On Thursday morning, we woke the girls at 5 a.m. and guided their sleepwalking bodies into the packed car. Then, we drove to the Rogue River area where Paul had submitted an application. It was a desperate move — driving two hours out of the way with a car full of girls in the hopes of catching an overzealous administrator at work, who, upon meeting Paul and noticing his excellent manners, ready smile and good looks, would hire him immediately and relieve us of money worries for at least a year.
Nestled in the hamlet of Murphy, Oregon, I stood in the little soccer fields at the back of the school while Paul was trying to track down the principal. The girls ran willy-nilly around me, glad to stretch their legs. I turned around, peering up at the panaroma of forested hills and thought,
we could live here.
But Paul walked out, underwhelmed.
It was a shot in the dark. We knew this. But we’re never low on hope. It bubbles up, unbidden, all the time. Paul met the secretary, the human resource lady, the pizza lady at the corner, the janitor, the construction worker, but the administrator eluded him. He was working from home and could not be reached. So, we turned towards home.
I had forgotten how beautiful the Rogue River area is. I hadn’t really spent time there since I visited Ashland for the Shakespeare Festival in high school. And then, my eyes were fascinated with the varied people and odd shops and boutiques. My mind was full of plays and words and situations, fixed on a climax or dénouement.
Paul had prepared me better for this drive. After rafting the Rogue, he returned with glowing reports of the river, the bears, the eagles, the cougars, but he raved about the lovely madrone trees that are now in decline along the old Pacific Coast Trail. Madrones are trees with rich orange-red bark that peels away. The sheen of the bared surfaces of the tree reflect the sunlight and glow with magic. The graceful boughs and brilliant leaves are set off with small bell-like flowers in the spring and red berries in the autumn.
They are lovely — worth seeing. I imagine they are even more beautiful from the perspective of the river than from the window of a car — the roots grasping the banks and the magical branches arching and reaching out over the river.
We stopped at a U-pick farm. Greta and I filled a flat with raspberries and Paul and Dagne picked a flat of blueberries. Ingrid complained of the heat and wandered between us. I asked Paul if Dagne had eaten more than she picked, like Sal did in Blueberries for Sal, but she’s growing up now and was ambitious to fill her box. It made me sad to realize that she is much too big to plop herself in the dirt and consume blueberries, listening to the sound of kuplink, kuplunk in her tin pail and then reaching back in the pail to pop her berries back in her mouth. At her age, Elsa had three little sisters and mothered them all. But babies of the family have a knack at remaining babies for their mothers, and Dagne still crawls into my lap for “refuels” of love and kisses which are probably needed for me as well as for her.
We drove straight to Anne’s house to drop the girls off because Paul had an interview in the morning in Hood River and the girls were hoping to avoid another day in the car. Paul and I got to the house around 10 p.m. We were up again at 5:30 a.m. Paul shaved his grizzly beard a few days previous. But we needed to iron “interview” clothes and find directions for the place.
We arrived on time at the wrong place, but it was easily set to rights. While Paul interviewed, I walked to experience Hood River. The town is hilly, with windy streets that often lead to nowhere. Only a few streets are direct and purposeful. I liked it. The old-fashioned brick school settled in its block like it grew there. Bungalow houses with splayed columns over porches dotted the streets. The place felt … unassuming and confident — like a pretty girl staring intently at something in the distance. Mt. Hood pierced the sky when I looked south, and Mt. Adams loomed beyond the hills bordering the Columbia River in the north. The Columbia River gorge is known for its wind, but I suspect that the sun shines more here than towards Portland. It is the threshhold of the lush side of Oregon. Beyond it, to the east, stretched the vast, flat farmlands that produce onions, watermelons, potatoes, and grapes, among other crops. But here, orchards stretched as far as one could see. I was amazed to see the tips of the hills, that rose sharply from the town, cleared and filled with the orderly rows of pear, peach, and apple trees. I’ve never visited Hood River in the spring and I’m filled with regret that it hasn’t been a yearly ritual.
