On my second day in Oregon, when I had to make the half hour walk carrying as many full grocery bags as I could hold from the store back to my dorm room, I realized that I really should have brought my car. I could have made the drive from home to Oregon in a day, and then I would not have to lug around these bags of groceries every few days, plus I would have a way to explore my surroundings. I chose not to drive because, shortly before I found out about this program, I had just had my first airplane trip, at least the first one that I was old enough to remember, and I wanted to go somewhere on an airplane again. The airplane ride was fun, but had I thought things through more, I probably would have brought my car.
Of the eight students in my Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, only Marcus drove here; his trip was about as long as mine would have been. Kirk and Jeannie, who attended Grandvale State year round, did not have cars, and the others came from farther away. Unfortunately, Marcus’ vehicle was a small pickup truck. So when someone suggested taking a weekend trip up to nearby Grand Mountain, then continuing over the mountains to the coast, the only way we could make it work was for most of us to pile in the back of the truck bed.
“Is that legal here?” I asked, knowing that the laws governing motor vehicles sometimes varied from state to state. I grew up being told it was illegal, although when I was learning to drive, I thought I saw that it was legal in my state in certain settings, even though seat belts were mandatory and pickup truck beds did not have seat belts. This did not make sense to me, and I never did figure out exactly what the law said in my state. But knowing this was never a priority for me, since I never planned on riding in the back of a pickup truck until today, and I never have since.
“I don’t know,” Julie said dismissively, as if she did not care.
“I’ll drive extra carefully if there are people in the back,” Marcus said. “And if I do get in trouble for it, it would be me, not you.”
“I guess,” I said, not thrilled with the idea of riding in the back, but also not wanting to miss out on this day out with my new colleagues and friends.
On the morning we left, it was mostly sunny with some clouds scattered across the sky, mostly coming from the west, the direction we would be going. I wore long pants and brought a sweatshirt. Back home, the weather on the coast can often be much cooler than the weather inland, and I needed to be prepared for anything. Marcus, Emily, and I sat in the cab of the pickup truck, with Marjorie, Ivan, Julie, and Jeannie in the back. Kirk was a local and had seen these places many times, and he had made other plans for the weekend, so he stayed behind. We planned to take turns who would be sitting in the cab.
About five miles west of Grandvale, the road to the coast split in two, one heading west toward Baytown, the other southwest toward Forest Beach. We turned southwest and followed that road for another five miles, then turned onto Grand Mountain Road. A sign said that the peak was another nine miles up that road, and it became quickly evident that those nine miles would be full of sharp turns with barely enough space for two cars to pass each other.
“I like this view,” Emily said.
“Yeah,” Ivan agreed. “Very different from back home.” Ivan was from New York City; he probably saw forested mountains in his day-to-day life much more infrequently than I did.
It took about forty-five minutes to drive to the peak of Grand Mountain. We parked at the small parking area at the end of the road, then walked a trail leading about a quarter mile through a grove of trees to the peak. Two radio towers with antennae and satellite dishes stood behind a fenced-off area at the peak, with a few picnic tables just beyond this. We walked to the picnic tables and sat, facing toward more mountains away from the radio towers.
Grand Mountain was the highest peak in the region, but from this viewpoint, it seemed to be surrounded by a sea of other mountains. Normally, with a view like this, I would have wanted to look down on Grandvale and identify roads and landmarks, and see if I could pick out Howard Hall. But the direction we faced from these picnic tables did not have a good view of all of Grandvale. I could see the Willamette Valley opening up below through a break in the mountains, but from this exact spot, I mostly only saw fields in the valley. Even if I had had a good view of the Grandvale State campus, I probably would not have been able to pick out Howard Hall to begin with, since I did not know my way around Grandvale well enough yet.
The surrounding mountains were green, thickly forested, with grassy clearings scattered throughout. Normally, in my experience, trees on the edge of a forested area have branches covered with needles all the way up their trunks, but these trees had tall, bare trunks with a much smaller cluster of green needles at the top. It looked as if they had grown in the middle of a forest, and the adjoining half of the forest had suddenly been removed. I thought about this for a bit, then I said, “Why are there those clearings like that, with trees with no needles on the sides? Is it because the trees next to them have been cut down?”
“I think so,” Marcus replied. “Something like that.”
“Clear-cutting is so sad,” Julie added.
“At least they don’t cut down the whole forest,” I said. “They spread out the areas they cut down to make it easier for the trees to grow back eventually. That seems like a good way to do it.”
After we sat admiring the view for about half an hour, we drove back down the mountain and continued driving away from Grandvale toward Forest Beach on the coast. A sign indicated that we would be passing through a town called Spruce Creek before we reached Forest Beach, and Marcus commented that he would probably have to stop there for gas. As we arrived in Spruce Creek, Marcus said, “Looks like we don’t have much of a choice for gas,” as we drove up to one of the two gas pumps at the one general store in this town of less than two hundred people.
