I think it is probably a function of the Asperger’s Syndrome — I assume this because this is one of those things I know to be different in me from all the people I know and have been close to in my life — but moving to a new place, a new part of the world, a new ecosystem has been a very low-stress thing for me. A simple thing.
The decision to move was simple. Not easy, but simple. For the last 13 years, I have lived in a place I did not choose, for reasons that were beyond my control. At least the reason I ended up there was beyond my control. I was broke and bankrupt; I’d lost the only home I’d ever owned. At a time when I had no health insurance, my son became ill and I used all our savings and all our credit to pay medical costs, and to stay with him while the doctors worked to fix what was wrong. After that, depression left me unable to find a way out of my life. So I ended up doing what so many of us do — I went to family for help. Unfortunately, I went to the wrong family. I went to the family that had already neglected or abused me for much of my life — expecting — I don’t know what — but it happened again.
Fortunately, that wasn’t the only thing that happened. I also found someone who found me. We found each other. It took more than half a lifetime, but Jim and I found each other. And for 13 years, I continued to live and chose to live where he works and lives and fulfills his life’s purpose — even though the place itself made me physically ill because of asthma. At any and all levels, I was suffocating there in the dust and the pesticides and coton gins and stockyards, and the desert-dry blowing dirt. I’d resigned myself to living there and dying there, because living a short life with Jim, is preferable to living forever without my best friend. I started a small retail business. I learned to paint. I learned to mix and create my own paints — in an ugly landscape full of bad memories and ghosts of people who never knew what Asperger’s or autism was, much less how to deal with it. For me, the flat, dry, over-baked landscape of the Texas Panhandle with its black and white world views and overwrought fundamentalist religion is the nightmare landscape where I wandered for most of my youth, and then again as an adult. It is a place where I was forever a stranger. Always an outsider. And — except for Jim and my son, always alone. The Asperger’s thing makes being alone not so much an issue, but the rest never ceased to be a problem.
As Jim and I traveled from time to time, there were always moments where we would look around at where we were and evaluate the place. The town. The state. The country. The landscape. The environment. The weather. “I could live here.” “I’d be miserable here.” “It’s a great place to go — but I wouldn’t want to stay.” “It’s beautiful — but nobody looks happy.” “Crowded.” “Hot.” “Ugly.” “Bad roads.” “Dangerous drivers.” “Not enough art.”
Then, this past summer, we went west. In my dreams, all my life, I’d been going down a road. It always started at my grandmother’s house — and I would head west out of town. For a while the roads were familiar ones that I actually drove on as a teenager. West across the Panhandle of West Texas towards Plainview (an accurate name) and then on farther past Amarillo and onto roads that weren’t familiar at all. But I had the dream so many times that they eventually became familiar. Part of it was Route 66. Part was backroads through farmland. It was a road that, in my dream at least, came up over the last mountain, and was a steep decent toward an arch-covered peer surrounded by whitewashed buildings, and then — ocean. And until last summer, I didn’t know the road really existed — but there it was.
So for over 2 weeks, we drove the Pacific Coast Highway. We got as far as the border to Oregon, where we went inland to Ashland, and we spent 5 days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Our plans were to head back home by crossing up to Yellowstone; then down to Denver to visit our friend, Rebecca; then finally home again to the Panhandle.
But as the last day of theater approached, we decided that we’d seen so many beautiful parks — maybe we’d just not do Yellowstone — even though we’d probably never go this way again. We chose instead to go north to Portland where one of our favorite virtual places existed in the real world — Powell’s City of Books: the largest used bookstore in the US. Maybe in the world — but we’d been to Hay on Wye in the UK — so we needed to see this place we’d bought so many books from in the past. We left our planned vacation behind, and went north on a lark.
One of the other theater-goers we met listened to our tale of driving up Highway 1 across California and had asked if we were going to see the Oregon coast. And of course the answer had been no. But when our plans changed, we looked at the map and decided that if we were going all the way to Portland, a day off the main highway to see this place — the Pacific Northwest’s seashore, spoken of with such smiles and glowing descriptions — was probably worth the time.
