Drive-by counties

Apologies, I’m going to take a brief detour from the travel blog to share a political observation. Every state I have visited since I got off the train in Texas last week voted for Donald Trump in the election last November: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama and North Carolina.

And yet, every city I’ve visited in those states – San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville – voted for Clinton. I’ve been hopping from one blue island to the next, rarely dipping my feet into the scary red sea in between.

It’s no great insight that urban areas vote Democrat and rural areas vote Republican. As I speed through the conservative countryside on my way to the next liberal stronghold, there are occasional clues: a large sign in Texas saying that ‘God will punish Democrats’, a Confederate flag flying in Mississippi and the occasional NRA t-shirt or bumper sticker.

Meanwhile, in New Orleans (Trump won Louisiana by 20 points), ACLU volunteers feel comfortable standing in the street asking passers by to help them “resist Trump”. If they swapped places with gun rights t-shirt wearers in small town Texas, I’m not sure either of them could guarantee their safety.

It’s just as true in the western blue states. Driving down the Pacific coast through Washington, Oregon and northern California just a few weeks before the election last year, I was overwhelmed by the number of Trump yard signs. These three states voted Democrat almost entirely because of the liberal populations of Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and LA, leaving their rural voters as politically isolated as a liberal in Alabama.

I am reminded of a conversation I had in a bike shop in a small town in New York state in 2007. The shop owner asked us what we thought of the US so far. As a cocky 22 year old, I assumed that a NY cycle shop would be a safe place to make a joke about then-President George W Bush. He didn’t laugh.

After Trump won, commentators talked about “fly over states”, those states that journalists only ever see from 40,000 ft as they cross from LA to NYC. But if we zoom in and switch from plane to car or train, our flyover states become drive-by counties: the rural districts between the big cities of California, Texas or Ohio.

Anyway, these thoughts led me to nod along to something on (#fakenews) CNN the other day about how the liberal bias in the US print media (perceived or real) is probably an urban/rural thing. Journalists for the big newspapers tend to be people interested in living in New York or Washington, and as we (both in Britain and in America) increasingly choose to huddle around opinions we already agree with, this leads to journalists with backgrounds that are less representative of a wider America.

To paraphrase President Obama’s 2008 victory speech, America is not a collection of red states and blue states, but a fragile union of blue cities bobbing in an ocean of red.

Seattle to Portland

After a delightful weekend in Seattle visiting my friends Tim and Jen and their newborn Jack (joined also by Tim’s parents, over from London and meeting their grandson for the first time), I hit the highway in a rented Jeep. My road trip back to SF is to snake along the west coast of the US, through Washington, Oregon and northern California. I will visit the Mount Rainier, Crater Lake and Redwood national parks, as well as the city of Portland.

First glimpse of Mt Rainier, from the Bainbridge ferry

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Mount Rainier’s white peak is visible from Seattle, 100 miles to the north-west. Rain was forecast and, since my experience with a snowy interstate on the Donner Pass the previous weekend, I didn’t fancy getting stuck in a blizzard. This is my excuse for renting a 4×4, although nostalgia also played a role.

The Team America 2007 monster truck, and its spiritual successor

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I entered the national park from the north-east, heading first towards the visitor centre at Sunrise. However, being late October, the road to it was closed, so I made my way around the south side of Mt Rainier to Paradise. Paradise was exactly as the name would suggest: cold, windswept and deserted. Large heaps of snow had been pushed to the edges of a car park surrounded by wooden structures – hotels, restaurants, visitor centres, ranger stations – all of them with signs that basically said “We’ll be back in the spring.” Still, there were some excellent views across the mountains, even if Rainier itself was enveloped in cloud.

This lack of any open facilities was of increasing concern. It was late afternoon and I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, apart from half a bag of chocolate M&Ms and the free mini pretzels from my flight north on Friday. I was heading west to leave the park in search of sustinence, when around a forested bend I saw an oasis: an open inn. 

30 minutes later, satiated by a bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese, I left the inn. As I did so, I overheard the advice given to another traveller to be careful driving at twilight, as this is when the deer come out. Sure enough, around the very first bend I encountered a gang of deer scattered across the road. Apart from a chipmunk that I may or may not have hit with my car earlier that day, this was my only encounter with wildlife in Mount Rainier.

