50 States - 06/50 - Oregon


So Oregon isn't the place where oregano comes from sadly (I'm definitely not the first or last to make that joke). It is however, known for hipsters, coffee, the series Portlandia and being a fairly liberal state. It's one of these trendy ones on the west coast. Our main reason for visiting at this time was the 2017 Eclipse (being called the Great American Eclipse for some reason!). The path of totality goes right across the state and through a few small towns, so we figured what better to do than head out there. Of course, before the eclipse, we had plenty to see in Portland.

japanese garden

Portland is well known for it's hipsters and being all trendier than thou. My first impression was that of freeways, hills and trees. The town sits on a river but there are fairly steep hills around. The town is cut up by freeways; it reminded me quite a lot of Leeds in the UK. The roads can be quite steep, with tight turns, and sudden junctions. The drivers were mostly quite friendly though. When we picked up the hire car, we were told that Oregon has a law forbidding you pumping your own petrol (or gas if you prefer). Not only that but there are plenty of roundabouts here too. Just another one of these little quirks that reminds you that each state is a little bit different.

The trees around are all very nice. We get to visit the Japanese garden not so far outside the centre of town. It's a beautiful area, set into the hill. Fortunately, the friends we are with are members so we get to go in early. As we are leaving the place begins to fill up very quickly. I notice a large tour bus arriving so I'm glad we are getting out. Our friends who live there tell us that the traffic in Portland has gotten worse. The impression I get is that Portland has become a victim of its own success. Prices are going up and people are beginning to leave.


We get to experience a farmers market in the middle of the town - pretty much the done thing if you live here I guess. I notice a bunch of activist types wearing the V for Vendetta guy fawkes masks (of course!). They seem to be upset about the dairy industry (which is fair). I figure they are right here in order to get maximum impact. The food and produce is good, but it is expensive. Buying a few things quickly adds up.


The centre of Portland actually feels quite small. We manage to wander across a large part of it in only 15 minutes or so. I was keen to find an arcade as I'm sure there had to be one somewhere. For these not familiar with the Polybius legend, you can take a look at the Polybius wikipedia page. In a nutshell, there was allegedly and arcade cabinet game that caused severe addiction, mental problems and shock. The government would come in and periodically take away the machines for study, replacing them with another. It's a great example of the conspiracy theory in action. Apparently, this alll took place in Portland, so of course, I had to go and have a look.


We did find an arcade. It was quite good, with new machines but also a lovingly restored Asteroids box. The graphics are something else, with it's lovely vector display fully working. I played Tempest and also found a Galaga box! Quite impressed! As I took a photo of the latter, a local man inquired as to why. I said I'd never seen an original box before. He laughed and we had the most awkward fish-bump ever. I told him where I was from and then left him to his puzzle bobble. No Polybius here but a fun time non-the-less.


Portland strikes me as a fun-ish place, but possibly past its hip-high-point. Looking at the east side of Portland, you can see block after block after block of cute, safe looking houses, interrupted by a hip coffee bar, or in our case, the most hippie organic and overpriced food market I've ever been in! It hit me at this point though! I think Portland is a massive over-reaction. It feel too safe, almost missing the point perhaps? It is a nice place to be for sure, and I've only been there for a few days but something tells me I'd get bored if I lived there.


Totality passes through a small town called Madras and it's here where we decided to watch the eclipse from. To get there, we'd have to pass through the mountain range that separates west Oregon from east Oregon, going right past Mount Hood (the tallest mountain in the state and a volcano!). Mount Hood itself is beautiful to look at - the kind of mountain you'd get if you asked a kid to draw one. As we pass, we enter the Warm Springs Reserve; the first Indian reservation I've been to. It's here where the scenery drastically changes. East Oregon is basically close to desert. Yep! From the verdant green hills to desert scrub and far plains in a matter of just an hour or two! It's quite a difference. Oregon clearly has quite a split personality. We drive on through the reservation noting the casino and lack of any large towns as we pass.

Madras is quite a small town really, only a few thousand people live here. This area has access to a lot of irrigation so it's farming all the way. The town itself is real small town America with maybe just two main roads. They've done a good job though. Many thousands more people have descended upon this tiny place but the townsfolk are organised. Buses run from the out-of-town car parks to places in the centre, including the high school, which is running several events related to the eclipse. There are talks, folks with telescopes out on the track field, and of course, merchandise! I guess this is what makes the eclipse American huh?! :D


We watch some talks, grab some beers, eat burritos at a small fast food joint and head on back to where we parked. We are at the small airfield just outside of town. A good place to be I figure because just down the road is a gin and whiskey distillery! Bonus! It's quite easy to get a little sloshed and have a look at all the nice planes that have arrived. Many are small, cesna like aircraft, but there are at least three larger jets that just scream "charted by some rich dude!". This is the busiest the airport will ever be I suspect, but again, they seem to be doing quite a good job of handling it all. The place has a real atmosphere to it. It's not quite Reading or Glastonbury (which we both miss) but it is quite something. But we are tough folk! No caravan or tent for us! It's sleeping in the car time!


The eclipse itself is amazing! One thing you don't expect it how quickly it gets cold! For most of the day, the sun looks no different. Only when it's almost totally covered does the feeling change. It gets darker but not totally dark. The temperature drops and they say, if you listen carefully, that the animals start doing their night-time calls. All I could hear were cheers and fireworks as we watched from near the runway at the airport. The eclipse itself looks like a spirograph to my eyes, with a centre of deepest black. You can clearly see the corona moving and swirling around a black disc! Incredible!

With the eclipse over, we hang around to wait for the traffic to clear but even after a 5 hour wait, the roads are still clogged. It takes us ages to get anywhere! However, we do get to see all the lovely farmlands, impressive valleys, creeks and plains that dot the desert here and there. I suspect a large amount of this wouldn't exist if it wasn't for large amounts of irrigation and infrastructure though. Clearly it wasn't always like this.

We take a tour through part of the Willamette forest where the scenery changes again. I suspect this is one example of an area that people liken to the Lake District. A few folk I know have compared Oregon to the UKs favourite national park (I am biased, I'll admit!). I couldn't see it before but driving through here, I do begin to see what they mean. The trees here are impressive! Huge swathes of tall pines, with laser straight roads carved through them like some sort of organic green canyon! The drive through here is beautiful and quite the thing to see. It's a shame we don't have the time to see more of it.


We certainly can't go through parts of it though. On the flight over to Oregon, I saw my first forest fire. Not only that, it was the first one I'd see from the air! Driving out of the Willamette forest we pass an area that has been evacuated because of raging forest fires. You can see the smoke in the air. Ironically, the strangest thing is, again, the Sun! It is bright red, almost fluorescent. Not that lovely red, but an artificial red, like you are looking at it through some kind of filter. That's all the smoke in the air. We don't hang around. Back on the interstate for us, through Salem and back to Portland.

I figure I need to give Oregon another shot sometime. I enjoyed the countryside and the small-town America feel of Madras. The contrast between forest and desert was an impressive thing to see, and I'd certainly love to see the coastline. But there are parts of it, like Portland, that do seem little safe and sanitised. Maybe not the place I'd like to live, if one had the choice of anywhere in America but definitely worth more investigation.