Looking for waves, the past, and a legend in Waikiki

I normally try to avoid popular tourist dens when I travel.

I prefer to learn about new places and not expose myself to the corporate, global tourism culture that makes holidays to Bali, Cancun, and Paris all blur into bland rituals to relax those wealthy enough to fly around the world for temporary pleasure.

In late October 2022, when I took a long overdue short holiday, I had little time to plan for a true learning adventure. I found myself suddenly between two jobs and a small window to organize. That meant I needed to find a place that aligned with my interests and could be reached quickly.

My plot emerged overnight—to surf in warm, tropical waters. I had nursed this scheme for years. This also meant breaking my self-imposed travel rules.

After six years of surfing in the cold Pacific waters off Oregon’s shores, I craved warmth. By the time I booked this trip the last week of October 2022, I had been irregularly surfing the cold, feisty waters of the Oregon Coast since 2016. That also made me an almost entirely cold-water surfer. (I don’t count my few past efforts in Hawaii in 2009 or Australia in 2007 as real surfing outings.)

I booked a three-night, four-day trip to one of the most famous of tourist destinations in the Pacific, on the Island of Oahu. Traveling to Waikiki meant I was embracing its long-documented excesses symbolizing global tourism, especially for Americans and Japanese travelers.

The least I could do on the trip was learn more about the place.

I soon discovered after booking my trip that Waikiki was once a sacred site, rich in aquaculture and sea harvesting for native Hawaiians. The last century saw it paved, developed, and transformed into a tourist haven, attracting millions of annual visitors the world over.

That transformation damaged the local environment and displaced its original inhabitants, all through the historic systems of colonialism and global capitalism. My self-described adventure would reward this victorious new reality. My consolation would be honoring the sport Hawaii generously gave to the modern world—surfing.

I found a surprisingly affordable hotel, the Pearl Waikiki. It catered to budget travellers like me, by Hawaiian tourist standards. It also put me a short walking distance from Queens, a gentle surf spot, where I surfed for three days. I needed a place that allowed me to rent a board and put in the ocean without driving. I literally could pick up my board from the surf shop, walk two blocks to the famous Waikiki Beach, and paddle out.

Offshore adventures

As surfing goes, I am not that great. I rented mediocre boards, not a performance board. That was a mistake. The shop owners seemed reluctant to let me rent a nicer board, or maybe we had a simple misunderstanding. It may not have mattered, really.

Waikiki’s surfer sculpture was created by sculptor Robert Pashby and erected in June 2003.

Still I was able to catch my requisite number of rides, most on my final day. I will never forget my final ride and the sounds of the board slapping on the wave face as I rode a beautiful break to the shoreline.

The waves were at most four feet high, and the swells came in irregularly. Most of the time I spent in the water with other surfers consisted of gazing at the sea, bobbing in the small swells, and waiting.

In short, I did what surfers mostly do.

The water sparkled a rich, aqua-marine blue. Best of all, the water measured a very warm 79-81 degrees Fahrenheit. For an Oregon surfer, who has always worn a 5-4 wetsuit for cold water, this represented a radical change. I could wear board shorts and a rash guard surfing shirt and not once shiver.

For some of my hours floating in the water, rainy clouds painted rainbows above the nearby Diamond Head crater and the skyline filled with bland, tall Waikiki hotels. The surf reports I followed predicted larger swells. They never rolled in.

Out in the water, I found some nice moments of surf fellowship with some older local men. They rode old, beat-up long boards. They were as hungry for nice waves as I was. Like me, they came out in the early morning, just after 6 a.m., enjoying surf time, but taking it seriously too. Surfing is serious business, even if its spirit lies in finding moments of peace.

Finding a wave also requires a mixture of patience and positioning. One waits, while constantly reading the ocean for signals where to paddle one’s board for just the right ride. When they come, everyone moves into position.

Over the three days I surfed, I saw about a dozen male surfers who could be called hot shots. Some were haoles, or white guys, who to me looked like corporate lawyers in surfing gear. They didn’t smile much as they confidently popped up and cut their lines effortlessly in front of beginners to remind them who the alphas were, even at a mostly tourist surf break. Most of the surfers at Queens were visitors, like me.

I also could not believe how fit and beautiful some of the local women surfers looked. They resembled advertisements for women’s sport fashion brands, with perfectly sculpted bodies that came straight from a Patagonia women’s swimwear photo shoot.  I had not seen such fit and good-looking people like this in a long time, at least in the water. They reminded me how much this sport attracts the beautiful, the confident, and the strong.

There were other locals who did not look like statuesque surf pros I see on YouTube channels dedicated to global surfing. But one could tell they lived here. They had the moves, knew the waves at this break, and mastered the take offs at always the right second. I loved their style.

