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Semi-Desert Life

I never got used to the semi-desert.

I've lived in semi-deserts — almost-but-not-quite-deserts, if you will — twice in my life. First Southern California: Rancho Bernardo in the far north part of San Diego from 1976 to 1981, then Camarillo in the slightly less desert-y Ventura County from 1981 to summer '82. Second: Hermiston, Oregon, from 1997 to 2000.

I've said it before: much of Southern California is a desert trying to imitate a more temperate place, thanks to LOTS of engineering. Northeast Oregon is engineered in its own way — it's where dams made the Columbia and Snake Rivers into more a series of lakes than rivers for much of their length — but it's more obviously desert-y. And it's not supporting the lives of tens of millions of local residents, the way Southern Cal is, so it's easier to be a desert. Semi-desert, I mean. Northeast Oregon still, thank goodness, have green stuff and things that grow, thanks to agriculture: lots of room for crops, mainly potato and watermelon. Plus cows for dairy: Tillamook Cheese opened its second processing plant in the area in the late '90s.

I wasn't inclined to live in the semi-desert — I went there because it's where I could get a job in media after college — but I adapted. Yes, the apartment (so far the largest apartment I've lived in: a one-bedroom!) had AC; but a year into living in Hermiston, the AC in my car broke, and I got along without it. Fixing the car's AC would have cost more than the car was worth. (I got my money's worth out of that car, a white 1988 Honda Accord hatchback: I had it until 2008.) This meant I'd sometimes leave the windows open, hoping (sometimes wrongly) it wouldn't rain while I left them like that because I didn't want too much heat to build up inside.

I swam less than I think I expected to. My Hermiston apartment complex had a pool; but one time I felt surprisingly dizzy and uncomfortable while in it, and I curtailed my use of it. But another time, when I did feel OK about swimming there, I wound up having an in-depth conversation in the pool with another resident: he knew I was a reporter, and he told me he was considering going public with a religious harassment case against his employer. He told me uncomfortable things about his workplace. I listened. He ultimately decided not to ask for an article, and decided he'd see if it could be handled privately. I do not know what the end result was. But that's a memory I haven't thought of in years, until now. Conversations in a pool aren't usually that serious.

I was more careful then than now about using sunscreen; I kind of had to be. I've use it haphazardly since then; I'm healing from a facial sunburn I got on Saturday, a mostly overcast day in Portland. (Sunburns on cloudy days are extra-annoying.) But I stayed good at staying well-hydrated, a habit that's served me in good stead. I'm good at getting water into me. Plus now I'm more likely to wear hats and caps. (...I want more hats.)

At least humidity was low there. I lived in/with humidity in Virginia, from summer '82 in Virginia Beach to when my parents moved out of Northern Virginia in summer '94; for years, I had trouble living in humid air. I got ill a lot. I often felt car-sick in Virginia Beach. I slowly adapted, and got a stronger constitution, and now I can handle humidity. Handle it, not enjoy it, though I try not to flee it. (I've willingly traveled to the East Coast in the summer since then, in other words. Though not yet the Midwest or the South, where humidity can be weaponized.) Yes, Hermiston was often hot, but I never felt like I was breathing a wet rag.

And, in its way, Northeast Oregon/Eastern Washington — where I traveled plenty, since the Tri-Cities of Washington is the largest city-like place in the region — is kind of pretty. Starkly pretty but with fields in sharp green relief against the tan surroundings. Thanks to rotating center-pivot sprinkler systems, there are circles of crops: circles next to circles next to circles, for miles. Rounded mountains, some of the more worn mountains of the West, frame much of the region. We had interesting horizons to look at: Northern Virginia, in the Piedmont, doesn't. You still have to deal with tumble weeds, sometimes lots of them — I once drove through a storm with hundreds and hundreds of tumble weeds blowing west-to-east across I-82 in Washington, driving through them like they were zombies I needed to mow down — and that reminds you: this is a strange place, where even dead plants might attack you.

The Columbia River and its environs, even in their re-engineered state, still look in places much the way they looked when the Lewis and Clark expedition — and, later, settlers on the Oregon Trail — passed through. In that region, I could stand in places, look at the wagon ruts still sometimes visible, and know that many decades before, wagon after wagon passed along that stop, though without a gas station over the hill to get snacks and drinks at. Heck, thinking back on that, I realize: my stopping in those places was a small luxury. My life didn't depend on Keeping Moving, Until I Reach A Slightly More Sheltered Area To Rest For The Night.

(I love this bit of trivia: a few people were still migrating on the Oregon Trail in the 1890s, decades after the Transcontinental Railroad had more directly connected the East with the West. Heck, I can't confirm this, but I've heard anecdotes claiming some stragglers used the Trail into the 1920s.)

I lived and worked in that semi-desert for three years. I've had no desire to move back. That's partly because I was in my 20s there, and it's not a place with a lot of 20-somethings; they tend to leave for college or work and, maybe, come back later. That colored my experience, being part of a generation not very well represented there. (I still should have tried dating more often. In my three years in Hermiston, I dated once.) I have been tempted to visit: I know people I liked, out there. Ideally, you find such people everywhere. I'll likely pass through again in the future. I'll visit other deserts, too. Probably not Antarctica, even though that is technically a desert.

I can handle deserts. And I can appreciate them.