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Friday, October 16, 2009

BYEW-tiful Beaufort

Carol and I have visited Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, many times.  Sizeable yet quaint places, both of them, storied in history and full of old fortifications and photogenic magnolias (Charleston) and tidy squares filled with oak trees draped in Spanish moss (Savannah).

Yet every time we go to either place or tell friends about our visits, someone is sure to remark, "They're gorgeous.  But you really have to see Beaufort.

That's Beaufort, South Carolina, pronounced BYEW-fort, as in "Beautiful Beaufort," which Carol and I took to calling it the moment we drove into town.

This Beaufort should not be confused with a smaller town of the same name up the coast, though people do indeed confuse them all the time.  That one, which regards the "Beau" in its name in the French way you'd expect, is Beaufort, North Carolina.  It doesn't help that both BYEW-fort and BOW-fort were named after the same English nobleman — Henry Somerset, the Second Duke of Beaufort.  He was the palatine, or most important dude, among a group of proprietors upon whom the king had bestowed the southern part of Carolina Colony before it was split in two in 1712.  The duke's dad, the First Duke of Beaufort, had earned the title after some French adventure near Beaufort Castle in Champagne during the War of the Roses. 

These dukes were BOW-forts, and nobody in Beautiful BYEW-fort can explain why their town ended up mangling the name.  Just to be different or ornery, perhaps.

Beaufort, a town of just 13,000 or so people, is the jewel of the Sea Islands in South Carolina's "Lowcountry" — one word — called that because its many estuaries and saltwater marshes reminded Spanish, French, and British colonizers of the Low Country back in Northern Europe.  South Carolina has a high country, too, which the natives call the "Highlands."  The state capital, Columbia, is up that way.  Wealthy Lowcountry rice, indigo, and cotton planters routinely fled the hot, humid, no-see-um-infested marshes to "summer" up there in the cool mountains.


No-see-ums are tiny but bedeviling sand gnats that don't bite so much as make a beeline, or a gnatline, for your eyes and ears.  The only defense is a hearty "Beaufort salute" — a stern wave of your arm to shoo their squadrons away.  We got to be quite good at it.

To put Beautiful Beaufort's galleried antebellum showplaces, verdant parks, and seaside promenades in perspective, one must take a long and satisfying dive into its rich lore of plantations and pirates, tempests from the sea, rebellions, and all manner of military occupations. 

Most of these tales are lusty and true.  Disregard the pirate part, however.  Spanish and French buccaneers did duck into nearby coves, but they mostly steered clear of settlements.  It's BOW-fort up the road in North Carolina that can properly boast of depredations by the pirate "Blackbeard" — Edward Teach — and the like.

Still, old stories hang in the air in Beautiful Beaufort, begging to be spun by masters such as Larry Rowland.  He's Beaufort's pre-eminent historian, a professor emeritus at the state university's branch in town, and the author, along with former colleague Stephen Wise, of a three-volume account of the life and times of Beaufort County.  I expected him to speak with the lilting, cultivated drawl that so becomes educated South Carolinians, but detected no accent at all.  That's because, while his mother's side of the family goes back 330 years in town, whole generations ended up in New York State during the many long years that things took a dreadful turn in the Lowcountry.  Those years, I shall shortly describe.

Beaufort, South Carolina's second-oldest city (to Charleston), was the in-town home of wealthy coastal planters — a term by which they're sometimes known.  "Plantation slavemasters" works, too.  A thriving port prior to the Civil War of the 1860s, Beaufort boasted the best natural harbor south of New York.  Beaufort's sound was discovered in 1525 by a Spanish explorer who, before sailing away, named the area La Punta de Santa Elena, or Santa Elena Point.  In 1566, the Spanish settled on the island that includes present-day Beaufort, and for a short time it was even the capital of their Viceroyalty of Florida.  But the Spanish soon lost their affection for the watery, bug-biting surroundings and abandoned them for more pleasant quarters along the Florida Peninsula to the south.  In 1562, French (Protestant) Huguenots sailed into Santa Elena Harbor, renamed it Port Royal, and founded what would be a short-lived colony.

