For weeks now I have been trying to write about the zombie apocalypse of the Pacific Northwest. I have stopped and started, erased and rewritten time and time again. I can’t find the beginning of this piece and I think it means that I have to go farther back, to before the beginning. To the end.
To Santa Rosa, California.
I grew up in Sonoma County, which sits between San Francisco and Mendocino on the edge of the coast. Now known for its rivalry with Napa county as America’s leading fine wine producer, it was once among California’s finest dairy and agricultural hubs. I grew up in the middle of this changeover. When I was small and my family would head out for a weekend adventure, I could see rolling green hillsides, vast blooming apple orchards, stretches of lovely old houses and barns, redwood copses and fields full of oaks and bachelor buttons, unrolling like an illuminated manuscript to the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Now it is mostly vineyards.
I was born in the hamlet of Salmon Creek, a tiny oceanside community that branches off of Bodega Bay, which you might recognize from Hitchcock’s The Birds. We moved to nearby Sebastopol when I was four, and then to Santa Rosa, the administrative seat and largest city in the county. Home to Luther Burbank, the man who invented the Santa Rosa plum and the Shasta daisy, he was quoted as saying, “I firmly believe, from what I have seen, that this is the chosen spot of all this earth as far as Nature is concerned.”
I have no idea what Santa Rosa was like when Burbank’s career as a revered horticulturist was in its heyday. I do know that the looming performing arts center built in his honor was recently renamed the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, at about the same time that every major sports facility in the nation was named after other major corporations. I know that his house, still elegantly situated within the boundaries of his lush, well-kept historical gardens, is surrounded by the economic depression of a city that hasn’t learned to live with change. Across the street, a well manicured lawn known to locals as “Needle Park” sits in placid upkeep, somehow managing to mask the horrors that occur there with regularity. Not six months before I left on this trip, a seventeen year old girl was raped in broad daylight in that park, within view of Burbank’s house.
Old networks with deep pockets have allowed antiquated ideals to prosper while new ones die quick deaths. Around and around it goes. Within this network there are different camps, all perpetuating this cycle: the historical societies that focus primarily on Sonoma County’s white history, until sheer ridiculousness affords the local Native and Mexican histories a small notation on some park’s plaque (for example: attempting to “honor Sonoma County’s rich agricultural history,” which is primarily built on the backs of Latino day laborers, officials commissioned a giant white marble hand to be placed in front of the downtown mall) ; the wine tourism leaders who would plow over every last vestige of the county’s diverse landscape to squeeze out one more bottle of wine; the “progress” touters who slobber at the notion of an expanded highway without considering trains or better public transportation; and city officials who grandfather in old school work ethics that damage public health and happiness. Then there are the public schools, some among the most deplorable in the state, with defenders in high places who are the kinds of people who would rather see damage done to children than to the perceived integrity the educational system.
To top it off, there is the deep and abiding love for the Sunday cartoonist of fairweather American ideal, Charles Schultz. It is a love that knows no bounds, and it the very same love that lashes out at a real arts scene. Artists are in abundance, but you wouldn’t know it by visiting. Unless they abide by strict and binding rules, such as churning out views of vineyards or something that does not offend or challenge or look different, they are not welcome. The same goes for musicians. Each scene that builds a following has no option but to move elsewhere or to collapse. Venue after venue is shut down mercilessly. Even among those trying to establish a better scene for artists, egos and differing attitudes simmer too close to the surface and most events take turns for the worse. As for galleries, save for a few gems here and there, you could go to every art gallery in the county and not be able to tell one from the other. Each, like a cultivated daisy, nods in unison on the limp wind of mediocrity.
This is not to say I didn’t play a part in my own unhappiness: when I decided to leave it was partially out of a desperation to find something better than what surrounded me, but I had already stopped trying to improve things long ago. In truth I love much of the county– and even the city– where I was raised. It was hard to leave. However, I was not prepared for what I’ve encountered time and time again on this journey. When I left Sonoma County I also left a great job, even though I had no health insurance, and a roof over my head, even if it was in a moldy, low income housing unit. In that life I had the freedom to resent a city for its lack of interest in youth, minorities, diversity, and the arts. I had the freedom to hate it for what it was actually achieving: gentrification and blandness. I knew of, but had not truly experienced, the ugly sting of debilitating economic depression that was sucking so much of the country dry. As we drove further north I began to see a different kind of ugly, something akin to a plague that rots the coast of the far northern regions of California and the Pacific Northwest. And, I am beginning to recognize, in parts of Sonoma County as well.