Mostly, I appreciated the laid-back vibe. Even when the irregular good wave came, with a dozen riders paddling at once to catch it, no one barked at newcomers for violating the unwritten but clearly known surf etiquette. Those globally recognized norms, which create order when there could be chaos and real conflict, were egregiously violated by nearly everyone.

Even then, no one yelled or gave the “stink eye” glare of surfing displeasure. After one wave, I quickly apologized to a surfer my age, who I thought I had cut off, and he waved it off saying, “No worries, man. This is Waikiki.”

Onshore adventures

When I wasn’t surfing, I explored the area just east of the Waikiki strip that includes the state monument site called Diamond Head. The caldera can be seen nearly every post card ever taken at Waikiki and looking east on the shore. Geologist suggest the crater was formed about 300,000 years ago, during a single and explosive eruption.

Today most of the site is protected, but accessible to hikers for a small entrance fee to hike to the crater’s rim, with its surrounding slopes off-limits to all.  The state estimates more than 1 million visitors a year visit the crater, trudging up to the crater overlook that points to Waikiki’s hotel skyline.

From my hotel door out and back, going around this extinct volcano, I estimated the distance at six miles, with change. It was a perfect runner’s outing too. The air temperatures both mornings were a bit warm, at 85 degrees Fahrenheit. I came back a sweaty mess, the way a good run should leave one. My foot-only adventures turned into my unexpected trip surprises, taking me to a famous local spot, but one rich in beauty and natural wonder.

My running route, and also one used by perhaps tens of thousands of runners before me, passed on a bike path and multi-use trail surrounding the crater. Even as a natural monument, it also is fully surrounded by developments and high-end homes on its southern face looking onto the Pacific Ocean.

My run hugged Kapiʻolani Regional Park, past the Waikiki Shell performance stage and Honolulu Zoo, up Monsarrat Avenue, and the around the crater’s outer walls. In addition to the expensive homes with ocean views on the south side of the crater, I passed Kapiʻolani Community College and the State of Hawaii Department of Defense headquarters.

I took this selfie of me and and Diamond Head at Kapiʻolani Regional Park, which was once a sacred area to native Hawaiian people.

Best of all, my route gave me a perfect overlook of two amazing surf spots called Cliffs and Lighthouse. From this overlook I could see the local “heavies” riding beautiful waves in the mid-morning when I did my runs.  

At the overlook, I talked to a local man in his late 50s, who likely had Chinese ancestry, or maybe mixed heritage, as do so many in the state. He was smiling and still dripping wet. He had just wrapped up his morning set with a short board. He let me know both spots would welcome newcomers.

He said he didn’t have a good outing, but his face was beaming that glow a surfer wears when they come out of the water. I felt a bond with him as only surfers can feel discussing the waves and surf locations. Unfortunately, my trip did not involve renting a car or getting to know the local surf spots.

A short trip into Hawaii’s past

My second unexpected highlight happened during my day-trip to historic sites in downtown Honolulu. I reached them using the island’s reliable and renown local public transit system called “TheBus.”

Downtown Honolulu seemed like a ghost town when I went there my second day on the island. The downtown historic, government, and cultural area surrounds the modernist State Capitol building and colonial style state judiciary and pre-statehood administrative buildings. The area is walkable and well worth a half-day visit.

I started my self-guided tour at the preserved Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site, with buildings dating from the 1820s to the 1840s.

These were residences of white missionaries from the newly formed United States. One of the earliest missionaries, famed Vermont-born Congregationalist minister and colonialist Hiram Bingham, arrived to the islands in 1820 with other devout Protestants.

Like many of his stern Protestant peers, Bingham was uncomfortable with the culture and indiginous residents he observed. His goal was to replace local culture in the name of Western progress.

In his accounts written 27 years after his “first encounter” with the still unknown culture, Bingham wrote: “As we proceeded to the shore, the multitudinous, shouting and almost naked natives, of every age, sex, and rank, swimming, floating on surfboards, sailing in canoes, sitting, lounging, standing running like sheep, dancing…attracted our earnest attention, and exhibited the appalling darkness of the land, which we had come to enlighten.”

Today, the sights of Hawaiians expressing their indigenous culture that so worried Bingham is the same media-conjured image and Hawaii brand drawing visitors the world over to the state.

A tribute by Bingham’s relatives to the New England preacher is still inscribed in stone on the front wall of the historic Kawaiahaʻo Church that Bingham founded, found next to the mission homes. The engraved homage celebrates his and his New England peers’ colonizing efforts and reads like a painful artifact of white, American expansionism.

