I spent Thursday in Portland hanging out with some really good friends. Some are long-time city dwellers like Jason, while others are newbies to the big canyons of concrete, glass and steel.
It was a rainy and damp trip up the I-5 corridor. The perfect drive for contemplating the future. The drizzle melts everything into a boring turn-of-whatever century Dutch landscape, so you can focus on anything other than the scenery.
I found a parking spot on 4th and Couch and walked the half-a-block to my friend Jason’s studio. One of dozens of artist dens in an artists’ collective building, I could tell his distinctive touch on the wall outside his suite.
Surrounded by SUGs and other collectible plastic figurines and bottles of Schlitz beer, and in a veritable shrine to Apple computers, Jason is about as at home in the city as anyone I’ve ever met. He fits into the mess of humanity as well as anyone and yet stands out as an artist in a city full of wannabes.
We walked six blocks in a heavy drizzle to The Roxy. It’s not great food, but it combines two of our favorite things, breakfast and Steve Buscemi. We’ve been fans for a long, long time.
He drinks coffee and I drink green tea. We both ordered the Steve Buscemi, a wood chipper’s favorite of corned beef hash and fried eggs.
He’s disappointed I’m moving to Alaska, and I don’t blame him. We’ve been best friends since fifth grade, and our families have vacationed together in Montana the last few years.
But our conversation runs to other matters and the grittiness of city life in a town known for its roses.
We walked off the Steve Buscemi in a hard drizzle that was trying for rain. Downhill and across Burnside to the south end of the Pearl, a haven for hipsters and artists who are sometimes one in the same.
I told him we’d see them every year still, we hugged and I drove to southwest Portland.
Jordan is a lot younger than me, but we’ve been friends for many years. He suggest we meet for coffee at 5th and Stark. He suggests we meet in half-an-hour. I don’t want to wait that long, so I go on a wild goose chase looking for his apartment off Barbur Boulevard.
We venture back downtown to Stumptown Coffee and sit in low-back chairs and sip on large cups of coffee and tea as the rain falls in earnest outside. These new Portlanders show up one by one and we chat about life in the city. Having all come up in Salem, a mere 45-minutes and a world away south of Portland, we’re fascinated by life here.
Anya rides up on her bike and takes off her skater helmet and shakes out her long blond hair as the boys tease her about tire spray.
Jordan sips an Americano while David drinks tea. Jordan check his iPhone while I ask David about the new ink on his wrist.
They are young and in the heartbeat of society. The big city is their playground, their backyard and their workplace.
I’m envious in the tall foyer of Stumptown Coffee. The smells of coffee and leather and maybe a little cigarette smoke and patchouli oil on the dress of the girl who brushes past me. I love the smells and sights and sounds in the big city. The traffic moving by and the way rain coats swish and heels sound on metal grates.
I love the way they relax in too tight clothes and plan their next social interaction. They’ve been friends for a long, long time, and it reflects in their gracefulness. It’s a city dweller’s peace in the chaos, and I’m forever hoping to experience it someday myself. I get a taste now and then, but it’s in these moments that I live vicariously through their innocence and exploration.
There is nothing like a day in the city. Sure, throw in a visit to Powell’s City of Books and a late-afternoon beer at Henry’s, and you’d have the perfect day. But a Steve Buscemi and a few cups of green tea and hours of conversation on a rainy day are just as good sometimes.
Home is a feeling, a state of being.
My mother is the queen of hospitality. After just a few days in her care, all troubles seem to melt away as the good food, fellowship and rest start to brighten one’s outlook and revive the soul.
Home is a familiar place where dark troubles in the distance, the great unknowns are reduced to a light drizzle on the windows rather than pelting cold that doubles you over in fear and confusion.
My family is a family of wanderers and virtual vagabonds, resistant to a lax existence tied to place. But we have a home, at least a place of congregation where we’ve gathered for many years.
In driving up that familiar, deeply sloped driveway lined with pine needles and oak leaves, I am aware of where I am. But its warmth and welcome are experienced only when occupied by the members of my family.
This week my little sister Aimee is traveling the Middle East for work, and though our dinner conversations are alive with stories and fellowship, it’s not the same without her sitting at her familiar place at the table. My brother-in-law is away as well, and his conviviality is missed.
I’ve often thought about how one creates that sense of home. Especially in light of moving my family around as much as we have these last 16 years. My mother, as I’ve said, does this with an unswerving sense of hospitality and care. My father is the patriarch, the storyteller, the passer on of wisdom. Together, they are the sense of home I most want to emulate.
As places go, our little enclave along Battle Creek Road is not the quaintest old building or the most pristine hillside. The one-and-a-half acres are slightly overgrown, and the tall pines block the view for the most part.
It’s a place created and recreated as our family grew. A hillside manor, of sorts, a place we come to gather where the marks of our former existence make us feel welcome but which do not hold a candle to the necessity of having family present. Without the players, this little world would not matter at all. Except to my brother, of course. His penchant for place is perhaps far more developed than the rest of us. His handy work is seen in the jungle-like back yard, where a fish pond and cold-hardy palm trees soak up the rain showers like sponges.
The old tree fort my dad built for us has been replaced by a new tree fort named the Dawn Treader in honor of our love for C.S. Lewis’ famed children’s books “The Chronicles of Narnia,” but mostly because a tree fort in the imaginative state of being a ship is the most fun a kid can have. I think.
