In the early morning hours last Wednesday, I set off on a more than 800-mile road trip across California and into Oregon to finally quench the years-long thirst I felt for Portland, a city that has often given me an inkling that it could feel just like home, even from far away.
After soaking in a landscape bursting with creativity, natural beauty, awe-inspiring art and zines — as well as more cyclists than I've seen in any other city I've visited — Portland, or “Stumptown” as it is so affectionately called, was as comforting as I had imagined. But the journey to get there left just as big an impression on me as my destination.
The drive up the state that I've called home for more than 20 years felt familiar, like I had been there before, like I was inching by and toward a place I left sometime ago, but that still lived within me despite the incredible distance. It’s a place that I always found my mind coming back to no matter how far away I got, a place that I haven't been able to escape.
The further I got away from Los Angeles, the more I was reminded of
, that small, insignificant country often confused with Romania, whose biggest export — at least to Glendale residents — seems to be its diaspora. So insignificant that the Wall Street Journal recently called it “Overlooked Armenia” in a piece touting it as the forgotten holy land, home to “some of the world's greatest religious shrines.”
As I crawled up California, I passed through the San Joaquin Valley, where a part of the Armenian diaspora’s first waves of immigration in the form of agricultural workers to the U.S. can be traced. Then past Mount Shasta, a West Coast version of the biblical Mount Ararat — a national treasure so prominently displayed in Armenian homes, that it really should be taken into consideration for the next census.
The rest of Siskiyou County, from the beautiful Cascade range to the Klamath National Forest, evoked more scenes from that overlooked country, that like the countries surrounding it, is a victim of neatly packaged stereotypes. But this overlooked country is more than a large ethnic group that over the decades has found a permanent home in California and changed the demographic landscape of Glendale.
It is what was uncannily reflected in central and northern California — the lush Lori province, home to the 10th-century Haghpat monastery, now a
World Heritage Site, the view from the world's longest aerial tramway in Tatev, the gentle lull of the Vararak river in Goris and the dry, straight roads out of the capital of Yerevan to the underrated cities around it (sans the crumbling Soviet-era architecture that peppers the country after independence in 1990, of course).
Nature mimicked itself some 7,000 miles away, but while California saw more than 13 million international visitors in 2010, Armenia's figures, largely comprised of its own diaspora, still hover around the hundreds of thousands. Overlooked, indeed.
But there's something about California that's unlike anywhere else, beyond Los Angeles, beyond the palm trees and traffic. There's also something about Armenia, beyond the misconceptions about a country and its people, who are in need of some discovering, too.
is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at