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Eli Francovich: Seeing the west through the eyes of a Dutchman

UPDATED: Mon., June 24, 2019

It’s said, sometimes, that traveling is an invaluable teacher. One that exposes biases and preconceptions, forces growth and reflection all while eroding stereotypes and misconceptions.

That may be true. But sometimes its nice to just stay home and let the foreign come to you.

In late May, Dutchman Freek Borlee visited me for three weeks. During that time I saw the landscape through his eyes and found myself falling back in love with the west’s wild beauty.

Borlee and I became friends during high school in North Idaho. He was an exchange student from the Netherlands. We’ve stayed close and I’ve visited him. He’s come to the U.S., too.

But this visit was different. See, I’ve known, intellectually at least, that the United States, and the west in particular, is rich with nature. Vast tracts of public land. Mountains, rivers and valleys. Even the Northwest’s smallest and most populous state (Washington) has wild space the size of some small countries and a nearly full complement of historic predators and big game animals.

But I’ve never been so physically reminded of this wild heritage as I was traveling through Washington and Idaho with Borlee in May and early June.

I picked him up in Seattle on a Thursday. We drove back, through the Cascades and into the scablands of eastern Washington. He commented, with awe, on the fact that we could drive for hours without crossing into another country, or even into another state. For reference, at its fattest and tallest the Netherlands is 110 miles wide and 162 miles long.

About halfway back from Seattle we stopped at Vantage, Washington, and climbed for a few hours. Vantage, to anyone who climbs there regularly, is a rather ho-hum destination. The basalt columns are cool but it’s hardly world class.

Not so for Borlee.

For one thing the Netherlands, with its famously flat topography, has nothing like Vantage’s 100-foot cliffs. The countries’ tallest mountain, Vaalserberg, is 1,058 feet tall.

That height combined with the fact that camping and climbing in Vantage is free (courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management) and the awe is understandable.

On that evening as we rounded one bend and looked out toward the Columbia Gorge, Borlee stopped walking and stared in awe.

It’s the sort of reaction I should be having regularly if I really took the time to appreciate the natural beauty of this country.

On Friday, we floated the Spokane River with some friends. The five-minute drive from my West Central home to the put-in, again, seemed unbelievable to Borlee.

We spent the next week in the Leavenworth area hiking and climbing amongst the glittering Cascade peaks.

For Borlee to do any of these things he’d have to travel for hours to another country (France or Italy, for example) and fight the crowds of other Europeans heading to the same destination. Most Europeans who enjoy skiing, climbing or hiking go on a longer holiday each year to do these things (Incidentally, most Dutch people get a minimum of five weeks of vacation).

For us in Spokane, a ski trip is a matter of a short drive.

All of which underscores the fact that about 2.27 billion acres of land in the United States, roughly 27 percent of the total area, is owned by the American people.

Compare that to the Netherlands, or Europe in general. The land has been managed and used, heavily, for hundreds of years. At one time the Netherlands was covered in forests. That’s no longer the case after centuries of logging. This year wolves returned to the Netherlands after 140 years of exile.

In 2019, there were about 1,000 Dutch people per square mile. In 2018, the U.S. population density was 92 people per square mile. Density has benefits, of course. Borlee spent an afternoon cycling with my colleague Nick Deshais and found that (to no one’s great surprise) the Netherlands’s bike infrastructure is superior to Spokane’s.

But, in terms of natural beauty and wild spaces, the U.S. is far ahead of the Netherlands. That’s thanks to our early visionaries who pushed back against the rapacious drumbeat of greed that would have every inch of wild land developed, mined or logged.

But, threats remain. As the U.S. population grows the pressure to develop “undeveloped” land increases. That’s why the work of organizations like the Dishman Hills Conservancy, the Friends of Scotchman Peaks and the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy remain vital.

For us in the Northwest it’s easy to forget how precious, and rare, this landscape is. I know I forget. Regularly. The Spokane River becomes mundane. Mount Spokane is uninspiring. An after-work Palouse sunset viewed from the top of Big Rock loses some of its luster after the 20th time.

Seeing this land through the eyes of a Dutchman freshened my perspective and reignited my gratitude for this landscape I call home.

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