The missionaries’ played an important role in creating a dominant, white colonialist culture—amid the arrival of many other immigrants from Asia and Portugal—that influenced the island’s development in the 1800s. One researcher on the impact of the first missionaries, Anatole Brown, noted the missionaries’ impact expanded far beyond the missionary period that formally ended a few decades after their arrival:  “By the time the U.S. Navy took interest in the Islands by mid-nineteenth century, the American colonial process was in full swing, as Bibles moved onto guns.”

The colonial process launched by the white settlers ultimately paved the way for the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in January 1893 by the American government and business interests, in what can be consider an act of war.  That cultural and political assimilation almost crushed local Hawaiian culture and cultural traditions in the process, like surfing and hula, which are now the living symbols of Hawaii in the minds of the world.

I next stopped to pay my homage to the statue of the legendary Hawaiian King Kamehameha, the monarch from the Big Island of Hawaii, who invaded at Waikiki in 1795, defeating the island’s local ruler, Chief Kalanikupule. He then unified all of the islands in 1810, when King Kaumualii of Kaui island surrendered peacefully. His statue stands proudly in front the Al’iolani Hale Justice Building. Within a century of Kamehameha’s triumph, the islands would succumb to outside conquerors and far more deadly diseases.

Across from the statue’s outstretched arms is the last home of Hawaii’s monarchs, called the Iolanai Palace. The palace was built by Hawaii’s final king, Kalakaua, in 1882. It remained the house of Hawaii’s royalty until Queen Lili’uokalani, the king’s sister and successor, was overthrown in the January 1893 coup, engineered by a business cabal called the Committee of Safety and led by the U.S. military.

I did not go in, but walked around the expansive palace grounds. Just north of that one finds the State Capitol, completed in 1969. The modernist, square-shaped building has an open-air courtyard, where the midday sun shone down. The building was designed to be unlike most state capitols that mimic classical Roman architectural style.  It’s considered one of the most accessible state capitols, where legislative and executive offices are open to the public.

Hanging on its front entrance, by the bronze statue of the overthrown monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani, hangs the 15-foot wide, massive bronze state seal. The emblem shows the state’s royal coat of arms, the seal of the former Hawaiian Kingdom and the 50th state since 1959.  

I next walked west across the street from the Iolani Palace, to visit the Hawaii State Art Museum. The museum is free and found on the second floor of the Capitol District Building, a Spanish Mission revival style building built in 1928.

During my visit, the Turnaround Gallery of the facility was hosting a collection of black and white photos taken by photographer Ed Greevy. The collection of remarkable black and white photos document his decades-long collaboration with Hawaiian activist Haunani-Kay Trask. They show different chapters of the state’s environmental and social justice movements. The photos are found in the book “Kūʻē: Thirty Years of Land Struggles in Hawaiʻi.”

The images show resistance protests for Hawaiian sovereignty, starting in the 1970s, and scenes of civil protests against forced evictions, loss of affordable housing for local residents, and the building of the interstate highway across the backbone of Oahu’s mountain range separating the north and south shores.

The gallery exhibit also revealed the clashes on the Islands that began far before the protest period. They continue to this day. Throughout the decades of conflict and change, Hawaiian culture thrived. That can be seen most clearly through the sport of surfing and the first global ambassador of the sport, who grew up in nearby Waikiki.

Waikiki’s legend

If it wasn’t for the legendary exploits of famed Oahu and Waikiki native Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, the forced cultural assimilation by outsiders might have succeeded. His life both reflects and embodies how his Waikiki childhood home turned into its meta-mythical destination for visitors like me.

Kahanamoku was born into Hawaiian royalty in 1890. By that year, Hawaii’s native population had dramatically dropped due to imported diseases brought by missionaries, explorers, and whalers. The imported epidemics of infections, including measles, smallpox, and whooping cough, wiped out Hawaii’s population. It fell precipitously from approximately 300,000 at the time of Captain Cook’s first arrival in 1778 to 135,000 in 1820, and 53,900 in 1876. Kahanamoku grew up in the aftermath of this radical change that nearly destroyed his people.

During his 73 years, until his passing in 1968, Kahanamoku achieved global fame in multiple fields and became a living embodiment of his people. Kahanamoku was the first person to be inducted in the Surfing and Swimming halls of fame, a testament to his life in and around water on Oahu.

Kahanamoku rose to stardom first as an Olympics swimmer and Hawaii tourism promoter.

The island’s business elite paid for his participation in events like the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, in San Francisco in 1915, to promote the Islands’ emerging nascent tourism industry. There he performed the hula, played the ukulele, and posed for photographs in traditional Hawaiian clothes. He also competed for the U.S. team in three Olympics: 1912 in Stockholm, 1920 in Antwerp, and 1924 in Paris, last competing at the age of 34. All told he won three gold and two silver medals for a country to which Hawaii was still relegated to territorial status, and only recently occupied militarily.

