Adventures in the Pacific Northwest: Foraging for Blackberries and Memories

BlackberryMy husband, The Russian, and I are back in our old neighborhood in Bellevue, Washington this week visiting friends before departing on an Alaskan cruise with my family to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday. We lived in Bellevue for a little over two years and thought we might settle there until fate intervened and threatened to send us back to the dreaded Los Angeles. Not wanting to leave our destiny up to fate, The Russian eventually found a job in the Philadelphia area and we returned to my preferred time zone, only to have him transferred to North Carolina nine months later.

But that’s another story. This particular story is about what happens when a couple of rootless middle-aged gypsies return to someplace they once lived and try to make sense of their seemingly rootless existence. It’s a story of nostalgia and blind faith choices.

I’ve never been much for moving around. When my parents decided to leave the great Midwest and move our family to San Diego when I was almost thirteen, I was bereft. Southern California circa 1972 was an entirely different universe than Southern Ohio. I was always one of those geeky kids, somewhat lacking in the social graces, who’d somehow managed in seventh grade to find a set of geeks with similar interests and oddities. Being uprooted and moved across the country to the land of the tanned probably set me back a good two or three years, given that thirteen and fourteen year old girls are some of the nastiest creatures on earth, particularly to those of their own kind who are somehow too different to fit in seamlessly with the locals.

My bad experience of moving at age thirteen no doubt negatively affected my desire to move to new places. Let’s just say that I’m not adventurous by either nature or experience. Given a choice between staying and going, I almost always chose staying, content to deal with the evil I know, as opposed to taking the chance that a potential good thing I desire might be acquired only in some other location. The Russian, on the other hand, is all about adventure, all about moving on when the current environment no longer suits his needs. Change may scare the heck out of me, but it usually intrigues him, especially if he’s at all unhappy where he is. And he’s frequently dissatisfied.

This dissatisfaction lead him to leave his home city of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) when he was twenty-eight and travel thousands of miles across the globe to Chicago to start a new life. He barely knew any English when he got here but he learned more than enough to get by and to make a pretty decent living. He still has a unique way of conjugating English verbs and doesn’t know how to use “a” and “the” properly but, as he says, that’s not his problem. If someone doesn’t understand him, they can always ask.

The Russian has no deep attachments to his home country. Unlike many of his friends, he’s never been back and has no desire to return for a visit. His stock reply whenever anyone asks him why he’s never returned is “there’s a reason why I’m from there.” He doesn’t look back; he doesn’t regret; and rarely tries to revisit the past, even in his head.

I’m almost the complete opposite. The past has strong a hold on me. I don’t let go easily. If at all.

When we met, I was living in Rochester, New York. I’d been there for fifteen years. The Russian was living in suburban Chicago. I moved to the Chicago area to be with him because his kid, my stepson, was there and he didn’t feel he could move away. Love can make you do things you wouldn’t normally do. So, I took a huge leap of faith out of my comfort zone. I left the life I’d made in upstate New York to be with him under the impression that at least we’d be staying in Chicago and that it would become home, which it eventually did. Of all the big cities I’ve visited in this country, there’s something special about Chicago–the history, the architecture, the trains, the attitude, the rhythm. For me it was magical. I fell in love with the place because it made me a braver me–the woman who wasn’t afraid to get on a train by herself to go someplace she hadn’t been and trust that it would turn out okay.

As it turned out, Chicago was not forever. When the economy tanked after 9/11, the city tanked with it. The industry that employed The Russian was particularly hard hit and, when he lost his job in 2003, he couldn’t find anything in Chicago to replace it. What he did find was in Los Angeles, a city I’d hated with a passion for years. Los Angeles–that vast wasteland between San Diego and Santa Barbara (where I’d gone to college)–home to smog so intense you could sometimes barely see the buildings on the other side of the 405 freeway; land of crumbling stucco apartment complexes, far too many cars, and far too many people; a place where the divide between rich and poor is clearly drawn, outlines clearly visible in the bright and endless sun. I despise the place. With a passion. Living there didn’t make me like it more. The Russian, however, was entranced by palm trees, beaches, and perpetual sunshine.

For whatever reasons, personal and economic–I don’t really remember it now; nor do I remember why I didn’t just say “NO”–we didn’t think we had a choice, and off we went for five-plus miserable years. I was convinced we were condemned to count out our days there in some small, incredibly overpriced apartment until we could retire and escape to someplace far less expensive and far more humane. Mercifully, however, The Russian’s company decided to transfer him to the Seattle area. Liberated from Los Angeles, I was sure we’d find our bliss there. But life is never that simple. And just because you might desire to set down roots somewhere, it doesn’t mean they’ll take.

The Pacific Northwest is among the most beautiful places in the world. The smell of pine and greenery perfumes the air year round. If it’s not raining and the sky is clear, you can turn a corner and suddenly see a mountain range, peaks covered in snow. Water abounds, be it Lake Washington or the Puget Sound. If you live in the Seattle area, you’re never far from it.

