Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Oh Christmas Tree (The Green Kind)

I know, I know... here I go again with the trees.

My dad and I always went to a local tree farm and cut down our own tree, going as far back as I can remember. As far as I know, we didn't do it for the experience, really, but more because my dad said that trees sold on lots or in stores were "bad trees" and that as soon as we got one home it would turn brown and lose all of its needles. He would say, "You know sweetheart, they ship those trees from all over the country so by the time they get to those lots you have no idea how long ago they were cut." My dad is all about value, you see. He wants to get his money's worth. My dad and I followed this tradition until I got married, when Justyn and I selected our first tree from Home Depot.

You know by now that I have a thing for trees. I wasn't so sure about the Home Depot thing, because I am my father's daughter, as well as a natural skeptic. But, while looking around at the various sizes and types, a tree that was propped up in the aisle fell on me with no provocation. Seriously, I was the only one there. So, of course, I went to find Justyn, running through each aisle, huffing and puffing, until finally I found him and I said, "Honey!.... (huff and puff)... You'll never believe it!... (huff and puff)... I found our tree!... or actually... (huff and puff)... it found me!!!" And so then I figured, if that tree wanted to be our tree badly enough for it to reach out and grab me, then it must be a good one. And, it was a good tree. It certainly didn't disintegrate 2 days after we got it home. (I tried to find a picture for you, because I do have one somewhere and it's funny because Justyn is wearing a Howard Dean for President t-shirt. No luck, though.)

After that, Justyn and I started buying our trees from a high school tree lot near our house. We figured that was okay, because the money went to the school. But you see, every year, they jacked up their prices. So the first year we got our tree, it was like 45 bucks. Then the next year for the same tree, it was $60. That year, it just so happened that Justyn (who is NOT a football fan) happened to be wearing a Denver Broncos hat that he bought out of necessity to keep his head warm. The guy selling us the tree says, "That'll be $60." Justyn says, "Wow, really? Last year it was only $45." Guy looks at him, sizing him up and noticing the hat, and says, "How 'bout those Broncos?" Justyn made some vague remark, like, "Yeah, how 'bout 'em? I used to live in Denver." (Or something like that having nothing to do with football whatsoever.) The guy says, "Okay, I'll give it to you for $50." Honestly, after that we should have gone elsewhere. But, it was so close to our house. So we kept going. The prices kept creeping up (due to gas prices, they said) and the last year we were there we ended up paying $70 for our tree (they tried to charge us $80).

So, I was actually pretty excited when the season rolled around this year. I know that a lot of the trees sold nationwide come from Oregon, so I was hoping we could get a screaming deal. We went to a little nursery close to our apartment, and scored an awesome tree for only $45!! AND it's taller than our previous trees because we have higher ceilings now than we used to. Granted, it was the first place we went, and we did not shop around at all. In fact, we were driving around the next day and I saw the same kind of trees for only $30. So next year, I know what to look for.

Not only are the trees here less expensive, they are the epitome of every perfect Christmas tree you've ever imagined. Seriously. No Charlie Brown trees here. I remember trying to select a tree in Nashville, and each one had some sort of defect. "That one has a big bald spot on one side." Or, "The top branch is crooked so we won't be able to center the tree topper." Or, "The trunk on that one isn't straight." Or, "That one doesn't have very many needles on it." (I know, I'm picky.) But Oregon trees are different. They're picture perfect, every last one of them. Talk about value! Dad would definitely be proud. See?

Our first Oregon Christmas

So anyway, I have to talk about the environmental impacts of buying a real tree. You see, I've often wondered which is better: to buy a real tree (meaning it gets cut down and has to be replanted) or a fake tree (which means no trees get cut down, but they end up in landfills and have tons of chemicals in them). I decided to do some actual research this year. Here are my results:

Fake trees are generally made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) which is nasty stuff. It has made its way into a lot of consumer products (from yoga mats to children's toys) and the process they use to make PVC is extremely dirty and bad for the environment. I won't get into all that here, but you should know that most artificial trees contain PVC. Not only that, but apparently lead is used to stabilize some PVC products, hence the label on your fake Christmas tree box warning you against inhaling or eating any bits of lead dust that may fall from the "branches". Doesn't that sound like a bundle of holiday joy? I'll bet that would create some fun Christmas memories for you and yours.