Port Royal remains the name of the island that includes Beaufort Town, and, just to further confuse things, there's a hamlet called Port Royal just below Beaufort as well.  But Port Royal Town is now "Beaufort," thanks to those British BOW-forts.

Like the Spanish before them, the French colonizers had few problems with indigenous Indians, who were a peaceable lot related culturally and linguistically to Creek tribes in the western interior.  But then along came the British, coveting the Sea Islands.  They allied with a much more ferocious native band called the Yemassee, who helped them take control of Port Royal, only to viciously turn on the British population a few years later.  Over a few terrifying days in 1715, the Yemassee slew one in four European settlers of South Carolina. The people of Beaufort were miraculously saved only because a warning reached them.  The entire populace fled to safety aboard a cannon-equipped ship in the harbor.  The Yemassee then burned the town and surrounding plantation dwellings to the ground. 

In revenge over the next 20 years, South Carolina militiamen and British Redcoat soldiers virtually exterminated the colony's Indian population, leaving only archeological artifacts, buried bones, and place names like "Yamassee" and "Coosawhatchie" as evidence of native culture.

The British intensified port activities in Beaufort.  But its island location stunted real growth.  To reach mainland raw materials and markets, one had to maneuver past other islands and up shallow rivers.   Savannah, by contrast and to its good fortune, sits at the mouth of a good-sized river that winds far into the hinterlands.  And Charleston lies on a neck of land from which two rivers reach into the interior.  Viable markets as well as maritime towns, they soon left Beaufort in their wake.

So Beaufort became a sultry, out-of-the-way place where passions boiled and plots were hatched — the cauldron of a brewing revolt against northern rule from Washington.  Volatile "fire-eaters" — eloquent hotheads furious about cotton tariffs, laws that thwarted the spread of slavery as the nation moved westward, and what the firebrands considered federal interference in their local affairs — cried out for secession, or withdrawal, from the American Union.  The most vocal of them all, Robert Barnwell Rhett, a U.S. senator from Beaufort, is known to this day as the Father of Secession.

Several of the authors of the ordinance of secession passed at the 1860 South Carolina Constitutional Convention naively thought that separation from the Union would go peacefully.  Rhett, working among equally stubborn Yankees in Washington, no doubt knew better.

It is not a coincidence that the first name of the main male character in Gone With The Wind, the overarching novel and later film about the U.S. Civil War, was "Rhett."  Author Margaret Mitchell chose it because it so clearly reflected southern antebellum history, even though rascally Rhett Butler was more of an opportunist than a fire-eater.

Beaufort planters had played a key role in the explosion of cotton as the cash crop of the entire South.  After their phenomenal success with a particular strain of cottonseed on Port Royal, Hilton Head, and the other Sea Islands, "King Cotton"— and the slave culture that went with it because the picking and sorting were so labor-intensive — dominated the economy of the entire South.

Hilton Head Island, which I just mentioned, commands the southern part of Beaufort County below the Broad River.  Once a rural backwater — one of the poorest places in North America — it bore no resemblance to the flashy golfing, retirement, and beach resort destination it has become.  Suffice it to say most of genteel Beaufort wants no part of Hilton Head-style glamour, glitz, and day-and-night buzz.  And since Beaufort County is already getting plenty of tax money from Hilton Head motel stays and property levies, there's no great urgency to overdevelop Beaufort Town's antebellum serenity.

Once civil war broke out up in Charleston as South Carolina militiamen fired on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter in 1861, the Union Navy and Army quickly subdued, occupied, and put to good use the valuable deep-water port of Beaufort — sending most of the affluent white population scattering in their wake.  The Yankees transformed South Carolina's Sea Islands into an auxiliary of the Port of New York.  Men and goods and war materiel to blockade other southern ports and mount expeditions into the belly of the South radiated from suddenly bustling Beaufort. 

