border, as the towns became smaller, the speed limits slower, and the general atmosphere just a bit more subdued, I was left ruminating on the other reason I prefer to think of the entire West Coast as my home.
I’ve always had a strained relationship with my native Oregon, mainly because it is a state composed almost entirely of small towns, entities which have always been a bit too claustrophobic for my taste. I’m far more at ease calling cities my home, whether Portland or Los Angeles or whichever urban enclave I may find myself in next, because they are more than the sum of their parts. Cities represent possibilities, opportunities, there is a perpetual air of mystery and intrigue and anything-can-happen-ness. But small towns, for better or for worse, are what they are. They are the people, they are the small businesses, they are the history, sometimes the secrets, and the experiences. And this is what Oregon is to me, flaws and all; a small town personified by an entire state, a place that is what it is without reservations or apology. And I find that sometimes, when what might be becomes too tentative and all I want is something real, this is exactly what I need.
No matter what may come to pass or where I may find myself in the future, the West Coast will never cease to amaze me with its beauty, with wonder, with the little hints of mystery hiding in every rain drop, every brilliant sunset, just around every forested bend. Perhaps someday I’ll find a place to make my hometown, but for now, I consider myself pretty lucky to have an entire breathtaking coast to call my own.