The town felt busy, bustling. It is at the height of summer when windsurfer and kitesailing enthusiasts flock to the town to skim the waves and catch the wind roaring down the gorge. The Columbia River is filled with white caps in the afternoon and dotted with bright colored sails and dark wetsuits. Bikers wind through the town in a steady stream. I thought,
we could live here.
I returned to the car just as Paul got out of the interview. Paul felt positive about the interview and they promised him he would hear next week about whether he got the job. Next, we traveled to the Dalles to check on two applications at two different schools there. At the Dalles, there is a clear line that divides the west from the east. As you drive through the town, the trees become more and more sparse and by the time you emerge from the other side, the trees are gone. Brown hills with windmills slowly waving their arms extend as far as you can see.
One school was a miss because summer school had just ended and nothing but the occasional flutter of paper and the shuffle of the janitor’s steps could be heard. The other turned out well. The admistrator was there and spoke with Paul at length about his qualifications and the job. She accepted his application and resume. The Dalles has never really endeared itself to me. I’ve always loved its many unique churches, but the town itself lacks that sense of place I love. But I thought, perhaps you’re judging too soon. You haven’t looked in the nooks and crannies to discover hidden jewels. You haven’t interacted with the people. I thought,
we could live here.
We might even grow to love it and enjoy it.
We traveled to Parkdale to visit friends who own a farm there. Parkdale is orchards and the families that tend them. About 20 minutes from Hood River, the town is settled in the thick of orchards that sprawl for miles around it. There are two stores: one for farm equipment; one for food. Add a school and a church and an assortment of businesses and the town is complete.
Dave arrived in his truck with his two kids after moving irrigation pipes. Julie greeted us at the door. She has golden-red hair. I remember when Greta was very little, she called her “Goldie.” Chatting over oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies and laughing at the antics of their two kids was a nice break. We imagined ourselves close by, marketing the different uses of pear wood, having get-togethers, and Paul commuting to the alternative school in Hood River.
Driving away through the lovely orchards, I felt all the pull of living on a farm. The long days filled with home-centered tasks. Canning. Baking. Being strongly attached to the seasons, the weather, and the trees that you depend on. Being tied to growing things. Learning the words and phrases of fruit and branches and equipment and processing. Being part of a community where most everyone is doing the same thing. I thought of kids swinging on branches and gathering eggs from the chicken coop and fetching ingredients from the garden. I thought,
we could live here.
That night was my 20 year high school reunion in Portland. At first, I was reluctant to go. We were broke. We were pressed for time. We were exhausted. I decided to compromise. I would attend Friday night, but skip the family barbecue and couples’ dinner night on Saturday. Friday night was for classmates only. Paul pretended to sulk that he wasn’t invited and sent me off saying, “Don’t be giving out your digits to anyone.” I flashed him my wedding ring and imitated the SNL gal who shouts, “I’m married to the man of my life” at any innocent bystander in the bar.
When I arrived, I was glad it was just the classmates. The precious time ticking, ticking, ticking did not allow for extra introductions and conversations. There was Steve, and Marcus, and Nathan, and oooh! Jeremy, how have you been? Tangee, you’ve been my friend since the beginning. We used to thumb wrestle and draw together in church. Christa just had a baby. And Melinda, now Dr. Landchild. Bill, a principal. Scott, a teacher. Maret and Erica too. There’s my best friend from gradeschool, Heidi. And hello Heidi C. and the other Heidi C. But where is Julie? Here’s my volleyball team: Stacy, Allison, Andra, and Loretta. We’ve all married and have kids. There’s Jerred with a beard and ‘Roth Rules’ on his name tag and a few lines of news about his cousin, Lee, my high school boyfriend. Jesse and Carol arrived late but we’re so glad you made it. There’s Del Rae and Julie, my neighbors and buddies on the long bus ride home. Steve, it’s so good to see you. And Aaron, you look the same. Raising a daughter with autism and finding joy and wisdom in it. Jim, now James, still got that quick, dry sense of humor. It was a jumble of hugs and gasps and squeals and tears and snippets and goodbyes and wishes for happiness. Some came from far away, like Chicago and Seattle. Many are within an hour of Portland. I wished we could all stay connected like we were when we walked the halls of Ridgefield High, though I knew it was impossible.