And prosperity continued under Northern-imposed "Reconstruction" of the defeated South.   For 30 years, Beaufort was run by African-American Republican politicians and white Yankee merchants.  And just as things were slowing down, rich beds of phosphates — important to agriculture as fertilizer — were discovered in creek beds nearby.   An entire fleet of phosphate carriers left Beaufort each week, laden with phosphates for ports all over the world.  When steamships replaced most sailing vessels, the deep-water port of Beaufort — already the 10th-largest on the Atlantic Seaboard — showed every sign that it would one day outpace haughty Charleston and Savannah.  And when Yankee-trained engineers built a railroad bridge that finally connected Beaufort with the mainland in 1873 — and millions of tons of coal from the southern Appalachian mountains began fueling steam vessels berthed at Port Royal — still more riches for Beaufort seemed assured.

But several jolting turns of fate reversed its fortunes in a flash and put Beaufort nearly to sleep for the better part of a century. 

In 1893, a catastrophic hurricane submerged South Carolina's Sea Islands and sank the entire phosphate fleet.  Two thousand people died.  Five more hurricanes followed in short order, souring Beaufort's reputation forever as a reliable shipping center.  The U.S. Navy abandoned Port Royal Island and moved to Charleston, and the phosphate industry took off for Florida. 

As if that weren't bad enough, world cotton prices declined so dramatically that cotton growers and traders lost money, no matter how many fields they planted, in all but two years of the first two decades of the 20th century.

"So the years between 1893 and 1940 delivered dismal decline to Beaufort," Larry Rowland summarized for me.  "All the old industries were gone.  Shipping disappeared.  The last lumber schooner to leave Port Royal Sound was in 1925.  And the Port of Beaufort closed in 1933."  The town's population declined from 35,000 in 1890 to 21,000 in 1940.  (It's even lower today, you'll recall.)  One half of the African-American population of Beaufort County left as part of the Great Migration to the industrial North, in search of jobs.

But Beaufort was rescued by the United States Marines. 

Marines had been stationed in the area since 1891.  As the security detail at the Port Royal Naval Station, they served bravely during the onslaught of hurricanes and tidal waves.  Then in 1915, Parris Island, next door to Beaufort — named for Alexander Parris, treasurer of the original South Carolina colony — was designated as a Marine Corps "recruit depot."  That's an odd name, since one imagines sergeants behind a table, passing out literature and delivering recruiting spiels to young men (and later women) interested in a military career.  Instead, this "depot" is the center of rigorous — and I do mean rigorous — military training and inculcation of new recruits.

Marine boot camp, in other words.

The mass influx of recruits during world wars I and II rivaled the Union occupation of the Civil War, with the obvious difference that the latter two takeovers of the local economy were most welcome, indeed.  During the Second World War, 240,000 Marines trained at Parris Island at a time when only 21,000 people lived permanently in all of Beaufort County.

As Larry Rowland puts it, "That's a whole lot of commerce and business and exchange and rented rooms.  And what it did for Beaufort was provide a middle class.  After Reconstruction, except for some doctors and lawyers — black and white — everybody in the area was either a poor black or a wealthy white landowner.  That's not exactly a healthy culture."  Officers, enlisted officers, and civil servants stationed at Parris Island not only spent their money in town; many also retired or returned there and opened bookstores and bars and gas stations and the like.  And a surprising number of young Marines somehow have found time to take classes at the state university branch.

No wonder Beaufort watched nervously, with fingers tightly crossed, as the Pentagon closed 99 bases and 55 other military installations across America beginning in 2001 as part of its "BRAC" — Base Realignment and Closure — program.  "If the Marines ever left, we'd be a ghost town," Rowland told me, exaggerating at least a bit, for effect.  "We'd be down in Hilton Head with our hands out."

Fortunately, the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, where, as the Corps puts it, "We Make Marines," was the only significant Marine facility east of the Mississippi River and, thus, spared from closure. 

Carol and I saw only a few uniformed Marines in town.  That's because, it was explained, upscale Beaufort is an expensive place for a Marine private or corporal who is busy elsewhere anyway, executing pushups.  Check out the bars on the fringes of town on a weekend night if we wanted to rub noses with jarheads, we were advised.  Or cross the Broad River Bridge and drive 45 minutes down to livelier Savannah, where Parris Island Marines on leave go to unwind.

