Pacific Northwest

Oregon, My Oregon

I’ve lived next door to Portland, Oregon nearly all my life, with only a couple of side trips. That “next door” is significant, though; my parents’ house was over the border in unincorporated Washington County, and the apartment where I lived longest was only a few hundred yards from the western city limits, such that the grocery store just down the street was both across the county line and in a different zip code. For  practical purposes, it’s more accurate to say that I grew up (and presently live) in Beaverton, whose social and political culture is much calmer – and arguably a good deal more diverse – than what you may have seen of Portland’s in the national media these last few years.

That said, the greater Portland area has been – and still is – a unique and interesting locale. We have very good public transit (important to a non-driver), lots and lots of bookstores (including the legendary Powell’s Books, possibly the largest retail bookstore in the US, if not the world), a great many very good restaurants, and a lively arts-and-culture scene.

“Walla Walla Wash & Kalamazoo”

That’s right, my alma mater is Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. You’ve probably heard of Walla Walla, if only in comic strips and Christmas-carol parodies. When I was a Whitman student (as my parents were before me), the town was a quiet farming community, known for world-class sweet onions and surrounded by immense wheat fields. Nowadays, though, it’s better known as the center of a bustling wine-producing region – when I went back for a reunion not too long ago, I counted at least a double-handful of tasting rooms while walking from one end of downtown to the other. That said, Walla Walla is still located almost precisely in the middle of nowhere — if you define “nowhere” as being framed roughly by Portland, Seattle, Spokane, the Rocky Mountains, and the Oregon/California border.

Despite its location, Whitman was and is a startlingly good Small Liberal Arts College In The New England Tradition, and graciously provided me with a degree in English and four years of semi-independence. It also helped nurture a healthy interest in and respect for the theater. Whitman’s drama department makes its actors work hard; it was among the first colleges to actually stage the memorable but grueling eight-hour adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby — very well, too, I might add. Its graduates have found work of varying degrees of distinction over the years. Among well-employed Whitman thespians one can count Batman (Adam West), Lt. Starbuck of the original Battlestar Galactica (Dirk Benedict), and the Green Goblin from Broadway’s epic Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark (Patrick Page).

Whitman drama graduates have also appeared in respected theatrical companies all over the United States, from Seattle to Utah to Arizona to the highly regarded Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland — another small but attractive community almost precisely in the middle of nowhere, in this case just under 20 miles from the Oregon-California border next to Interstate 5. OSF is now one of the largest repertory theaters in the country, their pre-pandemic season ran from February through October in three separate theaters, one of them an outdoor Elizabethan stage. While the Festival’s current schedule is somewhat less ambitious, it remains both vibrant and versatile, and includes a new focus on Web-accessible content.