S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Trail Mix,” Park talks about Oregon … or as he likes to call it “Boregon.”
I joined a dozen old friends from high school in Sun River, Boregon last Fall. It’s a resort area in the middle of the state and we rented two six-bedroom homes for four nights.
Or they did, anyway. I contributed in my pot-growing days, but now that I’ve reverted to form (i.e. a penniless loafer), my buddies give me “scholarships.” This time Ray Belieu stepped up. In high school he was No. 1 in tennis and I was Joey No Bueno in basketball. He was also as short as I was tall, but I rarely noticed stuff like that. What was more important was how—like me—he couldn’t press a hundred pounds with my barbells. (I was partial to noodle-armed buddies as a kid.)
Then he left for Stanford and I went to hell, which didn’t surprise anyone who knew us. (We’d first been drawn together by our otherness, the fact we were both from California.) I’ve only lived on the West Coast of America, but it’s hard to imagine a place more amoeba-like than Boregon. There’s a subtle, homogenous undertow there that, in my experience, is only rivaled by Holland.
I trace it to the Boregon Trail. Those wagon trains finally straggle out here and the rebels in the group, the ones who drank too much and used the Bible for toilet paper, followed Fremont to California. The slightly less adventurous, believing Eastern Boregon looked bleaker than where they’d come from, headed north to Washington.
The rest? The stern Dudley Do Rights sitting tall on their buckboards? Well, they stayed right where they were, thank you very much. So a hundred years later, when I walked into a Portland high school for the first time, their sturdy, pink-cheeked spawn washed past me in waves.
The tug of fresh milk was strong, and I wasn’t sure I could resist it. A week after we arrived I drew my younger brothers aside.
“Be wary here, boys,” I said. “It’s … wholesome.”
They looked at me like they always had, as if the only thing we shared was a last name.
I was onto something, though; I knew my Leave It to Beaver and it still applies a half century later. My sixteen-year-old goddaughter is a very talented writer and storyteller who is growing up in Sisters, Boregon. The last time I visited she asked if I had any advice for her.
“Yeah,” I said. “You’re the only Jew in your smiley Christian high school, so that’s a start, but the day you graduate? Leave Boregon and never return. It’s all round corners here.”
“Really?” she said. “Where would I go?”
“Try L.A. That’ll put an edge on ya’.”
She looked at me like my brothers had. (I’ve no kids of my own, so—though it’d be nice to be remembered—it’s not looking good.) In the meanwhile friends like Ray and Karl Franklin (who was also at the Sun River gathering and hailed from Colorado originally) helped me keep my high school experience in perspective.
Along with the poker games, of course. I’ve written before how my father raised my brothers and I on roulette, craps and card games. It was an education that went largely untapped in the Bay Area, where to this day I’ve never played poker with my friends. That Portland high school class, on the other hand, was literally stacked with gamblers. There were thirty of us who’d play anywhere at anytime and often at the expense of dates, sports and other activities.
At first I thought it was Boregon in general, that the constant rain forced kids to excel at indoor games, but the classes on either side of us weren’t rife with card players. I’d guess I played with those Sun River classmates hundreds of times before we were out of high school. Somehow the word would spread as to which kid’s house was available that afternoon or evening, and when you showed up there were rarely too few players; usually it was the opposite, and we’d have to set up extra tables and chairs. The games were always dealer’s choice and the stakes, relative to the wages we earned on our part-time jobs, were considerable: if you were making a buck-fifty-an-hour bagging groceries, going home with fifteen or twenty bucks in your pocket was a big deal. (As was the reverse, of course.)
But no one bowed out, even as some of them rarely won, because they were players. Which makes me wonder what our parents thought, cranking the volume on Ed Sullivan to mute the clink of chips.
Not to mention opening doors and windows … there were twenty chain-smoking teenagers in the basement (most times you could barely see the kid across from you). Was this the lesser of two evils for them, believing our gambling was better than drinking and they at least knew where we were? Or were they just doing what the Greatest Generation did best, i.e. letting us learn from our own mistakes.
