You can take home for granted.
It's a native affliction in Oregon, which is to say those of us born and raised here are the most vulnerable to it upon reaching young adulthood -- the idea that life is better elsewhere. And so, even with its vaunted
army of tall pines standing sentry over us, the moss pelt carpeting the ground, morning mists mistakenly assigned to Brigadoon, or the jewel-green valleys or the markedly changing seasons, Oregon fails to move us.
It doesn't occur to us that fresh rains and sweet air aren’t common everywhere or that other people can't spend a day watching waves at the beach and be home by dinner time, nursing nasty sunburns. Or that
others don't jaunt to the mountains for a “snow day.”
But then we leave home and learn all about homesickness, wishing for a crimson fall, a cleansing rain and a spring and summer abounding an impossible array of color.
The day of return is rewarded with those early mists lying in a supernaturally green valley.
I remember returning home after a few years away, crossing the border and watching the barren hills become flush with every shade of green as the car traveled northward. There was nothing for it but to roll down
the window and like any dog on a road trip, stick my head out the window to smell the air.
The Willamette Valley, where I am, is a staggeringly fertile ground west of the Cascade Mountain Range. On my side of the mountains, the climate is mild -- seldom too hot and seldom too cold. When
it snows even a small amount, schools close and we all stay home and drink cocoa.
We are famed for our rain here, and winters are often beset with clouds that coddle us from bitter cold but seem overly generous with water.
The waters make for clear and sparkling lakes and rivers that swarm with fish and crazy tourists in whitewater drift boats, shooting the rapids.
Because of the mild climate, just about anything can be grown here – even tropical plants with flashy red and purple colors thrive here. Vineyards are so common no one can figure out why good wine is still
Oregonians are gardeners, and tap their feet impatiently all winter, waiting for tomato planting time. They call radio gardening shows asking, “How about now? Is now good?” and declaring that because of global warming they ought to be able to plant in April instead of waiting until May. An Oregonian’s first Early Girl tomato of the season is cause for celebration and occasional boasting around the neighborhood. At state
fair time, gardeners bring their best or weirdest looking produce to exhibit, like butternut squashes that look like Hollywood celebrities.
At the same time, the valley is home to most of our significant urban centers. Portland is our biggest city and boasts skyscrapers, beautiful city lights, opera, symphony and art. The Willamette River flows through
it and Mount Hood towers over it. The city is very cosmopolitan these days, all glass and granite, with one giant copper statue of “Portlandia,” a goddess-like figure who crouches inexplicably-- trident in hand -
-over the entrance of city hall. Most longtime Oregonians (she was stationed there in 1982) think she has nothing to do with Oregon and prefer “pioneer guy” (no one thought to give him a name) who stands, axe
in hand, atop our capitol building in Salem, where he has looked westward heroically since the 1930s. Also, Portlandia may be hammered copper, but Pioneer Guy is covered in 23-carat gold leaf, which is as classy
as you can get.
About an hour from the valley traveling west, the Oregon coast brings whale watchers and storm lovers every winter and sand-castle designers and salt-water taffy fanatics every summer. The water stays cold year-round, but in late summer, it takes a few minutes longer for your legs to turn completely numb in the waves.
East of the mountains is another world. Douglas Fir gives way to Lodgepole Pine and grassy knolls turn to sage brush and juniper. Deserts spread here and there, narrowing every so often into deep canyons.
Winter and summer are harsh here and water is in short supply in many places since all the rain is dumped on the other side of the range. Still, the rugged beauty of Steens Mountain, natural hot springs and the
best climbing country anywhere brings people from all over the nation who love adventure.
Cattle-ranching is still a business here, and cowboys still roam the canyons, albeit in much smaller numbers than before. Recreation is rodeo. Barrel-racing for girls and bronco-busting for boys.
They are probably the last of the truly hardy Oregonians, those who help us remember our ancestors who came here in covered wagons. Most of us freak out if the wind knocks our satellite dish off the roof.
What unites us is that great love of home. Meet Oregonians in exile anywhere and they invariably realize what they have left behind and what they had perhaps taken for granted all those years they were here.
The rest of us just wait. Pretty soon, they’ll be back, hanging their heads out of car windows, smelling the air.