Still I felt the pull to come home — to up the chances of bumping into my high school friends in the grocery store or seeing them at our kids’ soccer games or meeting them at church. I thought,
we could live here.
We stayed at Elida’s house. She’s still in Italy, but she said we could use the house. We awoke, breakfasted, and drove toward Bend to meet Paul’s brothers and sisters, two visiting from California. Driving by Detroit Lake, I felt the change in the air as the humidity evaporated and we crossed into the high, alpine air of home. The air feels lighter, cleaner, dryer. The stands of firs have given way to stands of pine trees. No longer are they crowded with nettles and brush and undergrowth. The trees line the meadows like giant soldiers in a battle. But I could skip and run and dodge through their orderly ranks because only a few ferns and forest flowers and green grasses fill the space.
Paul has the window down. The air is mild and sweet, filled with the pungent sweetness that rises from the bunch grass and red dirt, and tamped down with the scent of pine needles. But Paul would have the window down in the dead of winter. Whenever he crosses over from the wet, moist side of Oregon to the land of sage and juniper, he rolls down his window and inhales the air.
“I feel like we’re straddling two ideals,” he said.
“Explain,” I said.
“I feel the pull of paying off the debts, and getting a newer car, and a house, and a picket fence,” he said. “I need a paying job. Anywhere. I’ve got a family to support. But I just want a bike with a basket and a growler to fill with beer from the local pub. I’m willing to work, but I don’t want to just focus on getting ahead. I want to enjoy life. Take the girls climbing. Paddle the lakes and rivers. A little house near everything so I never have to get into a car. I feel the push to follow a career, to rise to the top of the ladder, but what I’m seeking is a lifestyle.”
In my mind, I understand that he’s lamenting leaving Central Oregon. As beautiful as Hood River is, and despite it being called a ‘little Bend,’ he longs for Bend itself. For me, I’ve always gotten what I wanted. I told him, “I don’t care where we live or how much money you make, I want to stay home. I’m happy to help a bit with the income, but home first. I want to be home. I want to be home. I want to be home.”
For Paul, his happiness seemed more rooted in place. Are there mountains? Rivers? Forests? Our married life has consisted of being in the out-of-the-way places that hunters desire. But Paul isn’t a hunter. He wants to swim in glacial lakes. Rock hop across streams. Never wear shoes. Climb trees as a form of exercise. He’d love it if our bikes were parked in the living room. And he had ten different pairs of flipflops.
He used to wear a T-shirt that quoted Thoreau,
Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.
I wish he could get what he wanted for once. I wish we could afford a bungalow in downtown Bend and Paul could kayak the Deschutes in the morning and have a duck named Kevin in the backyard and ride his beach cruiser with a basket to work and have a job where people appreciated him just as he is, wearing wool socks with his flipflops and fleece.
They wouldn’t press him to cut his hair or shave everyday and press his pants and shine his shoes and post his objectives on the board and turn in the TS blah blah blah report and …
Sometimes I think he’s like Antaeus and, instead of getting strength from the earth, gets his strength from Bend. The way to defeat him is, in Antaeus’ case, to lift him off the ground, or, in Paul’s case, to put him in a place that’s 45 minutes away from the town. In 17 years, I’ve never seen him more in his element then in Bend and Sisters. The rivers running through it, the mountain lakes surrounding it, the very culture of the place seems to have a taloned grip around his heart. He’s never lived there while we’ve been married. I think,
but we couldn’t live here. There isn’t any work.
And then I wonder, will Paul be able to live anywhere else?