In the 1920s, he lived in southern California during the early years of Hollywood. He found bit parts as a minor screen actor in more than 25 films. Unfortunately, he was cast in “ethnic” roles because of deep racial biases in the studios and wider culture. But his legend as a surf promoter took root.

Kahanamoku also had achieved renown as a surfer and surf ambassador. In 1915, he traveled to Australia, to Sydney’s Freshwater Beach, introducing the Hawaiian sporting tradition to the continent that is now synonymous with surfing.

According to one account of this trip, “Duke and Australian surfers sealed an eternal alliance.” His most legendary ride took place in 1917, when he reportedly rode the largest wave ever, towering some 30 feet, at Waikiki on his 16-foot wooden long board. Kahanamoku reportedly caught the monster at a surf spot called Castle’s, off Waikiki, and took it all the way to another surf break called Publics, by Kapiolani Park, then into Cunha’s.

In California, during his Hollywood years, he popularized the nascent sport, taking out his long wooden board and visiting now-famous surfing spots, such as San Diego, Newport Beach, Santa Monica and Malibu.

In the 1930s, Hawaii’s so-called “waterman” returned to his native home. Kahanamoku was elected sheriff of the City and County of Honolulu in 1935, and then held that role for 13 terms, including the entirety of World War II. For his final life act, he was appointed and served as the official “Ambassador of Aloha” after statehood was granted in 1959—a position that embodied how he lived his life, according to many from Hawaii.

“The Duke,” as he is forever and famously known to surfers and the wider public, died in 1968, just at the global sport of surfing was taking off with surf movies, global tourism, and surf-themed rock and popular music. His ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean at Waikiki.

Even before his death, his legacy was questioned because of his Christian faith (his mother was a devout Christian) and his perceived deference in the early 20th century to Hawaii’s self-named Committee of Safety—the powerful business group that two decades earlier had ousted Hawaii’s last ruling royal monarch, Queen Liliʻuokalani. The group had employed him and bought him a home in his beloved Waikiki.

Despite Kahanamoku’s controversial ties from his early life, in an era of rampant prejudice, his fame has grown, just like the global sport and lifestyle he helped to pioneer. In fact, his name and legend continue to grow in value.

In recent years, Kahanamoku’s surviving kin and the super-rich elite of Hawaii have locked legal horns over ownership of his lucrative global name and brand. “More significant, though, is the anger that the war has aroused among native Hawaiians, who perceive it as an appalling exploitation of a revered cultural icon,” noted a Nov. 16, 2003, Los Angeles Times story on the legal dispute over his name and legacy. “The conflict brings into focus a growing tension in Hawaii, unseen by most tourists, but a bitter, daily reality to island natives—a stinging reminder of a culture lost to commercialism.”

Final aloha

Like many visiting Waikiki, my trip would not have been complete without watching a traditional Hawaiian music and dance show on Waikiki beach. It seemed to embody the clash of Hawaii’s surviving culture and the tourist-driven capitalism visible in the international hotels that overlooked this famous stretch of sand and water.

They paved paradise and put in a tourist spot.

Several times a week the shows take place at sunset at the Kuhio Beach stage, near the water’s edge, for visiting tourists. The Hawaiian performers, with dancers, singers, and instrumentalists, share traditional Hawaiian performances and songs after the sun sets and the last surfers pull out their boards from the water. I could effortlessly watch and listen to Hawaiian music and dance every day, and the performance I saw genuinely shared the aloha spirit.

Close to this spot, next to Waikiki beach, stands the popular bronze statue of “The Duke,” with has both arms outstretched and a his signature long, wooden Hawaiian wooden surfboard planted in the ground and towering above him.

During my short stay in Waikiki, the statue was constantly mobbed with visitors, who posed in front of it. Many smiled while mimicking Kahanamoku’s pose. Each time I passed by, I saw a line of visitors from Japan who must have known of his legend, judging by their eagerness to pose next to the bronze replica, adorned daily with fresh flower necklaces called leis.

Like them, and countless tens of thousands of tourists before me, I also snapped my obligatory selfie with my cell phone. As a passable surfer, I smiled in appreciation of the gift “the Duke” and the Hawaiian people freely gave to the world. It felt like a respectable thing to do, even when the world now claimed Duke’s ancestral home and the lands of the first Hawaiian people as a manufactured “paradise” for an escape from our realities back home, wherever home might be.

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Seaside on a calm October day

Stewart Surfboard

Oregon has seen freakishly warm October weather. On some of those warm days, when there is no rain, we will also see fog blanket the coast. That is what I found last weekend when I headed to Seaside, Oregon, one of my favorite Oregon surfing locales. It was a mild day in terms of wave energy and size, and I caught some nice rides. This is how it looked before I went in with my now-aging Stewart 9.3 ft. board. It still works.

