America invented cool. It gave us surfboards, hip hop and the word ‘dude’. Americans turned their baseball caps the wrong way round and the world followed. Being cool in the US isn’t bravado — it’s a patriotic duty.
Take California: the epicentre of all that’s laid-back, carefree and hip. Where they have bikinis and margaritas, we have man boobs and lager. Where they have surfing, we have meat pies, standing in the rain and shouting at 22 grown men. And their kind of cool is catchy, too. Within minutes of arriving at Huntington Beach, a small surf town 15 miles south of LA, I was cheering a troupe of tattooed breakdancers and swapping ‘hang loose’ signs with complete strangers. By the end of the week, I was ready to quit my job and live out my Point Break beach bum fantasy for real. (The original film, not the remake. Obviously.)
And it’s not just the Golden State. Travel a few hundred miles north into Oregon, and sun-drenched beaches turn windswept and rugged, palm trees morph into 200ft-tall rainforests and fields become lined with endless rows of luminescent Pinot Noir vines. And then there’s Portland. Here’s a city that’s so cool it’s become a parody of itself. In the hit comedy series Portlandia — a wonderful send-up of the city — it’s described as the place ‘where young people go to retire’. And it’s true: walk the streets of Hawthorne, Mississippi, Alberta — neighbourhoods that define the hipster underbelly of this town — and people are out, all the time, drinking micro-brewed beer and dunking organic donuts in their fair trade coffee. But being cool here isn’t just about long beards and ironic T-shirts. They’re also putting it to work.
You see, Portland is the eco-living show home of the US, regularly topping lists of the most bikeable, sustainable and farm-to-table-able places to live in the country. But Portland’s not tree-hugger green: it’s green with style. “Coolness matters,” Charlie Wicker explains to me from the back of his flashing neon, bicycle-powered sustainable coffee roaster. “If being green is all about geeks and bad clothes no one’s going to buy it. It’s about setting an example.”
And Portland is setting that example well. Instead of fast food, it’s food carts. Places like Lebaneser Scrooge, Snack Religious and Steak Your Claim are every bit as tasty as they are well-named. Instead of high street stores, it’s local brands — chains get chased out of town. I found eco-friendly bicycle bars, a tiny house hotel dedicated to downsizing, and a concept shop where you pay what you think is right and choose a charity at checkout to receive a percentage of what you give. Being green in Portland isn’t about doing chores, it’s about being part of a vibrant, independent culture. There’s a spark here.
It’s not just the big city, either. Electric car-charging stations have been springing up all across this hip northwestern corner of the States, meaning it’s now possible to see the state completely carbon-free. I watched storms break on the mouth of the Columbia River, hiked old Indian trails to deserted beaches and watched the sunrise from the top of an enormous sand dune — all without so much as a single emission spent. Electric road trip may sound like the name of a 1960s psychedelic band, but in Oregon it’s just another day out on the coast.
And that’s the thing. In an era where everything is marketed, where every fizzy drink and useless piece of junk promises to make you happier, more enlightened and attractive to the opposite sex, being good has to be as hip as being bad. You can’t ask people to save the planet because they should: you’ve got to make it cool.
On my last night in Portland I had dinner at a new restaurant, Farm Spirit: vegan food and stadium-decibel funk music, served in an open-plan bar kitchen by inked-up trendy young chefs. It’s animal rights without a hint of hippy in sight. “We’re punks,” head chef and owner Aaron P Adams said. “We just like to ham it up.”
And that’s what this country intuitively understands — the method of delivery is every bit as important as the message itself. It’s not about showing off, it’s about showing up. Standing for something with swagger and strut. Coolness matters. America should know; they invented it.
British travel writer Aaron Millar ran away from London in 2013 and has been hiding out in the Rocky Mountains of Boulder, Colorado since.
Published in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)