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Like a large, featherless bird on a very long migration route, I often make stopovers in between Melbourne, Australia and Grand Pre, Canada. Inevitably, the longest and most rewarding one is a layover in Portland, Oregon, to catch up with my oldest son, his wife and family. The summer visit is the longest, and it often coincides with his birthday, July 16th. This year I happened to hit a milestone– the big Four Oh.

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His mother has her own migration pattern. Until recently it was a triangular path, from a home base in Southern California back to her original home in the Netherlands, then up to Portland. She now has a house in the same neighborhood of Portland as our son, and was good enough to offer me the guest room. My last visit through was a quick stopover in early December, 2011. My son borrowed her four-wheel drive Subaru and we went up to Mt. Hood for a day of snow shoeing and sledding.

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This time he took some time off work and we drove to a small, but thriving town on the Columbia River Gorge called Hood River. It is a mecca for windsurfing and kiteboarding, not to mention the home of “Full Sail,” a wonderful brew pub. From there, we headed due South, along the Hood River, making detours to see three farms, one with fields of lavender, one with recently shorn alpacas, the last with the real money maker in this area– berries and other fruit. Our afternoon was devoted to a walk around Trillium Lake, with its spectacular views of Mt. Hood.

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Last summer we signed on for a weekend trip as part of Bike Oregon. He had acquired a second-hand Bike Friday tandem, so Lucas could come along. The route was through the Willamette Valley, in the country around Salem, the state capital. I had booked a tent, so we had instant accommodation. What we hadn’t counted on was a weekend of solid rain. Salem’s rain usually comes in late Fall. June through September is the dry season.

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Nevertheless, the campus at Willamette University was attractive and the organization of Bike Oregon was impressive. I enjoyed the music and the friendliness of the volunteers and the other riders. The Capitol building itself is one of three art deco capitols in the United States. It is certainly striking, with the gold statue of an Oregon pioneer visible for miles around.

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Yesterday, Dolan’s mother and I headed up the Gorge again into the dry country of Eastern Oregon, a mere twenty miles from Hood River. As different as night and day. The destination was a concrete box of a building on the Washington side. It was constructed as the home of Sam Hill, a Pacific Northwest entrepreneur. He bought five thousand acres along the river, hoping to establish a Quaker community. It was called Maryhill, after his daughter.

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The community never took off, however, and he ended up creating a museum instead of a home with the help of some odd, artistic connections he made during his trips around the world. It holds a substantial collection of furniture from Queen Marie of Romania, some souvenirs from the life of a vivacious dancer by the name of Loie Fuller, and works donated by a San Francisco socialite by the name of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels.

There is a wonderful collection of chess pieces from around the world, an excellent display of Native American crafts, and a room full of Rodin sculptures and drawings.

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Hill’s most astonishing legacy is a full size reproduction of Stonehenge, dedicated to the local sons in the area who died fighting in WW I. His museum may be in Washington but it has an Oregon sensibility about it. The town motto here is “Keep Portland Weird.”

I don’t think that has ever been a problem.

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Our Melbourne flat looked pretty desolate early Sunday morning  when the surly taxi driver dropped us off, refusing to touch a single suitcase.  He informed us at the airport that he thought we needed a station wagon, but we had already loaded our bags in his car and there was still room for another passenger in the front seat. After a sixteen hour flight in the back row of a 747, neither of us was inclined to indulge the driver, no matter how disinclined he was to take our fare.  Our place is only ten minutes from the airport.  Maybe that was it.  Maybe we smelled bad.  Who knows?  Who cares?

When we got inside, our cat let out a long wail that seemed to sum up our six week absence.  Where were you guys?  Two house sitters taking care of her needs while we were in North America was simply not enough. It is winter in Melbourne and the weather can be cold, wet and miserable, although it is so changeable that it sometimes seems like spring.  This time of year, Tibbey spends much of her time indoors, nursing grievances.

I happened on a piece in the Sunday supplement that was all about complaining.  The author of the article had come across a book suggesting that we all do too much of it.  Most complaints fall on deaf ears and sour us to life’s pleasures.  The writer had attempted to go for 21 days without one complaint.  The trick is to notice and keep track, and the secret weapon seems to be a purple rubber band.   I doubt if our cat would go for that. Purple is just not her color.

