I have imagined what the Pacific Northwest must be like since I was a little girl.
I’ve been enamored by the idea of the region for as long as my memory spans, so much so that when I wrote my first novel at 13, I made Seattle a primary setting. I imagined the Pacific Northwest would be misty, like a grocery store produce aisle, and that every street would be lined with pine trees. In my dreams, Washington and Oregon were fantasy lands, places I’d never get to see because crossing the country was too far out of my reach.
That is, of course, until last Thursday when, for the first time in my life, I crossed west over the Mississippi and headed to Portland, Oregon for a weekend-long academic conference.
The journey was tiring—in the final stretch home, I went more than 24 hours with no sleep and nearly 36 without a full meal—and prior to hopping in the van to head to the airport, I had met only one other person on the trip, and he was our faculty sponsor. I had no clue what I was getting myself into, and for a while, I was afraid the trip would be a disaster. I was afraid that I wouldn’t make any new friends, that no one would like me, or that they’d think I was crazy for having spent my whole life dreaming about the very journey upon which we were about to embark.
The best news of the trip is that I was (and still am) crazy. I should know well enough by now not to listen to fear, and yet I still find myself giving in to the “what ifs” of life. Each and every person on the trip was a delight to be around, and I couldn’t have handpicked better traveling companions if I’d tried. We dined together, got lost in the city streets together, and formed friendships that I will always hold close to my heart for existing in the most exquisite narrative of dream-turned-reality.
What I’m saying, friends, is that this weekend was a dream come true for this Midwestern girl.
“How was Portland?” all of my friends have asked.
“It hurts my heart to be back,” I have replied.
It’s not that it hurts because I don’t love home; I adore the cornfields and cattle ranches and that my parents are just a two-hour drive away. It hurts because, after all these years of dreaming, I learned that reality was actually better than the dream.
Portland was by no means perfect, and I do not wish to romanticize it as so. There was a prevalent homeless population, an unexpected amount of people smoking cigarettes, and certainly, as with any city, there are countless problems that I can’t even begin to fathom from my weekend trip. In a lot of ways, though, Portland felt like home to me.
It was as if a space had been carved for me all those years ago when I first discovered the Pacific Northwest. It felt like a place I wasn’t meant to leave, at least not forever.
While there, I went to Powell’s Books, the self-proclaimed largest independent bookstore in the world. I completed my Harry Potter collection, even investing in hardback copies of the first two books. I ate far too many donuts, washed my hands in a fancy sink that “they don’t have back in Indiana”—at least according to the overzealous but kind volunteer at the visitor’s center. I walked to the river on an overcast evening and even enjoyed a sunny afternoon outside. There was a misty haze over much of my stay, and there were indeed pine trees on almost every street.
I experienced a lot of firsts on this short trip across the states. I wish I were more cohesive in my words and that I had something more powerful to say. Nothing I’ve said thus far feels like it says enough. Perhaps, then, I don’t have the words I need to describe this adventure. Although I will probably tell stories from this weekend for the rest of my life, right now I just don’t know what else to say.
While waiting for our final flight home, I told one of my new friends that I had never crossed the Mississippi until this trip. He looked at me and said, “That’s okay.” He said, too, that he used to think people who traveled a lot must know so much about the world. But the more places he has seen, he said, the more he has realized that he doesn’t know anything at all.
I daresay that he was quite right, quite right indeed.