Skip to content

Diary: This American Road, Ashland

One pro of a west coast road trip: you get interesting cities and towns spread out the whole way across it. One con of a west coast road trip: not many of those come between the San Francisco Bay Area and the middle of Oregon. This dearth of civilization becomes especially pronounced in the proposed State of Jefferson which, if its on-again-off-again movement one day succeeds in turning in into an actual state, would encompass most or all of this punishingly rural stretch of northern California and Southern Oregon. Sometimes I wish Jefferson could get up the momentum not just to form a new state of the Union, but a new state entirely; then maybe it could break off the continent and we could somehow close the geographical gap it leaves, thus improving all future west coast road trips for everyone.


But I never wish that for long, since a loss of Jefferson would mean a loss of Ashland, Oregon. I first saw Ashland at the very end of junior high, on a school trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, pretty much the main thing the world knows Ashland for (though I’d consider “festival” a bit of a misnomer, since the thing runs nearly ten months of the year). We’d considered taking in a performance on this very road trip, but the stars aligned against us: when we got into Ashland, nearby fires had smoked out the evening’s show at the outdoor theater, and as for the following afternoon’s show at an indoor theater, well, the cheap seats had already sold out.


I didn’t mind so much, since it would’ve been hard to beat the Oregon Shakespeare Festival of my eighth-grade year. We stayed in the dorms at Southern Oregon University (home of Jefferson Public Radio) and, apart from a handful of mandatory theater experiences, had the better part of a week totally to ourselves. The memories of even the titles of the plays we say have dimmed, but the memory of getting away from adult supervision hasn’t. I remember bargaining with waitresses at downtown restaurants to split single dishes between three of us so we could save our meal allowance on more entertaining things, roaming the streets in search of convenience stores with arcade games on which to spend some of that money, and as many trips as possible to More Fun (“Comic Books for Grownups”) to spend the rest of it, where I purchased and binged on the complete run of Peter Bagge’s Hate, and thus became, in some sense, a grownup.


But now that I’ve become in every sense a grownup, the downtown restaurants are the entertaining things. (Not that I dropped out of Hate fandom; in fact, I’ve interviewed Peter Bagge three times over the past five years, all of which you can hear in the Notebook on Cities and Culture guide to the Pacific Northwest.) Our sidewalk-table dinner at an Ashland wine bar counted as one of the meals by ourselves of this trip precision-engineered to provide as many opportunities for meals with friends as possible. We know people in our other stops — Alameda, Auburn, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Eugene, Sunnyvale, Santa Barbara — but not in Ashland, which I suppose makes the fact that we spend a decent chunk of time in Jefferson’s cultural capital (and will spend another on our way back) an advertisement for the place in itself.