Mostly the latter, I think, and we told them the chips were only for fun, anyway. (In my case so my father wouldn’t ask to play.) Plus we were less a budding criminal element than some of the more accomplished kids in the class. I thought of that often at Sun River, where it was no surprise my high school friends had done well for themselves. Hell, they’d been wagering their lunch money since they were kids: capitalism wasn’t too big for them. I have a lousy sense of direction and no cell phone or GPS, but when I near our reunions I can usually locate the house by the vehicles in the driveway. (Not that I know a Mercedes from a BMW, of course, but it’s that sort of hardware.)
Boregon seems wholesome, but if you asked me to describe it with a single anecdote I’d point to my “Planting of the Trees” experience.
Even as I putter up in a twenty-year-old Honda with a crumpled front end. I hit a Jeep head-on last year, then a week later I pulled out of the local hardware store and t-boned a truck. This was a troubling pattern. No accidents in decades, and suddenly I’m responsible for two in a week? Were time and lifestyle finally catching up with me?
Fortunately the guy in the truck was a fellow traveler. He put out his cigarette, stepped from the cab, glanced at the dents in his vehicle and mine, then hopped back in.
“Fuck it!” he said, “they’re both wrecks!” and drove off.
On balance I had more in common with him than I did my old poker cronies. They’re mostly married with kids and avid practitioners of the Boregonian staples: golf and fishing. The sole exceptions were Ollie Green and I. He was still a troubadour and had been playing to half-empty bars in Portland for fifty years. I deeply admired him for that, just as I do anyone who has scratched out a living from his or her art. (I had to grow pot to subsidize mine.)
He looks good for his age, too. (As did the others … must be the Northwest humidity.) There’s a steadfastness to the natives that reminds me of Mormon communities, while, in contrast, I think of my Bay Area buddies as survivors.
Though it’s not like any of those Sun River characters have attended a church lately (unless you count microbreweries). Boregon seems wholesome, but if you asked me to describe it with a single anecdote I’d point to my “Planting of the Trees” experience.
It was classic Portland: if you owned a home with a strip near the street, the city wanted you to plant a tree on it. I was amenable to that. A woman came around, showed me a brochure, and I selected a “Yoshino Cherry.” (I liked the sound of it, how the name rolled off my tongue. I featured myself at my front window years later—well, if I weren’t in jail, anyway—saying to a visitor: “Why yes, that is a magnificent tree, isn’t it? It’s a … Yoshino Cherry.”)
Like most of my homeowner decisions, it was a regrettable one. It was 1998 at the time, and when I sold the property fifteen years later that tree’s monstrous roots had ripped up the sidewalk and started on the street. It cost me ten grand to divert the sewer around it, only to find a Yoshino Cherry here when I moved to Port Townsend. Within a year its roots had cracked the foundation and I had to have it removed. (Moral: Do NOT plant Yoshino Cherry trees. They may be demonic.)
Anyway, after homeowners chose and paid for a sapling they were asked to help plant it. The event took place on a rainy Saturday morning in November, where a hundred of us gathered at a church for pancakes first. (It was me and a bunch of couples, which was usually the case in Boregon.) It was all very pleasant, very low-key, like you’d expect in say, a rural Midwest community, not a state smack in the middle of the Left Coast.
Then came the wrinkle. After we’d eaten and were heading to our assigned trucks or vans, the church’s female minister scurried outside.
“Oh, wait!” she called. “I have to give the ‘Prayer for the Trees’ first!”
There were low moans all around. Courtesy dictated that I turn and pretend to listen, except once I had I was virtually alone … the others kept walking. The louder the minister prayed, the faster they scurried.
These were The Boregonians, and they had the lowest church attendance in the nation.
Maybe they left that Puritan stain behind, after all.