Forty years ago, if someone had told me I would come to know I-84 through Northern Oregon better than the stretch of I-5 between Portland and Eugene, I’d have thought they were nuts. Forty years ago I had barely heard of Northeastern Oregon, and Wallowa Lake was only something I’d seen in a Geology of Oregon class slideshow. But life changes; connections change things. Most of all, the inherent fiddle-footedness of my ancestors still carries on strong to this day. I am the descendent of a wandering group of working class farmers and horsemen who never settled down in one place for very long. In my case, that’s evolved to an early retirement life spent between Portland and Enterprise, Oregon — which means traversing I-84 at least twice a month.
Drive, she said. Drive because — well, it’s time to travel. And travel is travel, even if it’s part of a regularly scheduled switch between rural and urban lives, isolated and connected selves.
Drive, she said. Drive.
As a child I dreamed of traveling. My family regularly trekked to Central Oregon from Eugene for camping, fishing, and hunting. Early on I developed coping strategies for the trip, mentally segmenting sections of the drive into different components. This chunk meant we were barely started, that chunk was part of the long middle, and still another chunk meant we were leaving the well-traveled highway for the real adventure. But even those regular trips didn’t kill my wanderlust. Our occasional visits to Portland to see relatives only whetted my desire for more, especially as I looked at the houses along the freeway and wondered what they looked like, how the lives of the people in those houses were different from mine. Those long trips were where I first learned to tell stories to myself, creating images of what those other lives might be like.
The long bus rides from my rural home to my junior high and high school in town added to my taste for travel. I was first on, last off, which often meant a bus ride of an hour or more. I got to know my little mountain valley fairly well in all the moods contained within a school year. The dry season in September. Wet and flooding during the winter rains, occasionally made interesting when rain turned to snow. I told myself stories about the surroundings which eventually became my first, handwritten book. I learned that travel could be an escape from the tensions of the day as I unwound by watching the scenery outside of the bus, especially when I rode an activity bus in late afternoon or early evening when we were all tired from a long day of school and extracurricular activities.
Drive, she said. Drive to escape the mundaneness of daily life.
During my college years my travel life became more restricted. I didn’t have a car or a regular boyfriend with a car until the end of my college career, when I hooked up with the man I married. The few trips I took outside of Eugene revealed that I’d lost the ability to focus on distances, and it took an hour or so before I could spy distant birds and landmarks. A move to Salem for a legislative internship introduced me to the regular Greyhound run between Salem and Eugene, and provided glimpses of a life different from what I had experienced. I got to know the waysides of the mid-Willamette Valley as it seemed the best bus options for my schedule always ended up being the local runs that stopped at the little towns through the valley.
Sometimes that ride provided a break from the drama of early adult life relationships, allowing me time to be anonymous and not somebody’s girlfriend. Sometimes it was a tension-filled time focusing on things that needed to be said when I got to my destination. No matter what, watching the scenery go by helped me work through a resolution and activated a travel reflex already simmering in my genes.
Drive, she said. Drive to find a solution.
When we moved to Enterprise the first time, one of its appeals was the regular wildlife viewing drives we did with friends. One reason for those drives was scouting out potential hunting locations for the fall, but another was just to get out into the wild, away from our everyday life working retail in town. Sometimes the trip was mundane but most of the time we could spy elk, raptors, perhaps even a bear or coyote.
The destination was always someplace spectacular. Buckhorn. Red Hill. Hat Point. Five Mile Viewpoint. Someplace in the canyon country where we could see for miles, look at the Wallowas and Seven Devils or the canyons of the Imnaha, the Snake, or Joseph Creek. No matter where we went, we found wide open country with rugged hillsides, thin stringers of trees running down stark canyon walls as the trees followed water. Even if the trip was utilitarian, to hunt or gather wood for the winter, at some point or another we’d stumble across a stunning sight.
The woods meant peace. Quiet. A chance to stand tall under an open sky and know that except for the folks with you, there was no one around.
Drive, she said. Drive to discover yourself.
Like many young people in the 1980s, we ended up leaving the rural life for a more secure work situation in the big city. Driving became part of a work commute, more often with a focus on safe transport rather than enjoyment. Even when I ended up commuting up Mount Hood to teach at a small rural school, though, I’d snatch what moments I could to immerse myself in the surroundings, seeking out alternate routes that let me sample the tastes of what it might be like to live in this little draw, that little grove of trees, anything different from where I lived. Then I’d come back to reality as I approached urban traffic, the decompression from the beautiful part of the drive fading as once again I dove back into the stresses of urban life and being around so many people.
We still escaped on short trips but the obligations of parenting and work often kept us locked down in the big city. Most of our drives involved family and friend visits, some relaxing, others not. A clock often kept ticking in our heads because we had to plan around work and rush hour scheduling, then had to be back home in time to prepare for our jobs.
Drive, she said. Drive to escape the pressures of daily life.
Before we bought our second home we started calculating costs, including transportation and the length of the drive between it and our obligations back in Portland. Even in retirement we knew we needed to maintain the Portland ties and the Portland household.
Driving is a factor. For the first few months we spent a lot of time on 84. Previously we knew the moods of the drive through the fall season because of annual hunting trips. Traveling year-round opened up new perspectives. A dry desert stretch in fall was bright emerald green in spring, and this year we watched as the landscape transformed from winter brown to spring green, then to summer brown with the black scars of fires on the landscape.
Once again I developed the perspective of chunking the trip. The alien landscape of the Boardman section with the forest of power lines as we transitioned from plateau to river, or vice versa. The stark canyon walls between Blalock Canyon and the John Day River where we might spot bighorn sheep feeding near the freeway. The swiftness of the transition from dry to wet between The Dalles and Hood River. The difficult stretch through the Cascades from Cascade Locks to Bonneville Dam.
The magic of driving hasn’t left yet. I think back to those fiddle-footed ancestors who wandered through Canada and down to Colorado on my father’s side, or those who meandered from place to place in Oregon to find that one opportunity for their families to survive. Was my life that different from theirs? Am I seeking an antidote to the many years I spent in the big city?
I don’t know yet. But what I do know is driving.
Drive, she said. Drive, for the sake of moving. Drive.