Some moderate weather, please

The Thinker by Rodin

If I am sick of extremes in politics then I am also sick of extremes in temperature. Living as I do only some twenty miles from Capitol Hill, certainly the center of hot air in the United States, you would think some of that hot air would be headed my way right now. It might, you know, chase away this unwelcome winter that most of us east of the Mississippi are dealing with.

Too much. Too much hot air in Washington. Too much global warming (2010 was our hottest year in recorded memory, including here in the Washington D.C. area), too much extreme snowfall (Snowmageddon and Snowpocalypse, all within the last twelve months), too much extreme weather in general. Now this: days of unrelenting arctic weather and our first brush of snow for the season. Lots of hot air and lots of cold air, but I don’t recall too many days when things were just uniformly comfortable. Perhaps we had plenty of days like this in 2010, but my fading memory does not remember many of them.

No, I am stuck in the misery of the present. Winter does not officially start for a week, but it arrived early nonetheless. The Midwest was largely shut down by a wayward mass of arctic air. A stadium’s roof collapses in Minneapolis from nearly two feet of white stuff. Here we have been dealing with nearly two weeks of continuously below freezing temperatures and brisk northwesterly winds. Maybe it’s not Chicago but that’s the point, it’s not Chicago. We deserve better than this.

We deserve better than cars that hesitate to start. We deserve better than, not just mere gusts of wind, but steady freezing winds of twenty to 30 miles an hour day and night, yet with occasional gusts wherein Mother Nature showed us her power. On our screened in porch, Mother Nature decided the door had to blow open twice. The darn thing is screened. The wind is supposed to blow through it.

I feel like Nanook of the North, just (until today) without the snow. Going outside is an act of courage. It involves donning my warmest, stuffed and fleece-filled coat, often with a sweater on underneath it, my thickest gloves that recede past my wrists toward my elbows, my warmest stocking gap and a scarf. It’s still not enough. Facing into the wind feels not just cold, it feels sadistic.

I enjoy a window facing office, but not so much in the winter. I arrive at work and my office is cold. There is a heater by the window that I immediately crank up. I also put on my extra sweater, which goes on top of my long sleeve shirt and undershirt. It is still not enough to feel warm. All morning the heat pours from the window heater but it is never enough until sometime in the afternoon when the sun finally shines through my window and the high outside makes it to 24 degrees. That seems to do the trick.

I am rethinking my notion of retiring in New England. Of course, I enjoy a brisk autumn day, but who needs their long and miserable winters? Who needs the constant snow shoveling? Maybe New Englanders, like Chicagoans, get used to it. I think I am too old. I don’t like heat. I don’t like extreme cold. Give me lots and lots of moderate and comfortable weather. Give me weather that is boring, but predictable. The lows might creep into the fifties and highs would rarely get much into the eighties. That is what I want now, even if I have to deal with long, dreary and wet days to get it.

Some place like Oregon, perhaps. We had close to a week in Oregon this summer, but we also spent a couple of days in the dreary Oregon coastal murk. However, it was a lovely dreary coastal murk. Back home, the ozone was at unhealthy levels, the heat was frequently reaching triple digits, massive thunderstorms were leaving tens of thousands without power and the humidity, when you ventured outside your air conditioned sanctum, caught itself in your lungs and oppressed you with its heaviness.

Someday I will escape it for good. I will retire somewhere where living is comfortable and I rarely need to either wear shorts or a coat. I’ll be like Mister Rogers and be content in a light cardigan sweater. I’ll feel mellow. If I never have to deal with a thunderstorm again, that will be fine. I’ve had my fill of them. In Oregon, thunderstorms are almost unheard of. They may have to deal with the occasional plume of volcanic ash or earthquake, but they happen very rarely when they happen at all. Weather fronts, when they decide to arrive, arrive slowly. You may not even know that they came. This would be fine with me.

No Sun Belt retirement for me. There will likely be no New England retirement for me either, although hopefully I can pay extended visits during the temperate times of the year. Instead, give me a home where the weather, like its people, is ordinary and moderate.