A real tree can be a poor substitute also, if you don't choose wisely and act responsibly. What I'm getting at, is that our Home Depot tree purchase probably wasn't the smartest. It's best if you can get them from a small tree lot or a local grower or farm, like my dad and I used to. You know they'll replant them, and that's important. You should also know that trees are just like any other agricultural product, and can contain insecticides, pesticides, and all that other funky stuff. So if that's important to you, ask about it before you buy.

In addition, after Christmas I see an obscene amount of Christmas trees on the side of the road or in garbage cans. People! You can recycle your tree! We used to take ours to a local park where they would chip them up and use them for mulch or trail building. You can call your city's waste management office to find a recycling center near you, or the Earth911 website has a search tool that can be helpful. Just make sure you take off all your decorations! (Speaking of decorations, have you changed your tree lights to LEDs yet? Do it! They use less electricity, and won't scorch your fingers since they don't get hot!)

So, in my opinion, a real tree is the best way to go if you're smart about it. Make sure you support local,make sure it will get replanted, get pesticide free if you can, and recycle. Of course, if you're really concerned about it, don't get a tree at all. In the interest of full disclosure, that's really the most environmentally responsible thing to do. But, I just can't bring myself to give it up.

There'll be some radio silence from me while I'm traveling, so I hope you all have a safe and happy holiday season, fake tree, real tree, or no tree at all.

Friday, December 5, 2008

How I Spent My Thanksgiving

Hi Folks,
Sorry it's been a while. I've had family in town for 2+ weeks and just couldn't find the time. So, here's an update on what I've been doing the past couple of weeks.

My dad came to visit. I love my dad and we have an awesome relationship. But it was a tough week when he was here. You see, my dad is a southern man, through and through. He doesn't like to be out of his comfort zone, and trust me: Portland is definitely out of his comfort zone. The first morning he was here, this is what happened

Dad: "You hungry for breakfast?"
Me: "Sure, I have whole wheat english muffins, eggs, cereal, oatmeal.... what do you feel like?"
Dad: "Actually, I was thinking maybe we could go to Hardee's."
Me: "Hmm.... I don't think we have Hardee's here. Or, I think it's called Carl's Jr. But I'm pretty sure it's the same." (Thinking to myself, that I don't' really know this for sure, because I've never set foot inside a Carl's Jr.)
Dad: "Okay, let's go there."

We get in the car, and find the nearest Carl's Jr., go inside, where my dad proceeds to order biscuits and gravy.

Guy behind the counter: "Sorry, sir, we don't have biscuits and gravy."
Dad: "You don't HAVE biscuits and gravy??"
Guy: "No sir. In fact, we don't have any biscuits."

Panic ensues. Dad starts slowly backing away from the counter with a deer in the headlights look, like... "where the F*** am I?" He looks at me expectantly.

Me: "You want to go somewhere else?"
Dad: "Yeah.... let's go..... somewhere else."

So we walk outside, where I spot a McDonald's across the street. Now, if you know me, you know I don't eat at McDonald's. Like, never. I hate it. It's gross. So, I jokingly say:

Me: "Well, lucky us... there's a McDonald's right across the street!"
Dad: "Cool, let's go there."
Me: [jaw drops] "Uhh.... okay."

So I ate at McDonald's. Yippee.

That's pretty much how the visit went. But, we did have some good talks, and I took him to the coast which was cool. The very next day, Justyn's mom flew in for Thanksgiving. I got one night of a break between, which was much needed.

