How Writers Helped Shape the Myth of a New Eden

When choosing the name for this website, I considered calling it Writing About the Northwest, but I wanted the writing the site would explore to be more than that. It seemed to me writing related to a region like the NW doesn’t only describe it or explain it but also creates it, in the minds and hearts of its residents as well as outsiders. In effect, writers write a region into existence, delineating it characteristics, focusing its concerns, and forming its mythology.

While the core NW states of Oregon and Washington have much in common, they have many different characteristics, concerns, and even mythologies as well. If we go back to the 19th century, when the earliest stories of each were being told for those who didn’t live there yet, the defining vision for Oregon was of an Eden at the end of the Oregon Trail while for Washington–or at least its premier city–it was of a gateway to riches, those of the Klondike first and then of the Orient.

Neither of these visions, or the myths that grew up around them, developed organically or by accident. Before the middle of the 19th century, the NW was home only to indigenous tribes, trappers, soldiers at lonely outposts, and a few white missionaries far from the civilization they’d known. It wasn’t until the first group of migrants headed west from Missouri in the 1830s that Oregon was seen as a permanent destination for ordinary Americans. But once that migration began, the selling of Oregon did too.

Guidebooks about what was called the Oregon Country–similar to the one shown below for California–circulated not only in the Eastern parts of the United States but also in Europe. Outfitters and guides-for-hire advertised not only their supplies and services but also the wonders of the Pacific lands. Once immigrants had settled in the new region, they sent back letters praising their new homeland and encouraged others to move west.

One of the most popular books about the Oregon Trail was Frances Parkman’s The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life. The result of a two-month swing through several western states (although, ironically, not Oregon) when Parkman was 23, the book was serialized in Knickerbocker’s Magazine and then published as a book in 1949, when Eastern newspapers were full of stories about California gold. In his review of the book, Herman Melville praised it for its “true wild-game flavor” while excoriating the author for his “disdain and contempt” for the native people he traveled among.

The book launched Parkman’s career as a historian and storyteller while further popularizing the west as a place of excitement and adventure. Other, less-famous books (many of which did include descriptions of the Oregon Country) did the same, and soon what began as a trickle headed to the Willamette Valley became a flood.

Eventually, the British were driven out of what had been a disputed land and not only the Northwest territory but the entire United States had been transformed. Together with the miners and other settlers in California, the new farmers and ranchers in Oregon helped change the perception of America from a country with a tenuous hold in a new land to a place of endless progress and possibility that spanned an entire continent. And it was writers of works both truthful and fanciful who amplified that perception, turning it from speculation into destiny.

Note: In my next post, I’ll explore the very different vision that, a few years later, established Washington State’s place in the American–and world–consciousness.

Guest Post: The Myth of the “Other World” in Oregon-Set Films

by Michael Schepps

Despite Oregon’s geographic proximity to Hollywood, films shot in the state are a rarity. Rarer still are films actually set in Oregon, films that embrace it as a place unto itself. The singularity of the setting and its place in the American psyche may help account for this paucity. Oregon, and the larger bioregion of the Pacific Northwest, continues to occupy a place apart in the American imagination, ensuring that its presence in narrative ties neatly in with the storytelling motif of the monomyth, or hero’s journey. This trope refers to the quest in which an individual must enter the “other world” in order to achieve a victory before returning, changed, to the world from which they came. This storytelling framework helps account for the enduring popularity of some of Oregon’s most defining films: the adolescent quest narratives of Stand By Me, The Goonies, and Coraline.

 For generations, “The Oregon Trail”—whether as an actual physical track, the beguiling siren for scores of itinerants throughout the 19th century,  or as the setting for a ubiquitous computer game— represented the ultimate terminality, the promised destination at the end of the arduous odyssey. In some atavistic  corner of the American psyche, the Northwest remains a transcendental locale shaped by the journey and the quest when contrasted with the “ordinary world” of the remainder of the country.  On film that division  is even stronger. Much of  the Pacific Northwest is filmically distinct, encompassing ecological and geographical extremes and standing utterly apart. In cinema, Oregon is a fantastical place—the other world— where anything can happen.

In 1986’s Stand By Me, director Rob Reiner replaces the Maine of Stephen King’s original short story with the small town of Brownsville in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The Oregon landscape reflects and enhances the gauzy second-order nostalgia of the post-war pastiche, in which a group of boys encounter the ultimate terminality of death in the form of a rumored cadaver. Quietly moldering pioneer townships and vital, pulsing greenery, with death lurking in the margins, are perfect for inducing an “otherworldly” presence, which helps account for the movie’s enduring popularity. The environment is a strange and threatening place—full of rattling trains on narrow bridges, hungry leeches and murderous bullies—the crucible in which the realized adult is formed. To travel there, in memory or on foot, is a challenge. 

Offering a more fantastical take on a similar adolescent quest narrative, 1985’s Goonies is another beloved classic with lasting influence among those who came of age in the 1980s and 90s. Trading the verdant landscape of the Willamette Valley for the riparian setting of the Oregon Coast and the Columbia River, Goonies has the feel of a 19th century “boy’s own” adventure transplanted to the gently decaying rot of Reagen-era Astoria. 

The propulsive script is fully immersed in the tropes of the monomyth. In it, a group of children–the titular Goonies– undertake a collective quest to find a pirate’s treasure, dodging obstacles in the form of murderous gangsters and elaborate booby-traps, in the hopes of saving their neighborhood from development. The “otherworldliness” of its ordinary setting is established in the opening scene, with a high-speed car chase sweeping through Astoria and ending near the remarkable seaside monolith of Haystack Rock. Long before the Goonies embark on their own journey into the fantastical, the viewer is transported to the numinous landscape of the Northwest itself.

A more recent addition to the canon of coming-of-age narratives set in Oregon, Laika’s 2009 hit Coraline takes the uncanny possibilities of the region to the extreme. The protagonist, the eponymous Coraline, begins the story newly transplanted from Michigan to the damp surreality of Ashland, Oregon. It is a grim and sodden place, inhabited by eccentrics and semi-neglected children, where the ignored Coraline soon discovers a mysterious portal to a literal “other world” in the form of a sinister mirror to her own.

Here the usage of the hero’s journey is explicit, with the “other world” a defined location and named as such.  Coraline’s journey to, and subsequent flight from, this other world helps define her presence in the ordinary world, the exoticism of the Ashland setting made pedestrian in contrast to the baleful other. 

As a new cohort of artists and filmmakers arises in the Pacific Northwest, Oregon’s potential as a narrative setting remains large and largely unexplored. The success of Travel Oregon’s recent Only Slightly Exaggerated” campaign, with its surreal  Miyazaki-inspired depiction of the state, points to the ways the state remains distinct; with a setting that can accept, challenge  and strengthen whatever narrative it encounters.

[Editor’s note: A more recent addition to the kind of Oregon cinema Schepps explores here is “Leave No Trace,” based on the novel My Abandonment by Portland writer Peter Rock.]

Michael Schepps lives in Portland, Oregon where he is an editor for Kithe Journal, a publisher with Korza Books and a writer at large. In his free time he juggles, hikes and takes photographs of birds. For more of his work, go to and look for his debut novella Split Aces, to be released on January 22, 2022.