In Oregon, I have this silly game I play regarding license plates. In 1960, the state issued its first and only slogan-bearing license plate. Yellow letters, blue background, and along the lower edge the phrase “Pacific Wonderland.” They lasted but four years, but they became cultural icons. It probably helped that vehicles from those four years have been, by-and-large, considered classics for decades. It also helped that the plats coincide with the myth of a more innocent, pre-JFK assassination America, and with the roadside highway culture of the pre-Interstate era, and with a time when Kodachrome and cheap German and Japanese cameras made memories so much more easily recorded. So those license plates are forever linked to these cultural memories. Perhaps I feel the connections a little stronger than some; 1960 Pacific Wonderland plates still adorn my mother’s Triumph, a car I grew up with.
The connection, the specialness, is not merely my own sensation. In 2009, as part of the celebration of Oregon’s 150th birthday, the state re-issued the plates. Their issue was, like the state’s many other commemorative plate designs (the Salmon, the Oregon Trail, the Cultural Trust, the Wine Country, and so forth) a fundraiser for a specific set of causes, in this case several historical ones, including the Oregon Historical Society. As with the original plates, numbers on these plates take a special sequence: number, letter, and four more numbers. Eventually I bought a set of my own, and mine began with “9P” followed by a number in the 7,000 series.
Therein lay the game. Every time I saw another car with another new Pacific Wonderland plate, I had this subtle but real sense of warmth, of camaraderie. “Those are my people,” I would say, sometimes only softly to myself, sometimes to whatever companion was with me at the time. And I would take note, too, of the numbers. Look, a 9P-8XXX, someone who was less quick on the draw than I with their home-state pride. Oh, look, a 9P-4XXX. Much respect. A 9P-00XX! I am impressed. There was a smidge of humor in this, but there was also some genuine sense of belonging: here were people who valued the causes this plate supported, or who felt that romantic twinge of nostalgia when they saw that slogan, or who simply felt a certain pride in Oregon that was a bit above and beyond what others felt.
Who belongs more, who less? Who is loyal, who is less so? Who is committed, who is just drifting by? The numbers on those plates became an indicator, a stand-in for insider versus other that was almost visceral. And I smiled warmly at those who belonged, or felt that they did, and I felt a certain distance with those who were not members of my club. It gave me pleasure, even though it should not have.
* * *
There is no earthly way that I could know where I was born. Infants simply do not recall such things, and in point of fact I cannot really recall anything from before the age of perhaps four or five. I am old enough, for example, that I would have seen ash rain down from the sky after Mount St. Helens incinerated 1,312 feet of its summit with the power of 500 Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs. I do not remember it, however. I don’t even really remember any sense of place at all as a small child. Portland looms large now and then, mostly because her girder-bound collection of bridges is a natural fascination for a small boy peering out a window. The larger region, though, is less distinct. A visit to Mount Hood when I was four or five is just a vague memory of a parking lot at Timberline Lodge, which in these memories is itself merely an amorphous sense of mass to which I never got close. The coast? Been, but don’t recall it. In fact probably the only sense of any kind of location other than my own house and backyard that survives from this time in my life is a couple of days in my father’s father’s RV, as our whole family took a road trip north to the San Juan Islands. My parents’ motive was to explore and consider a move from their suburban Portland-area home. I remember the excitement of a ferry ride that lasted all too short a time, and I remember my mother pointing out the King Dome in Seattle as we drove by; like Mount St. Helens, the dome that once was home to the Seattle Seahawks is no more.
Beyond these things, I don’t think I really got much of a sense of place at all until I was older, in grade school, and on off days my mother would take me with her on errands in her car and we would now and then stop to make a photograph of something in my rapidly suburbanizing childhood town. An orchard, surrounded by houses, not long for the world. A pasture with cows. Another, as a place to board walnut-colored horses and pretty Appaloosas like the Nez Perce used to ride. Neither of these would survive past my teen age years. Even my main street—sleepy, still outfitted with a feed store that smelled of damp old fertilizer, a bar nailed together from plywood sheets, and a shoe store where the dust was thicker than cheese spread—even it would not last. It languished. The feed store and the bar were both demolished, the shoe shop finally met the same fate as the corner pharmacy and the coffee shop and the hardware store and the saw shop and the vacuum store and the—well, you get it. My memory of Main Street—which I spent many years, later, serving on different boards and committees and trying to rescue—is filled more with the closures and the absences and the emptinesses and the wonderment of what might have once been there, than with any memory of what was there, and because of it there is little sense of living in a place and more a sense of living in what used to be a place.
