About 20 minutes from downtown Portland is the Columbia River Gorge, a temperate rainforest cut by a spacious, fast moving slab of brown river and sided by gargantuan waterfalls tumbling between pine tree cliffs; the terrain gets drier as you drive east on Hwy 84 till eventually it turns into endless rolls of dry farmland. And this region, a mere 150 miles out of liberal Portland is cowboy country, where everyone drives tank-sized pick up trucks that are graced with bumper stickers that say things like "Obama bin lyin'."
Perhaps it's because I've been out of the US so long that I love this hay-covered, gun-slinging, Republican America. I might feel like an over-educated, city-slicker driving around in my Japanese-made mini SUV, but it's this alienation that makes me feel like I've gone somewhere, like I've stepped away from my normal reality and been transported into another culture or even another era.
My family and I stop to get gas in Union, a dot of an Eastern Oregon town with charming Victorian buildings. The guy behind the service counter is friendly enough but eyes my family (and our Asian friend Sandra) a bit suspiciously; the only other patron is about six feet tall, 250 pounds and is wearing a shirt that reads "All of God's Creatures are best with meat and potaters." As I wait to pay for my gas behind Mr Meat, I read a hand written sign for the local raffle on the wall - - prizes include a side of beef, a side of pork and a gun.
And this makes me giggle inside, then think for a second because I realize that I'm enjoying the Americana of this gas station as much as I would a junk store in Penang, Malaysia or maybe a carpet shop in Tunisia. I'm not from this America and I don't really feel comfortable here but it sure is fascinating. I feel like a tourist as much as I ever have and it's great.
Looking for last minute fishing equipment we get directed to a store in Pondosa about 20 miles down the road from Union. Actually it ends up that the store is the only thing at all in Pondosa. It's a homey early 1900s building shaded by an elm tree and we're greeted by an old dog and about six fluffy cats. The door looks like it leads to someone's living room more than to a store but sure enough, opening it triggers a "ding" and out comes a white haired woman who soon calls to her husband to ask if they have any fishing line.
Nope, they don't have any fishing equipment but as we look around we realize this place is more of a museum than a store. You can get a cup of hot chocolate for 50 cents, the few boxes of tea and canned goods are covered with dust and next to register hangs a flash bar for a Polaroid camera (still in the box) as if this is the most likely thing customers might need as they check out. Old pictures of Pondosa (which was once a thriving mill town) grace the walls and the owners keep us in the store for a good half hour telling us about the history of the town.
Pondosa's biggest claim to fame they tell us is that it's the geographical center of the US when you factor in Alaska and Hawaii. We are all impressed. Pondosa is awesome, this store alone could merit hours of exploration. On the way out we notice a small silver earring taped to a display counter with a note that says "Did you lose an earring?" The note looks about 10 years old.
We go to a nearby camp site next to a reservoir where we're kept awake by coyotes howling all night then, the next day, drive another 20 miles down a dirt road to a trail head where we hike into the mountains and camp for a few days (a whole other story).
On the way home we stop in Pendleton, a more yuppie cowboy town, where women wear tight jeans and high heeled cowboy boots and the most popular place in town is the rockin' steakhouse with a mediocre cover band playing outdoors. This is the kind of place I could imagine staying in a B&B to experience truck driving, cowboy hat-wearing hunting culture with a gentrified buffer - kind of like folks in a resort and a tour bus might see Istanbul or Beijing. It's cool but I like Union's gas station better.
When I get home I Google Pondosa. Turns out the only folks claiming the town is the center of the 50 US states are the couple who own the store. All other data points towards Butte County, South Dakota although apparently the exact geographical center depends on several variables (I'm not sure which). But I don't feel duped by Pondosa and I know that lovely couple truly believe it is the geographic center of the United States. Whether it is or not, Pondosa is still the middle of somewhere and I'd sip a hot cocoa with its warm-hearted two-person population any time.