Places and Perceptions

It’s interesting how things change as you travel from place to place.  Sometimes its transparent and sometimes it’s drastic.  I’m not talking about scenery or climate or the way the air feels.  I’m addressing the overall feeling that is created by the residents of the area and the overall social environment you’re in.  As we’ve moved from place to place I have begun to pick up on the differences and how each area has a unique feel to it.  At the beginning of our trip we travelled through Northeast Washington and the towns of Mazama, Winthrop, Twisp, Okanogan, Tonasket, Republic and finally Spokane.  Each place lends a particular subcultural atmosphere to the greater region.

The tiny town of Mazama is full of outdoor enthusiasts, transplants and retirees.  There’s a laid back feel and you can buy the most interesting local and organic products right in the town general store. They even have a farmers market.  Winthrop and Twisp have a similar vibe although masked by a slightly more gritty feeling as people don’t just seem to be on “vacation” all the time.  I liked the feeling of local self-reliance that I got when visiting these towns.  People grow their own food and build their own houses.  Republic.  What can one say about Republic?  I honestly can’t say a lot about the area.  It’s beautiful and backwoods.  Small town, vast wilderness.  I think I heard people shooting off of their back porch as I drove through town.  Target practice of course.

Spokane, oh Spokane.  You’re a dirty asphalt field in the middle of the desert.  Strip malls and shopping complexes for miles and miles.  You’re a place to spend a few days whilst gathering supplies for the miles of barren desert that lie beyond you.  People seem tired and sun-baked, like all of the asphalt that surrounds them.

The towns of the Idaho mountains were either tiny or established ski towns.  In particular McCall, Idaho had a distinct resort vibe in a beautiful surrounding.  The town borders a large lake and is very close to Brundage Ski Resort.  People in town are friendly and definitely cater to the tourist.  You can tell that there are entrepreneurs from many different areas who’ve come to McCall to start a business and make a living.  I’d never had a “pour through” coffee until I visited a local coffee establishment owned by a man from New Zealand.  Excellent cup of coffee.  Nice little town.

As you descend out of the mountains of Idaho and into the monoculture laden desert valleys of central Idaho you pass through many tiny and somewhat dilapidated towns as well as the capital of Boise.  I can’t say a lot about Boise as we drove by as fast as possible only stopping at a gas station to fuel up.   beyond Boise you reach Twin Falls which feels like a Wal Mart in the middle of the desert surrounded by a lot of nothing.  People were friendly enough in a simple red state sort of manner.  Bleachy blonde hair and big truck tires prevail while finding a place to buy quality groceries is a challenge.

Finally the town of Almo, Idaho outside of the City of Rocks National Reserve proved to be a quiet and friendly little place.  There’s not a lot happening in Almo but the town seems to exist thanks to the National Reserve and the climbers and nature enthusiasts that it attracts.   People are simply happy to help and almost always extend a friendly wave or a smile despite the issuing state of your license plates.  For a dusty old Mormon settlement in the middle of nowhere, Almo had a certain charm that enhanced  the overall experience of City of Rocks.

After the humble, hospitable nature of Almo, being in Salt Lake City was like a swift kick in the gut.  The hot, crowded city moved with an impatient haste that seemed to infect all of its 200,000 inhabitants.  Everyone is racing around, trying to be the first in line in traffic.  There’s not a feeling of ease and the beating sun melts at your wits and makes even the simplest tasks seem daunting.  People are not quick to smile or wave as you pass them on one of the canyon roads.  The public facilities are generally expensive and run down.  Good bye and good riddance Salt Lake!  I hope that if I visit again my experience will be a different shade.

That brings me to Wyoming.  The towns of Pinedale and Jackson.  Pinedale, so simple, so neat.  A place where everyone knows everyone and where people will invite each other to the breakfast table at the local cafe on Sunday morning to talk about the weather, the wildlife, the places they’ve been and the fish they caught during the previous week.  Regulations?  What regulations?   Just be respectful and mind some basic principles and you can go wherever you like.  There aren’t gates on roads or signs everywhere demanding that you not partake in camping, parking, or any other thing you feel like doing on the public lands surrounding the town.  Jackson on the other hand sees so many people each year because they are the gateway to Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone that they must have a few stricter regulations in place.  Jackson is a constant throng of motorists, pedestrians and international tourists.  An average of 3 million tourists visit Jackson Hole each year.   I am one of them.  It makes me think of some passages in the book Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey.

“How difficult to imagine this place without a human presence; how necessary. I
am almost prepared to believe that this sweet virginal primitive land will be
grateful for my departure and the absence of the tourists, will breathe
metaphorically a collective sigh of relief—like a whisper of wind—when we are
all and finally gone and the place and its creations can return to their ancient
procedures unobserved and undisturbed by the busy, anxious, brooding
consciousness of man.
“Grateful for our departure? One more expression
of human vanity. The finest quality of this stone, these plants and animals,
this desert landscape is the indifference manifest to our presence, our absence,
our coming, our staying or our going. Whether we live or die is a matter of
absolutely no concern whatsoever to the desert.” -Edward Abbey

Despite all of this I am finding Jackson to be a pleasant place with friendly people.  One advantage of a place that is constantly seeing new faces is that people are more open and willing to accept the average stranger.

I know I’ve been a bit harsh on some of the areas and I’m sure that my  perception has been colored by my individual experiences in these places.  I’m sure without a doubt that there is good in all of these areas to those who are looking for it.  Looking in the right place through the right set of eyes, you can find anything and everything you need.  In people, in experiences, in yourself.

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