And from Ashland, north to Eugene — we evaluated every town and hillside — and over and over it was the same: we could live here. What a beautiful place. We could live anywhere here. Any burg or farm or village or town. It was all breathtakingly beautiful. But not breath-taking. The whole time we’d been in Oregon — I did not need my inhaler. No Albuterol. No Advair Discus. No Accolate. No Duo-neb. Nothing. No inhaled steroids. No nasal steroids. Not even so much as a Benedryl or Sudafed for allergies and pollution.
We turned toward the Oregon Central Coast and every mile we drove was more beautiful than the last. Orchards and vineyards and tree farms. Mountains and valleys and rivers full of salmon and streams full of fish. Fresh fruit and vegetable markets and gardens. Forests — everywhere. Rain and then sunshine and then rain again. Narrow, twisting roads through the coastal mountain ranges and ancient forests.
We turned north at Newport without even stopping to see the town. Like much of northern California, the Coastal Highway is 2 lane and wanders between hugging the shore — to dramatic mountain switchbacks. We passed a dozen state parks and beaches — then found the rocky basalt shore of Depoe Bay — “The Worlds Smallest Harbor” it boasts as you drive in.
I wanted to keep going. It was a horrible and terrible place — waves crashing loud and people stopping on the main highway to take photographs. I tried to talk Jim into going on and finding another town farther up the coast. But he said it felt good to him. The hotel was cheap and the view — I didn’t even notice really — because I didn’t want to stay.
But I did, anyway. I was tired and my knees hurt from driving. We got a room that faced the ocean from the top of a hill and I opened the window for some fresh air, sat on the sofa, and fell asleep for nearly 10 hours.
When I woke up, it was to thunder and lightning — and the sound of waves crashing against rock. I’d slept all night, sitting up on a sofa with my legs propped up on pillows — with the window open.
And unless you have asthma or allergies — that probably doesn’t sound like an important thing. Sleeping with an open window is something a lot of people do all the time.
Believe me when I say, I don’t remember ever sleeping with an open window, ever in my life until that night. And the only times I was ever in a place where I’d spent part of the day with open windows — it was only ever for a few minutes. But there in that little hotel — I woke up breathing freely. Listening to the sound of the thunder and breathing in the smell of rain.
I remember looking out and seeing 5 boys walking down the highway. They were talking and laughing and fooling around. There was no traffic because it was early — so they had the road to themselves. I wondered what it must be like to grow up in a place like that. A tiny port village. Tourists and fishing boats, and marine biologists studying whales and sea life. Eating fish so fresh it didn’t have to be frozen and flown in, across 1500 miles of the country. What did those boys grow up to be? Where did they go to college? Did they even care about college? Were they in a hurry to get out of high school and leave this place and its small town-ness behind?
I stopped to take some pictures of the rocky shore. We loaded the car. We drove a few miles up the coast and I couldn’t find the breakfast cafe recommended by so many on YELP!, so we stopped at a Burger King and sat in the car to eat — parked in their parking lot, facing a plain, uninteresting building. When we finished, we headed north to Portland — never even bothering to find the beach, or stop at another ocean-side state park.
And we didn’t talk much more about it. It was in the rearview mirror.
The 1800+ mile drive back to Texas was a bit of an anti-climax. We visited friends in Denver. Drove through the horrible forest fire that swallowed the Colorado Rockies in 2012. The smoke brought back my asthma, and the last 250 miles across the panhandle, I took pill after pill; used all the inhalers in my bag; and by the time we got home, I was drugged, exhausted, sore, and glad to be out of the car.
It took about 2 weeks for the conversation to turn back to Oregon. A weeks later, the choice was made. I could stay there in Texas, drugged for the rest of my life, looking at another winter of pneumonia and coughing and wheezing and gasping for air. Or — we could use what money I’d inherited from my grandparent’s life’s work and what my own parents hadn’t managed to spend before they died, and buy a new life.
