The Coastal Conundrum

10 mins read

Many weighty and controversial issues face us today. I am equipped to settle none of them, and hardly well-informed enough to have rock-solid, nuanced opinions on most of them. Still, there is one stance I will never relinquish and will hold to my grave and beyond. Before I lose my nerve in addressing a no doubt predominantly hostile audience, I will just say it: the West Coast is, indeed, the Best Coast. Now, I know that this opinion is a matter of much contention between the inhabitants of the Best Coast and the East Coast* and that I may be fighting an uphill battle on a campus that is, after all, a mere couple hours away from the Atlantic and an entire five-hour airplane ride from the Pacific. Having just come back from a field seminar in California as part of my study away program, however, I feel obliged to set the record straight with my newfound knowledge.

First of all, I know from firsthand experience that the West Coast has the power to convert even the most hard-core East Coaster. My friend, who is from New York City and as reluctant as anyone to admit the charms of the West Coast, came to visit me in Oregon last summer. After I showed her the wonders of Cannon Beach, the scenic hiking, and the lush canopies of trees (not to mention the excellent donuts), she very grudgingly admitted that “the West Coast might possibly be the best coast.” (I caught this on video and will never let her forget it.) Mind you, this is a hardened, grizzled New Yorker we are talking about, and most New Yorkers won’t admit that any other state exists, let alone another coast. Furthermore, at the California field seminar, the majority of my fellow students had arrived on the West Coast as seasoned, dedicated East Coasters. By the time we left, no one wanted to leave. I think this sentiment speaks for itself.

Elena Lee // The Phoenix

Scientifically speaking, the West Coast is simply far more fascinating and rich. Due to strong upwelling which provides cold, nutrient-rich water near the shore, an abundant ecosystem thrives, with far more biodiversity than on the East Coast. Furthermore, the West Coast is on an active margin (read: lots of fault lines and exciting subduction zones, transform faults, and plate boundary action and earthquakes) whereas the East Coast is on a mere passive margin (read: no plate boundaries or major fault lines with very little tectonic activity), with nothing to do but envy the interesting events happening on the other side of the continent. Because the West Coast borders an active margin, it has a very narrow continental shelf (the depth of the sea bottom drops off sharply close to the shore), which has the double benefit of allowing fishermen to fish much closer to land and coaxing charismatic megafauna such as whales to swim within viewing distance for the land-bound onlooker. If none of this convinces you, California also has adorable sea otters and seals. During one boat tour this past week, I saw 82 sea otters/sea otter pups and more than 100 seals/seal pups. It was as cute as it sounds. I know you East Coasters brag about your crabs and whatnot, but come on — sea otter pups? Nothing can compare. 

Culturally speaking, the West Coast is also far more relaxed than the East Coast. I say this as a person who has lived on or around both coasts. Most people on the East Coast seem to have far too much to do and are always rushing around, whereas West Coast people seem less concerned with formalities and more capable of sitting back and taking in the scenery. Although I have nothing but anecdotal evidence to support this claim, I am absolutely certain that the frequency of suits and high heels is at least twice as high on the East Coast than on the West Coast. Some may see formal clothing as a good thing and a mark of respect, and I am not here to persuade you to change your values; however, I have yet to meet a person who would rather spend time in a suit jacket than sweats. In addition, this “I-have-to-be-somewhere” attitude seems to make East Coast drivers quite mean. In Portland, it is common to be stuck at a four-way intersection because drivers keep trying to let each other go first. In Swarthmore, I only narrowly escape getting run over at the crosswalk every day, mostly because the drivers think the hassle of imprisonment for manslaughter probably outweighs the time they might save by running me over. I have perfected a glare specifically to discourage drivers from conducting this experiment. 

Elena Lee // The Phoenix

Finally, the West Coast is simply awe-inspiring. It’s magnificent. It’s gorgeous. It’s beautiful and wild and lovely and makes you want to cry when you gaze out at the waves crashing on the miles-long expanse of beach that borders craggy headlands and cliffs plunging down into the spray. You can watch the fog roll in from the tops of gently rolling, verdant hills that look like billowing swells themselves, or stand in reverent silence gazing upwards at redwoods that have been around since the Magna Carta was signed. In fact, in Oregon, all the beaches are public access — the coast is yours to explore, with its vast dunes and lush forests and secretive tidepools. While California and Washington are somewhat more restrictive, there are still vast stretches of beach to enjoy. In the sections of the East Coast I have visited (which are, admittedly, mostly New England/Mid-Atlantic — some Southerners may have a bone to pick with me), it feels like everything is designed to keep you off the beach — every spit of sand, or at least every access point, seems to be someone’s private property (in most states, the public has a right to the intertidal zone, but accessing that zone is an entirely different question, as my marine policy professor would no doubt tell you). Those sections of the beach that are publicly accessible feel somehow tame: abutting towns and boardwalks, crammed between jetties and harbors. This isn’t a universal statement by any means, but I stand by its general sense. The East Coast is charming in its way. Beautiful in places, certainly. Maine has cool lighthouses and such.  But the West Coast makes you respect the ocean — revere it even. The Pacific Ocean makes you feel what an ocean is, and you can’t help but just take in the forests and the mountains and the sand and the waves until you forget there can be anything else. 

Yes, I am biased as an Oregonian. Yes, some of my reasoning is subjective and anecdotal, and I am fully aware that if you truly refuse to believe in the West Coast’s superiority, I will never persuade you. Still, I encourage you, if you have the time and ability, to set foot in the fine states of Oregon, Washington, and California (and Alaska and Hawaii, of course) and see for yourself. Though it may cost you your pride and dignity, you too may be forced to admit: the West Coast is the Best Coast.       

*Seriously, though, East Coast Best Coast has no ring to it. It’s just not meant to be, folks. Sorry. 

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