Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Off to Oregon

We returned home to our beloved 75 degrees and 20% humidity and I genuinely enjoyed it for the 4 days I was there. Besides the contrast in time zones, this jetting back and forth between the jungle and the desert exacts its price as well. The next trip on the agenda was domestic and pretty short so I was in a reasonably good mood heading out the door on Monday.

While I whine about having to leave at the crack of dawn for international travel, leaving later in the day exposes one to traveling with the amateurs. You know, Marjorie heading down to Roswell for Cousin Joey’s gall bladder operation. The people who don’t know the rules of the road make it difficult for the rest of us. Particularly the rest of us who have short fuses and no tolerance for anything innocent yet annoying. Like the women who continue to gab right up to the TSA agent before digging through their 58 gallon macramé handbag for their identification. And the guy who sends his boarding pass through the x-ray machine. Or better yet, the woman who crushed the fingers on my right hand by pushing all of the little gray trays forward in order to fit hers on the table. Wondering where the pain was coming from I looked back to see her, bent over so as to gain mechanical advantage, both arms locked at the elbows with both hands white-knuckled on her gray bin, pushing as hard as she could. She apologized when I screamed.

Even traveling 1st class is no guarantee of safety from injury and annoyance. I’m even partially guilty having misread the row number and sitting in the wrong seat only to be told by the rightful occupant I was in the wrong place. She paid me back a bit later, pushing her seat recline button and moving it back fast enough to catch my knee and thus cause my right thigh bone to dislocate from its hip socket. Didn’t matter though as that leg had already been damaged by the little man that had successfully managed to pin me between my seat rest and his roller bag a few moments earlier. Yes, this was a day of full-contact travel, a fact driven home when someone knocked my briefcase out of the overhead bin and down onto my shoulder.

But 1st class was nice, and I enjoyed a delightful deli plate with ham, cheese and fruit while the folks out back were shelling out $3 for a bag of potato chips.

All of my flights were early on Monday which brought me into Portland about 20 minutes to 5. Getting off the plane, I was once again hit in the face with that deadly combination of heat and humidity. For a brief moment I thought I was in Shanghai again, but mostly everyone was speaking English and the air didn’t smell of leaded gasoline exhaust. No, I’d flown into an Oregon heat wave.

Out on the highway to town I was taken back to the first time I arrived here, about the same time of day, to start my new job at Intel. Almost 20 years ago. Not a lot has changed along the ride to town, aside from the light rail system that has been added. Today, it seemed that every car was heading to Gresham, something must be going on there, or perhaps it’s just the end of the line.

The entrance to I84 was empty, a mockery of what would follow once I was past the city center and commuting with the traffic instead of against it. Sure enough, I made it across the bridge unhindered only to land in the usual bumper to bumper crawl at the beginning of Route 26. The climb up the hill and out of the city brought back the memory of SITS – Solar Induced Traffic Slowdowns – common on the far side of the tunnel and the site of fender-benders for more than one sun-blinded friend of mine.

This was to be a couple of days of work, at the site where I started, so my trip down memory lane continued the next morning, heading down 185th Street past my bachelor apartment and on to the plant in Aloha. I remember the endless line of cherry red Camry’s carrying me and the other seeds to work in what was then the shiny development fab for my company. I won’t say I was carried back to halcyon days, but the drive in was pretty nostalgic.

Part of this week’s get together was the inevitable team dinner, held last night at a tavern up in the hills between work and the mighty Columbia. Like many other microbreweries, something that Portland is now known for, this one was heaving on the wood and the hanging lamps and the musky, cloudy Pale Ales which drive beer-o-philes to states of ecstasy. I was a big fan at one time, but now these places and those beers seem a little trite and a bit twee, and so I don’t find myself having those same conversations about whose Porter is the muddiest. This place though offered a slightly different diversion – live music. A band consisting of a woman playing a standup base, a fellow holding a steel guitar in his lamp, a banjo guy and a chap sporting one of those haircut and beard combinations that say “Civil War Re-enactor” playing of all things, a dulcimer. When they finally started playing the most obscure Appalachian folk tunes, I knew I was fully emerged in the Oregon Experience.