Lloyd Center before the fall

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate page.)

There is an entire genre of photography devoted to the collapse of the United States’ consumerist structures, notably the shopping mall.

Malls in decay represent a specific type of schadenfreude in a country where consumer activity drives about 70 percent of our economy. The collapse of the venerable shopping mall, a landmark from the 1950s through the 1980s, in mostly suburban American, reveals deeper troubles in our economy and the promises we were told and believed.

The Lloyd Center, a major landmark in the Lloyd District in Portland, has been slowly dying for years. There were efforts to revive it as late as 2021, and it’s all but certain as of late July 2022 the final nail in the coffin appears to have been pounded in.

I made what might be my last visit to the Lloyd center in late July 2022, when I was working at the state office building nearby, on the hottest day of the year. The center was meant to be open as a cooling center. The ice rink was still being used, even as the thermometer outside was pushing 95F. Nearly all the stores were shuttered, and major retailers had closed their doors.

I for one will miss it because it provided an urban retail space to serve many residents who didn’t have cars and who didn’t want to drive to the suburbs. I imagine there are other photographers like me getting their final photographs before the death of yet another American shopping mall is formally announced.

Wild thing

Spring in Portland is now winding down its cycle of magnificent blossoms from the many ornamental flowers that adorn lawns and parks. Because of a cooler and wetter than expected spring, like we used to have before the onslaught of climate change conditions, flowers bloomed a little later than we have seen the past five to seven years. Tulips and daffodils have come and gone.

The last great entrant I am seeing now, on their final leg, is the Japanese Iris (Iris ensata). The iris genus, which has many varieties that are planted by gardeners, is among the wildest and sexiest of all flowers planted by gardeners on the west side of the Cascade Mountains, in Oregon and Washington. It prefers wet soil and shade. Most of all, it is delicate and crazy at the same time, with its sultry mix of delicate petals and bold colors. For me, it is a rare gift from nature, which marks the culmination of moisture, sun, pollinators, and of course the flowers themselves. And, dear readers, because I am not a gardener, please correct me if I identified this one incorrectly.

So, with that, here are a few words describing my reaction to seeing these beauties last night. It was the Jimi Hendrix version I heard in my head too:

Wild thing
You make my heart sing
You make everything groovy
Wild thing ….

New Portland murals and the legacy of cultural appropriation

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

In late winter 2021, trail users on Portland’s Springwater Corridor were suddenly greeted with Northwest, Coastal Salish, and Alaskan Native imagery on utility towers and graffiti-covered surfaces of the Ross Island Bridge.

The artist, Stephen Cutler, appears to be a Portland-based creator who has been using Native imagery for years in his work. I do not know if he has Native ancestry or if he has worked with Native artists. I also do not know if groups whose iconography he uses have weighed in on these creations.

Appropriation of Coastal Salish, Tlingit, Haida, and other tribal cultural traditions has been going on for decades, sparking controversy about the rights of non-Native persons to use traditions that are not theirs. These important discussions about cultural appropriation have not ended—and the voices of those whose traditions are being used by others needs to be centered in all discussions and displays of such work.

At the same time, I also know that art is never meant to remain static. It never has been as long as humans have created art since they first painted wild animals in caves many millennia ago. Creation involves taking ideas and inspiration from others and reinventing those creations to make something new. In addition, anyone from the public who encounters art, I believe, can both like something that is beautiful and question the larger story around it.

As for these new murals, I like them, aesthetically. They are vital. They adhere to beautiful traditions I have seen first-hand in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, including in living studios of Native and First Nations artists in those places. These pieces also bring life to an area that is shared by the public. It is a space used all residents for biking, hiking, walking, and other sports, and it is a de facto home to Portland’s large houseless population, who live in the elements a stone’s throw from where you see these pieces. So far, no graffiti artists who tag the concrete and steel spaces in this area have covered these pieces. It appears there is respect by that community too.

If you find yourself in Portland, take a stroll. They pieces can be found just underneath the Ross Island Bridge, on the east bank of the Willamette River.

The Methow Valley, as white as the winter snow

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I became a passionate cross-country skier mostly because I had the good fortune of living in Anchorage from 2004 through 2010. There I was blessed with a fabulous and publicly-owned set of multi-use trails and trail systems in parks. I could ski sometimes nearly six months a year, depending on when the first snows came and when the last snows melted.

I mostly remember skiing being very accessible to nearly everyone because the trails were close to home and because gear was not too expensive for the basic set up of boots, poles, bindings, and skis. You could even get used equipment.