As I made my way to the western exit, the park began to live up to its name, as the weather got rainier and rainier. This was my second visit to a US national park; Mount Rainier didn’t live up to the expectations set by my August visit to Lassen Volcanic National Park. While Lassen had weird geology and sulfurous discharges, Rainier was just a little barren. This was at least partly due to the season and partly to the weather, I guess. One cool feature I did find was Narada Falls, where I did what every other visitor with a camera did and took a slightly long exposure photo.

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I spent the night in a Relax Inn near Interstate-5, before heading west on the Washington-6 towards the Pacific coast. Nine years ago, on the east coast, I had lamented the death of small towns. Every town centre was dead, with the only viable businesses being located in the strip malls of chain stores, motels and fast food at either end of the town. Along this particular stretch of western highway, however, small town America was alive and well. I passed through towns with names like Pe Ell, Pluvius and Menlo, each one sporting a general store, a small post office (sometimes just a portakabin) and a gas station with prices 50% higher than normal. Not a chain to be seen, apart from the old fashioned Pepsi signs outside the general stores. I looked around my car to check for a flux capacitor.

Even the people sitting on their porches watching the traffic go by looked like they could be from the 1950s. In one town, a window was draped with the confederate flag. Considering the western states were never a part of the confederacy, I think we can conclude that this was just one guy wanting to make clear to passing motorists that he is a racist asshole. This at least made for some variety from the ‘Make America Great Again!’ yard signs that are usually used to convey this message. (The exclamation point at the end of that slogan tells you everything you need to know about Donald J Trump and his Comic Sans campaign.)

The three contiguous Pacific states are all solidly Democratic, but I have seen a total of zero signs for Clinton since beginning this trip. Even in liberal Seattle, there were plenty of Trump posters – and even a handful for the Libertarian Gary Johnson – but none for Clinton. In rural areas there are, however, thousands of signs for the election of local sheriffs, commissioners, fire chiefs and judges. If there’s one thing Brexit has taught me that it’s not necessarily a good idea to hold a popular vote for a fire chief, as an arsonist is likely to win.

I reached the US-101 road, which runs from northern Washington, through Oregon and all the way down to Los Angeles (entering San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge). I followed the road for about an hour before crossing the Columbia River into Oregon over the magnificent Astoria-Megler Bridge. Astoria was the first US settlement on the Pacific coast, and is now a charming (but not self-consciously so) seaside town with a boardwalk and (seasonal) boardwalk streetcar. I dropped into a colourfully-painted and empty cafe to eat a hearty bowl of clam chowder, with a side of garlic bread in which the garlic appeared to have been substituted for salt. It was lunchtime and I was the only customer, yet the chowder was good and the whole bill came to only $9.

After lunch I strolled along the boardwalk, soundtracked by the mysterious animal noises coming from a warehouse I passed. I’m pretty sure a flock of geese was using the warehouse to host an illegal bare knuckle fight between a pig and a sea lion, but it may just have been an abattoir.

I headed east along the Columbia to Portland, a city I know nothing about other than from watching Portlandia on Netflix. I was disappointed not to find any feminist bookstores, although I did find the huge statue on the Portland Building after which the show is named. The most Portlandia thing I did come across was a designated route through the city for skateboarders.

#portlandia

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I would’ve finished this blog post last night, but I stumbled across the American answer to the Great British Bake Off. Called ‘Forged in Fire’, it pits four men and women against each other to forge knives against the clock. When their knives are finished they are tested against various criteria, including ‘killability’. As I prepare to head south towards Crater Lake I will leave you with this inspirational quote from a contestant who had suffered a minor setback while attaching the handle to his knife:

“Thor himself punched me in the chest and said ‘You can do this’.”

All The Way To Reno

According to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com – which is the gospel on such matters – California has a greater than 99.9% chance of sending its 55 electoral votes to elect Hillary Clinton. To put it another way: both of California’s candidates for the Senate are Democrats. It’s about as blue a state as there is.

Debate watch party #debate

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This makes campaigning here, especially in San Francisco (83% Democrat), a waste of time for both parties. The only campaigning I saw at a recent free music festival was by the Greens, a party most famous for providing the self-righteous with a way of electing George W Bush back in 2000.