Justyn's mom is a really cool person. She's really energetic, really intellectual (about most things), and she's super healthy and active. So, it was a nice change from my dad's visit. But, she totally stresses me out. And, since I'm not working and Justyn doesn't have time off, I had to entertain her by myself for THREE days. Ugh. I was NOT looking forward to it. She's the kind of person that needs constant entertainment, so there's a lot of pressure. But, overall, I have to say it was a really good visit. Probably the best I've ever had with her.

Except, of course, for this kind of stuff, which she likes to sprinkle throughout most conversations:

Her: "So, you don't cook much, huh?"
Me: "Yes, actually, I really like to cook."
Her: "Oh, but you don't have dinner ready for Justyn when he comes home from work?"
Me: "No, he doesn't usually like to eat that early."
Her: "Oh, well... he seemed pretty excited about it when I told him we'd have dinner ready for him today."
Me: [speechless]

Then every time she cooked a meal (which was often, and she is an amazing cook), she would look at me and say, "see, cooking doesn't have to take a long time!" Ugh.

And this:

Her: "Do you want to make a pie or anything for the big dinner?"
Me: "Sure, I'd love to. I have a great recipe for Chocolate Pecan Pie with Bourbon."
Her: "Okay, what do you need so we can make a list?"
Me: "I think I have everything except pecans and dark corn syrup."
Her: "Oh..... corn syrup?? That's really bad for you. You shouldn't eat it."
Me: "Yeah, I know, but it only calls for 1/2 cup which isn't bad. Or, do you know of something else I could use as a substitute?"
Her: "No, I don't think so. I guess I shouldn't ask what's in it or I won't eat any."
Me: [speechless]

I made the pie anyway, by the way, and it was delish. Everyone loved it (it was the first one to get depleted). And, I'm pretty sure she was sneaking bites while we were all asleep. Every morning there was a little bit more missing.

About the meal: almost everything was from the farmer's market, including the turkey which was awesome!!! Here's a picture:


After (Yep, that's Justyn carving the turkey!)

Everything was soooo good, especially the turkey. I'll never buy anything but a fresh turkey again. Yum. And, there was enough leftover for me to make white chili so that was great, too!

We had our feast on the day after Thanksgiving due to some schedule issues with some of the family, so on Thanksgiving day we were going to the park (Justyn's step-dad is a professional photographer so we were going to snap some photos). It was really foggy and on the way we passed a huge cemetery that's close to our place. We decided to stop there and I got some really cool pictures:

If you want to see more pictures from the week (including some amazing foggy sunset pictures at the coast), click here.

So, that's it. I spent my Thanksgiving in a cemetery with my in-laws. It was cool. And, I realized how lucky I am. I'm extremely thankful to have the opportunity to go on this journey, and it has been so rewarding for me. I'm so fortunate to have a great family (by blood and by marriage). I'm happier and healthier than I've ever been, and for that I am grateful.

I miss my family, though. I'm glad I'm coming home for Christmas.

Other things that happened over Thanksgiving: I became a volunteer leader with a local non-profit, I was on the local news (twice!) for my volunteer work, and I had a job interview that went really well.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

ISFJ Seeks Meaningful Work

I have been unemployed for almost 5 months, and it's starting to get to me.

For a recovering workaholic who has been employed since she was 15 years old (even through college) it has been a rough adjustment. First, a little background:

I am a hard worker... like, to the point of insanity. I throw everything I am into my work, no matter what it is. If you asked me to clean a toilet, I would spend 30 minutes making sure it was spotless with the hope that someone would come along and be like, "Damn, that is one clean toilet." I try to be the best at everything I do - not to satisfy my ego, but so that I can go to sleep each night knowing that I did the best I could. I have always assumed this quality came from my dad. He has always worked really hard and been very diligent about saving money and being responsible. I have him to thank for my financial savvy - he taught me everything I know about managing finances (until I learned for myself later in life... mostly through the mistakes of others around me).

