Mark’s Handy, Pocket-Sized Guide to the Pacific Northwest

I got a great Valentine’s Day present when I learned IFC had renewed Portlandia for a second season. I love this sketch comedy series that so perfectly skewers Portland, Oregon. So many of the skits have been dead-on hilarious it’s hard to believe Fred Armisen wasn’t born and raised here. Mayor Openly Reggae. Best line ever, and if you’re local, you “get” it. To be fair, there have been a few that missed the mark or just weren’t very funny, but overall I’d grade the show a B+.

Douglas fir
Quick, name that tree! (Courtesy of

The fact that such an outlandish series airing on Friday nights on a little-seen cable television network would prove so popular – not just in Portland, but nationwide – thrills me, and makes me believe that our little corner of the country holds an allure for many outsiders. They scoff at out liberal eccentricities and laugh out loud over the stereotypes that are off-the-charts wacky and yet, undeniably, true – while secretly yearning to see just what all the fuss is about. Maybe it’s because we’re tucked way up here in the top left corner of the U.S. and sometimes seem like a separate country populated by coffee-swilling flannel-clad bicycle-riding vegans who are pro-marijuana, pro-assisted suicide, pro-spotted owl, and anti-establishment. I’d be curious to see just what was going on up here if I lived elsewhere, I’m sure.

On the off chance that we end up with a flock of curiosity-seekers heading to Oregon and Washington, either to visit (please do) or to stay (I’m not a native so I can’t ask you not to, although I do share the local philosophy that too many people will spoil so much that I love about this place), I have decided to put together a handy pocket-sized Guide To The Pacific Northwest. If you print it up, cut it out, and fold it a few times, that is. Otherwise it’s just a regular-sized Guide To The Pacific Northwest. In any case, this will hopefully serve as great reference material to anybody planning a trip to Portland, Seattle, or other locations in and around the Pacific Northwest. Please note that I do not include Idaho or Alaska. Some may argue those states are, in fact, part of the Pacific Northwest. Wikipedia says,

The Pacific Northwest is a region in western North America, bound by the Pacific Ocean to the west. Definitions of the region vary and there is no commonly agreed upon boundary, even among Pacific Northwesterners. A common concept of the Pacific Northwest includes the U.S. states of Oregon and Washington, and the Canadian province of British Columbia. This definition is often restricted further to include only the coastal areas. Broader definitions may include the state of Alaska and the Yukon territory, and may reach east to the Rocky Mountains. Definitions based on the historic Oregon Country reach east to the Continental Divide, thus including nearly all of Idaho and part of western Montana.

Geoduck clam
This is a geoduck. Quit laughing, it's delicious. (Courtesy of

Having lived here for over fifteen years, I think I’ve earned the right to form my own personal definition of the Pacific Northwest, and for the purposes of this pocket guide I’m calling it Oregon and Washington, period. Sorry, potato lovers and denizens of the midnight sun. And Canadians. No offense intended. Anyway, without further ado, here it is – my collection of tips and hints for people planning a visit (or, ahem, moving) out this way. Follow these simple rules and you will walk, talk, and act just like a native. Pretend there are dotted lines and cut along them, please and thank you.

Mark’s Handy, Pocket-Sized Guide To The Pacific Northwest

  1. Learn how to pronounce Oregon. It’s OR-ih-guhn. Not OR-eeh-gahn or anything else like that. I don’t know why people have such a hard time with this. Likewise, there is no “r” in Washington, so don’t you dare pronounce it “Warsh-ington.”
  2. Grow some facial hair. Be prepared to sport, at the least, 3 days’ worth of stubble growth. Bonus points for goatees and beards. Mustaches, however, look silly. Unless you’re Tom Selleck or my dad. Note: the facial hair rule does not apply to women.
  3. Observe our dress code. It’s really quite simple: there is no dress code. Dress however you please! A few popular looks include shorts in the dead of winter, pairing socks with sandals, flannel shirts (these should never be worn ironically), Birkenstocks, glasses, faded rock ‘n roll t-shirts, tie-dye, pajama bottoms, anything made out of hemp or decorated with peace signs, and Gore-Tex.
  4. Fall in love with trees. You don’t have to hug them – how literal and cliche – but you’d better appreciate them. After all, they’re on Oregon’s license plate and Washington’s nickname is “The Evergreen State.” Know the difference between a Douglas fir, a western hemlock, and a sitka spruce.
  5. Poke fun at Californians. Even if they’ve never done anything to wrong you. Learn a few California jokes like this one.
  6. Overcome your fear of needles. People here don’t talk about their tattoo, they talk about their “first tattoo” and their eyes grow misty as they remember that long-ago occasion. If you don’t have one, you’d better get one to blend in. If you have one, for crying out loud, why do you only have one?!?! Needles are also useful for piercing parts of your anatomy and for pumping lethal doses in your veins when you’re ready to Die With Dignity.
  7. Do not even think about stepping out of your car and pumping your own gas in Oregon. You’re not allowed to, and if you try it, you’ll incur the wrath of the gas-station attendants who love pumping it for you themselves in the freezing cold for minimum wage and always, always drop everything and rush immediately over to help you, ensuring that you aren’t late for work or school or a doctor’s appointment.
  8. Become a beer, wine, or coffee snob. Or all three. With amazing microbrews, award-winning pinot noirs, and espresso stands on every corner, you’re missing out if you don’t imbibe in at least one of these beverages often.
  9. Work up a good head of steam whenever you find an aluminum can – gasp! – in the trash can. If you’ve actually seen the perpetrator commit the offense, unleash a tirade about saving the earth. Then write to your Congressman and demand they pass a law banning plastic bags from grocery stores.
  10. Step one: learn how to pronounce geoduck (“gooey duck”). Step two: figure out that a geoduck is a clam. Step three: quit laughing over the phallic likeness of a geoduck and eat the damn thing already.
  11. Make checking the daily volcano updates as much a part of your habit as the daily sports scores.
  12. Talk like the locals. In Seattle, don’t say, “It’s a clear day.” Instead declare, “The mountain is out.” Everybody will know what you mean.
  13. When spending a day at the beach, dress appropriately. This means a sweatshirt, even in July. And don’t think for a second about actually swimming in the ocean unless you enjoy having frost-bitten extremities.
  14. “Discover” a local indie rock band, buy their music, and go to their shows. If the mainstream public finds out about them and they become popular, disown them and complain about how they “sold out and went corporate.” (Personal case in point: The Moondoggies. I love them. I’ll bet you’ve never heard of them. And I hope and pray you never hear them on the radio).
  15. Do not buy an umbrella. It’s much cooler to walk around and end up getting drenched. The rain is a constant up here; if you don’t embrace it, you’ll go crazy. Also weather-related: throw around the term “sun breaks” whenever the spigot temporarily shuts off and that orange ball of light can be seen through the clouds, and be prepared for utter chaos and panic – school closures, around-the-clock news coverage with reporters standing on overpasses holding microphones while traffic crawls by beneath – whenever an inch of snow falls, paralyzing whichever city you’re in.