We spent a lot of time outdoors when we lived here. Our townhouse complex abutted a nature preserve. We could walk from our place to a nearby blueberry farm and, from there, down past a waterfall or two to Lake Sammamish. Blackberries are the local weed. They grow everywhere. We could cross the street from where we lived and harvest them by the pound from the nearby trail, which we did. We picked lots of stuff in and around Bellevue. Raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries–all of which we ate, transformed into pies, froze, or preserved. The Russian once located a bunch of mushrooms near our health club, harvested them, and pickled them for New Year’s.

I learned all about the locavore movement here. We frequented farmer’s markets for pickling cucumbers, tomatoes, plums, nectarines, and apricots–all of which we also preserved. The Russian played lots of tennis; I practiced a lot of yoga and acquired a therapist; we made a few friends. But for some reason, our roots never took. The Russian worked in a small office where his coworkers barely talked to each other. Colleagues who were separated by a cubicle wall would email each other rather than speak. His attempts to find a different job took him to ever odder places. The long seasons of rain, mist, and cloud cover took their toll. We began to understand why people lived off coffee and anti-depressants. Yet, when his company changed hands and he was told he needed to return to Los Angeles, my “no” instinct took hold. Strongly.

And so, when The Russian found a job in Philly, we picked up and left for the east coast.

* * * * * * * * * * *

All these moves over a few short years leave one giddy and discombobulated. As I sit here in our friends’ townhouse, looking across at the place where we used to live, I feel both a strong rush of the familiar and a sense of the distance travelled. In the past couple of days, The Russian and I have walked along the trails we walked probably a couple hundred times in the couple of years we lived here, picked and ate blackberries and blueberries from the same trees, and fell asleep at night watching the same pine trees we watched back then. It’s easy enough to imagine who we’d be had we stayed. We would have walked the same paths a couple hundred more times, made more friends, and still might never have felt quite at home. The feeling is similar when we visit Chicago–both of us can still imagine a life there even though we left nearly a decade ago. (If you’re wondering, my feeling about L.A. is the same as The Russian’s feeling about the former Soviet Union–there’s a reason why I’m from there and I ain’t never going back).

Of course we didn’t stay. We closed off certain possibilities by moving on and opened up new ones. At a point in their lives where most people stay put, we’ve taken flight. I hope we’re done now. Adventure is fine when you’re young but, once you get older, roots become a lot more important. We’ve found a place where we both feel at home and neither of us wants to leave. We’ll pick some more blackberries while we’re here and visit some more friends, but when it comes time to board the plane, we know we’ll be headed home.

 

 

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36 thoughts on “Adventures in the Pacific Northwest: Foraging for Blackberries and Memories

  1. Really enjoyed this post Michelle. It’s such a different experience than my own. I’ve never lived outside the city of my birth, although I love to travel and have seen much of the U.S. There’s definitely something to be said for having deep roots, but I also recognize the greater opportunities that come with a willingness to move when the time is right.

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  2. I grew up in the west and we did similar things as a family.

    Picking huckleberries on the slopes of the mountains (around the lava tubes was best)
    Fishing for shad in the river to smoke afterwards and can.
    Picking fruit at the orchards (i expect they are all wine grape fields now)
    Picking wild blackberrries by the side of the road
    Fishing for trout in the mountain lakes.
    Claming for razor clams on the coast.

    God I miss it. But it’s all gone now…or most of it….

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  3. Stop! Just stop! Stop telling everyone it’s so beautiful & everything! Peopl will want to move here! It’s too crowded as it is & the Transit Authority are to incompetent to fix the traffic problems.

    No, everyone, she’s wrong! The Pacific Northwest is horrible! HORRIBLE!!

    It rains, ALL THE TIME! I haven’t seen the sun but twice in 6 years! You can’t swim in any of the lakes or the sound because they are all so cold! And the earthquakes! Woah, I just felt one.

    There’s another!

    Did I mention the volcanoes! There are three of them within shouting distance. They are always rumbling & making noise & being a nuisance (it’s why we never see the sun, all that ash in the air!).

    No, stay away!

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    • You could, without exaggerating, describe the traffic, say trying to get from Redmond to SeaTac on a Friday afternoon. One time I was there for a class, the instructor, without apparent irony, said we’d finish at noon because some people had 4:00 flights

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      • Before I moved to Bellevue, I lived in Everett. 30 mile commute would easily take 90-120 minutes one way (this was a year ago). Having a stick shift just made it worse.

        I finally got my boss to let me time-shift for a few months until I was able to move to Bellevue. Now it’s 10 minutes to work. What I saved on gas, wear & tear on the car, my time, and insurance more than made up for the hit in housing costs.

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      • The good news is that I won major points with my boss for being willing to make that drive. My wife had a job at the hospital in downtown city-to-the-south. And being near to her job was far more important than any consideration for mine because she had call. So moving closer wasn’t an option, unfortunately.

        Eventually my boss let me timeshift, and moving an hour helped. Also, they put up signs letting drivers know how long it took to get to city-to-the-east either by going up the spur or going through The City. It turned out to be faster going through The City (and across the bridge) as often as not, if there had been any traffic backups. Seriously, the spur was hell, or as close to it as I ever want to experience.