“This is a town?” Ivan said after we stopped. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a town this small.”
“I know they exist, but yeah,” I said, although I had not grown up around towns this small either.
After we finished getting gas, Jeannie and Julie took the next turn in the cab; I got in the back with Ivan, Emily, and Marjorie. Five minutes later, the truck slowed to a halt. This certainly did not seem like the kind of road to get much traffic. I stood up to look ahead and saw a long line of cars in front of us, then just barely in the distance, as the road curved, I saw a large, newly fallen tree across the road.
“What’s going on?” Marjorie asked.
“Tree fell on the road,” I explained.
“Can we get through?”
“I see cars coming in the other direction. There’s probably one lane open, and we take turns.”
Just as I sat back down, I felt drops of water on my head, and within about a minute, the drops had grown to a light but steady rain. “Great,” I said, not dressed for rain.
“It didn’t look rainy when we left,” Emily observed.
“With the mountains right on the coast, the weather can probably change a lot in a short distance,” I explained.
By the time we finally got to Forest Beach, the rain had softened to a light drizzle, still wet enough to be uncomfortable considering that my clothes were already wet. We found a place to park, for a small fee, and walked to the beach. The gray sky made the choppy water also look gray, and the lack of sun just made the whole experience, although scenic, feel gloomy.
“Here we are,” Jeannie said. “The Oregon coast.”
The seven of us walked down to the damp sand. Some of the others took off their shoes and socks; I did not. I did not want to deal with the mess, especially with my clothes already so wet. I saw a very small but recognizable stream trickling across the sand, less than a foot wide and easy to step over. We spent about half an hour walking up and down the coast. Ivan was talking about something that had reminded him of some movie I had not seen, and Julie had gotten onto the topic of her favorite sex positions, and with nothing to contribute to either of those conversations, I held back a bit and did my best to enjoy the view.
By the time we got back to Marcus’ truck, the drizzle had let up slightly. We drove back the other way, fifteen miles up the coast to Baytown and then inland on the other road leading to Grandvale. The other road was presumably a better road, more well-traveled, and we would not have to deal with the delay caused by the fallen tree. I approved of this decision; it would give me a chance to see different scenery on the way back. The scenery looked very similar to what we saw on the westbound trip, thickly forested mountains with clearings where logging had occurred, but it was still nice to see something new.
The Friday after our beach trip was July 4, Independence Day. The university was closed for the holiday, and we did not have class. After a long week of researching quasi-Monte Carlo integration and low discrepancy sequences, I was ready to take a break from mathematics today. I spent most of the morning reading and catching up on emails, and I went for a short bike ride around campus.
After I ate a microwaved chicken sandwich in my room for dinner, I met the other seven students from the REU program. Grandvale was founded in the middle of the nineteenth century on the west bank of the Willamette River, and since then it had grown from that original downtown, mostly to the west and north, with the east side of the river remaining undeveloped farmland. The seven of us walked a mile and a half from the campus to the river, where the city’s Independence Day festival was happening today. Grandvale was far enough north that the sun would not set until after nine o’clock, so we had a few hours until it would be dark enough for fireworks.
A park extended for about the length of five city blocks between River Street and the actual river, bisected by an old truss bridge carrying eastbound traffic out of town. A newer, wider bridge had been built parallel to this one about half a mile to the south; I could see that one off in the distance in that direction. River Street had been blocked off to traffic for tonight, and numerous food booths, community organizations, and people trying to sell things had set up tables along the side of the street. Large crowds roamed River Street, whic had been decorated with United States flags and various banners with a similar stars-and-stripes theme.
I saw just ahead of me a girl who looked no older than twelve or thirteen, wearing a patriotic outfit and theatrical makeup. She pressed Play on a small boombox-like device that had a microphone attached; as music began playing, the girl started singing “You’re A Grand Old Flag.” That seemed kind of strange, just out of nowhere, but at least the song was fitting for today. After that, she started singing other songs, mostly old rock-and-roll standards.
“I never really understood the Fourth of July,” Jeannie observed. “It’s nice to have a day off, but what are we really celebrating? We’re not exactly the greatest country in the world.” I wisely held my tongue as she continued. “And why fireworks? It seems like there must be something better to celebrate our nation than explosions.”
“Celebrate the independence of your nation by blowing up a small part of it,” I said, in a fake accent to match that of the man who said that to Homer Simpson as he sold him illegal fireworks. That episode, the season finale from a year ago, was one of my favorites.
“Yes!” Ivan replied. “The M-320!”
“What?” Marjorie asked. “Is that from The Simpsons or something?”
“Yeah,” I explained. “The family used the Flanderses’ beach house for the Fourth of July, and Homer went to buy illegal fireworks. And he ended up blowing up the kitchen. And Lisa made some new friends in the beach town. Now that I think about it, it’s probably the only one of my favorite episodes that primarily focuses on Lisa. Usually Lisa can be pretty annoying.”