We spent 4 months looking at houses for sale up and down Oregon. From Ashland to Portland on I-5; and from Gold Beach to Astoria, off Highway 101 — the Pacific Coast Highway. We eliminated places where the cost of living was at or above the national average. We eliminated cities (city — Portland) large enough to have air pollution problems, or traffic congestion. We eliminated places known for acres of livestock or farming pollution. Then we took our price range and found every house in a 45 mile stretch of the coast that we could afford and that had approximately the right size. We read about each town and it’s demographics and personality. We read history and public records about earthquakes and floods.
At first we eliminated houses with a second floor because of my knees — but eventually decided that a few stairs were do-able.
We eliminated houses with wood-burning fireplaces or stoves because the smoke could create asthma problems. But kept the houses with gas fireplaces.
We eliminated houses with more than a token lawn to mow, but kept houses with interesting gardens.
We looked for the ocean. I mean, if you’re going to move 1800 miles to the West Coast — why wouldn’t you look for an ocean view?
We looked for something high enough above sea-level to be sane in a time of tsunamis and global climate change. We even considered the Cascadia Subduction Zone — then opted for taking our chances with everybody else. Tornado Alley and the Cascadia SD are “kissing cousins,” anyway.
And we chose.
We chose and we started packing. And before the cotton gins could crank up to full tilt, I was on the road driving north again with the little dog. And I left Jim there in Texas, to finish out his life as a college professor. I left my son and his new bride there, to make their life. I left my friends. Everyone I’ve come to care about in my life.
The new place — the place we chose — is beautiful. High up on a hill about 1/4 mile from the ocean, looking NNW up the coast, the beach, and Cascade Head, just a few miles from that little hotel we left quickly without looking back, numb from realizing this was a place we were only passing through, and — that we’d probably never be coming this way again.
In 4 days, Jim will be here for the Christmas break — a month together. Then he’ll go teach again for 14 weeks. For a few more years, until he retires, we will live by phone, by Skype, by email, and by airplane and Amtrak visits. Sometime soon, the kids will come visit and we’ll go to the theaters in Ashland, to Whale Cove to watch the whales play in the ocean; or the Yaquina Head Lighthouse, or the breweries and vineyards, and the amazing markets and restaurants in Portland. Or not. We might just talk a walk to the beach.
I’ve been here over 4 weeks, now. And more than the asthma has improved. I have a drawer full of inhalers, nebulizer ampules, pills — and except for once when I panicked because the car wouldn’t start, they’ve gone idle. But I’ve also been able to start decreasing the medication I took for migraines — which we long suspected were related to some of the asthma drugs. I’m down to half the amount of medication from 4 weeks ago, and I’m about to reduce the dosage again. Additionally, my blood pressure is normal in the morning before I take the pills I’ve been taking for 20 years — and so once the other medications are all out of my system, hopefully I’ll be able to cut back on those as well. All in all, the place seems to agree with me.
The place agrees with me.
People keep talking about the smell of the salt air — but I haven’t noticed anything spectacular. Or maybe it’s that everything is spectacular. When I sit on the back steps while the dog plays in his new little yard, I can smell flowers from the big, as yet unidentified, bushes. I can smell the evergreens when I am near the mountains. When I’m out on the porch, I can smell fireplaces nearby burning wood on chilly nights. I can smell the harbor when I’m in Depoe Bay, and the fish market in Newport. I can smell the moss and the lichen as I drive down the forested road toward Salem with the car windows down. I can smell the smoked salmon when I pull into the parking lot beside Barnacle Bill’s. I can smell rain — the ozone peaked and ready — nearly every day.
I chose this place. Jim and I chose this place. And because he loves me, he encouraged me — he sent me — he chose for me and with me — to come here and leave that horrible place where I couldn’t breathe and couldn’t live. It was a simple choice for both of us. And moving is simple. You just pay somebody and they load your stuff and move it. Choosing the right house was simple, really. We had parameters — and we looked until we found a place that met them. Making the drive alone with the dog — even that was simple. You just do it.
But it was not easy.