The real Western America isn’t Texas or California
Readers around the world see the American west through movies.
From John Wayne in his cowboy costume, to private eye Jack Nicholson in LA’s Chinatown, to policeman Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry franchise, they view the west through a distorted lens.
Forget about the red rocks of Colorado, the monoliths of Arizona, the geographic wonder of Utah.
The real western America doesn’t include any of those hell holes.
Why? No coastline. You need some beachfront property to be ‘In The West.’
But not California.
Like the Mason-Dixon line symbolically separates the North and South, the Mississippi River did the same for the East and West.
Until the Mid-West got uppity and wanted their own identity, the Mississippi was a perfect landmark.
Then the western cut-off turned into the Rocky Mountains and the Great Divide, turning the real American West into a third of the country to go along with the east, mid-west, and west.
This is where the confusion starts for people around the world interested in the real west.
Where is Real Western America
It begins with science.
Through a process called geological subduction, the spreading ocean crust pushes against the heavier continental crust.
Instead of the uplift between continental drift when India crashed into Asia and created the Himalayas, the lighter Pacific Ocean crust dives under the western edge of America.
The resulting mountains, the Coast Range, is the new border of the real west, the land from there to the beaches.
This must be disappointing for fans of cattle drives, gun fights at the OK Corral, and dancing girls in the local saloon.
Well pardner, have a shot of Ol’Red Eye and settle in.
Why California isn’t part of real Western America
1. The valleys between the Cascade volcanoes/Sierra Nevada and Coastal Range turned into big farmland.
In 2015, the top 10 agricultural producing States, in terms of cash receipts were (in descending order): California, Iowa, Texas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois, Kansas, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Indiana. These and related statistics can be found in ERS’s Farm Income and Wealth Statistics.
You won’t find Oregon crowding the heartland.
2. It’s so damn big it’s hard to get a handle on.
In South America, California would be Chile.
If California was on the east coast, America would have an extra 136 states the size of Rhode Island.
(California covers 163,696 mi², Rhode Island only 1,212 mi². I did the math.)
With 840 miles of coastline, California would stretch from New Jersey to Georgia.
(Florida doesn’t count because, like Alaska, it’s practically surrounded by water.)
3. California pulls people from around the world.
This is where Florida compares, and who likes that gator infested snake pit.
(Then there’s the wild animals.)
Washington isn’t the real American West either
1. It’s the name.
(Where are the states of Lincoln, Jefferson, and Roosevelt, the other presidential pals joining Washington on Mr. Rushmore?)
2. It’s a haven for some of the world’s richest guys like Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos with visits from pals like Warren Buffett.
(With so much money on board, imagine the population of squirrely bastards trying to crack that nut.)
3. Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
Decision makers during WWII decided to sacrifice Washington to the war effort.
(Same for Tennessee and New Mexico with all of their atomic bomb work.)
Although decommissioned, it still holds two thirds of the volume of the country’s high-level radioactive waste — about 53 million gallons of liquid waste, 25 million cubic feet of solid waste and 200 square miles of contaminated groundwater underneath the area, making it the most contaminated site in the US. The environmental devastation of this area makes it clear that the threat of radioactivity is not simply something that will arrive in a missile attack, but could be lurking in the heart of your own country. More information available at the Hanford Site, Department of Energy website.
Is Washington a state, or a test lab for bombs and sneaks?
The real American west begins and ends in Oregon
Here’s how you get there.
Fly into Portland and rent a car.
Ask the way to I-205 and drive it until you merge into I-5 south.
You’re at the top of the Willamette Valley.
You’ll drive by Woodburn’s outlet stores on the right. A half hour later Salem shows up. Keep going.
Past the Enchanted Forest and Willamette Vineyards on the left you’ll drop down to the valley floor.
Long before weed production became legal, Oregon was a top, if not the top, grass seed producing state. So grass is nothing new around here.
There’s Albany on the right, then a rest stop before a freeway bridge crossing the Willamette River. If you keep track you’ll notice Oregon has the best rest areas. By far.
Half an hour later Eugene’s on the right, Springfield on the left. Keep going.
Past Eugene you’ll see Cottage Grove on the right, then a sign for Drain and Hwy 38. That’s you.
Head west through Elkton and Scottsburg, cross the bridge over the Umpqua River until you hit Reedsport.
Follow the signs to Hwy 101 South. If you drive past Winchester Bay you’re going the right direction.
By now you’ve crossed the Coast Range and the Pacific is a stone throw away. (I say stone throw because spitting distance sounds so nasty. You can’t spit or throw anything and hit the ocean from 101, but you’re close.)
The real western America is just up ahead. Get past Lakeside and Hauser and look to the right. Do you see dinosaurs made out of driftwood? If not, they’ve migrated.
Straight ahead you’ll see a green shadow through the fog and rain, since it’s always foggy, rainy, or both.
Closer still the green shadow is a bridge that stands like an opening night theater curtain to a play you’ve dreamed of seeing.
NORTH BEND, THE REAL WESTERN AMERICA
You’re there once you coast under the Welcome To North Bend sign.
It’s the only place you’ll ever need for studying the American West: land meets sea, forest meets town, mill meets forest, casino meets mill.
Farms, ranches, golf courses. Airport, bus station, taxi.
Most important, it’s a true representation of a real town. I know this by North Bend’s complete exclusion from Gerry Frank’s Oregon guidebook.
Not. One. Mention. Not even in the index. Better words you’ll never read.
Neighboring Coos Bay merits three mentions, Charleston one.
Four mentions on Oregon’s most populated coastal region (25,000), compared to Newport (10,000) with eight pages and Cannon Beach (1600) with ten pages, tells you where you need to end your western expansion.
If you’re a BOOMERPDX reader (and you are) from India or South Korea interested in the American West, here you go.
To the fans in Germany, Japan, Mexico, and Switzerland, this is for you.
Most of all, for my base in the Untied States, Great Britain, and Canada: None of this had better be new to you.
Yes, The West used to end in North Carolina. Illinois used to be the Northwest Territory. It’s confusing.
The west used to be anything beyond the Mississippi, or over the Rockies. Now you know better. Share this with your kids and a map.
A line on a piece of paper isn’t the difference between the west and not the west. You’ve got to find it to believe it and now you know how.
From the Coast Range to the sand, that’s the west. It’s forests and swamps and sand dunes; drift wood, tall timber, and sea grass.
And if you don’t know before you get there, North Bend is also home to the 4A Oregon State Champion Bulldog Football Team.
Buy a T-shirt and wear it for pictures when you get back home.
The West is history.