“What?” Julie said. “She’s the only sensible one! The rest of the family is annoying.”
“But she can be kind of self-righteous and snobby, I think.”
“You prefer Homer the buffoon?”
“Yes! He’s funny!”
At this point, we walked past the singing girl again, in the other direction. I noticed that she sang the same four songs over and over again, and that she had a hat in front of her for tips. Since she sang the same songs, I could not tell if she was actually singing along to recorded background music or just lip-synching. I had never seen a street performer this young before, and something felt a little odd about her.
“I had actually never seen The Simpsons until last week when I watched it with you guys,” Jeannie said. “It wasn’t quite as bad as I thought it would be.”
“‘Wasn’t quite as bad,’” I repeated. “I see how it is.”
“Well, I used to not watch it on principle.”
“Yeah! Watching The Simpsons is like watching Beavis and Butthead.”
Great, I thought. Insult one of my favorite shows by comparing it to one of my other favorite shows. You probably also agree with Julie that Lisa, the intellectual snob, is your favorite.
As the sun started to set, the eight of us found a permanent place to sit for the night, on the packed dirt bank of the river facing the other shore. Kirk had been here before to watch fireworks, and he said that they launch from across the river, so we should have a good view from here.
“Most of the fireworks I’ve watched have been at Disneyland,” Marjorie said. “We have annual passes. We’re gonna go as soon as I get home.”
“That’ll be fun,” Ivan said. “I’m not doing anything when I get back home. School starts right away for me.”
“I’m not going straight home. I’m spending the weekend after the program at my boyfriend’s house in Ohio,” Emily explained. “I was talking to my sister today, and she said, ‘Mom asked me, “Do you think Emily and Ryan are having sex?”’ If my mom wants to know so bad, why doesn’t she just ask me? It pissed me off.” They probably were, I thought. I knew that the norm for people my age was not the Christians I hung out with who believed in saving themselves for marriage. At least they said they believed that.
“What about you, Greg?” Emily asked. “What are you doing after this? When do you start school again?”
“Jeromeville is on the three-quarter schedule, so we don’t start until the end of September, but then we go until the middle of June. So I’m still gonna have a month of summer left. I’m going to spend two weeks at my parents’ house, then move into my new house in Jeromeville, then I’m going on a retreat the week before school starts.”
“With that church group?” Ivan asked.
Around ten o’clock, when it was finally dark, a hush fell over the crowd as the first firework launched into the air, then exploded into a brilliant multi-colored sunburst. People cheered. The fireworks continued on for almost half an hour, with recordings of marching bands playing patriotic music in the background. At the end of the show, several rockets launched at once, briefly illuminating the sky in bursts of color reflecting off of the smoke of so many previous fireworks. After this, everything went dark and silent as the crowd cheered, then the lights of the surrounding park came back on about ten seconds later.
“That was fun,” Ivan said as we stood up.
“That was amazing!” I added. “I really didn’t grow up watching fireworks. The fireworks in Jeromeville last year were really the first fireworks I remember seeing. And this show seemed a little longer.”
“Why didn’t you watch fireworks?” Jeannie asked.
“I don’t know. We just never did. And sometimes it’s too foggy for fireworks.”
“Fog? In July?”
“Yeah. Plumdale is close to the coast, so kind of like what we saw on the coast last weekend.”
“And home fireworks are illegal in both Plumdale and Jeromeville. So fireworks are still a new experience to me.”
I was still on a high from the fireworks as we walked the mile and a half back to Howard Hall in the dark. Marjorie was talking more about growing up going to Disneyland multiple times per year, some of the others were talking about graduate school plans, others were sharing stories about partying, and I mostly felt left out of the conversation. I walked along the same road as them, but I was in my own little world, comforted by thoughts of fireworks and explosions and celebrating freedom. This was a familiar feeling to me; I often felt left out when others my age talked about normal life experiences that were foreign to me.
My story was unusual in that I grew up in the United States of America without watching fireworks. And hearing others talk about things I could not relate to, or experiences I wished I had had, always made me feel rejected. But instead of getting angry about it, maybe I should look on the bright side. Since fireworks were missing from my childhood, I still was able to enjoy fireworks as an adult, and I had not yet become bored or jaded by fireworks shows. This trip to Oregon was only the second time I remembered being on an airplane, so riding in an airplane was still fun and exciting in and of itself, rather than a hassle to be endured before the rest of the trip. And even though Marjorie got to go to Disneyland as many times in a year as I had ever been in my life, this just meant that Disneyland would be fun and new to me when I finally made it back there at age thirty-one.
Readers: Is there anything your friends often talk about that you’ve never seen or done? And do you ever wish you had?
Just so you know, it is possible I might be taking a week off from writing here and there over the next few months. Life is going to be unpredictable. Thanks for being patient with me. Make sure you are subscribed, so you don’t miss an episode.