        I had even looked into public transportation, it was so bad. Surprisingly, the public transportation options were minimal.

        But man, that was a great year for audiobooks.

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      • MRS Everett traffic is evil. I used to travel between Seattle and Vancouver on Fridays. OMG that took years off my life. I haven’t been down in a couple of years (trying to get the necessary days for citizenship in Canuckistan) but I can’t imagine it has improved.

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      • @will-truman

        Why traffic in the Tri-Counties sucks!

        1) Losing lanes for no good reason. Well, there probably is a good reason, but every time it happens, traffic snarls.

        2) Let’s have 3 interchanges in the space of 2 miles! Everyone will have plenty of time to change lanes as required because no one would be stupid enough to hang out in the left lane until the last minute, and drivers are always super nice about letting traffic from the right merge.

        3) Do we really need more than 200 parking spaces at the new park & ride that was built because the old one was always overflowing (answer: if you didn’t build a 6 story garage, you did it wrong)?

        4) Oh, light rail is such a wonderful idea! We should totally do that! Now, let’s see, where can we run the tracks without having to displace anyone or modify the interstates & other highways? And let’s not worry about putting platforms where they’ll do the most good, if you build the platform, people will come to it, wherever it is.

        etc…

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      • Portland is surprisingly affordable. My best friend moved out there and I was skeptical, but it’s worked out for him as well as can be expected (socially, it’s been great for him). But I don’t think it comes close to having the same job opportunities in certain lines of work.

        I tried to talk my wife into western Oregon. Which would have had proximity to large cities, but actually offers jobs in her line of work. Unfortunately, she couldn’t get on board with the climate.

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      • I can’t wait to get back to Portland. It’s my favorite Cascadian city. I love all the micro brews and the general vibe. Ever been to Edgefield? (My partner’s favorite place in the world.)

        I can’t live there because there aren’t enough mountains. Starting next year, I’ll get a few weeks at Mt. Hood in the summer for my daughter’s training.

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    • LOL Baby I lived through Mt. St. Helens. That being said, one good earthquade / eruption of Rainier and a lot of the “wet side” is going to be a mudslide.

      Don’t worry. I’m not moving back any time soon. The traffic was insane in Seattle in the 90’s. Can imagine it’s only gotten worse.

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  4. I loved this post. You feel about Chicago the way I feel about New York City, it seems.

    And we were just in Seattle on the last leg of our recent vacation. It… is… gorgeous. For all of San Francisco’s reputation as America’s Most Beautiful City, I have to give that title to Seattle.

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  5. I, too, greatly enjoyed this post. The PNW will always have a place in my heart. Culturally, I’m not sure that there is anywhere that I felt more at home. Except that I am, for the area, a right-wing nutbar. I would also have a really hard time getting used to the cost of living.

    Clancy and I felt unusually at home in “Arapaho.” Not where we lived in the state exactly, but the state itself. I can’t even explain why. That’s despite the fact that our time there wasn’t remarkably pleasant. If felt like something we were a part of, which is a way that I hadn’t really felt since leaving home.

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      • Sorry, I am confusing on these things as I do not refer to bigraphical places by their name. Arapaho is a Trumanverse state. Think along the lines of Idaho, Montana, or Wyoming.

        I refer to where I lived in the PNW as… erm… Cascadia, actually. I lived in the blue collar city to the south of the main city and commuted to the Company Town to the east of it (I worked at That Software Company).

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      • More than anyone ever wanted to know about Trumanverse:

        City locations in Trumanverse tend to be fluid. For instance, “Colosse” (the southern city where I am from) is located on the map where Mobile, Alabama is. Colosse isn’t Mobile, but Mobile has the characteristics that I need to provide for the most important parts of the city.

        If I were to move to San Fransisco and needed to establish “pseudonymity” for it (the quotes are because it would be a transparent veil, as it was when I was in PNW and everyone knew what “Zaulem Sound” was). Well, I sure wouldn’t put myself in the same state as Los Angeles or southern California because a pertinent thing about SF is that it is very much Northern California, which is a separate beast. So I would make Northern California Shasta more generally. I’d probably put SF where Oakland is, and shift Oakland to the north and move San Jose into Shasta, coming up with different names for each.

        (The rationalization for all of this is that if state lines were drawn differently – in Trumanverse they are drawn mostly by natural boundaries like rivers and mountains – then settlement patterns would differ. So “Silicon Valley” would have settled in a state with laws, regulations, and culture most amenable to it. In this case, it would be the proxy for Northern California rather than the proxy for Southern California.)

        (At this point, I mostly fictionalize out of tradition. Early on, it was mostly because I used to be a blogger that some people had heard of. When I went pseudononymous, I needed something to distance Will Truman from my actual self. I lived in a very identifiable place at the time. I didn’t want to lie about where I was, so I started fictionalizing it. And thus, Trumanverse was born. These days, though, anyone who knows me will see through a lot of it. I’ve shown my face on this site. I may even go public with my identity at some point.)

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