We passed on that opportunity.

Already eclipsed by Charleston and Savannah industrially, charming Beaufort is left hiding in the bulrushes.  None of these three southern charmers is "right close" (as the locals might say) to the main north-south Interstate Highway 95 that carries a ceaseless flow of traffic from the populous Northeast all the way to the tip of Florida.  But high-speed Interstate spurs off I-95 whisk travelers to Charleston and Savannah.  By contrast, you can hardly find the name "Beaufort" on highway signs, and one must locate and then navigate an old U.S. highway, full of traffic lights, and wind 40 kilometers [25 miles] to reach Beaufort.

But it's worth it, and Beaufort's isolation is part of its allure.  "There've been lots of schemes to link the Sea Islands to Charleston and Savannah," Larry Rowland told me.  "But bridges are expensive.  We just couldn't afford it."

So Beaufort, appropriately and successfully, touts its relaxed pace and southern charm — even though many of the old families are descended from Union soldiers and Yankee traders.  Rowland's great grandfather, for instance, came to Beaufort from Maine in 1866, a year after the war ended, in a schooner loaded with food and dry goods.  He started several businesses, including a grocery store and cotton gin.  Rowland points out that the only reason many old-time southerners, who had fled the Yankee invasion, returned was to be buried outside St. Helena Episcopal Church or the Baptist Church of Beaufort.  The living among the planter class had little property to which to return anyway; it had been seized by the Federal Government. 

So unlike many small southern towns in which an oversized statue of a Confederate soldier looms in the courthouse square, Beaufort has only a small one — not even erected until 1903 — that, as Rowland puts it, "you'll never find unless you look carefully."  Carol and I did find quite a few small Rebel flags fluttering next to tombstones in a prominent Beaufort cemetery, however.

And on one leisurely stroll through town — unrushed Beaufort and unhurried strolling go well together — Carol and I counted 40 "Tara"-style mansions of the sort made famous in Gone With the Wind: the classic kind with white columns, wrap-around verandas, and nearby azalea bushes and moss-draped trees.  Let's see.  Was this the Barnwell House (1785)?  The Fripp House (1832)?  The Sams House (1810)?  The "Little Taj" (1856)?   Union General William Tecumseh Sherman slept in one of them at the successful close of his "March to the Sea."  Another was a makeshift hospital.   That one's called "Secession House."  Ghosts prowl this one over here.  You can picture the fire-eaters toasting rebellion and fine ladies fanning themselves all over again.

We managed to get out of town without trying a local delicacy — only because we didn't know about it until later.  It's Frogmore stew, which, curiously, contains no part of a deceased amphibian.  A classic African-American gumbo made of shrimp and crabmeat, perhaps smoked sausage, onions, potatoes, corn, and assorted greens, it takes its name from the tiny fishing community of Frogmore on nearby St. Helena Island.  This is the most notable home of the Gullah people, whose story is worth one last diversion. 

"Gullah" is a colloquialism for what is now Angola in southwest Africa.  Or rather, Angola is the Latinized version of what sounded to Portuguese colonizers' ears like "N'Gullah."  Nearly half of South Carolina's African slaves came from there, and their culture survives with its own Creole patois with words from English, Ewe, Mandinka, Igbo, Twi and Yoruba.  The remoteness of the Carolina Sea Islands helped preserve a separate Gullah culture that endures and is still studied by anthropologists.

Beaufort dozes, but also stirs seductively.  Shrimp, art, house-and-garden, and soft-shell-crab festivals — even a credible international film festival — liven things up.  (Parts of many movies, including "Forrest Gump," "The Big Chill," and "The Prince of Tides," have been shot right in Beaufort, after all.)  Beaufortonians have racked up so many "best" ratings from magazines that rank visitors' experiences — "Best Small Southern Town" (Southern Living); "One of America's Best Art Towns" (American Style), and so forth — that they take their appeal for granted.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation calls Beaufort one of a dozen "Distinctive Destinations" in America.  Yes, distinctive, unforgettable — and of course beautiful — Beaufort, South Carolina.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Depredations.  Plunderings, often by a conquering army.

