Monday, March 16, 2009

A Trip to Downtown Bend

Drake Park - Mirror Pond, Downtown Bend

First of all, an aside:

American food is confusing. There's just so much choice. In the UK, open up a cupboard and you'll have your bread, vegetables, some snacks. In the fridge there will be milk, fruit, other veg, meat and beer. In America, kitchen space is dominated by condiments, toppings, whips, sauces, spreads, microwave food and add-waters. So much so that I'm finding my British austerity brain struggling at working out what I can actually eat.

Never mind, at least their eating-out food remains lush, eh folks? Even if the choice dilemma extends to menus that unfold to prog-rock gatefold album sized proportions. I've still to spring my sausage and pasta bake on them too - which is easier said than done as I'm still to find fresh veg and sausages.

Things the Americans do get right are well-stocked household bars. I've already sung the praises of the beer overhere, a thriving industry of microbreweries and friendly competition. I would like to add that the UK could learn a thing or two, from their confident unshowey advertising and the way all the restaurants and diners stock their beers and promote them over the domestic suds.

Another thing they seem to have got right is Downtown Bend. It's built on the same Roman town grid-lines as every city and town in America, but the actual content is quite refreshing. Whilst the roads of Bend stab out in an urban sprawl bracketed by mega-marts and retail outlets, fast food joints and discount warehouses, the downtown hosts the small eclectic independant business. There's a comic book store, a wonderful music shop called 'Ranch Records', an old fashioned art-deco cinema and a curiosity shop packed to the gills with old clothes, memorabilia, jewellry, antiques and books. There are also curious shops where the owners don't seem to know what they're doing, and live a sort of strange life as a hybrid between a newsagent and a very limited DVD store, or garden centre. Possibly because the owners are high all the time.

One of the nicest things about Downtown Bend, aside from the beautiful redbrick buildings, the statues, the drinking fountains (that don't seem to work but look nice) and the coffee shop culture is the complete absence of litter. Even their backstreets are litter free!

In fact, there seems to be a complete litter void everywhere - on the roadside, in the parking lots, even at the retail malls. I don't know if the Americans take all their trash home, or walk to the bins, or if they have a very efficient trash collection and council litter pickers - but it is a joy to see and incredibly humbling. Perhaps its just civic pride and the tourist trap nature of Bend, as in the winter months it sees a lot of rich people coming to ski and in the summer months a lot of hikers. But it's still pretty impressive, I've yet to tut and shake my head sadly at the sight of a discarded water bottle or sweet wrapper. Even walking through the park I saw not one bit of rubbish. I remember my short stay in Portland a year and a few months ago, and it was the same there with a complete lack of rubbish. Britain, hang your heads in shame. America may be a disposable culture filled with consumerists - but at least these disposing consumers dispose of their disposable consumables tidly after consuming. As they are always disposed to.

And there's no better place to enjoy litter-free Bend than their downtown recreation area . It's called Drake Park and it houses Mirror Pond, though it's really part of a river. It doesn't have the grand marble and concrete gestures of British Victorian parks, but it does have indications of civic pride and a healthy outdoors summer culture. There's an grassy amphithetre with a nice concrete mural wall for music performances and theatre. Douglas firs abound providing lots of nice shady spots. There's also a big historical tree-cart thing that is amazingly huge. Next to the park there's the obligatory softball pitch, and running along one side of the pond are incredibly lush houses with little jetties and weeping willows. It's a gentle, unpretentious place ideal for picnics. There's also plaques set in volcanic boulders all over the place, citing citizens and events of the last sixty or so years that would have been resolutely forgotten in Britain. With a lack of a ribbon cutting monarchy, jubilees or any grand historical sweep past the Oregon Trail, Benders like to celebrate the little things. The opening of a new popular store in the 1930's. The rigging of a giant working model of the USS Missoussri on Mirror Pond in 1951. Various Daughters of the Revolution floats and charity drives. And the heroic failure of a citizen to rescue a drowning child from the 'pond', the fast moving currents claiming his life as well as the lad's. There's something remarkably touching about these little tributes, America may not have the grand and rich tapestry of history that the UK has, but they do seem to have more of a sense of the importance of folk and the little actions that make a community.

Of course, they may all be shotgunning each other behind my back, I have no real idea.

But maybe Bend caught me on a good day. I was inclined to see all that was good and noble about the place, and pass my eye over the gas-guzzling tank sized SUVs and the homeless joe sitting against a pillar, underneath a flock of tin birds that wove their way along the alley ceiling, lit by lights. It was glorious weather, unusually so. A warm spring breeze wrapped around me, and I wandered the place in a t-shirt, feeling the sun. It made me think that there were only happy times in Bend, that it's a pleasing Apple Mac advert of a harmonious community, cycling about the place and organising charity pie-bakes. It's a lie, naturally - but its one I want to enjoy for this holiday. If I want grim reality this month, I'll watch The Wire, thank you very much.

Right now though, Bend is looking rather different than it does in these pictures. How so? Well, it's started snowing - yup, a mere day and a half after these pics were taken and it's snowing its arse off. About an inch outside and still falling, though I think it's also melting a little, it being noon. This may prove troublesome for our Virginia City trip later in the week however - we have to get through the Mountain passes! Der-ner!

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