Clean and green in Portland
There’s a new route for electric cars on the Oregon coast
Seattle had grunge, San Francisco has microchips, but Portland, it seems, is the city with groove. Long overshadowed by its west coast neighbours, this hip northern corner of Oregon is in full bloom, regularly topping lists of the most bikeable, sustainable and bohemian places to live in the US.
Because Portland’s progressive, green approach is spreading into the rest of Oregon, you can now visit much of the state by electric car; in the lush farmlands and volcanic foothills that surround the city, charging stations have been springing up like high-voltage daisies. My plan is to swap petrol for principles on an electric road trip down the latest eco-route — 585km of misty headlands and hidden coves on the Oregon Coast Electric Byway, part of the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway, and one of the most beautiful drives in the country.
The route starts in the city, so I spend the first couple of days taking in the organic fare, food carts and microbreweries on every corner, the vintage boutiques and funky galleries, eco-cafes and biscuit bars with queues around the block — there is a blossoming uniqueness on every corner. This is a city where anything can happen. I dance with a stranger at a craft beer festival, get lost in the largest independent bookstore in the US (five storeys high and covering an entire city block) and feast on vegan fine dining served by tattooed punk chefs. I bike everywhere (there are 530km of cycle paths in the city), solve the nature of reality with an old hippy at a bar (it’s a song, or maybe a verb, we can’t remember) and find a speakeasy-style joint where cocktails are made at your table by a waiter who’s like a magician performing tricks.
There are innovative eco-projects springing up all over, including the ReBuilding Centre, which promotes the use of salvaged and reclaimed materials, and Trailhead Coffee Roasters, which delivers sustainably sourced coffee by neon-glowing bicycle. Even the bins are solarpowered to compact waste, meaning fewer collections. Portland is the US’s emblem of healthy urban living, where eccentricity blossoms, so it is the perfect start to an alternative trip along the coast.
First stop is Astoria, 153km northwest of Portland — clapboard weather-beaten houses on the banks of the Columbia River, sea salt biting my lips, and the purple mountains of Washington rising on the far side of the choppy shore. The river flows fast and shallow here and has swallowed many souls. I stop first at the Columbia River Maritime Museum, one of the best of its kind in the country, which tells the story of the fishermen who risk their lives in search of the first run of salmon and the elite pilots who navigate freighters across the Columbia Bar.
Later, in the wild beach grass and rolling dunes of Fort Stevens State Park — 1740ha of empty coast and hiking trails through hemlock forest — I find my own evidence of that sea treachery in the form of the iron bones of the sailing barque Peter Iredale, beached in the sand like the dried-out ribcage of an enormous whale. Even in the balm of summer there is wildness and a ripple of aggres- sion. And so there should be. You don’t come to the Pacific Northwest for mild-mannered beaches; you are here to see the coast at its most spectacular and raw.
This area is special, too, because it marks the end of one of the world’s great journeys. In 1805 the explorer team, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, commanding the Corps of Discovery, completed their 6500km expedition to navigate a water route from St Louis, Missouri, to the Pacific Ocean, crossing by river for the first time the unexplored vastness of the western US. At Fort Clatsop, named after the indigenous tribe of the region, I pass their final landing site, now a living museum with costumed rangers, musket displays and a recreation of their winter camp. Farther south at Ecola State Park, I follow their footsteps across Native American hunting trails to Indian Beach, where they once came to trade with the Clatsop and plundered a beached whale.
As I walk through those steep forests, with headlands floating in fog and sea mist as if suspended in air — a view Clark described as “the grandest my eyes have ever surveyed” — their story, however bold, becomes dwarfed by the forest. In the drenched climate of the Pacific Northwest, nature knows how to flex its muscles. Sitka spruce trees, more than 60m tall and about 5m thick, drip in moss like a wet fur coat; ferns, salal and salmonberry clamber for light. It’s like seeing the world through the eyes of those early explorers: a rainforest every bit as lush as its South American cousins.
From there I spend two days buzzing slowly south. At Cannon Beach — a cute seaside town of colourful beach cottages converted to boutique hotels, galleries and restaurants — I wade to the base of Haystack Rock, a monolith circled by puffins and gulls in the shallows. In the long, wet sheen of low tide the enormous rock spires are reflected in symmetry with the clouds; it’s like walking on the sky. At Cape Kiwanda, in Pacific City, a laidback little beach town with one of the best surf breaks on the coast, I climb a massive sand dune to watch the sun rise as dory fishermen — a fleet of flat-bottom boats stationed here for more than 100 years — strike out to sea.
And then I come across a bizarre tourist attraction — a working cheese factory with windows to let you see the production line, crowds fighting for a look and hairnetted workers waving like rock stars. I don’t know what it tastes like, but Tillamook is the One Direction of cheese.
For the most part, electric road trips are easy. Charging stations are placed roughly 90km apart and I use the Plugshare app to facilitate payment and direct me to the nearest charging points. There are nuances, though. Speed is my enemy — anything over 90km/h and the battery empties; hills gobble up charge; putting on the airconditioning is the equivalent of slashing my petrol tank.
At Lincoln City, the Electric Coast Scenic Byway carries on for another 350km. However, I turn inland, joining the tail end of another electric byway that crosses the wine lands of the Willamette Valley. This is pinot country. Fertile volcanic soil and mild, moist conditions have transformed these former dairy lands into a patchwork quilt of boutique vineyards that are taking on Burgundy and the world. I amble through a pick’n’mix of small family tasting rooms, including Winderlea and the striking new restaurant at Sokol Blosser, overlooking the sun-blushed vines of the Dundee Hills. But the best I have to work for. Barely signposted, 3km up a dirt road, on top of a breezy hill, is J Wrigley Vineyards. Ten years ago John was making wine in his bathtub, then on a whim he bought this farm and planted some grapes. He has been winning awards since. The wine is like liquid silk. What really sets it apart, though, is the family atmosphere. Mum makes fresh salmon pate. Dad takes me on a tractor tour of the estate.
Soon I’ve left the winelands and the lights of Portland are again upon me, my electric road trip winding to an end. Such a trip requires slowing down. Zero carbon equals zero rush. Perhaps that’s also what Portland’s groove is all about. Somewhere, I can still picture that wild Oregon coast, pounded by the sea, spectacular and raw and all the better for seeing it emission-free.
The coastline near Cannon Beach, Oregon, top; electric car charging station in Portland, above left; a Portland food cart, above right; Sokol Blosser vineyards, below