West coast cruising

Adrien Tierney-Jones gets behind the wheel of a dream drive, going solo through a slice of unvarnished America 


The late afternoon daubed brushstrokes of slanting sun onto Seattle airport’s clutter of concrete and wire fencing as I signed a bunch of forms and took the set of keys.
Have a good trip,” said the sales clerk in the crisp, white shirt.

“Thanks. I’m off on a road trip,” I replied, possibly unnecessarily. The man noted my grin and turned back to his paperwork. As if he hadn’t heard that one a thousand times before. As if he hadn’t guessed. Still, I had to share my excitement with someone. In the days ahead lay a drive through the great Pacific Northwest, south from Seattle to Portland, a journey I’d long dreamt of, interspersed with dark pine woods and foggy Pacific coves, clapboard villages and refreshing pit stops.

In my head, as I searched for my car, I was already on the road, left hand dangling from the window while I swept down a ribbon of tarmac in my glinting ’69 Chevy. As it turned out, I’d been allocated a white Nissan Sentra – four doors of calm suburban obedience but, purring into the sunlight, I was soon in the thick of freeway traffic, heading towards the hilly sprawl of Seattle, a colony of cranes spearing the sky.

I had a hunch that this city would be the perfect way in to my dream trip-through-a-slice-of-real-USA. It was famously cool rather than naffly Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (like LA, further south). Home to great coffee, it was also on the doorstep of some wonderfully wild America, the Pacific Northwest – a region remote enough to be romantically atmospheric, but not savage and scary, as in The Hills Have Eyes. To cap it all, I had the ideal ‘book-end’ to my motoring holiday: Portland, Oregon, Seattle’s trendy twin, three hours’ drive away if you follow the Interstate 5 direct. Me, I planned to meander for a few days, in a lazy loop taking in the Pacific coast.

Original Starbucks in Seattle, which opened in 1971
Original Starbucks in Seattle, which opened in 1971

In Seattle, rested up, I stepped out of boho Hotel Max into a sunny, sensory assault: blonde dreadlocks and bold tattoos, broad avenues and roasting aromas from coffee shops (including the original Starbucks, sprouting an inevitable selfie-snapping queue). Despite the obvious signs of ‘corporate creep’ — the sun-glittered glass-and-steel towers in the business district — I fell for the individualistic attitude of this historic city, once the last staging post for the Klondike Gold Rush. It was almost a pastiche of its ‘alternative’ image in places: a grungy young woman on a corner sang saccharine German lieder; a girl went by, leading a terrier with turquoise-painted claws. Seattle’s small-batch/locavore ethic was much in evidence: fresh juice was on sale everywhere, made from apples grown just outside the city limits.

In Pike Place Market (a foodie fixture since the early 19th century), white-coated workers belted out acapella chants as crabs and salmon were picked over and tossed backwards to be dressed. Next door, in the dark-wood confines of the Pike Brewing Company, I settled in with a glass of hops. I left Seattle, bleary-eyed, early next morning on the Interstate 5, rolling south.

It was a working day of humming traffic. As Seattle’s office outcrops dwindled, Tacoma appeared on billboardsized green route signs overhead, drawing our three-lane slurry south. I hit the radio and Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper drifted out. I touched the accelerator and, meekly, the Nissan obliged. It wasn’t exactly Thelma & Louise, but as Mount Rainier rose to the east — placid, immense and snow-capped at the summit — I felt a buzz of exhilaration about the mini-epic journey ahead.

The blue glint of Puget Sound heralded the port city of Tacoma itself, 55km down the I-5. When the Western Terminus for the Northern Pacific Railroad (‘All the way from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean!’) was built here in 1870, a golden age for Tacoma was promised. But the vicissitudes of the 20th century took an eventual toll. As I stretched my legs, strolling through the Downtown district, I saw the facades of decrepit warehouses, still bearing the faded names of long-gone businesses. Something about it evoked the romantic desolation of the America painted by Edward Hopper in the late ’20s. A trolley bus clanged in the distance, the signal to move on. Although not before I’d had a burger the size of Mount Rainier at Harmon — a contented loner among the comforting din of diners.

The sense of downturn stayed with me that afternoon, west along Route 12 towards the sea. Through the window brooded the dark hills of the Capitol State Forest as Oakville flitted by, a fleeting vision of Nowheresville, USA: a sign for a firearm auction, a small girl and her Labrador motionless outside the general store.

Gritty Aberdeen, birthplace of Kurt Cobain, announced itself with a welcome sign to Come As You Are, in the words of the Nirvana song. To be honest, I didn’t feel that welcome. It was lined with pick-up trucks from which dogs scowled with angry mistrust — gloomy. But as I continued onto Route 105, ahead lay salvation: for the first time in my life, I saw the Pacific.

It was as if the humdrum road so far had been laid down to play up this spectacular punchline.