Northwest observations and surprises

The Thinker by Rodin

To this couple largely attached to the east coast, our driving tour of Washington state and Oregon has proven interesting and occasionally surprising. Here are some of my notes and observations over the past few days:

  • I expected the “Cascade Curtain” (the Cascade Mountains) to let across more moisture than it does. In fact, it seems to stop most of the moisture rolling in off the Pacific coast, making the change startling when you cross over the divide. Very quickly the landscape devolves into desert. It is a desert that looks substantially different than the desert I was more familiar with in the American west where the latitudes are lower. No cacti to be found in eastern Washington state, but there is plenty of sagebrush. During the summer, the land seems awash in pastel colors, principally brown and shades of off-yellow but also a grayish blue from the sagebrush. With its lower humidity come a lot more summer sunshine and higher temperatures. Higher temperatures were particularly noticeable in out of the way places we visited, like Othello, Washington where temperatures hovered in the nineties.
  • Near Othello, Washington is the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, which few visit but where more should. We ventured deep down gravel roads and into small lakes where wildlife mostly lurk and where visitors can wade into cool, clear lakes such as Soda Lake very far from the maddening crowds. The terrain includes gently rolling mesas that are largely unseen by tourists and that are populated by more than 230 species of birds. It is worth the drive, but our AAA tour book somehow missed giving this off road experience the Gem attraction status it deserves. Maybe it’s best that fewer go there. With more tourists, something doubtless would be lost.
Columbia National Wildlife Refuge
  • The Columbia River in Washington State provides so much water that it seems it can provide limitless irrigation. This is probably mostly an illusion, as the many dams along the Columbia create huge backstops of water. I have eaten plenty of delicious Washington State apples, but I had no idea so much else was grown on what would otherwise be desert land in eastern Washington State. Fruits and vegetables of many kinds can be found growing along the roads of the state, all artificially watered from the sometimes quite distant Columbia River. So many of these crops require humans to harvest them, which probably explains the large Hispanic population in eastern Washington state. Many of the towns we stopped in (such as Othello) seem to be largely overrun with Hispanics with English signs hard to find. Presumably they provide the bulk of the migrant labor the area needs. We stopped at a Laundromat in Wenatchee where we were the only English speaking people in the place, where cashing checks was a big business in the store next door, and where soccer in Spanish played loudly on the TV in the Laundromat. It was a strange experience to feel an alien in my own country.
  • The Tri-Cities area of Washington State consists of the cities of Richland, Pasco and Kennewick. We spent a night at a Red Lion in Richland and found Richland to be a delightful and well maintained small city. It was a short walk from our hotel down to the banks of the Columbia River where we found a city dock and dozens of people happily swimming in the water, whilst trim joggers and cyclists inhabited the walkway next to the river. If I were looking for an eclectic place to retire, Richland would be it. It surprised us. It was also delightful to know that the Columbia River was so clean that people could frolic in its waters without a care.
  • And speaking of the Columbia River, a scenic drive along the Columbia Gorge should be on every traveler’s list of journeys. It is a bit like a raft ride through the Grand Canyon, except that for much of it you are hugging the interstate on the Oregon side of the river. The bottled up river gives it a surreal look because it is surrounded by desert hills and mountains. The contrast of the blue Columbia River water compared with the brown hills is startling and the scenery rarely changes over hundreds of miles. For the most part the basin lacks the massive rock strata one sees in the Grand Canyon, but this may be in part because much of it is submerged underwater.
Columbia River Gorge
  • We discovered a few hidden gems along the Columbia River Basin. One was the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum a few miles east of The Dallas, Oregon. While relatively small, it is beautifully constructed and has a prime view of the Columbia River. Inside there are exhibits talking about both the geological and historical history of the gorge along with films you can watch that will kill a couple hours. There are also wildlife rehabilitation specialists at the museum who gave a talk on the many raptors in the area. We got to see up close a great horned owl and a red-tail hawk that were too injured to be released back into the wild and were sheltered at the center. We watched enrapt (and somewhat squicked) as each devoured a dead mouse, skull, tail and all.
  • The museum also provided us with a map of old U.S. 30 that sits next to I-84. Doubtless most of the tourists zipping up and down the interstate are wholly unaware of a set of spectacular falls along this road that dump into the Columbia River. Taking the route proved fortuitous, not only for viewing these spectacular waterfalls, but to get around the traffic that was bottling up westbound I-84. Perhaps the most spectacular of these falls is Multnomah Falls, which plunges 620 feet. It is the second highest year-round waterfall in the United States. Niagara Falls gets many more tourists, but even if you find yourself not too impressed by Multnomah Falls, there are a half dozen others along a short stretch of U.S. 30 to enjoy as well.
Multnomah Falls
  • It’s been five years since I was in Portland, Oregon. This time I am here for pleasure, and this time there is not the unrelenting rain I encountered in 2005. Instead we are blessed with beautiful sunny days and temperatures that don’t quite make it to eighty. Portland is but a shadow of its big brother city Seattle to its north, but arguably it is a much more livable city. Light rail makes getting around much of the city easy. The city is very bike friendly, and its moderate temperatures make biking year round to work a realistic option for many commuters, even in the rain, which rarely amounts to a driving rain. It is a strange mixture of progressiveness and conservatism. On the conservative side is its strange tax structure, which forgoes a sales tax but levies a hefty income tax instead. The result in economic downturns is not pretty and include shortened school years and talk of four day school weeks this year. Yet there seems to be money to extend its light rail system. The city feels clean and safe. Like Richland, Washington the City of Portland also feels like some place that I could comfortably retire.

