Why do people live where they live? What draws them to come together, converging? And what causes them to leave? These are mysteries of humanity that may be contextual, or maybe just a result of our animal selves. We are driven by magnetism and hormones and fear and desire…to live by ample water and food sources and to seek the companionship and warmth of like species. We are driven to blend in, to escape being eaten, and to stand out, situating ourselves as top predators. We are driven to escape dangerous situations, to follow a mate, to leave one mate in exchange for another, or to show our finest colors to attract other. This may be all that we do to ensure our survival. We move.
Back in July, I moved myself from Portland to Ashland, OR across the latitudinal expanse of my most beloved state. I moved from one border to the other. Portland is home of bikes and beers and lush green, with views of snow-capped mountains spread out in a line on the horizon. The metropolitan area of two million (and exponentially growing) eats and sleeps in a flat line, spreading out in four directions from the nexus of a downtown sprawling beside a sleepy grey river. I have spent most of my life writing and exploring here, and most of my identity is tied up in its weirdness.
Ashland, on the other hand, hosts 20,000 inhabitants, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, United Bicycle Institute, and three breweries. It sits at 1800 ft above sea level, nestled in the notch of three converging mountain ranges: The Cascades, The Siskiyous, and the Klamaths. Beautifully dense forested hills rise sharply up from the west side of town, immediately deep and wild. Rising from the other side of meandering Bear Creek and flowing 1-5 are monochrome grasslands, matching their sister hills in height but not in palate. This is a place that lights on fire every summer as the air gets drier and more charged with electricity. Tourists arrive like clockwork via the arteries of interstates and airways, predictably scuttling inside grey buildings to laugh and cry and sigh and feel their hearts moved by some of the country’s best acts of theater. Ashland is a place of homeless hippies, dredded artists, bright-eyed students, open-minded intellectuals, historic streets, ranchers, farm folk, and aggressive deer.
I departed south from Portland this summer in a large pickup truck, which towered high with all my worldly possessions. Mike and Gretchen, who had, luckily, agreed to help me with my cause, inhabited the front of the truck, managing climate control and music. I huddled in the back beside teetering sleeping bags and boxes of books and Christmas decorations shoved into every corner. I was held hostage as if we would suddenly spring free, running back to the City of Roses. We sat in traffic approaching Salem, laughing at our inability to really leave. We creeped along, driving away from Portland at a speed I could have rivaled on foot. I sought the unknown and the new, the novel, but somehow I could not make a fast getaway.
My move was not as dramatic as it may sound. Yes, the actual act of sorting, donating, and packing was a feat of intellect prowess and zen detachment and brawn. Yes, I was just slightly terrified of starting over, all the way over. Yes, excitement was tinged with sadness at leaving behind such lovely friends and confidants. But isn’t it always like this? Isn’t that where the word bittersweet comes from? We are constantly leaving people and places we love, all the while feeling deep in our hearts that the next one is even better. I imagine the word “bittersweet” itself rooted in breakups and moves and grief and the change in seasons. It is inevitable that the best moments happen when happiness and sadness shine together all at once.
It is here that I return to the why. Why fling myself onto a highway burdened down with tables and chairs and couches and boxes of books and clothes and dishes? Why not stay in a place that has already been good and giving and beautiful in rainy days and in sunny? Maybe it’s the novelty of quiet and wildness. Maybe it’s that I’ve done it before and I know that new places are exhilarating and open up new realms of creativity. Maybe it’s indignation that drives me, disbelief that hordes of transplants who also like to bike and read and drink beer and walk under trees and pick flowers and tomatoes just as much as I do suddenly live on my street. Maybe it’s because of that new comedy show, that one that has somehow catalyzed the expansive building of apartments and condos, squashing older and smaller homes in their foundations or their shadows. Maybe it’s fear that it will all change beyond recognizability before I can return. Maybe it’s the prospect of new friends to meet, new books to read, new notes to sing, new mountains to climb, and new roads to ride.
So I leave. I flee to the smaller, the quieter, the slightly less hip; I travel to the drier, the wilder, the mountainous, complete with snow and chill. I bike across town in 20 minutes or to the next city in 13 miles, marveling at a dry commute, observing how many people don’t wear helmets. I pedal a few strokes up my street, immediately onto gravel roads that take me into the mountains. People bike past me in the opposite direction, streaked with mud. I seek pine and madrone and oak, my new plant friends speckled across a patchwork of hillsides. I know that black bears prowl the night, leaving piles of scat and upturned garbage cans on the sidewalk in the morning. I bid, “Good day” to the wild turkeys as they cross the street. I watch deer while I sip my tea, as whole families inhabit the backyard and nibble at blackberries and garlic. It’s a whole new world out there and I am in it.
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