I have learned many things in pubs. I've learned to shoot pool, score a dart game, and how to snuggle a blue puck up to the edge of a shuffleboard table. I've learned all about beer. I've learned about the consequences of drinking too much. I've even learned that those consequences are substantially reduced if I stick to stouts. But the most important lesson came at the Terminal Gravity Brewpub in Enterprise, Oregon, when I visited there five years ago.
Enterprise is the major metropolis of Wallowa County, boasting nearly a third of the population. Of course, Wallowa County only has 7,082 people, and so Enterprise, despite its gravitational pull, is a small town. It sits in a valley of golden fields, sluiced with streams and dotted with red barns, everything framed by the mighty, snow-capped Wallowas to the South and West. It is, like most of Eastern Oregon, Republican country--and in 2004, 70% of the residents cast ballots for George Bush.
The brewpub--a converted bungalo--is a gathering place, where bronze forgers, ranchers, writers, and tourists gather for a beer after work. They congregate on the aspen-wooded lawn, next to a stream, on a scattering of picnic tables. There aren't enough tables for everyone, so you just crowd in and share.
When I visited five years ago, I was parked in-between a rancher and a local artist. We struck up a conversation, and I learned that the rancher was Bush-red, and the artist Kucinich-blue. Yet we weren't there to discuss politics, we were there for the beer. As the night progressed, and after we'd become acquainted, the conversation did wander into politics--the environment, actually. But, instead of devolving into the usual partisan fracas, we continued to treat each other like three guys enjoying a beer. And guess what: we had a fascinating and productive discussion and walked out friends.
The partisan divide has become so stark that it's self-perpetuating. We seem to have forgotten that politics are really best when they serve the people. With our scorched-earth language (liberals as treasonous America-haters, conservatives as jack-booted Nazis), it's impossible not to elevate the partisan loyalty above the greater human loyalty. In a pub, though, looking a person in the eye, it's a lot harder to think of him as a stinking pit of evil.
Perhaps because of the loss of the public square and the rise of selective media, even in Oregon we've grown suspicious of each other. Maybe beer's the answer--anyway, it's a theory I'm working on. Yesterday, Oregon kicked off "Beer Week," which will culminate next weekend with the Oregon Brewers Festival (at which you'll find a tap of Terminal Gravity Ten--a massive barleywine). Let's all go out to a local pub (or pubs, if you're really feeling patriotic) and celebrate with our fellow Oregonians. We may not agree about Karl Rove, but surely we can agree that our brewers make the best damn beer in the world. In the dim light of a brewpub, all beer is purple.
(Oh, and when I went back to Terminal Gravity two weeks ago, it happened again: we made friends with a quartet from Idaho who'd come specifically to Enterprise for the beer. We were having such a good time that they bought us a final round just to extend the conversation. I tell you what, it's hard not to like someone who will buy you a beer.)