Published by Mark Petruska

I'm a professional writer and editor living my best life in south central Wisconsin.

24 thoughts on “Mark’s Handy, Pocket-Sized Guide to the Pacific Northwest

  1. I think it’s very unfair that geoduck can be pronounced “gooey duck,” but Washington can’t be pronounced “Warshington.” What kind of double standard is that!? (Btw, geoduck looks like and elephant trunk.)

    Also, when did you grow a beard and get a tattoo?


    1. LOL! Well, I haven’t shaved in a few days, so there’s the stubble. And I’m working on the tattoo. Not right this second…it would be weird to go online while “under the needle”…but I already have a design picked out. I just need to get ‘er done.


  2. spot on…although, WHY did you have to include the gooeyduck? Yes. that’s how I spell it.
    maybe the heist I wrote about on my blog was…for these guys? They DO…you know…squirt.

    I had an uncle who was really my cousin’s husband (huh?) who was a gooeyduck diver.

    no joke.



  3. I was all about to high-tail it to Oregon, a place where you can hug a tree WHILE sipping coffee… that is, until I saw the godforsaken geoduck. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get over it 😦


  4. What a lovely blast from my vacation 2 summers ago, where I went to Portland and Seattle. Hawthorne District might be my hangout. Have you eaten at Pine State Biscuits? Oh my drooling God!!! I wanted to move to Portland after visiting. I have tattoos, I can pull off flannel, Portland does have the best sea food I’ve ever eaten, and hello Powells, microbrews, Laurelhurst Park with its beautiful giant trees which I’ll have to learn the names of! I actually saw Powell Books in an online commercial recently and sighed while watching. I will say, I can’t believe you left out Voodoo Donuts! I can’t claim your years of know how, but damn, those were good donuts.


    1. Sounds like you hit all the best spots, Jess! I walked by Pine State Biscuits once but the line was long so I ended up eating the best tamale of my life at Salvador Molly’s. Love, love, love Powell’s and – of course – Voodoo Doughnut. One of these days I’ll dedicate an entire post to both places.


  5. Okay, first of all I can’t stop looking at that ‘geoduck’ ; thinking that it reminds me of an ELEPHANT TUSK growing out of a clam shell.


    Hey, I really enjoyed reading this guide to the Pacifid Northwest. Anything I’ve ever read or seen of Oregon makes me feel like I would love it! Not only the scenery, but also the ‘consciousness’ of the place.

    And I love rain, coffee, wine, and hugging trees!

    However, I think I would have to skip the geoduck – HA!

    Have great Saturday, Mark!


    1. It’s a good thing I posted the PG-13 picture instead of the R-rated one. I can only imagine the responses to that. Knowing what I do about you, Ron, I’d say you’d fit in perfectly out this way!


  6. Heee. This list is great. Some of these apply to New England too. (Like, never go to the beach without a sweatshirt), and learn how to pronounce things (Like, Worcester, Haverhill, etc. There’s no H in Worcester. You wouldn’t believe how many people call it Worchester)

    And speaking of Indie music, check out Middle Class Rut. They’re a rock duo out of Sacramento (not quite PNW, but close enough). Really good stuff, if you like Alternative Rock, you’ll like them.


  7. Great list! I personally have never been to the West Coast, much less the Pacific Northwest. Would never have known about checking daily volcano updates or how you shouldn’t drag an umbrella with you at all times :). Question re: #7 — is there sarcasm there or are the attendants literally happy to help with your gas? I’ve never gone somewhere that wasn’t self-serve, so I wasn’t quite sure… and somehow it’s essential to me that I know whether or not you were sarcastic for my next trip to the Pacific Northwest 🙂


    1. #7 was dripping with sarcasm. I hate having somebody else pump my own gas, because it takes twice as long to get in and out of there. In my experience, the gas jockeys take their sweet time getting to you, and when they do, they stick the nozzle in and walk away. There’s nothing more frustrating than hearing that “click” indicating your tank is full, and waiting another 3 or 4 minutes for them to wander back over and finish up. I am NOT a fan of full-service, if you couldn’t already tell. 😉


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