First Observations on Portland, Oregon

The Thinker by Rodin

Life finds me on the west coast, attending an information technology exchange meeting. Since I will mostly be near or around hotels during this visit I fear that I will not learn much about the city of Portland, Oregon. I am currently at the Hilton Hotel in the City Center. It is your typical four star hotel: clean, reasonably quiet, modestly upscale but nothing exceptional. The room is adequate but the king size bed seems overkill for one guy sleeping alone. One really needs a second person to enjoy a king size bed.

I arrived late on Sunday night. My flight out of Washington Dulles International Airport was delayed for 90 minutes. In fact didn’t take off until it was close to 7 PM on the west coast. The flight might have been less full had it not been full of the many folks from my office on the flight. It was a long flight: five hours and ten minutes, but it had the virtue of being nonstop. Still, we went through two movies during the flight, a “dinner” with insufficient calories to feed a model and there was still time to spare.

This is my first trip to the Pacific Northwest. Yet so far there is not much to see. Like Binghamton where I grew up the place seems eternally shrouded in clouds. Occasionally the sun peaks through but precipitation always seems to be looming. Fortunately when precipitation arrives thus far it has been showers that quickly pass, rather than drenching rains.

What I’ve seen of Portland so far is inviting in spite of the clouds. My friend Tom who lives here describes it as an unpretentious city. Seattle, a few hours north, has delusions of grandeur. Portland may have similar delusions, but if so they are well hidden. Rather it feels modest and comfortable.

It seems to be a sensible and well ordered city, lacking the chaos of the east coast sprawl with which I am so familiar. Litter seems wholly absent here in the downtown area. There are homeless people here, but they are well mannered people. They petition for dollars quietly.

The streets have cars, but fewer of them. Perhaps this is because the public transportation system is so convenient. I chose to take their light rail system from the airport into the city and it was no problem whatsoever, cheap and very convenient. Unlike Washington’s Metrorail system, this one seems to run wholly above ground. Here in the City Center it feels more like a streetcar. Entire streets appear to exist largely to serve the rail system. Buses seem omnipresent around here.

The city reminds me of Binghamton in other ways than the climate. While I have been told there are mountains nearby, so far I haven’t caught a glimpse of them because the clouds have proven omnipresent. But in addition to mountains, this is a city full of hills. It is not a city for the vertically challenged, but doesn’t seem quite as vertically challenging as Pittsburgh or San Francisco.

For a city it seems relatively quiet. It is shortly after 7 a.m. as I write this. Any comparable spot in the District of Columbia would be a hellish, noisy, car choked mess at this hour. But here the streets are relatively free of traffic. I hear only the occasional honks of car engines.

In general I find the people here to be extraordinarily well mannered, for Americans anyhow. My friend Tom confirmed this last night. Here people seem to live in a time warp, not necessarily anxious to run over pedestrians to shave thirty seconds off their commute. And speaking of pedestrians they generally wait for signals before crossing the street. It is by no means a city devoid of energy. But it does not have the frantic energy of cities on the East Coast. Things move here at a high hum, but never on overdrive.

While the city is diverse, it doesn’t feel quite as culturally diverse as the Washington D.C. area. I guess that is to be expected. Few areas can match the D.C. area for cultural diversity. If there is a primary minority here they are more likely to be Asian Americans than African Americans.

Last night I had the exquisite pleasure of reconnecting with my childhood friend Tom after 32 long years. We have plans to meet again. I may stay an extra night or two if that works with his schedule. I hope so, not just to spend more time with Tom, but also to have the chance to see a bit more of this city. Despite the omnipresent clouds and threats of rain, there is something soul satisfying about this city. I am curious to learn more.