This past-centered idea of geography was cemented by film. Before I was born, in the 1960s and 1970s, my parents used to make day-trips in the car, often with no particular destination on mind. How was it Chuck Berry put it? “Cruisin’ and playin’ the radio / with no particular place to go.” But my parents did not cruise Broadway in Portland, as my mother probably had at least once during high school. Instead, they chose the back roads of the state, the old state highways, the old country roads, the old ways that linked villages to towns, and sometimes villages to ghost towns. Throughout, my mother carried her camera, and they would stop and make photographs of various things that attracted her attention. Unwittingly, my mother became a typologist, as she made portraits of specific building types, often vernacular. One-rood school houses. Sawmill wigwam burners. Covered bridges. Old houses. Barns, of course. Churches. There were lots of other scenes too, like views of the four-car, cable-propelled ferry across the Willamette River at Wheatland, or twisting gravel roads in the Chehalem Range or the Coast Range during a freakishly low-elevation snow storm, or her russet-colored Irish Setter, Autumn, dashing through the golden grass of some down-valley pasture. Those slides gave me more sense of Oregon than my own direct experience. Viewed from the hot, wheezing, dust-spewing slide projector onto the white surface of a hallway door, they were my first understanding of a wider region that I was situated within.
In my hometown, which was rapidly becoming a home-suburb, I could not easily see the outside world, but there were perhaps three or four indications of it. The first, and most ever-present, was the sky. I spent more of my childhood looking at clouds or stars than most children spend looking at books. When the great, dying poplar trees across the road, at the old closed farmstead atop the little knoll, bent in the pressure of a northward-moving storm, it gave me a sense of this larger thing that my own small world was caught up in. And at night, despite the ever-increasing presence of street lamps, there were stars. I would go out sometimes—usually in spring, when the nights are still long and the air still chill but within me was the restless longing for every minute sign of new life outside—out to the oft-neglected garden, and stare up and imagine how many more stars I might see in some more rural place, or I would take binoculars from the house and use them as the cheapest and most impromptu of astronomical instruments, and find that with them I could see so much more in the heavens, albeit in a circle only about an inch across. In the blackest part of the sky, dead above, sometimes if I was patient I would see the slow but steady march of a little white speck, a satellite, moving across. The sky, however, is not so specific to place, or at least it does not seem to be in the absence of knowledge of other places. After all, almost every child is taught to paint the most rudimentary scene by using the same generic blue to represent the heavens above. So while the sky reminded me that there was a larger world, it did not tell me much about my own.
Roads, on the other hand, were stronger beacons of promise and place. The highway—mine was the Pacific Highway, 99 West, its double nines a vague alliteration to me, later, of the legendary Route 66—was itself a kind of place. First, it linked other places that I knew of—from my mother’s slides, from my increasing obsession with maps—and so by this combination of other places it took on the promise of each of their characters, combined. It also had its own character, with a different kind of buildings and built landscape than did the roads to the old farm lands, or the new and antiseptic concrete of the subdivisions. More potent, however, was the road I was denied rights to, the railroad. Two lines ran through my town, each promising the same sort of links to other places, but through this also blocking me, for only bums and disobedient children and scary people walked the tracks, and it was illegal, and it was dangerous, and since they could not be followed by you or I, it was a mystery to where they really go. And unlike the highway, and especially unlike the freeway, they were covered in rust, and dust, and grime, and smelt of creosote and dirt, and seemed as something from another time entirely. They seemed, in short, forever linked to that world of Main Street’s past, and became both a riddle for the mind and a space of movement to which I did not have a key. Such exclusivity was dangerous to me, it inculcated within me an irrational interest in railroads that persists to this day, despite much history that has passed since that has given me more measured, less romantic, less naïve perspectives on that world. Yet even the allure of the railroad did not give me a truly centered idea of place; it was still place as a connection to other places, still more of a state of mind than a locale. If the sky, and the highway, and the railroad were the only terms by which I could affix place, I would be no less happy in Saskatchewan, or Nairobi, or on the Kamchatka Peninsula for that matter.
The promise of other places ultimately did give me a sense of my own connection to place, my own patriotism in the most literal sense of that word, for the fourth place that found its way into my head and heart as a child was the image of Mount Hood. This mountain, standing 11,234 feet in height, is one of several volcanoes in the Cascade Range, and it is also the highest in the state of Oregon, and prominently visible from much of Portland. I, however, did not live in one of those places. In fact in my home town I lived at an elevation of 200 feet, and was hemmed in by mountains to the east that were another 700 feet higher, themselves volcanoes though much humbler and long extinct. In the metro region, the mountain was ever present. Its image was used as a backdrop for evening news broadcasts. It was used as a logo on trucks from every service imaginable, from plumbers to carpet cleaners, from realtors to restaurateurs. Yet from my house, and from my town, it could not be seen. It was denied me, except on those occasions when my mother would take me for a ride, and we would go up to the top of one of the mountains that surrounded my hometown, and from there if the weather was clear I could see the faces of the high and holy Cascades. From there, I could see Mount Hood, I could see the snowy flanks and the glaciers and the rocks that from the distance appeared blue rather than their true brown. Here, above all else, there was something, some place that was like no other, and that in some way I could not explain was connected to me. Were I more sentimental, I might point out that the water I drank as a child came from Bull Run, reservoirs on its flanks and fed by streams that carried mineral deposits from its slopes. I had grown up literally ingesting that mountain. But at 10, 11, 12, I was not aware of this curiosity, I was merely in awe of this perfect-imperfect cone of rock and snow and ice, and when I felt it was in my blood, it was not from rational knowledge, but from some almost pagan reaction from within.