Life in our house happens around the dinner table, where we sit close together eating from myriad dishes like a tasty carousel circling in front of us each night. We spend long hours sitting and talking, going from dinner to late-evening tea and cookies through dozens and dozens of conversations.
It has always been this way. Only today there is more laughter and mirth as the house is filled with grandchildren running and playing as we fellowship.
The remnants of our attempts to farm the land are evident in the old chicken coop falling into disrepair, the old goat fences clinging to rotting posts and a rabbit or two eating grass on the lawn. We are not farmers, though I believe we’re nostalgic for some trace of it in our history.
My mom travels the world with my father, she is savvy about the bigger picture and can converse about almost any topic with ease. But her pioneer roots are evident in the ceiling-high shelves full of canned goods in the garage. I don’t know when she has the time to accomplish these things, but over the last few days we’ve tasted amazing brined pickles and fresh horse radish as well as dried peppers and other examples of her harvest.
There are many reasons to love the comforts of home. Mine are nearly all found in the individuals who make up my family. But we’ve carved out a bit of a comfortable Hobbit hole here on this hillside. When we’re not adventuring around the world, we gather here and fill it with warmth and the smells of good food and conversation that resounds for me like cathedral bells long after I leave.
In moving to a place that is as far away as moving across the sea somewhere, I feel a sense of loneliness already, and it makes me want to grab up every last moment here as if I won’t be back for some time.
Home is the place you come to reset all the settings. As I revive here with all that I love, I realize that this is what I will need to create for the next generation of us. Place is only as good as those who inhabit it.
There will be a lot of lasts this week. This is in fact our last Monday in Missoula. Last kickball game tonight, last flag football game for Carson, final cross country practice for Cole. Next week at this time we’ll be in Salem, Oregon meeting up with our trailer that will ship our belongings to Alaska.
Today we are going to take a few hours and go to one of our favorite hot springs. We have a long week of packing our life up into boxes, so I want to spend one last day enjoying the good life of Western Montana.
There are few places like this, and after three years I understand why people carve out a life here despite a poor economic base. The amenities in this region of the Northern Rockies are like nowhere else. Mountains, lakes, rivers, hot springs, national parks and wildlife better than the best zoo are just a few of the reasons people move here.
The adventures we’ve had here as a family can only probably be rivaled by some time spent in the last frontier, but we won’t know that until we have lived it for awhile. Place is the great forgotten character in the story of life. Missoula is a place where people are in touch with that primordial notion of the home pond more than anywhere I’ve ever visited before.
A sense of place defines Missoula so much that people are willing to make less money in return for living in proximity to places like the Rattlesnake wilderness or the Bitterroot Mountains. People carve a life out of some very meager economic sediment. Many of our friends have multiple jobs or cram their families into tiny apartments in order to live somewhere many call the last best place.
I struggled to see this when I first moved here. In fact, for nearly three years I was frustrated at the idea that anyone should earn less because of some nature tax. I still think the idea is absurd, but I’m less inclined to blame those who choose to reside here in spite of the nature tax.
But I will gladly blame city officials and those leaders of the largest industries, including the university, for continuing to make Missoula Poverty With A View. A nature tax does nothing to improve this city, nor does it keep people away as you might hope. Californians continue to move to Montana every year.
Place is integral to our story. When my grandparents told their story, place was a character that shifted with them. It was a trail through mountain passes, a city in northern China, a refugee camp in the Philippines, a boat sailing across the Pacific Ocean. It was an apartment on Geary Street in San Francisco, and I caught up with their story when place was a lovely little house in Pacifica, California.
For others, place is a still point, like every 4th generation Montanan I’ve ever met. They are in tune with the fenced parcel of land back to their great grandfathers who homesteaded these parts. For Native Americans, place is a 10,000-year-old continent finally free of ice where they could roam and have their being.
I don’t have a strong connection to place. If I did, it would be a cedar-lined ocean shore with thundering surf and a salty nose. That’s as close as I can come to identifying with place. I love my parents’ wooded home in the Willamette Valley, but it’s a stop for me. My birthplace of Santa Rosa, California is one of my favorite places. My grandfathers plowed those grape-seeded hillsides and valleys. Richenau an der Rax is where I think I fell in love with mountains, hiking, skiing and life in a quiet woodland. Pasadena, California is where I learned to love big, ugly, sprawling cities teeming with humanity. Salem, Oregon is where I found my best friend. It is also that which is most familiar to me and therefore that from which I most readily flee. Honolulu, Hawaii is where I fell in love with the crossroads, those cities that blend life from many different pathways.
In Missoula, I fell in love with community. No other city exhibits community the way Missoula does. From weekly gatherings for lunch or dinner in Caras Park to First Friday art walks and community runs along the river, I’ve never seen a town so aware of its identity. That I could readily talk to the mayor, leading citizens, long timers and newcomers at any point of any day speaks volumes about how tight this city is.
I don’t have a sense for what Anchorage will be like. Four days there was not enough to get even a small feeling about it. But I can’t wait to find out what I think about it a year from now.
Maybe place moves with me, as it did for my family as they emigrated across the vast Eurasian Steppe. Maybe the cities I’ve lived in collectively add up to place for me. I don’t know. All I really know is that I’ve yet to find that stretch of cedar-lined coast with roaring waves and salty air.