Until my junior year in college, I was double majoring in International Business and Accounting. But then I had a personal crisis: suddenly I looked around at my friends and all I saw were nurses, teachers, social workers, etc. I felt cold and heartless. I said to myself, "What am I doing to help people? Their taxes? Ugh..." so I dropped the accounting part and figured at least with international business I could do something useful. Not to say there is anything wrong with doing people's taxes, but it just never felt like the right thing for me. I have always felt like I should contribute something more to the world, to help make a real difference in an important way... either improving someone's life or
saving the world from itself.

But, I digress. I started at my last job as an intern while still in college. I worked my ass off, as usual, so they decided to hire me when I graduated. 6 years and about 7 job titles later, I left that job to move to Oregon. It was a good job for a while, and most of the time I was there, they rewarded my hard work with money and promotions. But, being a workaholic is hard. You reach a point where you can't sustain that level of commitment anymore without sacrificing happiness, health, and your personal life. I blamed the company for that for a long time, and only now after 5 months of breathing room do I recognize that it was my fault too.

So now, being unemployed is hard. I am slightly OCD about a lot of things, and my work has always been my outlet for those tendencies. Without it, I have nowhere to channel that energy. But, I looked at it as a great opportunity. I was tired of the industry I was in, and the job I did was a thankless one. To be honest, I was planning to leave anyway even if we didn't move to Portland, so the timing was perfect. I figured it would give me time to take a break from working 50 hours a week or more, and figure out what I want to do. Unfortunately now isn't the best time to be looking for a job here in Oregon... just today they announced that the unemployment rate jumped from
6.4% in September to 7.3% in October. And apparently, there is never a good time to look for a job in Portland (especially for a non-native like me), with unemployment being historically higher here than the national average.

When I came out here, I wanted a green job, and everyone was like, "Awesome, you're in the right place for that!" Since Portland is the
greenest city in the country, I figured the possibilities would be endless. Not so. It is super competitive, and while at a job fair a couple of months ago I found myself standing next to my clone. She said my exact spiel word for word. "Hi, I don't have any experience in the environmental industry, but I really care a lot about the environment and have some excellent transferable skills..." etc, etc. I was speechless. I called Justyn in a panic and said, "No wonder I haven't found a job. There are tons of people trying to get into this industry that are exactly like me." So, it was time to regroup and re-evaluate my approach.

I decided to take the
Myers-Briggs personality test and attend a class, where I learned that I am a classic ISFJ. Which basically means, I could do any job as long as I'm working for a good cause. (Gee, I already knew that, sort of, but it was nice to have confirmation anyway.) Upon learning this, I thought maybe I should look into other types of organizations besides just environmental. I mean, my last job was such a life-sucking experience, that really anything to help serve people and the community would be an awesome change for me. So I joined Idealist, Hands on Portland, and CNRG to try and get connected to the non-profit world here in Portland. (For my Nashville readers, Hands on Nashville and Cool People Care are some really great organizations if you want to donate some time to the community. Sometimes all they need is a couple of hours of your time!)

Now, a couple of weeks and more than 40 volunteer hours later, I feel like a full time volunteer. And, I love it. I wish I could do this all the time. It has been such a fantastic way to get involved instead of sitting on my rump and browsing job ads, and also to learn about the non-profit community here and make friends. I never realized how many fantastic organizations there are, and how much work there is to be done. I have been so inspired, in fact, that I've decided to start posting about some of my experiences at different non-profits, and highlight those that I think deserve special notice. There are so many unsung heroes in the non-profit community that really should be known. The plus side of all of this (aside from the obvious) is that I have actually realized through this experience that I really love working with kids, especially in education and literacy. In fact, I think I'd rather do that than anything else.

So, I'll continue working for free. I'm a strong believer in
karma, so hopefully it will come back around at some point, and then I can find a way to get paid for it...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Admission of Guilt

Hello friends. I have bad news. I have been waiting, hoping I wouldn't have to write this post, but today I realized that it's time.

