The starting point and destination of my bike trip may not be clear to everyone. Those who have followed my stories of the Doighouse Earthship Build knew that I set out from my friend's place in Qualicum Bay on Vancouver Island, to ride my bicycle down to the Mexican border. My final destination was not exactly clear, even to me. Another friend of mine who lives in Los Angeles has a property close to Tecate, in a township called Boulevard, Iwas going to visit. But since she also invited me for Thanksgiving, I simply replied L.A. when asked about my destination. So instead of saying British Columbia to California (or let alone Canada to the USA), I wanted to mention two geographic entities whose existence is not that well known, or may even be debatable.
What Do You Mean by Cascadia?
The Cascade mountain range should ring a bell to most people. A glance at the map will reveal the mountainous area East of Seattle, Portland, etc. are known by that name. Ironically, on our entire trip we never set foot (or bike tire) into the Cascades. However, most of our journey took place in the bioregion known to many people as Cascadia.
A Bioregion with Strong Cultural Ties
Looking at the typical features of British Columbia, particularly Vancouver Island, one will immediately notice the similar aspects with Washington and Oregon in the US. In fact, there are so many similarities between the Northwest of the US and the Southwest of Canada that they have more in common with each other than with the rest of their respective countries.
This includes economic factors, from the history of logging to the cannabis industry in recent times. It has to do with people's love for outdoor recreation, be it with huge RVs, moderate sized camper-vans, or on bicycle / hiking boots. It can be seen in the cultural make-up ranging from rednecks to hippies, with a few city people thrown in from slick urban centers, such as Vancouver or Portland.
Nature Causes Culture
Ultimately, all these similarities can be traced back to natural factors: ample rainfall and moderate temperatures (thanks to the Pacific Ocean) result in an amazing temperate rainforest, with gigantic coniferous trees, and a general abundance of food for all kinds of species, including humans. This abundance becomes obvious in cultural practices of indigenous peoples, such as the Potlach, a celebration of plenty for the strengthening of social ties. The underlying climatic conditions have not changed much, in spite of the cultural disruptions the area has been subjected to, particularly logging or dam building.
Similar Environment, Similar Problems
Talking about dams and clear-cuts, one doesn't have to think too far to see how the whole region is confronted by the same issues, whether on the American or the Canadian side. It is unfortunately all too common to see whole tracts of land being entirely devoid of vegetation, after the trees (all the trees, from massive grandparents to small stick-like teenagers) have been felled and loaded onto big semi trucks, causing so much headache to cyclists.
Another issue uniting all parts of Cascadia has to do with hydroelectric dams and diminishing salmon runs. Due to the abundance of water in the region, it seemed like a no-brainer to dam up rivers to create cheap energy. Unfortunately, this no-brainer left the salmon out of the calculation, who could not access their spawning grounds, leading to a severe drop in their numbers.
Curbing Nature's Abundance
The result was a devastating food shortage on all ends, from the resident orcas in the Salish Sea who feed on salmon, all the way to the higher extremes of the watershed. The multitudes of spawning fish forms an important source of nutrients for animals, such as bears and osprey, but even for the trees growing far away from the rivers, who benefit from the salmon carcasses dragged around by those feeding on it. And let's not forget the human inhabitants of the region living on salmon, either directly, or indirectly from the abundance of life it nurtures all around them, based on the millions of salmon running several times each year.
With so many uniting factors, it is easy to see how many people advocate the unity of the Cascadian bioregion, especially as it pertains to the large-scale repair of these damages, and the prevention of further devastation. The first group that comes to mind is CascadiaNow! whose page proudly features flags, pins, and stickers of the blue-white-green flag with the outline of a Douglas Fir. Instead of secession from the US and Canada, they promote building a vibrant and inclusive social community in the region. Most interestingly, they mapped out the bioregion, based on watersheds from the Alaskan panhandle to Northern California, reaching East all the way into the Tetons.
