What do Ivan Doig, Jack London, Margaret Mitchell, Alice Munro, and John Steinbeck have in common?
Yesterday, I drove from Seattle to Central Oregon. As I emerged from the forested slopes of Mt. Hood and was greeted by the vast High Desert sky, I was immediately struck by that sense of coming home. The late afternoon sun reflected off the red rhyolite walls of Smith Rock, newborn foals frolicked on green pastures, and the air was permeated by juniper and flowering purple sage. It’s hard to describe what “coming home” feels like; it’s visceral, a warmth that flushes through your body, an experience that’s both thrilling and calming at the same time. If you’ve ever felt it, you know what I mean.
I’ve lived in six primary geographic areas in my lifetime, but none has overwhelmed me as the High Desert has. In fact, I first experienced that home-sweet-home reaction to this barren land before I had even lived in Central Oregon. It was 2000 when my husband proposed that we move here, and I took a reconnaissance trip up here from Northern California to check it out. I drove directly from North Lake Tahoe, northbound on US 395 to OR 31, and it was shortly after I crossed into Oregon, in the late afternoon, when the sun had painted a rich palette on the mountains and the desert floor, that I was suddenly overtaken with that rush of familiar comfort, like warm tomato soup and saltine crackers, only better, and even though I’d never been on that stretch of road before. All I knew was that this was right, and a month later we moved the whole family, kit and kaboodle, to Bend. I immediately embraced the High Desert as though it were family, or more precisely, it embraced me and took me into its fold and made me feel as though I were part of, even attached to, the landscape. I suspect it will never quite let me go.
What Doig, London, Mitchell, Munro, and Steinbeck have in common is their propensity to make the landscape a critical part of their masterpieces and their characters’ lives. While every story has a setting, not every story has a place that defines its characters the way Central Oregon defines me. For Doig, it was the ranchlands of Montana, for London it was harsh and frigid Alaska. Munro’s plain towns of Canada and Steinbeck’s dust bowl created characters who would have had very different lives and stories had they lived elsewhere. And perhaps the greatest example of how place was intertwined with identity was Tara, the plantation that mixed-up Scarlett O’Hara loved so dearly and that she assumed she could count on forever.
Oddly, it seems that younger authors don’t focus quite so much on place as the grand old writers. Maybe that’s because today’s younger writers have been more transient, or maybe because they haven’t experienced what place can mean. Or maybe they’re thinking too rationally.
The thing about place, whether in literature or real life, is that an individual’s attraction to it isn’t necessarily rational. The beloved place may not offer the social, economic, or even aesthetic rewards that other settings can. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s the flaws of a place–whether desolation, drought, or deterioration–that make it even more loveable, even relatable, to certain individuals in the same way that a pathetic little Christmas tree was the one that called out to Charlie Brown. And likewise, maybe it takes a certain type of person to see the beauty and value in a tree, or an entire landscape, that others fail to notice.
In my novel, young Frankie sees something about Central Oregon that her Chicago-native grandfather hasn’t yet discovered.
She waved her arms wide.
“Look at this place. It’s heaven. Listen to the river, to the squirrels sassing in the trees.”
She picked up a pine cone.
“Here, take this. Smell it. Feel the prickles. See what I mean?”
That’s exactly how I feel whenever I come back to this dry land that rests just east of the Cascade Mountains, where buttes and rocks rise up from a dusty floor, where osprey and other raptors soar overhead, where a river cuts through a historic logging town. Where foals romp in outlying pastures and spindly plants explode into bright purple during the spring. Where the sun shines 300 days a year, creating its own masterpieces with vivid hues of blues, greens, purples, pinks, and reds. Where I always, always feel like I’m home.