Jarheads.  A nickname for U.S. Marines, used fondly by the Marines but with great care by others.

Rigorous.  Thorough and strict.

Spiel.  An extravagant speech or monologue, often carefully rehearsed.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Raining and Straining

Last time, while enjoying my way across South Dakota, I mentioned that my ultimate destination was Seattle, Washington.  Just as life is (hopefully) a marathon, not a sprint, my goal was to amble around all three of the Pacific Northwest states a bit in order to refresh my impressions of them.  Seattle was the finish line.

Note that I said THREE states, referring to Washington, Oregon, and enough of Northern California to be included.  You could throw in the Canadian province of British Columbia, which is assuredly in the Northwest and, last time we looked, borders the Pacific Ocean.  But hey, this is not Ted Landphair’s Anglo-America, much as British naval captain James Cook would have liked to hold us to his 1778 claim of all the lands north of the Columbia River in the name of the king.

Idaho, which is up that way, too, sometimes horns into definitions of the region, even though you’d have to drive or tramp at least 725 kilometers (about 450 miles) from any place in that often-overlooked state to watch the sun go down over the Pacific.  We did drive through Idaho’s northern panhandle, which, perhaps longingly, keeps Pacific time.  And Idahoans, like Oregonians and Washingtonians to their west, are nuts (or beans) about coffee.  That’s where the “straining” comes from in today’s title.  Rain band after band off the Pacific, and frequent fog and mist in the mountains of Idaho as well as the coastal states, put people in a mood for a long conversation over a tall mocha java.

But sorry, Idaho.  Love your potatoes.  God bless your daredevil kayakers and whitewater rafters on the Snake and Salmon rivers.  And let us know some time why Aryan cults seem to dig your woods.  But you’re a Rocky Mountain State, and we were just passing through.

Our journey to Oregon and Washington, and warm memories of California’s Sequoia country, confirmed the region’s association with trees.  Enormous green ones, by the millions or maybe billions.  Washington is the Evergreen State, and on the Oregon flag there is a stand of Douglas firs next to a prairie schooner — a wagon with a billowing cloth roof in which many an early traveler arrived on the Oregon Trail.

Everywhere you go, the scent of evergreen needles, fresh-cut timber, and the tangy smell of Pacific pine cones amazes, braces, and lingers.

Deep in the woods, especially amidst the lowland fog in the Cascade and Coastal mountain ranges and the rainforest in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the smell of new-fallen rain refreshes, too.  (Magically, soaring glaciers somehow rise out of the warm mists.)  West of the mountains that follow the coast, the days — sometimes day after day after day — can be drizzly and dreary; the Olympic Peninsula, in particular, is lapped by moist ocean air that rides above the Pacific’s Japanese current; the Peninsula endures an average 371 centimeters (150 inches) of rain per year.

But despite what the locals tell you, the average annual rainfall in Seattle and Portland — both well inland — is one-third that, and 13 times less than the rain totals on Mount Waialeale on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai, the rainiest spot on earth.  Except in the wintertime, Pacific Northwest cities don’t stay damp and gloomy for long.

Smells of the sea remain in one’s memory, too, for the people of the Pacific Northwest take to sailboats, cruise ships, fishing boats, and a veritable armada of ferries as readily as they travel by car.  Beaches are plentiful but often far too rocky, and the water too nippy, for swimming.  The faint odors there are of kelp and fresh driftwood, including whole sodden trees washed downstream and into the sea from logging camps.  There is the smell, too, of halibut, tuna, and Dungeness crabs hauled ashore in giant trawlers and tiny fishing boats, as well as that of salmon smoking on grills along the piers and in commercial smokehouses in every good-sized coastal town.

