Some years ago while sitting with a fellow Portlander in a coffee shop in Friday Harbor, a charming town in the San Juan Islands, a Washington State Ferry stop between Anacortes, Washington and Sidney, British Columbia and home to a pod of orcas, a marine science laboratory and a bevy of old salts from Seattle, we overheard the following remark made with a slight snicker in reference to the latest shenanigans of one of our local politicians: “Portland is a forgiving town.”
The year was 1970. We were young, adventurous and ready to strike out for new territory. Having spent the past few years on the east coast, first as students at Brown University and then as a teacher of English & American literature and medical student respectively, we were ready for an adventure in the upper left hand corner, where I would continue to teach and he would begin his training at Oregon Health & Sciences University, a place unique in two ways: (1) It was located on a hill in Portland with a magnificent view of Douglas fir forests to explore, recently cleaned up rivers to kayak and the Cascade mountains to climb and (2) at that time, it offered the lowest paying internship in the country. We deemed it a fair trade.
As we began our adventure from east to west, we bid goodbye to busy Long Island Sound where as a boy he had learned to catch the wind in a homemade sunfish and the gentle slopes of the Allegheny Mountains where as a young couple we had ventured to night ski despite having to huddle together on windblown lifts blasted by bitter cold and incoming shards of ice. We drove west through unbroken sky shimmering over the sunlit farm fields of the Midwest on straight arrow, two-lane highways where as a child I had grown up riding my blue, single gear Schwinn and on to a double rainbow arched over a mounted cowboy checking fences on the plains of South Dakota, where we stopped to gaze in wonder at the beauty of our country. When at last we reached the snowy peaks of the Cascades beckoning us into the Columbia River Gorge, we knew we were home. On our way, the boot of our car had collected the dust of the great plains and with our fingers we had written in it “Oregon or Bust!” Arriving at last in Portland, we parked downtown to reprovision. When we returned to our car, someone had left a message below our words: “Hi! Welcome to Oregon!”
When my husband was accepted into the surgical residency, we knew our adventure would last at least another five years, so we determined it was time to buy a little house and went to apply for a loan. The bank officer granted our request and then looked at us sternly. “You know,” he said, “the valley is in perfect ecological balance, so if you stay you will be expected to give more than you take.” We nodded earnestly and then, having read each night before falling asleep for the past several months chapters from the Seattle Mountaineers’ book Freedom of the Hills, we began to talk with him about a photo on his desk of several people leaning on ice axes and smiling into the camera. He said he was leading another group that had room for two more. Did we want to climb Mt. Hood? We jumped at the chance. It seemed a perfect way to bond with what was quickly becoming our adopted home.
Thankfully, our leader turned out to be an experienced and prudent climber.
We began at three a.m. at Timberline Lodge, and walked silently for hours, under a sky full of stars gradually lightening into the break of day, the snowfields of Mt. Hood looming before us never seeming to get any closer until suddenly the way became steeper, our breath more labored and we realized we were ascending the slopes as clouds were gathering. As we began to make our way up the chute, our leader put orange markers with flags down along our way, a good thing, for shortly after jumping a crevasse and finally reaching the summit, we were hit by a snowfall that soon became a whiteout. Within the space of a few moments, everything below us except those orange flags completely disappeared. That communion with the natural world would be followed by many more in the coming years of hiking and camping, of fishing and wildflowers, of the silence and surprise and the heart stirring beauty of the forests, mountains, deserts, rivers and ocean that comprise the natural world of Oregon and had learned that indeed heaven helps those who help themselves. Judgment and expertise count, knowledge matters, and when life is on the line, there is no such thing as an “alternative” fact.
In those early years in Oregon, Thomas Lawson “Tom” McCall, an American journalist, politician and Republican statesman, was Governor of the state. McCall, grandson of copper-king Thomas Lawson and Massachusetts governor and congressman Samuel W. McCall, had grown up under the rimrock in Eastern Oregon and was dedicated to protecting the state’s natural resources which also meant protecting it from overpopulation. As a result, some of our visiting relatives were surprised upon their return to their car parked in the lot at Timberline Lodge to find a card under their windshield wiper that stated boldly: “Enjoy your visit, but please don’t stay.”
McCall had a vision of what a leader should be and his vision was a broad one. His leadership had several themes, but one of the major ones was protecting the beauty of the state for the public and inspiring us to carry on that vision. Since McCall’s time, Portland and Oregon have had considerably more than their fifteen minutes of fame. But by far the biggest impact on Oregon and its reputation through the years that we have lived here has been its environmental leadership: land use planning, environmentally sound energy, cleanup of our waterways, and preservation of public ocean beaches and public parks and trails. His work and his words live on and are perhaps more relevant today than ever:
“I am just…wondering, where is the glow of yesteryear? I’m wondering where the heroes went. Gosh, I don’t know how long ago they left. Heroes are not giant statues framed against a red sky. They are people who say: This is my community, and it is my responsibility to make it better. Interweave all these communities, and you really have an America that is back on its feet, a comfortable nation to live in again. I really think we’re gonna have to reassess what constitutes a hero.”
— Tom McCall, American statesman and journalist
In our time as Oregonians, the state has gone through many iterations, reflected personally in the change of name and character of one of our favorite restaurants (that sat on the site of the 1905 World’s Fair: the “Lewis and Clark Exposition,”) from “The Woodstove” to “L’Auberge” and publicly in Portlandia’s “Put a bird on it.” (Here, it must be noted that when Bernie Sanders came to Portland during a campaign for President, the local news recorded a bird landing on his lectern to the delight of the crowd.)
Portland is a city of parks and trails and open spaces all intertwined on a daily basis with our lives. Its beauty, from these wild areas to our Rose, Chinese and Japanese gardens stand as a testament to the vision of many who have gone before. It is said that the streets of Portland were built with views of the natural world in mind so that citizens could gaze out beyond this city and be reminded of the larger view. Since arrival in Oregon now over fifty years ago, I have seen many iterations of our beloved city presented, all with their own modicum of truth. But one truth stands out:
In the midst of all this change, Oregon has presented one constant: connection to and lessons from the natural world are a very large part of who we are: Love for the beauty that surrounds us and a desire to preserve it for all both now and for future generations are major motivations. That love binds the ranchers and the city dwellers who work to preserve and protect the land they care for, as does our shared pain for recent losses through fire and our faith that like the land and water around Mt. St. Helens that we watched explode in 1980, regeneration will occur in time. Nature will do its part, as long as we do our part as well.
Knowing my somewhat relaxed approach to life, when my husband made his first trip out here in 1970, he reported back to me that I may have a qualm about coming because the downtown streets of Portland were filled with little old ladies in hats and dress gloves. No problem. Rainhats and work gloves have sufficed and I am now one of the little old ladies in hiking boots.
Like many Oregonians, I have spent a large part of my life walking along our trails and main streets and side streets and every once in a while I come across a fence whose owner has purposely left large spaces between the slats so as to leave an opening for everyone who passes to enjoy the view. There is hope both in those open spaces and in the generosity of spirit that creates them. There is hope for us all and for those who come after us in the natural world’s promise of recovery, but only if we remember what binds us together and do not let the politics of the moment pull us apart. Portland is a hopeful place.
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