I hurt my ankle. Well, I didn't hurt it, really I think it hurt itself. I didn't fall down or anything.

The 5k training was going really well, actually. I was starting to find my groove. I got the wardrobe thing down, started covering my ears, got the intervals timed out correctly, etc. I was actually starting to feel like a real runner. Then around the end of week 3 of our training program, my left ankle started to hurt a little, but only when I ran. So I figured, maybe it's no big deal, just a little adjustment my body needs to make, you know?

Not so... it got progressively worse, and so I grilled Amy since she's basically my running coach. She said as long as it wasn't radiating up to my knee, it was fine. Well, sure enough, within a couple of days my left knee started hurting. But again, it was only when I ran, so I still didn't worry a whole lot. I thought maybe I just needed new shoes, so I started running in different shoes to see if that helped. Then one morning, I woke up, slung my legs over the edge of the bed, stood up, and BAM!

I mean, seriously intense pain in my ankle. Couldn't walk. Hurt. So. Bad.

So, I tried soaking it in epsom salt, which didn't seem to help, contrary to my dear mother's belief that an epsom salt bath will cure any problem you have. (I love you mom.) In her defense, I have often soaked in epsom salts after a rigorous hike, or if I'm just feeling achy, and it actually does help a lot. And epsom salt is cheap at any drugstore...you should pick some up and give it a try.

Then I asked Mom, who is also an amazingly talented massage therapist, if she had any other ideas to relieve my pain. Then she proceeded to convince me that I had a stress fracture. She has had a stress fracture before, and all of the symptoms seemed to match mine, so I proceeded to freak out and start checking into my insurance to see if I could get myself an x-ray.

Finally, while gently probing with my curious fingers around the ankle joint, I found something. I found my peroneous longus. And it hurt. I was actually glad, because finding a sore muscle, to me, negates the existence of a broken bone (which, I know is not necessarily true, but let me have my moment). I have been working on this muscle to try and relieve some of the constriction, and I can say now after over a week of sitting on my ass, that my ankle is feeling a bit better. But, I still feel a little twinge of pain when I walk, so I'm not 100% sure my troubles are over.

Needless to say, and to finally come to the point, we are NOT running the planned 5k on December 7th. I have now learned the importance of building in plenty of extra time in your training plan so things like this don't screw you over. But, as soon as I am feeling fully mobile again, I will be picking up where we left off, and setting a goal of my own to run 3 miles anyway. So, I'm not a total failure.

P.S. Give some kudos to Justyn. He's been running his tushy off without me, which is no easy task especially when I was like, "Nah, just skip it. Don't go. Sit here on the couch with me and watch CNN and eat Mississippi Nilla Mud Cake." (Yes, that recipe is forthcoming. Just a little teaser for you.)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Filling the Void

I feel compelled to comment on what's happening here in our country, while trying to avoid going too political on my loyal readers. It's hard to sit by and NOT say something about the amazing thing I've just been alive to witness. I think I can say, honestly, for the first time (at least in a long time) I am proud to be an American citizen. And, by the way, I hope we can do away with the whole "generation X" or "apathetic generation" crap now. I think we've proven that's not true.

I think we'd all agree that what Obama has done is truly phenomenal. Not just because of his race, but the way he ran his campaign, reached younger and disenfranchised demographics, and turned red states blue for the first time in 4 decades. I cannot even describe what it feels like to actually be part of making history. To be honest, I didn't support Obama during the primaries. I thought he was overrated and underqualified. And, I don't like being part of a "movement" just because it's a movement. In fact, the more hype there is, the more skeptical I am. But, after he won the nomination, and really when the financial crisis started to set in, I began to watch him very carefully. I was waiting to see what he would do, what he would say, how he would respond.