That is why I spent this weekend in Reno, Nevada on a campaign trip organised by the Democratic Party. Nevada is a much closer race, with Clinton narrowly leading in the polls. The Senate race here is a dead-heat.

Door knocking for Hillary in a swing state

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The weekend began at 5.15am on Saturday as I was picked up as part of a three-person car share organised by the California Democrats. By 9am, we’d crossed the Sierra Nevada mountains into Nevada and, after stopping to let me pee in a roadside bush, we arrived at a volunteer’s house in Reno. These volunteers, mainly retirees and students, have been working almost thanklessly for well over a year, right through the primaries and the general campaign. They really are the unsung heroes of a democracy that is often perceived as dominated by big-money advertising, large set-piece rallies and televised debates.

We were provided with a list of addresses and jumped back in the car to go and meet the voters on the doorstep. This is a “get out the (early) vote” operation, so all of the voters are supposedly supporters of Hillary Clinton and our job was to remind them of that fact and highlight the availability of early voting in Nevada, which allows citizens to vote in any one of a few dozen public places at any time between next weekend and election day a few weeks later. These face-to-face meetings are also a good opportunity to push the “down ticket” Senate and House races to ensure that Hillary supporters would also help elect Democrats to Congress.

I’d already received a little bit of training in how to pronounce Nevada correctly (Nev-AH-da, not Nev-AR-da). This wasn’t because I am British, but because Californians get this wrong too. As it was, I only used the N-word on the doorstep once, which may explain how not a single voter batted an eyelid at the British guy telling them how to vote. Either that or they’ve finally gotten over colonialism.

The one time I said “Nevada” was in the context of the saddest conversation I had all weekend. A Clinton supporter – a Latina woman – told me she probably wouldn’t be voting because “the people higher up will vote on who wins”. Her friend hovering in the background was furious with her for this combination of disenchantment and ignorance. I broke cover and confessed that I didn’t have a vote, but that she – as a swing state voter – had the opportunity to have a real impact on the outcome of this election. She didn’t want Trump to win, yet she was unconvinced that there was any point voting to help stop it.

There was little evidence of Trump or his supporters around, save for the Trump sign I found in a dumpster and the two cartoonish Trump supporters who shouted “Vote Trump” at us from across the street. Little did they know that I was actually an immigrant who could do no such thing.

Right where it belongs #dumptrump

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After a day of canvassing in the affluent suburbs of north-west Reno, I checked into my hotel in the Circus Circus casino. This had been recommended to me by the campaign, giving a small discount. And I can heartily recommend it to you, if you’re a fan of paying $100 for any of the following:

  • A bed without breakfast
  • A hard mattress topped with a blanket and sheets
  • Easy access to a casino with free circus shows (unavailable until November 2016)
  • Low-grade toilet paper

I’m being unfair. Yes, I could’ve stayed more cheaply at a nearby motel, but then I wouldn’t have received a booklet packed with money-off vouchers for Circus Circus and the two near-identical casinos down the road. It was with this in my back pocket that I stepped out into the pouring rain to seek out my 2-for-1 beer. I drank my two pints of Coors Light (a homeopathic version of lager) in a dingy casino bar while listening to a hen party argue about Donald Trump and Secret Santas.

Remarkably, I was able to have all of this fun, inhale an all-you-can-eat bbq rib dinner and stare at some people playing roulette, and still be in bed by 9.30pm.

Day two of campaigning was a somewhat less pleasant experience. The stormy weather of the previous night had not abated and we were sent to a more challenging neighbourhood. After variously being frightened by loose pitbulls; followed incessantly by a cute (but unrelenting) Bolognese dog; shouted at by a man who didn’t believe a woman should be president; lectured by a self-confessed felon who thinks that Clinton will take his guns away; and coughed at by a sick woman who spoke no English, we finished up and headed home.

The rain made for a slow journey, that got even slower when it turned to snow over the Donner Pass. Thanks to my mum for pointing out that an expedition stuck in snow here in 1846 resorted to cannibalism. I assume this is why the donner kebab is so-called.