There’s often a bouquet in the air, too, around the thousands of hectares of apples, cherry, and loganberry orchards and strawberry fields.  Oregon and Washington are leading producers of zesty peppermint and of flowers grown for bulbs and seeds.  The forests, canyons, and mountain meadows abound with wildflowers — lupines, fragrant lavender, Indian paintbrush, phlox, and aromatic wild roses.  And the Pacific Northwest boasts cultivated perennial gardens on the scale of southern England’s.  Portland isn’t called the “Rose City” for nothing.

And what of the ever-present scent of coffee from thousands of coffeehouses, espresso bars, carts on the street, booths inside grocery stores, and ethnic restaurants?  My VOA colleague Art Chimes tells me that he once pulled into a Seattle gas station and found, right in the island containing the gasoline pumps and window-washing fluid and Squeegee, a narrow espresso kiosk from which a barista was busy handing lattes out the window.

America’s addiction to upscale coffee began in Seattle in the 1980s and spread like a pandemic south and east.  Now there are, what, maybe 25,000 specialty coffee shops across the country?  Residents tell you this is a byproduct of the area’s high-tech sophistication and laid-back lifestyle.  (Washington’s official motto, taken from the Chinook dialect, is Alki, meaning “by and by.”)

And then there’s that rain.

Tea houses have sprung up like spring rhododendrons, too.  Perhaps it is not the product alone, but also the process (more straining) that fascinates the region, for it is the epicenter of a microbrewery tsunami as well.  Portland, which pours coffee and tea with the best of them, also boasts 50 or so microbrewereies and twice that many brewpubs.  “Craft” brewers can be found throughout the rest of the region as well.  The eruption in the number of small, neighborhood breweries coincided with the buyouts and consolidations of nationwide brewing companies marketing pasteurized, pale (Northwest aficionados say “watered down”) lagers and “light” beers.  Regional breweries like Pyramid in Seattle, BridgePort in Portland, and Humboldt in Arcata, California, grabbed a niche with stronger ales, porters, stouts, and pilsners — also often bottled but not usually pasteurized.  Taste, not a long shelf life, is their forte.  I love eccentric Northwest brands such as “Hair of the Dog” out of Portland and “Mia and Pia’s” from Klamath Falls, Oregon.

Somehow, despite the idle chatter at the brewpubs, coffeehouses, tea parlors, and Internet chat rooms, work gets done.  A surprising amount of it, considering the region’s woodsy and marine traditions, is on farms and ranches east of the Cascades.  There, the smells include those of new-mown wheat and alfalfa hay, mounds of freshly harvested potatoes, cattle clustered at feed lots, and sheep bunched together for shearing.  The rain shadow cast by the coastal mountains leaves these flatlands relatively dry and warm, producing a long and frost-free crop season of 250 days or more each year.

The Pacific Northwest’s imposing snow-clad peaks — Ranier, Hood, Baker, Shasta — have no special scent save for the bracing air of the great outdoors.  It is in the high country — and in the region’s deep ravines, along its wild seashore, across the wooded San Juan Islands above Puget Sound, on thousands of freshwater lakes, and throughout the length of the wide Columbia and wild Snake and other rivers — that hunting, fishing, rafting, birding, and jouncy off-road driving are passions.  The Snake cuts a gorge along the Oregon-Idaho border that is deeper than the Grand Canyon.

Of course, the Spaniards who first poked around the coast of the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1500s were not interested in sights or smells.  They were looking for glory and gold.  They claimed the lands but did not bother to establish settlements along the rocky shore.  British explorers like the aforementioned Cook, searching for a Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, followed two centuries later.  Russian trappers sailed there, too, eventually establishing a colony at Fort Ross in Northern California.  When the sea otter supply played out a few years later, most Russians departed for home, leaving behind a few churches and other structures.  Fur traders of many nationalities soon followed into the Pacific Northwest’s interior.  They included Robert Gray, a Yankee trader from Rhode Island, who crossed the bar of the Columbia River — which Gray named after his ship, the Columbia Rediviva — in 1792.