Day by day, I was increasingly impressed at his sense of calm in the face of such a crisis (especially compared to McCain, who in the past has won my vote). I know there was plenty of negative campaigning to go around, but I honestly feel like Obama was able to stay above the fray, for the most part. His message was clear and consistent, right up until last night's speech. (If you didn't see it, please watch. It is truly inspirational.) Maybe it makes me an idealog, but I don't care. I think it' s high time someone finally ran on a message of hope and change, something this country desperately needs. And looking out on the crowd, what an astounding variety of people. It echoed what he said in his speech: young, old, black, white, Latino, Asian, gay, straight, rich, poor... dividing lines did not exist. I've been privileged to vote in 3 general elections so far, and I've never seen anything like I saw last night. The quantity of people that showed up to Grant Park was awesome to see... and people, not only in our country, but all over the world, running out into the streets and celebrating. It was more like New Year's Eve than Election Day.

Back to his speech, I think it's a real testament to the kind of leader he'll be. How many candidates' acceptance speeches are so somber and pensive? I didn't detect an ounce of ego in what he said, and I think that's really something. It must be tempting, after 21 months of campaigning, to get up and say, "Yay me!!" But he didn't, and I think it's important to note. You can tell he is a man that knows what he's up against.

I'm a young voter, and fall into the demographic most political experts are talking about in the aftermath of this election. And I think Obama's biggest challenge is going to be keeping the interest of all these new, young voters. His campaign has laid the groundwork for what could potentially be a new type of government. Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, and all the other avenues he used to get votes, should not be ignored now that he's actually gotten them. With such an overwhelming victory, I think Obama now has a mandate to fulfill his part of the agreement people made when voting for him.

I have found elections to be pretty anti-climactic, and I hope this one is different. Think of all the people who got out there and knocked on doors for him, made calls, put up posters, etc. What are they to do, now that it's all over? How will they fill the void? I think Obama really runs the risk of a major disconnect with the very people who put him in office. His campaign was so innovative and groundbreaking... I can only hope his administration will be the same. I would love to see him do a weekly radio address where he tells people what's going on (not just on traditional airwaves, but satellite and internet radio), and maybe even takes calls from people, or even start a blog that HE writes. If he doesn't, I'm afraid 4 years from now when he's up for re-election, he'll be starting all over again. Anyone who's read The Tipping Point knows that this kind of momentum is hard to get back once it's gone. It is my dearest hope that Obama can live up to everyone's expectations, including my own.

I'm not a person that is easily moved (especially when it comes to politics), but sitting on my couch last night, watching Obama quote Abraham Lincoln and talk about uniting our country, I couldn't help feeling like I was watching the John F. Kennedy of our generation. Obama said last night in his speech, "I need your help." We're here to give it, Mr. President. All you have to do is tell us what you need.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Mac & Cheese & Cheese & Cheese...

Mmm... macaroni and cheese. Just say the words "comfort food" and it's the first thing I think of. So, when I learned that Tillamook was hosting their 4th annual macaroni & cheese cookoff, of course I had to go.

Oh, and let me go ahead and apologize for my picture taking skills on today's blog. Taking delectable photos of tennis ball sized portions of mac & cheese in a clear plastic cup isn't easy. Especially when you're inside a big, not very well-lit tent with hundreds of other people bumping into you. And, a bit of advice, don't get in the way of people and their mac & cheese.... seriously.... I've seen it first-hand. It's not pretty.

There were a few special guests: one of the hosts was none other than 2nd season Top Chef winner Ilan Hall. He made his own special macaroni and cheese for the crowd while we were waiting to taste the 6 finalists' recipes. And it was.... okaaayy. I mean, I've had way better mac & cheese. This is him, I promise... he just has a beard now:

Also while we were waiting, we were served Kells Lager & Cheese Soup (courtesy of the hosting venue, Kells Irish pub in downtown Portland). I didn't try it, but Justyn said it was good, and had a nice, strong beer taste. Another celebrity was there: Miss Tillamook, 2008. This is her:

Incidentally, I was trying to google Miss Tillamook's actual name, and this is what I got. I guess Miss Tillamook can be a cow, also.

