I imagine myself a bird, flying over our old land in Corbett. The sky is blue and great swells of warm air rise up from the fields on Loudon road. I drift over the plots of land, divided by hedgerows and fences. I am out of time. I circle over the clearing and my childhood home, our sloping lawn, and the woods hedged in creeping mounds of Himalayan Blackberry.
But now those same fields have mostly grown over. There are no grazing animals anymore in the fields; the people who live here now value privacy more than utility. The trees have grown up, and long shadows drape over the stretch of road I used to walk as a child. There are no more barn swallows wheeling and plunging in impossible trajectories, feasting on insects in the twilight. The land is darker now, following nature’s irresistible pull back to forest.
I narrow my wings and fly lower, over Buck Creek as it meanders through our property down the slopes of Larch Mountain.
Underneath the thick vegetation, Buck Creek flickers up light to my bird eyes. I see dashes of yellow skunkweed. I remember my parents’ and grandparents’ stories of old Corbett families living in shacks on Larch Mountain, off long gravel roads, of men hurt in logging operations, of forest fires and house-fires, of racing hot rods on Stark Street, of riding four-wheelers through the woods, of running around with BB-guns shooting at birds. There was poverty in the woods. There was no running water. There was being snowed-in for months. There were tragic deaths, children falling off cliffs. Bad car accidents on country roads.
The fingers of Buck creek drain one slope of Larch and plunge, and plunge again down the steep hills near Gordon Creek Road. And there, Buck Creek flows into the Sandy near my secret swimming spot.
From the air, Corbett, the town where I grew up, looks unchanged. But I witnessed the demographic shift over the years. Large portions of the Columbia River Gorge were designated scenic areas during the late eighties and early nineties. Now, you can’t find a cheap house in Corbett. There is no development allowed. The small farming town is now a bedroom community to Portland. Old timers complain about not being able to do what they want with their “own land.” There are no more teenage boys racing on back-country roads. There are fenced properties and gated driveways. Who knows who lives behind them. Probably lawyers. Yuppies. They don’t have children in the local school, so who knows. Our old mobile home, now thirty years old, was permitted at the time, but cannot be re-built or replaced. I imagine the land returning to forest. Shadows lengthening. I fly on.
I follow the Sandy to where it meets the Columbia. On the west side of the river, as you move away from The Gorge, housing developments swarm over the hills. Where there were once berry and cabbage fields, in Troutdale and Wood Village, there are now grocery stores, sub shops, car dealerships. My father and his siblings worked the berry fields as teenagers as did my grandparents. One of my father’s jobs was to drive a bus to pick up homeless men in downtown Portland and bring them to the berry fields to work. After a day’s work they would spend most of their money at the company store on wine and food, before being dropped back off in Portland.
The flat land of East County and South East Portland spreads out beneath me. Great windrows of Doug Fir stand up thickly between the miles and miles of houses. I have seen pictures; in my grandmother’s time; the land was barely cleared, stumps and snags stuck out from fields of grass. Small, cheap houses dotted the large lots. In the black and white pictures, there was wide-open grey space in East County, an odd power line in the background. A field and a fence. My father was an infant. My great grandfather stood beside my grandmother in overalls. A young man had bought a new car and leaned against it in a white t-shirt and jeans, grinning, his hair slicked back. In the background, a small house and then nothing. A field. A great expanse of grass where the forest used to be.
The space is gone now; streets and alleys, and unpaved detours, crowd in where there was once forest and farms. I am flying low here. Great flocks of crows jump and caw in the highest branches of the Doug Firs. I fly west along Powell Blvd. Sunlight flashes up at me, reflected in the mud puddles dotting the unpaved sidewalks. Buses lurch along, picking up women with children in strollers and folks in wheelchairs. I fly over pot dispensaries, Russian grocery stores and strip clubs. Near Interstate 205 the trees disappear. Traffic and concrete gleam in the sun, blinding my eyes. Powell is now four lanes of rushing traffic. And then, there are no more Doug Firs. The houses are bigger, the trees are deciduous.
I fly north over Division. There are shiny new condos and businesses. The old Wild Oats grocery store. The building was owned by New Seasons at some point. And after Wild Oats closed the store, or when it was bought out by Whole Foods, or however it went down, it stood empty for several years. It was rumored to become a gym, but now the building is inhabited by several upscale restaurants. One of my oldest family friends works there in the Indian restaurant. Before it was ever a grocery store however, it was a Smith’s Home Furnishings, a legendary chain of furniture stores in Portland. When my grandfather was addicted to heroin in the 60’s he stole a TV from the back of the building. There were no surveillance cameras then and he knew there were other businesses in Portland and outlying towns that would buy his stolen goods.
Now I’m over Laurelhurst Park. This part of Portland is unchanged. The houses are historical, the trees so large they branch over the streets completely, creating a pleasant green canopy for the people walking below. From the sky it looks idyllic and it still is, for those who can afford to live here. The sun is setting. I perch for a rest on the corner of Burnside and 32nd. Down the hill, past the duplex where I lived with Ledena, across the Burnside Bridge, the sun gleams on Big Pink, the US Bank Tower in downtown Portland. Rush hour traffic is starting to slow down.
To my left is Music Millenium, the oldest record store in Portland. It opened in 1969 and has been through as many iterations as the music industry and Portland. My parents went on a date there when they were high-schoolers. I think the date was just the two of them looking at records, which seems sweet to me, as I look at the brick building and its crowded, painted windows. My father still stops there sometimes when he is in the neighborhood to buy Nag Champa incense. I feel like telling him he can get that incense practically anywhere, but why spoil his nostalgia? At some point Music Millenium started selling bumper stickers reading “Keep Portland Weird.” There was a time in Portland when it seemed that everyone had that bumper sticker. Now I hardly ever see them.
To my right is the Laurelhurst Market. If I remember correctly, the spot used to be inhabited by a convenience store – maybe it was even called the Laurelhurst Market. Now it’s an upscale restaurant that sells cured meats.
I fly West again and North, over Forest Park. I think of the warning that with all the English Ivy and the dead trees and thick underbrush in Forest Park, that it would likely burn rapidly. It’s a fire hazard, the experts say. And then I fly up, up, up over the St. John’s Bridge, cool green and majestic in the evening light. They say the St. John’s Bridge will likely topple, with most of our other bridges, when the big earthquake hits. I fly across the Willamette over St. John’s and its quaint downtown area, the small houses being torn down or renovated, the new buildings going in here and there where there are still spaces for development. Some say it’s the last affordable neighborhood in Portland.
And then I fly. I fly. I fly. I hide my eyes from the city and don’t open them again until I am out over the Columbia, heading out into the Pacific.