The first place I remember. A place that takes some explanation, because despite being a pretty middle American place.
Clark County is a county in Washington, in the Portland metropolitan area. It is located just north of the Columbia River, less than seven miles from downtown Portland. This is the first unusual thing about Clark County: it is in Washington, but the average resident there grew up thinking they were Oregonian. As a child, I watched Portland television, read Portland newspapers, and knew a lot more about Oregon than I did about Washington. Clark County is one of Washington's population centers, outside the Puget Sound area. With an estimated population of just less than half a million people, it is the fifth most populous county in Washington, and the second (after Spokane County) most populous outside of the Puget Sound. Despite not being small--- half a million people is a lot of people--- it feels a little smaller, because it is seen, by people in the Portland area, as a hokey backwater to the fun that is Portland.
If you are thinking "This sounds like how people from New York think of New Jersey", you are probably right. We can start with that: Clark County is Portland's New Jersey.
Physically, Clark County is one of Washington's smaller counties: it is 630 square miles. About 25 miles squared. Its southern border is the broad Columbia River, almost a mile wide at this point. Its western border is also the Columbia River, after it turns north with its juncture with the Willamette River. Its northern border is the Lewis River. Its Eastern border is a long, straight line separating it from Skamania County. Since I lived here as a child, I don't think of it as small: to me the hills of the county's northern and eastern reaches are still magnificent, because I remember going for drives there with my parents when I was in preschool and elementary school, and they seemed vast at the time, with my younger focal length.
A bit of history: Clark County's status as an in-between region is not new. Before European settlement, it was at the boundary between the Salish language and cultural groups that inhabited the Puget Sound and Chehalis River basins to the north, and the Chinook and Sahaptin language and culture groups of the Columbia River and Willamette Valley. During European settlement, it lied between British and American claims. Fort Vancouver, located next to the Columbia in present day Vancovuer was the earliest large European settlement in the Pacific Northwest. Clark County, like much of the Pacific Northwest, was a backwater until two things happened: World War II and shipbuilding, and the postwar Baby Boom that created a new, suburban America and brought people to the West Coast. From 1940 to 1960, the population went from 50,000 to 94,000 people. From 1970 to 1990, it went from 130,000 to 240,000 people. From 1990 to now, from 240,000 to half a million. In general, since 1940, the population has doubled about every 25 years. Vancouver went from being a small town to a sprawling city. The ring of small country towns went from being farming centers to exurbs of people who worked in the Portland area.
It was only many decades later that I realized that my experience growing up was a bit different than most. I grew up in Battle Ground in the 1980s. My earliest memories are from that small town, when I was 2 or maybe 3 years old, in 1982 or 1983. I grew up in a ranch house on a cul-de-sac. When I was a child, it had 3,000 people, double its population in 1970. By 2000, it would have 10,000 people, and now, around 20,000. The cul-de-sac I lived on had been built in the past few years, and had attracted people moving in from all over. If this was a small town of 3,000 people east of the Mississippi river, the chances are that all of the adults on our block would have gone to high school together, and perhaps our grandparents as well. The men would all work in the one plant in town, and the women would all belong to the same social clubs. But all of the parents on our street were strangers to each other, moving in from different states and different areas in the period of a few years. I never considered until much later that it was unusual that when my mother went grocery shopping, for example, she was not bumping into her old high school chums every few feet. When I was growing up in Clark County, it was the perfect vacuum of post World War II rootlesness. Without the traditional structure of churches and social groups and extended families, the children on our block invented our own culture, out of Star Wars and Professional Wrestling.
Of course, other than six months in 2015, I haven't lived in Clark County since 1988, but I have still visited many times.
Currently, Clark County is in three bands. The central band, in the south and in the west, is Vancouver and its environs. Maybe four bands: Vancouver has a small "downtown", which shifts into strips and malls and big box stores. We will call this altogether, the "Vancouver Band". Outside of that is agricultural fields, interspersed with small towns that are now exurbs. The core agricultural activity was always dairy farming, with the lush, rainy, green rolling hills presenting a perfect terrain for dairy cows. Now, while there is still a lot of dairy farming, much of this belt is hobby farms or McMansions. And third, past the East Fork of the Lewis River in the north, and at some unspecified point in the east, the rolling hills turn into rocky basalts, the foothills of the Cascade Range. This was traditionally timber country, and even though the economy has shifted, it still has the air of being somewhere very distant. While the county has grown explosively since I was a child, these areas look pretty much the same.
Like many suburban counties in the United States, Clark County is predominantly white, although not overwhelmingly so. Like most areas on the West Coast, it has a fair population of Latino people, around 8% of the population. It also is a center for recent immigrants from Europe: Russian and Ukrainian in the Vancouver area, and Finnish Apostolic Lutheran believers in the more rural areas of the county.
Clark County also is much more conservative than the Portland area, which still makes it liberal compared to most predominantly white suburbs in the United States. In fact, Clark County is a "swing county" that works as somewhat of a bellweather. Elections are usually close to evenly divided there: since the 1964 election, which Lyndon Johnson won with 70% of the vote, no candidate has gotten more than 53% of the vote in Clark County, and most elections are settled with both candidates getting in the high 40s. On some issues, the political currents transcend party identification. Cannabis is legal in Clark County, like in all of Washington state, and is also socially accepted by people who might otherwise think of themselves as conservative. This is a rather vague thing to say, but I believe that as an outgrowth of earlier mentioned post-war mixing of backgrounds, people are more open to differences in personal expression than they would be to a county of similar demographics in (for example) Indiana.
Since I grew up here, it is hard for me to have an accurate take on where Clark County lies in the grand tapestry of American demographics. To me, it did seem like "Portland's New Jersey", and our jokes were always about "The Couve", the type of white, working class suburb where people liked to go down to the lake and drink cheap beer. But on the other hand, the county is also sprinkled with rich, conservative suburbs, small religious communities, old timber towns, immigrants from Mexico, Russia and Vietnam; and despite the "low rent" reputation, Washington is a wealthy state, and some of the area has good hospitals, good schools, and a variety of different art and cultural institutions. Whatever categorization of American suburbs into leafy-lawned wealthy enclaves, and strip-mall infested working class sprawl, can't really be applied to Clark County, at least in any way that I understand. And I am from there.
This is, for me, a good way to understand the factoral confusion that is the United States. I didn't grow up in Portland. I grew up not in a suburb of Portland. I grew up in a suburb of a suburb of Portland, in a different state. I can't even sum up the relatively small, relatively homogenous suburban county that I grew up in, after decades of experience. To me, its geography and people are still a little confusing to me. So if I am that short on being able to explain my own county, what can I say about the country as a whole?