Today, work ended up in time for me to make a trek to the sea, one of the mini-pilgrimages I like to make when the light in Oregon allows it. Being so far north, you can make a trip out to the ocean and back in daylight from the late spring to the early fall, and so I went.

Given that it was closing on 5 PM, I decided not to waste the 15 minutes it would take to stop by the hotel to get my shell, a decision that would end up to be fateful given the 40 degree difference between town and the shore.

The drive out Oregon 6 is beautiful. You follow a winding path bordered by streams cutting through the heavily timbered Coastal Range. Once in a while you get a longer vista that shows the effects of long-term logging, clear cut hillsides still littered with the graying remains of the trees not worth dragging down to the mill. The road out is mostly uninhabited with only a few houses and fewer towns. I know it well, because I used to do it quite regularly when I lived here. With nothing better to do on the weekends, the coast was always my Saturday destination, the aim being to ratchet up my birding lifelist as quickly as possible.

Relative to my decision to forego collecting my jacket, I knew I was in trouble when the tops of the mountains started to appear shrouded in fog. I cracked the window and stuck my fingers out, confirming that this trip would be mostly spent in the car – my dress shirt was not going to protect me from what was outside.

Clearing the forest, the first thing you see as you roll towards Tillamook is cows. Hundreds and hundreds of cows on both sides of the road in loud, green grass pastures, hemmed in by woody hills. Cows everywhere, this being Cheese Country, a fact know to everyone that shops the intermediately priced cheese blocks in grocery stores across the land.

A pair of Red-tailed Hawks in a half-dead pine surveyed a long line of Guernsey’s heading back to the barn for dinner. A flock of Holsteins stood gaping at the grain being shot at them from some sort of feeding cannon. Cows were ubiquitous.

Tillamook itself is a town well passed its prime. It looks boarded up, and the little neighborhoods on both sides of the road have homes running the gamut from pin neat to abandoned. I imagine this area peaked with lumber, and has since ebbed, leaving behind those with genuine roots and sending off the others, seeking better opportunities.

But once past the downtown area, you find yourself on the windy road around Tillamook Bay, one of my favorite places on earth. Here, the plethora of cows begins to mix with piles of discarded oyster shells and locals out fishing for salmon in the tidal estuary. It is said the Orca visit this bay, but I’m sad to say I’ve not had the good fortune to see one. Instead, I get the squadrons of cormorants, flying in big vees on their way out to see to feed. Great Blue Herons pepper the mud flats along with Gulls and the occasional Tern. We’re past the shorebird migration here, so what you see is what’s left for the winter.

I pulled off at the Bayocean Peninsula and took a few photos. Years ago this was the place I successfully stalked the illusive Wrentit, this being one of the few pockets where this bird lives outside of California. I parked and decided to make a run over the dunes to have a look at the ocean, but it was too cold for my poor coverings and so I settled for a few wild raspberries and a quick return to my warm car.

From there I headed up the hill to the Cape Meares lighthouse, another favorite spot of mine. The road up is tortured – it’s clear that nature is trying its best to push this blacktop affront down the side of the mountain and into the sea. The dips and holes and sections that have reverted to dirt show the power that gravity has over unstable, coastal soils. I won’t be surprised to come back someday and find to gone.

The road to the lighthouse is dark, mossy and hemmed in on both sides by huge Sitka Pines. This is classic, old growth northwestern rain forest. Every branch is covered with a thick coating of moss, bringing to mind Elk in the early season with their still velvet covered antlers.

I jumped out again to take a couple of shots of the haystacks jutting out of the sea. Now, in addition to being cold and windy, it was also raining. And so my idyll came to an end. I returned to the car for the ride back to town and the warm sandwich waiting for me at Panera.

Tomorrow it’s off to Colorado and a short visit with the kids. For now though, an evening made more peaceful by a short two hours in a beautiful place, one full of soul-refreshing air and sea. Even if it was pretty darn cold.

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