Okay, so anyway... on to the finalists. My personal favorite was the recipe submitted by Catherine Wilkinson from Arizona, for her Smokey Black Pepper Cheese & Macaroni with Wild Mountain Chanterelles. And I don't even really like mushrooms all that much... especially weird ones I've never heard of. But it had a very nice flavor, while still embracing its mac & cheesy-ness.

Poor Catherine, she didn't win anything except an honorable mention. But, she didn't do as poorly as Jennifer Crackel from Michigan. Jennifer made Souffle Style Macaroni, and I did not enjoy it. Too eggy. She didn't even get an honorable mention (but I guess making it to the finals is something in itself.)

Next up was Melissa Lacaille from Washington state for her Cornbread Topped Apple Macaroni and Cheese:

It looks pretty good, right? It wasn't bad.... just not to my taste. While I have been known to dip some apples in a cheese fondue at the Melting Pot, I don't mess with the mac. A little tweaking is okay for sure, but no fruit. I'm not down with that. I'm a macaroni and cheese purist.

The one I was really excited about was our own Rhonda Allen from Oregon, and her Tillamook Mac & Cheese Chile Relleno Pie. Now THAT is something that I could get into. I love green chiles, and how could you go wrong here?

I'll tell you how: it needed salt. Now, I don't know if it was Rhonda's fault or not. I mean, while she was up on stage making her cutesy casserole dish of mac & cheese, and placing it delicately inside avocado halves for the judges, maybe the chefs in the back kitchen who were preparing the 10 "identical" stainless steel vats of it forgot the salt. We'll never know. I do think it would be good, though, with some salt added. It had a nice green chile flavor. She won 2nd runner up, though, and $1000 cash and 15 pounds of free cheese is nothing to balk at.

1st runner up was my personal 2nd favorite: Kathi Jones Del-Monte from New York for her Tillamook Triple Play Macaroni & Six Cheese Strata. This one, by far, had the cheesiest consistency and richest flavor.

I mean, if I were judging a mac & cheese cookoff sponsored by the cheese company, I would have given this one first. It definitely represented Tillamook cheese the best.

Okay, drum roll....and the winner is.....
Angie Phillips from California for her Caramelized Sweet Potato, Garlic & Rosemary Macaroni and Cheese!!!!

And, can I just say, "Blech. No thank you." I mean, come on, people. Sweet potatoes??? I do like sweet potatoes, don't get me wrong. But definitely NOT in my mac & cheese. I should have been a judge.

Overall, I would say this event was a minor disappointment. I was really looking forward to some crazy, uber-cheesey, super fattening, carb overloading portions that would blow my mind. (I'm glad I went, though... so now I can say I've been to a macaroni and cheese cookoff. Seriously, how many people can say that?) But, you should try for yourselves. Click the links to get each recipe, and let me know what you think! You'll never have a better excuse to eat mac & cheese all week long.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Voting Irregularities

No matter where I look, it seems I am constantly finding things here in Oregon that are totally different than in Nashville. The latest of these irregularities is the way they vote. (Or I guess I should say, "the way we vote." I'm still working on that whole "we" thing.)

In 1998, Oregon became a vote by mail state. It's the only state in the country that conducts elections completely by mail. Do you realize what that means?

No polls. No lines. No machines. And no little sticker that says "I voted" which to me, is a major bummer.

It all started when I received a ginormous booklet in the mail titled "Voters' Pamphlet 1 of 2: Measures". I started flipping through the 150+ page book, wondering why I had received such a thing, and what I was supposed to do with it. Upon further inspection, I realized that it's just an informational tool so I can be more educated about what state measures will be on the ballot. I never received anything like this in Nashville, and now I'm asking myself, "why not?" I mean, what a fantastic idea!