The local group promoting the sport and maintaining the trails, the non-profit Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage, was committed to youth inclusion for all residents. That meant all young people, regardless of race.

When I lived there, Anchorage was more diverse than many outside of Alaska think, with about 65 percent of the residents who identified as white and 35 percent being non-whites, with the largest group being Alaska Natives. Some of that diversity could be seen in the faces of the young skiers competing for the high school teams and on the trails. But even then, in this very democratic and outdoor-oriented place, the faces I saw skiing were like me—white.

However, cross-country skiing in Anchorage is not like cross-country skiing in the rest of the United States. Today the almost entire lack of diversity of this sport nationally remains cross-country skiing’s great Achilles’ heel. That reality is not addressed with the type of debate that is needed.

In my view, everyone who does this sport, either Nordic or single-track style, knows this racial breakdown whenever they ski. If they do not, they are willfully fooling themselves from the facts before their eyes every time they clip into their skis and head out on trails in recreation areas that remain almost exclusively the domain of white Americans.  

Race and country-skiing are mostly taboo topics in the multimedia world dedicated to the sport and those who do it. However I found one recent article on the racial divide in this sport I still love on the FasterSkier website. Refreshingly, it confronted the basic facts about the folks who do the sport and the factors contributing to its glaring and overwhelming whiteness.

In the United States, cross-country skiing remains an outdoor activity mostly pursued by whites, including the many winter recreational visitors to the Methow Valley (like the author).

Skier and writer Ben Theyerl wrote in an article published in August 2020: “The demographics of where the places that harbor Nordic ski communities are on a map allows this statistic to go unchecked. The trail networks linked to small rural towns and resorts that are historically, and presently, white, shelter us from having to confront and come to terms with our sport’s lack of racial diversity. So do the images of our heritage as a Nordic community, and of what it looks like to be an elite Nordic athlete. … We can choose as a community to stay on this sheltered path, or we can take the road less travelled for the Nordic community to finally discuss the overwhelming whiteness of our sport and the places that we do it in.”

Cross-Country skiing in Washington and the Methow Valley

Downtown Winthrop has kept its old West look and feel, even as the surrounding area has become a magnet for wealthy residents of Washington state who have purchased their winter and summer recreation homes here.

As a former resident of Washington state in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then again through 2004, and finally 2010 to 2014, I have cross country skied there during the winters of my now former state. My adventures over these years took me at different times to the scenic Methow Valley, in Okanogan County, just south of the Canadian border and west of the Cascade Mountains.  

Once an area that had homesteads and ranches on former Native American lands, it is now dotted with second and third homes of the upper middle class, the wealthy, and also the extremely wealthy—many from the Seattle area.

Since my first visit in late 1987 to this past weekend, I have seen it transform into a year-round recreation area that promotes winter sports and cross-country skiing. The residents who live and have lived there famously developed a wonderful trail community during these decades. That is seen in the group called the Methow Valley Trail Association (MTVA), which is a non-profit organization that maintains the incredible network of classic and single-track trails, snowshoe trails, and now fat-tire bike trails.

According to the MTVA’s website, the volunteer-led group maintains “over 200 kilometers (that’s 120 miles) of cross-country ski trails in the winter months,” and that network “is recognized as one of the finest trail systems in North America for Nordic skiing, mountain biking, trail running and hiking.”

I would argue that the Methow Valley is, without question, one of the finest cross-country ski areas in North America thanks to its geography, plentiful and mostly predictable snowfall, and the good work of these volunteers and donors who support this form of recreation. The area, like so much of the United States, also has racial divisions that can be seen in where most of the county’s non-white residents call home.

According to the 2020 U.S. Census Bureau, Okanogan County had a population of 42,104 as of 2020. The sparsely populated and beautiful mountainous county includes the towns in the Methow Valley like Winthrop and Twisp and neighboring cities like Omak. The Census Bureau reported that the county is 64 percent white (non-Hispanic or non-Latino), followed next by Hispanic or Latino at 21 percent, and American Indian or Native Americans at 13 percent. The diversity from the two next largest groups can be found in communities closer to the Colville Reservation like Omak and towns like Pateros and Brewster, where agricultural work is plentiful and Latinos have long-settled because of farmwork-related employment opportunities like other communities in central Washington.

However, that diversity is not visible in the Methow Valley. During my recent three-day visit, I saw some visitors who I would identify as having Asian ancestry, but no one on any trail who was African American. Most of the skiers I saw on the gloriously groomed trails were white like me. It is a fact that one cannot ignore when enjoying the beauty of this great sport. This fact has not changed in the last 12 years since I began skiing there after returning to the Lower 48 from Alaska (as Alaskans refer to the lower states).