The pathfinding expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, sent west to map the wilderness by U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, followed that river to the sea 13 years later.  John Jacob Astor made a fortune from his Pacific Fur Company, established in 1811 by his minions in Astoria, the Oregon country’s first permanent settlement at the mouth of the Columbia, and the first American town west of the Rocky Mountains. 

A concerted incursion of other Americans, led by Methodist and Catholic missionaries and “mountain men” from the Rockies, began in Oregon soon thereafter.

That’s “ORR-ih-gunn,” by the way, not “ORR-ih-GONE,” if you want to keep peace with the locals.

The trickle became a human tidal wave beginning in the 1840s with the arrival at the land office at Oregon City — now a suburb of Portland — of farm families from the Midwest.  They had trudged from Missouri along the Oregon Trail to what were advertised as the “gates of Eden” in the fertile Willamette Valley.  Imbued with “Oregon fever,” they came mostly on foot, leading their teams of mules, horses, or oxen that pulled all their worldly possessions.   To their surprise, it was not the rugged Rocky Mountains that proved to be their greatest impediment, for a broad and gentle pass through them had been found in Wyoming.  The most arduous climb was indeed at Eden’s gate, over Oregon’s Blue Mountains, which offered no passes at all.

All the while, the Americans sought to push the British northward, preferably to latitude 54° 40’ in the Yukon, and James J. Polk sounded a rallying cry in his successful race for the U.S. presidency in 1844: “Fifty-four-forty or fight!”  Knowing that its claim to the Pacific Northwest rested largely in the hands of a few Hudson Bay fur company traders and the valiant Northwest Mounted Police, the British took what they could get in a treaty struck two years later.  It conceded all lands south of the 49th parallel (save for the protruding southern tip of Vancouver Island) to the United States but, in return, put an end to Americans’ designs on Canadian territory.

In 1848, the Oregon Territory, including what is now all of Washington and much of Idaho, was organized.  Settlement proceeded in two distinct clumps: one to the south of the Columbia around Portland, and the other along the eastern shore of Puget Sound.  In 1853, the northern reaches broke off as their own territory, named “Washington” after the first U.S. president.  Truncated Oregon became a state in 1859; Washington lost some of its lands to Idaho Territory and waited 30 more years before becoming the nation’s 42nd state.  For much of this period the bulk of Northern California was a wilderness, but the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in Sacramento spurred rampant development.

In the years since, the Pacific Northwest’s economy has grown largely because of its timber and agricultural riches, its extensive mining, hydroelectric and nuclear energy production, aluminum smelting and refining, and, later, aerospace and computer industries.  The economy has also benefited from tourists like Carol and me, drawn to the region’s boundless natural wonders that include volcanic peaks like mounts Ranier and Hood, and the remnants of Mount St. Helens — a volcano that erupted in 1980 and around which, despite some forest regrowth, barren hillsides and charred timber can still be seen.  Today St. Helens is the official “national volcanic monument,” though the closest that visitors can get is an observatory eight kilometers (five miles) away, where the still-steaming lava dome, crater, and landslide deposit can be seen.  Crystal-blue Crater Lake in southern Oregon is set in the depression left by the explosions of another, now-extinct volcano.

A comprehensive tour of the Pacific Northwest might begin, though, in extreme Northern California.  This is a land far different from the rest of the Golden State.  It is a trove of national forests, wild rivers, precipitous mountain roads, and craggy coastline akin to green Oregon.  The far-northern California counties are a dense, woodsy place where not just ice and deer pose road hazards; so do gray-pine cones, which fall like rocks and damage vehicles and noggins.  From there, reservoirs, dams, and aqueducts divert water to the state’s arid Central Valley and on to glittering Southern California.

Close to the Northern California coast looms the majestic Redwood Forest, home to the world’s tallest — and some of its oldest — trees.  One, called the “Immortal Tree,” is thought to be 950 or more years old.  The Redwood Highway, or “Avenue of the Giants” through Humboldt Redwoods State Park leads visitors past and even through living trees.  They grow there and only there, in the humid coastal climate of Northern California and southern Oregon.

With all that grandeur, no wonder Humboldt County is California’s “art capital,” with more artists per capita than any other county.