The long beach area with winding mountain roads
The long beach area with winding mountain roads

Slate-blue, the ocean wobbled and swelled. Cormorants bobbed on the waves like black-clad priests, stabbing the surface for food. This was the Pacific Northwest I’d always imagined, the reason I’d come. I stood inhaling the heady salt air until a speedboat’s drone broke the spell, then hopped back in the car, and continued on my way.

The road passed more small communities where battered clapboard houses had clearly seen better times, before local industries — timber, fishing — hit challenges. But with the car window down, Washington State was working its way into my veins, as scents filled the air — of brine and wet pine, drifting down from ghostmisted hills. This wasn’t a road trip of famous sights — no Grand Canyon, no Hollywood sign — but it was dawning on me how you don’t need major-league attractions to feel a thrill in America. Somehow even the everyday has its own tick-list of iconic experiences.

I pulled over at Long Beach, where a lonely spit of land lay north-south like a hammerhead in the Pacific. A strong wind was swirling along the beach, speckled with tottering birds and a few hardy families behind windbreaks. Long Beach was nothing like its California namesake. In the dunes I stumbled upon the startling sight of a long-dead grey whale, forsaken by one of the schools that swim this way between March and May, migrating south to Mexico for the winter.

Across the border in Oregon, night was falling on the port of Astoria as I swept in with lines of trucks, over the Astoria-Megler Bridge. It reared above the Columbia river, which separates the two states, like the fossilised backbone of some phantasmagorical beast. My arrival was timed perfectly: at the Cannery Pier Hotel, built on the site of a canning factory, they were serving a buffet of local cheese, smoked salmon and white grape. Later, at the boisterous Fort George Brewery, I wound up talking Wittgenstein with a bar-philosopher, drinking Belgian beverages. I drifted off to sleep with a headful of memories from the road so far: wooded ridges and rocky inlets; amber ales and creamy clam chowder at some small diner or other.

“We come here every year,” said the husband of a couple who’d heard my accent over breakfast next morning. “There’s something down-to-earth about Astoria.” He was right, although there was something otherworldly about it, too: one turreted house looked spooky, and I imagined kids telling tales of ghostly inhabitants.

It was an earthy town, its architecture redolent of old-style USA.

The former state jail (now a film museum) needed only John Wayne in a Stetson outside. A wall on the maritime museum was engraved with the names of residents who’d worked at sea and in the canneries: another humbling story of small-town endeavour.

Historic district Skidmore in Portland, Oregon
Historic district Skidmore in Portland, Oregon

By the time I hit the road again, low clouds had settled in wisps over the wooded hills of northern Oregon. I was now on highway 101, following the Pacific south to Newport, where I’d turn inland and make for Portland, the end of my journey. I made the most of the rain-flecked day, stopping at yet another viewing place to indulge my insatiable fascination with the ocean. The nondescript hiss of passing cars was the only soundtrack until, with a bone-juddering roar, a Harley-Davidson thundered by, quite a sight. The Nissan all but blushed as the rider passed resplendent in lumberjack checks and leather, clearly ruling the road.

“You wanna know the best thing about living out here?” a dentist asked me that night as I explored Newport’s nightlife. “You can be your own boss — it’s the American ideal.” Country music played on the jukebox and a spritely fisherman called Frosty kept boasting about the day’s catch, and the dentist stayed until it was closing time. He was obviously his own boss. Behind the cosmopolitan aroma of coffee, Newport had a stubble-chin charm. It was as far from Seattle as you could possibly be, with sea lions basking in bright sunshine alongside the waterfront Anchor Pier Lodge next morning when I awoke. If only I could have bottled this place and taken it with me…

My recompense lay 145km inland, in the Willamette Valley, its gentle hills braided with vineyards whose delights I had to resist — I could sense the Nissan Sentra giving me one of its prim, disapproving glances from the car park.

In Portland, an hour north along Interstate 5, we said goodbye, the Nissan and I. It’d been a faithful companion, but this was the end of the affair. I was about to fall in love with a self-confident city, so much calmer than Seattle. Portland felt European. Elegant columns and gables adorned the facades of Skidmore/Old Town district, wwhere in the 19th century the city began. Restaurants and bars  burbled sociably on every corner. Food carts, parked beside the banks of the Willamette river, invited wanderers to munch their way around the world. As I sat devouring a massive stuffed burrito, smothered in a rich Mexican mole sauce, a woman approached.

“Are you lost?” she asked, noticing me scouring my city map as she got into her car after a gym session. She reeled off a list of must-see sights then added, “The Navy’s in tomorrow and this road will be lined with girls from outside town.” She gave me an appraising look.

I thanked her — and promptly walked off at a pace. After the past few days of mellow meanderings, my heart now belonged to the highways of the Pacific Northwest, and my lust was just the wandering kind.

Adrien Tierney-Jones/The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/News Licensing