The Future in Washington’s wealthy, winter Shangri-La

As the ski community grew in the Methow Valley in the last two decades, so did the country’s income inequality gap. That gap has accelerated the concentration of wealth in the hands of an ever smaller number of richer Americans since the Great Recession, and more recently the pandemic.

That wealth concentration can be seen in patterns of land use in the Methow that are visible to any visitor who travels there. Those who can afford to purchase retirement homes and summer and winter second and third homes—mostly white and wealthy affluent out of towners—have chosen to settle in this area, with its spectacular vistas and abundant forms of recreation that cater almost entirely to white Americans.

Winthrop resident Solveig Torvik described this in her column from Aug. 4, 2021. “The Methow many of us so smugly assume is a model of a caring community with widespread civic engagement … reads instead much like a cautionary tale of a failed society,” she wrote. Torvik pointed to a study of the valley by a Washington State University sociology professor, Jennifer Sherman, who described the obvious divisions: “The Methow Valley is a deeply divided community where wealthy urbanites ‘blind’ to their privilege ‘hoard’ their social capital while impoverished, excluded, resentful rural old-timers struggle to survive.”

The valleys surrounding Winthrop are now dotted with high-priced, new homes that cater to wealthy residents, who are not afraid to flaunt their wealth, and the affluent who are choosing to live in what the local media The Methow Valley News calls a new Zoom town during the so-called “COVID land rush.”

According to an Oct. 7, 2020 story in the local newspaper called The Methow Valley News, a virtual “COVID land rush” is underway, fueled also by the pandemic: “One thing it means is a dramatic increase in median home prices in the Methow Valley. The median home price in September this year was $440,000, compared to $329,000 in September last year and $312,000 in 2018, based on statistics [broker Anne] Eckmann compiled from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. In mid-September, there were 34 homes available for sale in the Methow Valley — 10 of them priced under $350,000 and eight priced over $1 million, Eckmann said.”

This is not that different than other winter resort areas in the country in Montana, Colorado, Utah, and Vermont. What’s different now is how visibly those new, rich residents have settled in the last 15 years in the Methow Valley, particularly around the town of Winthrop. I have seen that change since I first Nordic skied here in 2010 when I moved back to Seattle, and then visited a friend who lives near Winthrop. It had been eight years since I was last there in February 2014.

Battles over future comprehensive planning in the county and water rights remain active, with many newcomers seeking access to the limited water resources and groups seeking to manage and plan for future growth. Growing threats from climate change and wildfire also have further exacerbated debates over growth tied to the desires of the wealthy to live in the fire-prone wildland urban interface, in places like the Methow Valley. The battles will likely continue there, similar to conflicts in communities in the West that have confronted the old maxim that “water flowing uphill to money.”

I do not know when I will travel to the Methow Valley again. It is a 400-mile journey by car from my home in Portland.

I took this trip to take a needed break from my work on Oregon’s pandemic response. I needed a recharge, and Nordic skiing is one way I can do that. It worked, too.

I enjoyed my stay with a longtime friend who moved there years earlier, who shared with me the struggles she is seeing as a resident over development there. In the end, I am left with almost magical memories of groomed trails, snow-covered mountain peaks, and the ongoing awareness that this sport that I once did daily on a community trail in urban Anchorage is still not widely shared by many.  

Sites and impressions from the Oregon road

(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Oregon, geographically and geologically, is an assemblage of parts that don’t truly make for a whole. Like its northern neighbor, Washington state, it is divided by ecosystems that also provide a rough border of the political divisions that have never seemed deeper, particularly following the dangerous four years of twice impeached former President Donald Trump.

West of the Cascade Mountain ranges are the state’s most densely populated areas, and they are more to the left in the northwest corner of the state. The lands east of the Cascades are sparsely filled. They include the northern farming counties of Gilliam, Morrow, Sherman, Wasco, Union, and Umatilla.

On this trip I passed through Gilliam County, which features stunningly scenic rolling hills and an endless supply of wind that led to the siting of extensive wind farms. Outside of the federally recognized tribal holdings and communities, the areas is overwhelmingly white, but is now seeing an influx of some Latino residents, who do much of the agricultural work in this part of the state. Politically, this is as red as red gets anywhere in the United States.

I drove south from the Columbia River Gorge on Highway 206 through Condon, then took a right going south on Highway 19 through the abandoned intersection community of Mayfield to Fossil. Here is where landscape turned from rolling hills to deep canyons, revealing millions of years of geological history. Farms that draw from the John Day River line the roads that wind through a “scenic byway.” Some of these stunning geological formations are partially protected in a federal land management area called the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The area has some of the richest collections of fossils spanning a 40 million year period, showing the evolution of species, plants, and ecosystems that existed long before homo erectus walked out of the plains of Africa to populate the planet.

