I’ve spent nearly my entire life living in two places. The first half on the great plains of Western Kansas, and the second half in the rain soaked forests of the Pacific Northwest.
Two extremes. For someone like me who has always seen themselves as existing in the middle, these two opposing environments seem ironic. One so wide open and big, contrasting with another that forces you to withdraw into your home and your mind during the long months of dark, rainy days. Certainly, at this point in my life these differences must have had an permanent effect on who I’ve become, postal codes forever stamped onto my character. Here’s my view of those extremes.
My childhood home is located on a gentle rise on the flat landscape of western Kansas. It’s a borderland where the prairie grasses thin out and the high desert begins. Prickly pear cactus, devil’s claws and echanacea grow wild there, as do the spiky yukka plants with seed pods that rattle like snakes in September.
A great big, blue sky curves around you in every direction, touching the very same ground you stand upon. There’s something magical about that. Standing above the horizon gives you the feeling of being a giant and an ant at the same time.
If it’s a windy day two of the most fundamental laws of physics are your constant companions; speed and force. When you’re in Kansas you lean into the wind, hear its rhythm, smell its strong scents, and watch as it defies gravity to carry leaves away from trees horizontally, rather than vertically. The wind is amazing in Kansas, and when there’s a break in its velocity you notice it.
But there’s some benefits to that wind. Feeling that power blasting you in the face is energizing. It’s invigorating, it’s life affirming. And you know you can count on it, just as you can count on the sun burning up the ground beneath your feet.
Twenty years ago, on my first solo excursion out of Kansas, I met a traveler who’d seen the world. As she and I became acquainted she sized me up, saying, “You don’t seem like you belong in Kansas. You seem like you belong in Portland.” I’m not sure how that played into my decision to move to the Rose City but I ended up meeting my husband in Phoenix and together we moved back to his home state of Oregon.
It was at the end of October when we got to the Pacific Northwest and it was like moving from day into night. A persistent night that lasted until April. I remember the striking feeling I had the first day the sun shone after months of cloudy skies. I was walking across a parking lot and I noticed my shadow following me, something I hadn’t seen in over a hundred days. It was like a visit from an long lost friend.
All that rain creates a lush, verdant landscape that resembles piles of fluffy green cotton. Mountains surround the city of Portland, and every so often a volcano’s peak will jut up far enough to pierce the clouds.
The mountain ranges of Oregon tell a fabulous story of moving tectonics plates wrinkling up the landscape and causing volcanic eruptions that still threaten to change the topography millions of years after the first eruption.
Two rivers cut through the city, formed by cataclysmic flooding from an ancient melting glacier. The rushing water dug a trench on its journey to the Pacific Ocean, filling up the Columbia River and carving out a spectacular gorge when it came to the porous volcanic rock of the Cascade Range.
All this moisture provides an ample amount of fog that can take a familiar landscape and turn it into a mysterious land of intrigue and secrets. Things as great as mountains blur until they are simply graduating shades of grey, and well-traveled roads twist and turn into oblivion. It’s a silent, secluded world that encourages inward reflection and room for your imagination to flourish.
I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest for almost twenty years and, like many of my fellow Portlanders, I can tire of the seemingly endless days of darkness, but I still love this region. It’s beautiful in a way that is easily understood by the casual observer. The emerald valleys, steely-grey rivers, golden sunsets and abundance of rainbows make up the color palette of fantasies. And quiet moments spent in the shadows of clouds are a gift of time travel, taking me far into my imagination to reflect, to learn, and to create from this land’s endless inspiration.
But the part of me that grew up in Kansas continues to flourish inside my soul. The aliveness of a land where there is rarely ever stillness stirs up energy inside everything connected with it. It’s a beauty that is felt, as much as it is viewed. Visitors may miss the grandeur of this endless land if they spend their time passing through it inside a car. It’s a living, breathing, thriving beauty that’s fighting to survive against intense elements, and to truly know it you must experience it, not just look at it.
I guess for me the combination of these places helps put balance in my extremes and keeps me centered in the middle where I feel most at home.