Up in Oregon, pretty Portland is a remarkably self-contained city by design.  Under Governor Tom McCall in the late 1970s, and with the cooperation of county and suburban officials, it drew a simple line around the metropolitan area.  This boundary has expanded outward, but its rigid purpose is still largely in place.  Inside the line, carefully controlled urban growth is permitted.  Outside — sometimes even on the other side of a street — forests, farms, and open space must be maintained.  Developers howled at this idea.  They warned of a loss of jobs, but the opposite has occurred.  Factories and high-tech campuses arose, and both the population and home prices soared without unchecked sprawl.

Still, downtown Portland is home to the nation’s largest urban wilderness in Forest Park.  The city even tore up a downtown freeway and replaced it with a delightful riverfront park whose many festivals have helped keep residents in town and downtown alive at night.  There’s also a long, dedicated transit mall, much of which is closed to automobile traffic.

Oregon even has its own Mardi Gras, of sorts.  It is the annual Graffiti Weekend each July in Roseburg, gateway to Crater Lake and the Oregon Caves National Monument.  The name springs not from scribbling on building walls but from the 1973 movie “American Graffiti,” director George Lucas’ popular paean to the 1950s.

In Eastern Oregon — wheat and high-desert country — ranchers raise everything from antelopes to llamas to reindeer.  And the land across the Columbia in eastern Washington is just as remote and dusty until one reaches the irrigated orchards around towns like Pasco and Walla Walla.  The latter’s name derives from an Indian word for “many waters.”  So important is agriculture in the area that an official of the local chamber of commerce once sent me a list of tourist attractions that included the sweet onion.

Spokane, farther north along the Idaho border, rightly brags about its picturesque falls and an imposing clock tower erected by the Great Northern Railway. A lot of railroad and mining barons built beautiful homes near it during the “Age of Elegance” at the turn of the 20th century, just as “country leisure” brings lots of newcomers to little Washington towns from Spokane to Seattle to this day.  (I recently wrote about one of them, a new city called Sammamish, in a VOA feature story, at

Seattle, an increasingly prominent and globally competitive city in the midst of a metropolitan area of 3 million people, is the region’s most notable crossroads of peoples, cultures, technologies, and transportation.  It is a place where Yakima apples go out and New Zealand kiwi fruit comes in; where tourists from across America come to buy salmon at Pike Place Market or get on a cruise ship to Alaska; where more than 500 international firms have a presence; and where the value of goods shipped to far-off Japan is nearly double that sent to nearby Canada. 

(We interrupt for a cute Seattle/kid story.  My editor, Rob Sivak, tells me that he and his family love the Northwest — Seattle in particular.  One day, as they were leaving on a trip there, wee daughter Monica asked where they were going. “We’re going to Seattle,” Rob replied.  “Oh,” said Monica, looking puzzled.  “Who’s Attle?”)

Named for “the Emerald City,” See-Attle ranks third in the nation in percentage of professional and technical employees, and third in percentage of adults who have competed college.  The Boeing aircraft company and Microsoft computers, the region’s largest employers, are among America’s largest exporters.

Taken as a whole, the Pacific Northwest tests the limits of hyperbole: spectacular, sublime, panoramic, a racial melting pot with a pronounced Asian accent.  And — remembering especially a steaming cappuccino in Seattle, a pint of fresh-brewed pilsner in Portland, a bite into a freshly cut peach near Bend, Oregon, and a blast of cool air in the pines along Lake Sammamish on my recent visit —  the adjective I like best in describing it all is . . .



(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Akin.  (Usually used with the preposition “to.”)  Similar to.  Having the same quality as.

Barista.  From the Italian, it refers to one who grinds beans into coffee, specifically behind a shop counter rather than at home.

Jouncy.  Bumpy and jolting, bouncy.

Noggin.  An informal word for one’s head, especially used when describing a knock on, or blow to, the head.

Paean.  Pronouncded “pee-AWN,” this is a shout or song of praise.  The word was used in hymns of thanksgiving to the Roman gods.