After a brief stop at the monument’s fabulous visitor’s center, I took a right and headed west on Highway 26 that took me through more stunning canyons, multimillion dollar ranch holdings of land barons, and to the turnoff for the Painted Hills Overlook, which are some of the most photographed hills in the annals of photography. I first came here in 2003 and had forgotten how stunning the scenery was.

After taking a great walk and taking my obligatory tourist photos, I jumped back on Highway 26 (the Ochoco Highway), which climbed through the scenic Ochoco National Forest, where sites of recent forest fires were visible. Along the way I observed how severe the drought conditions were, with the Ochoco Reservoir down at least 20 feet. I passed through Prineville, which once identified itself as a town tied its ranching and agricultural past, celebrated in its public art. In reality, it has become a bedroom community for nearby and fast-growing Bend, about 25 miles to the southwest. The community is now home to larger data servers that tap into cut-rate cheap federal power provided by the nearby Bonneville Power Administration dams on the Columbia River.

Facebook recently announced it was building two more buildings here on top of nine existing structures, with operations the size of 80 football fields. The new investments will cost $2 billion. Apple also operates large data farms here as well. These investments make the bucking bronco and cowboy sculpture feel as old an a Roman antiquity sculpture.

Rudy at Paulina Lake

Rudy Owens at Paulina Lake, smiling because it snowed the night before in early June 2021.

I ended my drive in Newberry Crater, another national monument about 45 minutes southeast of Bend. This is one of my favorite places in Oregon. It similar geologically to the much more famous Crater Lake National Park, but more developed for campers and fishermen. The day I arrived it was nearly 32 F, and it snowed during the night. I had almost an entire campground to myself. I woke up with white stuff on my tent, and it was still the second week of June. I loved that, actually! From my campground, I did a long overdue nearly 8 mile run around Paulina Lake, which is one of the finest running loops I have done anywhere. That was worth the trip alone.

Flowers work magic on long, long days

(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

I have not had a proper vacation in more than two years now. I have had some weekends off, and I did have five days off in February 2020 to attend to my mom’s passing.

But these pauses from my jobs do not amount to a week’s break from work. That means I am, at times, tired and at times less elastic than I ideally strive to be.

For the last five plus months, I have been working in Oregon’s COVID-19 response. My job requires long days and, I have to admit, not enough compliments to sustain one’s energy as a day drags beyond 12 hours, with no lunch breaks. The situation is fluid, because this is a pandemic. The nature of my job means that many people I engage may not be satisfied that their needs are not met to their liking. So there is frequently unhappiness that is directed at the person who provides them what they cannot get.

Some days my abilities to navigate this are tested. When that happens, I have been fortunate with longer daylight hours and the arrival of spring to stop and literally smell the flowers at the end of my workdays.

Portland’s flowers have brought me much joy the past few months. A flower does not criticize you or bear you ill will. A flower also does not harm human health.

Flowers simply bring joy and provide pollen to our insect pollinator friends. Thank you for making my life more joyful this spring!

Snowstorm in black and white

(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

It has been two weeks since a winter ice and snow storm hit Oregon and Washington. In Oregon, at times up to 350,000 people were without power, due to downed power lines when the freezing ice brought down countless trees and broken limbs. Some people were without power for nearly two weeks. I was lucky. My neighborhood had power out for just two days. I did not lose any food, and my life was not heavily disrupted.

The storm was a great reminder of the power of nature and the fragility of our electricity-dependent world.

I went for runs the first couple of days of the storm and took these shots when we still had a nice base. I love running in the snow. It is quiet and clean. Everything just feels more calm. I began to miss the snow of my old home in Anchorage for six winters. Well, almost!

And so a year passes

A year has passed since my mom died from Alzheimer’s disease. It’s an illness that will crush and humble most mere mortals, and even the brave and the strong.

I had been awaiting for this day, contemplating its meaning as it got closer and then arrived.

The markers of time the past year have been unlike anything I can remember.

Collectively we have lived through a global pandemic, which was just taking off right after I flew home. The United States’ imperfect democracy nearly collapsed under the continued assault by Donald Trump and his fascist enablers. Wildfires engulfed my state, and I worked through that for weeks as part of the state’s response. Now I find myself working on the state’s pandemic response, never slowing down.

I am relieved my mother is no longer suffering, nor her husband (my stepfather).

I feel like I have changed too. Luckily my solace has been the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

At the ceremony of life for my late mom, on Feb. 11, 2020, the church choir and musicians performed Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (from Cantata 147).

It was if Bach was speaking to my heart across time and space and said: Peace had come. Her journey had ended. All would be fine. I listened again to this piece over the weekend, and it brought great comfort. Bach’s music has let me say farewell.