I remember the day that I went to go get my California driver’s license. I put it off for a long time, because it felt like some kind of betrayal. Although there are many Oregonians who absolutely abhor Californians and all that California stands for in their mind, I am not among them. I have no great ill will towards California, although I do feel I will always be an outsider here—though isn’t that, itself, a very Californian thing?
The reason I had put off switching to a California license had nothing to do with disliking California, but with what it meant that I was giving up. My Oregon driver’s license, no matter how dull and depressingly bureaucratic an object that it was, was also my last legal and tangible link to the place of my birth.
I don’t just inhabit landscapes; they also inhabit me. Place is like a faith, and I feel like the rivers of my birth are as much in my blood as any parental DNA. I remember reading once that your body replaces millions of cells a day with new ones, new ones that are built up from the nutrients taken in through food and water. Was I not, for most of my life, literally made from the northwest? Was I not cut from the cloth of Washington wheat, fashioned from Bull Run water, reconstructed daily out of grapes and peaches and apples and pears and every other foodstuff of my youth?
Such scientific reasoning is an interesting thought experiment, but it fails to account for why I feel as I do. To belong to a place is one thing, to know it is another. Why did others see a river, when what I saw was my heart pouring out to the sea? It is that same brokenness of love, rending me in two but making me whole again with the same breath.
Although I did not grow up there, Astoria is one place where I feel this strongly. Perched on a little mound of hills at the great mouth of the river, the city is far enough from the beach not to suffer from saltwater taffy or $5 agate souvenirs. Here, the Columbia reveals all her might, widening out to more than eleven miles thick, always moving even under the ebb and flow of the tides. Out beyond the high Megler bridge, the mouth itself lurks. It seems so far away, and so vast, and even if you don’t know the stories, you know merely by beholding its distant merge into the Pacific that it possesses myths of its own.
And even now, even in my mind more than 700 miles away, it still possesses me.
Mouth of the Columbia River, Watercolor on Paper, 12 x 16 inches, 2016.