It's snowing…

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For the benefit of those who’d like to know what else I’ve been up to in the two months I’ve been in San Francisco but haven’t bothered blogging about, here’s a non-exhaustive list:

  • A road trip to Santa Cruz, via the coastal road on the way down and the Redwood State Park on the way back
  • A road trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park
  • A gourmet ice cream tasting evening with a group of other people who are new to the city
  • A drinks evening for Brits in San Francisco
  • Occasional games of football (soccer) in Presidio
  • Watching baseball at the Giants’ stadium with work friends
  • A pub quiz on a Monday night that wasn’t as good as the Monday Night Quiz
  • Presenting Mega Seating Plan at the Bay App Festival, following a back-to-school period which saw my app reach 5000 registered users
  • Watching the second presidential debate with the Hillary campaign
  • Learning French in evening classes at my school
  • Attending the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park, featuring Cyndi Lawper and a guy from The Eagles
  • Watching some free comedy in Golden Gate Park
  • Writing a bit of comedy, but not getting around to actually trying it out on the San Francisco open mic circuit yet
  • Watching the US equivalent of the Red Arrows – the Blue Angels – pull stunts over and around the Golden Gate Bridge

And so on… I’ve been busy.

Next weekend I’m flying up to see Tim and Jen (and meet Jack for the first time) in Seattle and returning via a long road trip down the west coast. I intend to blog.

Yes on Prop 49er

Yesterday I played football (soccer) for the first time in years, if by “played football” you mean “ran around breathlessly for an hour hoping nobody would pass to me in case I messed up”. Today I walk like a 90 year old, and this is my excuse for doing nothing more energetic this evening than trying to get my head around the sport that the natives call football and you probably call American football.

It is the first game of the football season and something of a local derby for the San Francisco 49ers, if you consider the 400 miles to Los Angeles to be local. It’s a particularly big deal because this is the first time the LA Rams have played an NFL match in 21 years, as the Rams franchise moved to St Louis in 1995, leaving LA without a football team. This year they’re back in LA, but I have no idea whether their fanbase is wholly new, made up of people who just took 21 years out of the sport or includes diehards who’ve made the 2000 mile journey from St Louis.

Refreshingly, this big national sports event is on free-to-air TV here. I assume this is because 25% of a typical three hour broadcast is adverts (only 8% is live play, 11% is *replays* of the live play; most of the rest is categorised as “standing around”).

This being election season, many of the adverts are political. California is such a solid part of the Democrats’ blue wall that neither presidential candidate wastes any money actually trying to campaign here. San Francisco only gets involved when Clinton needs to top up her donations from Silicon Valley. No, the political adverts saturating my airwaves are for a variety of local and statewide propositions.

Direct democracy has lost a few fans in the UK recently, but over here if it’s the question to every problem. There are 18 measures on the ballot this year, including those relating to marijuana, pornography and either repealing or slightly changing the death penalty. The amount of airtime each one gets is based entirely on how wealthy the proponents and opponents are (one of the least-funded propositions is actually a measure to oppose this plutocratic absurdity).

This means wall-to-wall coverage for supporters of Prop 52, a noble-sounding bipartisan healthcare funding measure, which just happens to be supported by the deep-pocketed health insurance lobby. Less positively, an advert featuring a young mother concerned about what percentage of a new tobacco tax would go towards actually helping people stop smoking (why she is concerned about this detail is never explained) is funded by… the tobacco industry.

My favourite is a citywide measure to put a small soda tax on sales of sugary drinks. Looking at the literature pushed through my door every other day, I’ve been led to believe that this “grocery tax” is going to push small store owners out of business and cause all of my groceries to cost more. I’m so grateful for the manufacturers of sugary drinks for generously funding the campaign to bring this to my attention.

Nine years on, I've swapped the Yankee t-shirt for a Giants cap, but the Baconator is still going strong.

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These leaflets and TV adverts are wasted on my anyway: I don’t have a vote. There’s an actual real-life fascist, backed by the KKK, on the presidential ballot and I’m forced to trust that the legal citizens of this country don’t do something very stupid indeed. I had similar hopes about the UK a few months ago and look how that turned out…

Anyway, I’ve been half-heartedly tapping away at this blog post for two hours now. In that time, the hour-long football match on my TV has managed to get to the start of its fourth quarter. The 49ers are winning 14-0.

Yes to the 49ers, Yes to 62, No to Trump.