When we pulled into Aberdeen, WA, the largest city in Grays Harbor county and the birthplace of the late Kurt Cobain, the streets were empty and silent on a Saturday night. Looming buildings that once represented the pride of a booming logging industry stood sentinel in shields of dryrot and crumbling brick. We drove past aisles of them, empty building after empty building, trying to find a place to eat that wasn’t attached to a gas station. We finally pulled up beside a Chinese restaurant whose sign was a jumble of neon brush strokes on the nighttime palette of black and gray. Inside, it was large enough to echo and the decor was jade green and gold with an elegant layout like that of a grand music hall. And it was empty. With seating enough for 150, the two of us entered like wayward dust bunnies in a vacated house. Save for the hum of the proprietor’s vacuum there was no sound. The lamps burned with past spirits; outside, paper shuffled down empty sidewalks, and tumbled into the doorways of deserted storefronts. What happened here? I wondered. Try as I might, I could not ignore the permeating desolation winding its fingers through my hair and around my arms, pulling me ever downward. Something like depression seeped into my head.
Aberdeen was not the first place to strike me in this way. It is only the starkest representation of most of what I see along the Pacific Northwest’s coastline. Towns that once had something going for them are now deflated, distorted with hopelessness and cheap escapes. These places are specters of the American Dream still rattling chains in the attic of history. Drug use is not hidden in these towns because there is no reason to hide it. Many residents are trying to escape in some form or another, anyhow. Babies having babies– the notion has never been more apparent than in these towns, where those who could not find a way out found a way to become stuck. Aberdeen’s slogan, “Come As You Are,” is a ten-years-too-late homage to Cobain, whose memory was shunned by officials until they realized his ghost could offer financial boon.
To add insult to injury, these places that surely tried their best stem the tide of impending misery are sandwiched between richer, shinier, L.L. Bean catalog towns. Like Christmas installations at a mall, their depth is only cardboard thick and rests solely on the patronage of prosperous white vacationers and the contrasting gloom of their neighbors. These towns feature hotels named after seabirds and currents, with the same décor and the same features of the other L.L. Bean towns along the coast. Though they are seen as a brief respite from raw misery, they are no more comforting to me. They, too, show the desperation of a place tied entirely to forces beyond their own making, and they hang onto the purse straps of wandering RV-ers who have no wish to feel much of anything anymore.
I don’t want to be down on Aberdeen. It isn’t the only place that suffers so monumentally from ill fortune. In the face of so much nationwide economic rot in the last 13 years I am shocked that I haven’t been witness to more of it. But I know something about California. It has greedy, hiding ways. My beautiful, beloved California, who I know for a fact has grown to love rich newcomers more than me, a born and bred worshiper of its bounty. It dazzles with its plastic Hollywood interpretations of reality. A glance at history shows its ability to sustain glamor throughout the most desperate times, no matter what the cost to its people. In Sonoma County we heard of “tent cities” in California but were kept far away from the knowledge of their spread by the media. Sonoma County keeps its own problems hidden by promoting wine tourism in every way imaginable. Take the town of Healdsburg, for example: once a quiet, sleepy town with a lovely central park and quiet streets, it is now a horrifying circus of wine tasting sleaze, peopled with stretch-faced clowns in expensive tourist threads.
Strangers are shocked to hear of the strong current of heroin and painkiller addiction underlying such a beautiful place as Sonoma County. They are shocked to hear of the treatment of minorities. If you were to talk to the fishermen of the Sonoma Coast they could tell you about the realities of their steadily disappearing jobs. You could talk to the dairymen about having to auction off their multi-generational farms to wineries in order not to lose their entire lives to banks. One can look at Aberdeen or any of the fishing or logging towns along the Pacific Northwest and see with instant clarity the destruction caused by economic neglect, as though you were watching a zombie movie in slow motion. It is obvious, it is unhidden.
In Sonoma County, you must shuffle through the cultivated blossoms of bland prosperity to find the grit, and the beauty of truth, below.
(I write all of this on the last night of our stay in Port Townsend, a place we may not have visited except for incidents beyond our control: needing a brief respite from the cold world of camping, we decided to splurge on a cheap motel in Port Angeles for one night. I was coming down with a flu, and we both needed showers and a bed. That night our car windshield and hood were bashed in by a man on large amounts of drugs and anger. No one in Port Angeles seemed surprised. We decided to hit the road in our rental car while we waited for our insurance to dispatch an adjustor. And so we take shelter in a town well recognized for its idyllic American prosperity. It is the nation’s largest wooden boat building community. It is clean and it is beautiful. L.L. Bean catalogs abound.)