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Happy Birthday Oregon

On February 14, Oregon marks a century and a half of statehood. A bestselling novelist raises a glass of cold, clear H2O to a state that has been shaped by water—and the lack of it.

Mount Hood and Burnt Lake in Oregon
Photo caption
A view of Mount Hood and Burnt Lake dazzles.

TOASTING IS IN ORDER for this 150th anniversary of Oregon's statehood. We have, after all, neither seceded from the Union nor fallen into the sea. We have nurtured talents as rich and varied as Merry Prankster Ken Kesey, Columbia Sportswear's tough mother Gert Boyle, and double Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling.

This is the end of the trail, as west as it gets, and being out on the edge encourages a certain freedom of mind. So, as one who dimly recalls the state centennial back in 1959, I'd like to propose a salute. Here's to Oregon—from her dry east to her extremely wet west—long may she rain.

It is said that the name Oregon comes from an Indian word meaning "beautiful water," or maybe "big river." Either is appropriate because Oregon is all about water: where it comes from and where it goes, who has it and who doesn't, what it grows, what it carries, and what it wears away. In these parts water is a recurring joke, an ornament, a curse, and a treasure.

The grandeur of the Columbia River Gorge and much of the Willamette River Valley was scoured and carved by a series of monstrous floods roaring out of what is now Montana at the end of the last ice age. Water still shapes the look and feel and spirit of the place and its people. It comes from the sky and it is not distributed equally.

Weather systems come barreling in from the Pacific, dumping 70 to 90 inches of rain a year on the shore and as much as 200 inches on the Coast Range's deep, temperate rain forest. Swooping over the long Willamette Valley, the rainfall diminishes to a restrained 35 to 40 inches a year, then picks up again as the air hits the high wall of the Cascades and feeds more dense forest.

The state's western side is rarely too hot for comfort and is deadly cold only in the mountains. Summer and fall are straight-up blessings. On a spring day a brief, soft scatter of rain can fall from a clear blue sky. The coastal beaches are rugged, pristine, and public. The woods are Douglas fir cathedrals, knee-deep in ferns. Any steep drop can become a waterfall. Hundreds of animals are at home here, from deer and bear to trout and salmon.

The foothills and river valleys are crowded with orchards—of apples, pears, plums, cherries, hazelnuts, and walnuts—as well as vineyards, hop fields, turf grass, and an incredible array of berries, vegetables, and flowers. The bounty is punctuated by farm communities and by the larger university towns of Corvallis, where the school mascot is the Beaver, and Eugene, home of the Ducks—water critters, of course.

But on the state's big, dry eastern side, yearly rainfall averages less than eight inches in some places, no more than 20 in others. Summers are hotter and winters are colder. This is real cowboy country with vast, rolling wheat terrain or sagebrush shared by pronghorn antelope, wild horses, cattle, and sheep. Ghost towns left over from old mining booms dot the desert. Rough peaks, ridges, and canyons harbor mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and elk as well as bear and cougar.

In fact, Oregon's extremes span more than weather. Contrast and contradiction stamp our personalities, views, and even our celebrations. High culture and the Wild West are simultaneous here, and many an Oregonian is addicted to both. This will be the 99th year that the small town of Pendleton gets big overnight for its Round-Up rodeo in the second week of September. The schools close and every thought turns to parades, music, and Indian pageants, not to mention riding, roping, and steerwrestling contests for close to half a million dollars in prizes. Meanwhile, far south in the Rogue River Valley, the pretty college town of Ashland continues a tradition that began in the 1930s. The internationally acclaimed Oregon Shakespeare Festival stages 11 plays over a season that lasts from February to November with 400,000 tickets sold each year.

The history of our largest city is also tangled with contradiction. Portland straddles the Willamette River at the point where it empties into the Columbia, serving as an important inland seaport some 80 miles from the coast. In the late 1800s, the town was a riotous harbor where loggers, cowboys, and knockabouts risked being shanghaied onto ships' crews if they ventured into the wrong saloon. Now the city prides itself on urbanity—progressive politics, eco-innovations, tree-shaded streets, arts and artists of every discipline, fine architecture, bookstores as refuge from the rain—and oh yes, fountains.

From sidewalk drinking fountains (known as Benson Bubblers for the teetotaling timber baron Simon Benson who donated them) to a series of public spaces designed with monumental fountains by famed landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, water flows everywhere. It's a treat to visit the fountains on warm days when each becomes an impromptu festival for children and adults alike.

No one loves the sun more than damp-side Oregonians. At the first glimmer of blue sky, Portland's cafés and restaurants spew tables and chairs onto the sidewalks. The city folk drink high-octane coffee all day and wine or beer at night. Oregon vineyards win international prizes for their wines, but our beer buffs can outsnoot any wine snob. There are dozens of microbreweries in the state, many with pubs attached. I see this as a happy merger of aging hippies, fine Northwest hops, and wonderful water.

FIFTY YEARS AGO Oregon's centennial paid tribute to our pioneer heritage. But as I recall the celebration, there were far too many replicas, large and small, of covered wagons. The Oregon Trail was a hard trek, but the first roads here were the rivers. In May of 1792, Captain Robert Gray of Boston sailed in from the Pacific headlong over the dangerous bar at the mouth of an enormous river that he named for his ship, the Columbia. Then in 1805 Lewis and Clark brought their Corps of Discovery from the opposite direction, down the Columbia to spend a drizzly winter near its mouth.

Back in his New York mansion, John Jacob Astor was inspired by the financial implications of the Lewis and Clark adventure and looked to expand his fur trade empire. Trappers plying dugouts and canoes snared sleek-pelted, dam-building beavers near their dens. The craze for beaver pelts faded, but settler families arrived to seek land for farming. Their long journey over the Oregon Trail often climaxed in a final trial by water on the treacherous Columbia River passage. They occupied the wet western valleys first, building their houses and barns and later their towns on riverbanks for easy access to transportation, fresh fish, and fresh water.

Today Oregon is working to clean up those rivers, regain and preserve the state's natural beauty, and promote nonpolluting industry. We've benefited from cheap, abundant hydroelectric power from river dams, but now concern about the effect of the dams on salmon and other wildlife has become part of the push to develop wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources.

Environmental solutions are seldom easy, especially since Oregonians disagree in the usual American ways. But there's room for everyone, the variety keeps life interesting, and in a crisis we pull together.

We are all, it's fair to say, immersed in nature. We all get rained on, or hope to. The rain or its lack makes us broody. We have opinions about it. So far from the portals of power, we are accustomed to thinking for ourselves. Recent arrivals are sometimes the most ardent, but anyone raised here grew up in a culture where boating and fishing, hunting and camping are endemic. The city folk are often hikers, rock and mountain climbers, bird-watchers, gardeners, skiers, surfers, or river rafters. Even confirmed pavement dwellers tend to harbor notions of how the environment should be handled. Naturally enough these opinions vary drastically. But, dry or wet, we're thinking about it. Herman Melville said it in Moby Dick: "Meditation and water are wedded forever."

Photography by Andréa Johnson

This article was first published in January 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.