There is a point on U.S. Highway 84 heading West where the road seems to descend into this big gouge in the landscape, past millennia of accumulated sediments in the strata gouged, revealed and polished by successive glacial floods.
It’s this point where I feel like I’m coming home. Where the landscape transforms from wide plains to steep walls traversed by mountain goats. Where green oasis appear wherever streams and rivers meet the mighty Columbia.
Somewhere just past The Dalles, you start to smell the fir trees, that soft, resiny scent that reminds you of the quietness of a needle-covered forest floor high in the Cascade Mountains through which you are driving like a croquet ball through a 10,000 year-old, flood-carved wicket.
Or at least that’s the way I remember it when I could still smell things.
The Gorge comes into full effect when you turn west again in Hood River. A thirty knot wind, created by atmospheric differences on either side of the Gorge, makes for a wind-surfer paradise, and colorful sails and kites brighten the white-capped surface of the river along with my mood.
I am an hour and a half from home.
It’s a myriad of things for me neither decidedly good nor bad.
But after eight years away, I’m forced to think about it in a different light. The kind of light that spills into the gorge beyond the gap where ancient floodwaters once inundated the Willamette Valley, which now cradles my home like a verdant bowl full of fruit and vegetables.
Hometowns are places you run away from, and Salem is no exception.
I ran away, finally, in 2007, after attempts in 1994, 1996 and 2000.
I have wanted to run away since I heard John Cougar Mellencamp sing Jack and Diane, except my Diane is named Cheryl, and we ran off to the mountains and then the Great White North and then the big city.
Hometowns are places where two of your three children are born. Melted into your heart like those little bronzed baby shoes.
The car hums along the newly paved stretch between Hood River and Portland, and the road fills up with city drivers. My thoughts become jumbled, like the snarl of summer traffic on this 90-degree day.
Hometowns are full of memories, both good and bad. And every track laid down in your home studio is a walk down some lane with a misremembered ex and all the baggage you left like scars across its thin skin.
My hometown is 47 miles away, and each mile brings back a new realization of why I left and what I left behind.
And the weight of those decisions is heavy now all these years later.
A hometown is a tattoo that you regret a little bit but understand you could never part with it nor really cover over it.
It hasn’t aged well, but you still notice brand new details every time you look at it.
You follow the flood trail south into the gaping maw of the Willamette Valley, past glacial erratics that are as familiar to you as your old school pals. And like those Rocky Mountain boulders that surfed 600 miles across the continent 10,000 years ago to their present location, your pals have not moved an inch.
This terrified you when you left, and yet today you wonder if there is a peace you’ll never understand in staying put.
You already know the answer to this.
The valley opens up and swallows everything and spews out the sky. So that there is only brown fields and blue sky, but it’s not the city, so your focus sharpens again, revealing the outlines of your hometown.
It’s the state capital, which has always carried the narrative of the responsibility of housing a lot of state workers who live on a budget, which has produced the ignorant idea that Salem is neither capable of nor willing to grow into something awesome.
But this is not my hometown, it’s every hometown, just redefine the legitimate faults and the critiques from larger cities nearby.
Woodburn, just about halfway between Portland and Salem on I-5, is the point where I start to experience the reality of coming home.
The next few miles reveal the truth of my existence here, a bittersweet blend of salty tears saved up and brimming to the edge of my eyes and unremembered smiles lived in the simplicity of childhood in an era before all the information in the world was available at my finger tips.
Those smiles haunt me, because I can’t see them, but I know they’re there. And I’m reminded of them every time I visit an old friend who reveals the ghostly engrams carrying the good letters from my hippocampus to my frontal lobes, where I will lose them again one day.
At least I know they exist, and this is the foundation on which I choose to think about my hometown, as we slide past the minor league baseball stadium that I last visited so long ago that the current crop of three-time World Series Champion San Francisco Giants were skinny prospects in the infancy of their careers here then.
The sun sinks out of the western sky beyond the coast range, and that strange, summer twilight welcomes us to Salem. I push on through town quickly, hoping for rest from my thoughts in a bed in an air-conditioned house after this 10-hour drive down memory lane.
It will be 90-degrees again tomorrow, and I’ll drive by some all-too-familiar places, which will stir up too many thoughts to repress as easily as I’ve done by moving away eight years ago.
This is always the hardest part of coming home.
The things you buried away with plans to drive away without ever looking in the rearview. The corpse under the floorboards.
But when you dug yourself an escape route, you piled up all the detritus from your life in one place, obscuring everything in muck too thick to see through. In a viscous mix of clay and slime. You never intended to clean it up, because you ran away from it like a child from his chores.
We drive all the way through and exit at Sunnyside, beneath the old Church on the Hill where we got married almost 21 years ago.
We drive up and over the hill where Duckpond grows its Chardonnay grapes in old Missoula mud, and you listen out the open windows for the sound of grape guns that fired so often when you lived on the edge of these fields, but you’re several months too early, and there is only wind rushing by.
You pull into your brother’s driveway around 9 p.m., and it’s just starting to get dark, so you stop and have a beer and talk about all the time that passed in between your last visit with each other.
Take a deep breath, and let it all flow back in, all the waters you expelled from your lungs in the last eight years. The water you bailed from the getaway raft, thinking another town in another state would rescue you.
And they come back in like Glacial Lake Missoula did so many times before, leaving little deposits on your soul that neither wind nor rain will ever wash away.