I live on the dry side of the Cascade Mountains, in the high desert of Central Oregon, far away from the northeastern hardwood forests where my husband and I grew up. Oregon? our families asked when we told them we were moving, Why Oregon? They pronounced it like easterners: Ore-gone. Why did we want go there? Ore-gone is far away, Ore-gone is wet and gray, even wetter and grayer than Cleveland and Syracuse, where they live. Why would we choose that?
But the Oregon that we chose is bright and dry. There are rattlesnakes and coyotes here, dusty trails lined with bitterbrush and sage, and the air is spiced with juniper and the faint vanilla scent of Ponderosa pine. In the winter, snow-capped mountains pop from a cobalt sky, and on the ridge where I like to walk, I have seen dozens of rectangles melted into the snow, pebbled scat at the end of each one — evidence of the elk that bedded down the night before.
Now that it’s spring, the meadows are starting to bloom, the vanilla scent is stronger, and you can feel the hot breeze dancing with cool air from the snowpack in the forest. Sometimes it is too beautiful, and I’m self-conscious, like maybe I don’t deserve this place.
Back east where I grew up, nature existed in overgrown railroad corridors and the weary shores of Lake Erie. Staghorn sumac and maple saplings, the smell of tar and wild flowers. Beach glass and plastic tampon applicators washed up with driftwood in the sand. Nature, yes, but struggling. Trying to look like it’s supposed to. Like my own family. Perhaps that’s why I left.
When they each come out to visit, I take them to the mountain lakes. After a walk in the forest, my father and I sit on our back deck. He closes his eyes. I love the sound of the breeze through the pines, he murmurs. My father and I don’t agree on much anymore, but this he understands.