Another organization working for the protection of the bioregion as a whole is the SeaDoc Society, who focuses on the bodies of saltwater around the area: the Puget Sound, the Straight of Juan de Fuca, and the Straight of Georgia, treated as one Salish Sea. Dam removal is just as much on their agenda as the banning of the large-scale transport of petro-chemicals, whether in pipelines or tanker vessels.
But even on the local and regional level we've encountered numerous people striving for the same goals, be it the successfully un-damming the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula, with incredible results, to similar efforts being made on the Klamath in Northern California.
What About Aztlan?
Having experienced the unifying connection in Cascadia so well, I've been a bit worried that the other region would remain less defined. Aztlan, after all, is not so much a bioregion as a cultural construct originating in the mythical homeland of the Aztec people, brought to public attention by the Chicano movement.
Living in Mexico City, one is constantly reminded of the story of the Aztecs, who migrated into the valley of Tenochtitlan as one of the seven Nahua speaking peoples. They came from somewhere North, the exact place being up to debate, including the present states of Nayarit, Chihuahua, Texas, California, or Colorado.
In the 60's and 70's the idea of Aztlan was picked up by Mexican nationalist and indigenous movements, offering a more favorable worldview to modern-day Mexicans living in the United States, that instead of living in a foreign land they have actually returned to their ancestral home.
As much as I enjoy living in Mexico, it would be a hard stretch to claim any Aztec heritage for myself. So what was my reason for using this name in my blog series? What does Aztlan signify for me?
My Own Private Aztlan
To answer this most challenging question, I could point at the wide ranging examples of the presence of Latin-American culture in California, at the increasingly common use of Spanish past the Bay Area, at the colorful murals and authentic tacos and tamales by street vendors, but ultimately I won't get around talking about ecosystems again.
It would take a blinded fool not to notice the natural similarities between the American Southwest and Northern Mexico. The dry climate, and the vegetational make-up of the landscape, including various types of dwarf trees and coniferous shrubbery, lots of eucalyptus, cacti and succulents, even the palm trees and Joshua trees, are obvious factors in this. Among them, lots of dust and sand, boulders, and interesting rock formations form a truly magical landscape, under a steel-blue sky.
Even while I was still many miles from the border, I felt like I had already arrived in Mexico. In fact, back when I first came in this area (Tucson, Arizona, to be precise) I already felt this weird magic of the place. It was a very different kind of American experience. No wonder, just like Cascadia, Aztlan straddles the border between two countries, drawn in the sand arbitrarily.
So where do these two regions meet? Is there a place where they flow into each other? Hard to say, but I would most likely place it somewhere in Sonoma County, where Redwoods are still present, but the Mexican look and feel are already strong enough. The absence of a clear dividing line makes it even more interesting, creating a unique combination of both regions. So even though I did not cross them in entirety, this wonderful trip offered me a deep insight into both Cascadia and Aztlan.
If you'd like to read my bike trip in its entirety, check out the rest of my posts in the Cascadia to Aztlan series:
- Origin and Destination
- Rolling Down to Victoria
- Starting out on the Olympic Peninsula
- Into the Hoh Rainforest
- Who'll Stop the Rain?
- Crossing Bridges When We Get There
- Lewis and Clark, the Goonies, and the Grateful Dead
- The Fun Way to Get to Portland
- Recooping in Portland
- Through the Willamette Valley
- Fewer Degrees of Separation in Eugene
- Hills and Mountains of Southern Oregon
- The High Way to California
- The Obligatory Naked German
- Finding Us In Orleans
- Good Fire Ahead
- Two Weeks on The Rivers
- A Night in Afrofornia
- Groving With the Giants
- A Halloween Encounter
- Coasting on the One
- Saying Good-bye to Horizon
- Back to the Urban World
- The Golden Gate to Santa Cruz
- Riding Solo Monterey to Big Sur
- Taking My Time Getting to L.A.
- The Last Leg Into L.A.
- Thanksgiving From Scratch
- On to New Adventures
- Living In and Among Boulders
- Desert Days
- In the City of Angels
- Looking Back at an Amazing Ride
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