In a last-ditch attempt to hold on to some of the fragile summer sun in Nova Scotia, we did get out on the ocean for one afternoon of sea kayaking before we left.  It was windy, but wonderful.  At the end of the afternoon the cheap sunscreen seeped into my eyes and stung like anything.   I complained, of course, cursing myself for buying stuff that did that.

The day we left, we got up much too early and headed to the airport for our flight west.  Our trajectory back to Australia took us through Portland, once again.  We arrived in time to help my son celebrate his 37th birthday, to enjoy a delicious cheesecake baked by his talented wife, and to marvel at the verbal skills of Lucas, who has just turned three.  And meet his new sister, Zooey Marie.  She is beautiful, of course, but shows no signs of being a docile, quiet child.  I wouldn’t have expected as much, but these new Halbrooks are going to be handful.

I was able to get in a good bike ride in that bike-friendly city.  I saw the art museum and one small section of Powell’s huge book store.  While my son was at work, the rest of us went for a long walk into Mount Tabor park.  Lucas and I pretended to be airplanes beneath the towering pine trees.  He is absolutely obsessed with planes and helicopters of all descriptions.  Needless to say, I don’t share his enthusiasm.  As one of my favorite cartoons puts it, if man had been meant to fly, the Creator would have given him shorter legs and narrower shoulders.

It was a long, long walk for Lucas and I’m happy to say he made it home without having to water someone’s garden on the way.  Now that we are back in Oz, the heat of summer and the bright sun in North America at this time of year seems very far away.  At night, Tibbey curls up between our heads.  Sometimes I wake up to find that she has managed to displace my head on the pillow.  She pretends ignorance, of course.  “Oh, was this your pillow?”  Occasionally, she snores.  It is a peculiar sound, almost musical.  Who’s complaining?  We are all just fine.


The reason for our journey to Portland was simple.  My son and his family migrated up there last year from their previous base in San Francisco.  The decision was triggered, in large part, by the birth of my grandson just two years ago. Portland offered a lifestyle conducive to young families, the prospect of an affordable house, and, for my son and his wife, friends who had already moved there.  The city’s cycle-friendly reputation probably didn’t hurt.

Portland is known as the premier bicycling city in North America.  There are entire streets where cycling commuters take priority over cars.   I actually laid hands on Calfee Design’s beautiful bamboo bike and paid a visit to a local recumbent shop.  Ironically, while yours truly was chatting away with the owner, I came very close to getting an expensive parking ticket on our rental Subaru.

From almost anywhere in the city, you can see the lovely volcano, Mount Hood, and usually Mt. St. Helen as well.  It is the city of roses.  Powell’s is here, the largest bookstore west of the Mississippi.  There are 28 microbreweries.  It has great coffee, delicious fresh food (especially berries) from nearby farms, and eleven bridges.  The Willamette River effectively divides the city in half.

For more than fifty years, Oregon was the destination for thousands of immigrants seeking a better life.  They joined caravans of covered wagons and made their way out West.  They came for the free land; the gold rush; a better life.  That was the picture my teacher drew when she spoke about the great migration.

I hold vague memories of long road trips from Montana to visit my mother’s favorite sister in Portland.  She and her husband were warm, generous people.  They had a small, very neat house.  George took great pride in his car and did all the mechanical work himself in his exceptionally tidy garage.  They took us up to see the Rose Test Garden, of course, and probably the zoo as well.  It was summer and everything smelled good.

My wife and I arrived on July 11, barely missing my grandson’s second birthday.  Sometime during the last year he had metamorphosed from a beautiful baby into a non-stop talker, a bundle of energy and emotions.  We had gone from being part of his magical physical world him into being strangers.  It was a disconcerting transformation.  Our second visit in as many years did not exactly turn us into a known and trusted item.  In Nova Scotia they have a term for people like us, “come-from-away.”

Despite parenting demands and my son’s work schedule, we found time for a fabulous farm market, great meals, good conversation, a visit to the most popular tourist attraction in the area (Multnomah Falls), an outing on Sandy river, a family get-together, a celebration of my son’s birthday. and a getaway of our own to the Pacific coast where we walked for hours on the beaches.

On our very last day we squeezed in a hike up one of the streams flowing down from the mountains to the Columbia River gorge.  It was stunning.   If only, if only it weren’t so far away.

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