July 15th, 2008

summer reading

The Road Not Taken

It was time for me to renew the tags on my car, which meant a trip to the DEQ to prove my vehicle isn't too bad of a polluter. Today I therefore had an excuse to partake in a past-time I don't see happening much in the future: driving Oregon's back roads for pleasure. I needed to warm my car up for the DEQ test, so picked a road I hadn't been on before and gave myself 15 minutes to roam.

I ended up outside a town called Sherwood. (Yes, it is named after that Sherwood.) Until approximately 10-20 years ago, it was a pretty typical Oregon small town with farms and acres between houses and twisty country roads. Then development set in and now you see places that used to sell farm feed now selling espresso.

As I meandered, I remembered my first exposure to Sherwood. The first college I went to started out as an agriculture school. It was focused on animal husbandry and crop rotation and the over-all science of growing food and nourishing and breeding livestock to the greatest efficiency. Over the years, the programs available there expanded to include things like engineering, teaching and other of your typical majors. I went there because I thought at the time that I wanted to be a teacher. I still might do that, actually, but when I arrived I decided I couldn't do it then, so had to make a hasty change to my major.

While the school doesn't continue to have farming as its primary focus, it is still a significant one and a large number of the students attend for agricultural majors. I don't remember how or why, but I met a guy when I was there who was an aggie major. He invited me to some week-end party his fraternity was sponsoring that was being held at the Oregon coast. Not the coast that was a straight shot down the highway from the college, but a part of the coast that required traveling a couple hundred miles. I accepted - feeling kind of uncomfortable about the fact that he would be the only one I knew and we would be camping together over a long week-end, but I was in a phase where I was purposefully doing things outside my usual comfort zone, trying to stretch who I was and learn new things about myself and the world, so I decided to go for it.

He took me to his home in Sherwood for a brief stop before we went on to the beach. The whole trip was by back road, we never took a major highway the whole way there, and it was eye-opening and amazing. It was something I had never done before, but traveling Oregon by country roads is an experience I highly recommend. The Willamette Valley area includes many gently rolling hills where you can find horses, cattle, chickens, and crops of a large variety of types once you break free of the cities. Periodically, you can run into roadside stands selling that season's fruits (and vegetables). As I recall, the weather was glorious that week-end so the whole trip was done in sunshine, with brilliant blue skies and lazy breezes to fete our way. Oregon at its best.

I had never been to Sherwood and his family's home and farm were on the top and part of a slope of one of the gentle hills I mentioned. There were hundreds of apple trees surrounding the house, so the house and buildings close to the house were mostly in shadow, with patches of sunlight filtering through. It was magical.

My date acted the perfect gentleman the whole trip and while I was still slightly uncomfortable, I did relax and get to know him and his friends somewhat. There was a dance and a bonfire on the beach, and in general the whole party was pretty festive. Everyone was nice as can be to me and treated me with the epitome of country hospitality. There was no question, however, that everyone else could speak a language I barely understood: the language of farming. On the way home, a group of about 15-20 of us stopped in at one of the fraternity member's family farm. We were unexpected, but welcome. His mom and dad opened up one of the freezer cases and pulled out some food for barbequing and making pies, and in no time this fleet of surprise guests was being fed and entertained. More evidence of that country hospitality - and who can't appreciate people like that? Amidst discussions about which horse was about to deliver, how many pigs were going to slaughter, and when it would be time to hire pickers for the first crops to come in, we played on the large lawn for a few hours and helped clean up, then were back on the road home.

During the trip I had a realization that this whole life was available to me. This guy and I were compatible, or if things didn't work out with him I was certainly at the right college to find another one with the same ambitions, and I could see this entire possibility of a future unfurl before me: dating through college, getting married after graduation, helping on the family farm for a few years until the parents decided on their future plans, then either taking over that farm or starting another. The years of learning a whole lifestyle I didn't know would blend into the years after I became competent and we decided we could have kids. Then the years of working and working and saving for their future at college so the cycle could be repeated. It was all there, ready and complete, just waiting for me to decide I wanted it. I love the beauty of the Oregon countryside and though I knew it would never be easy (especially the getting up early part), I also knew that if I wanted it, I could adjust to it and succeed at it.

We make choices every day and most of the time we don't even wonder what they mean for the entirety of our future. We don't know before we go if choosing a particular restaurant for lunch will mean running into someone we haven't seen in ages and are glad to see again, if it will result in food poisoning, or if it will just be some typical lunch out. We don't know if taking that call while driving will save us time because it brings us news of a traffic jam on our usual route home or if it will mean a dangerous and harmful loss of focus on driving when we should've let it ring. Once in awhile, though, we make a choice and we know what it means, we know just how it will affect our future. We see a possible path and several mile markers down the route and know more or less what we'll find if we go there, so we know what it means when we choose not to take it.

That week-end, I looked down a path and saw what it had to offer. It looked pretty good and it looked like it could be satisfying, but ultimately I knew it wasn't the path for me. When we got back to campus and stood at the fork in the path, I thanked my host sincerely for showing me something I'd never really seen before, but declined to take the journey down that road.

There are some forks in the road I wonder about, some forks I second guess myself on, but that isn't one of them. For all the glory I find in meandering a country road on a beautiful summer's day, I know I made the right choice for me and it's a very satisfying realization.