Why is the book so large, you ask? Because it details each measure that will be on the ballot, showing: the estimate of financial impact for each measure, an explanation of how they arrived at said financial impact, the complete text of the measure, and an impartial statement explaining the measure (in layman's terms). It also has 5-10 pages of arguments for/against each measure so you can read both sides of the argument. Anyone who wants to shell out $500 or can get 1000 signatures gets a space in the booklet for their argument. Wowsers! I mean, folks, this is democracy at its best. And I just love it!

A few days later, I received a second booklet, similar in size, titled "Voters' Pamphlet 2 of 2: Candidates". And, yep, you guessed it: same story here. It also has a description of each party platform (which is actually quite interesting). On a funny side note, check this guy out:

I'm pretty sure I would have asked for a retake.

So, let's talk about voting by mail for a minute. My initial reaction was not a good one. I mean, I like going to the polls. There's something symbolic about it. Standing in line has never bothered me much, and there is such a feeling of community when you're surrounded by people all motivated to do their civic duty. To me, voting by mail brings up questions about voter fraud, and it seems to me that it would be easier to conduct some sort of scammy voter operation by mail. But maybe I'm wrong. I must be, otherwise why would they do it?

I'll tell you why. Lots of reasons: 1) It's cheaper. 2) Voter participation is way higher. People with no car (which there are LOTS of in Portland) and people disabilities can vote from the comfort of their own homes, and they can get help reading the ballots. 3) People are more likely to vote on the measures and candidates (other than presidential) because they have time to research them carefully and can make an informed decision. 4) It's easier for counties and polling officials to conduct the elections.

About voter turnout / participation. It appears that Oregon leads the nation in voter participation. In the 2004 general election, voter turnout was 86.4 %, the 2nd highest turnout in Oregon's history. No, that's not a typo. 86.4 percent, my friends. The average voter turnout nationwide for that election was only 55 %. The highest turnout in Oregon history was only slightly more at 86.5 %, for the 1960 election between Nixon and Kennedy. And so far for the 2008 election, ballot returns are already up over 2004 numbers, so they're expecting to set new records again this year (like every other state, I'm sure).

Those numbers are something to be seriously proud of, so I'm pretty much convinced. Especially after seeing all over the news, people waiting for more than 5 hours in places like Florida to early vote. I have a feeling Oregon is going to be one of the few states that can handle the extra turnout. I was watching CNN a few days ago and they were asking people to write in with their early voting stories of woe, when one of my fellow Oregonians said it best, "Last night, my husband and I sat down with a cup of coffee and filled our ballots together in the comfort of our own home. I will mail them tomorrow knowing that my paper ballot says exactly what I want it to say with no electronic glitches or switches. Hooray for the Oregon mail-in vote!"

So, I'm embracing it. Even though I won't get a sticker this time. Of course, I could make my own sticker. That's an idea.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

BFB: Chocolate Scotcheroos

Scotcheroooo-ey goodness
When I was about 7 years old, I choked on a piece of butterscotch hard candy. I mean, seriously choked. There was a heimlich maneuver involved and everything.

I used to love butterscotch, and my grandmother always had a candy dish on her coffee table full of them. They looked so magical... with their shiny, sparkly wrappers and bursting with gold color. They were like little nuggets of sunshine. And apparently, I loved them so much that I got a little over-eager and sucked one straight down my wind-pipe. Yikes!

Anyway, since then, I've kind of had an aversion to butterscotch in general. Not because I don't like it, because I still do. But, an experience like that traumatizes such a young person. So, suffice it to say I had never had a scotcheroo until I found this recipe. And when I was reading the ingredients (peanut butter, chocolate, butterscotch, rice krispies) I thought to myself, "How can I go wrong?" Plus my mom used to make us peanut butter rice krispie treats when we were kids (instead of marshmallow ones). So, I thought these would be doubly nostalgic for me!

I was short on light corn syrup, so I had to mix in some dark.

This is what it looks like when you use a pot that's too small and you can't even stir your ingredients.

Chocolate and butterscotch chips. Yum!

Just press into the pan! No need to turn on the oven!

Chocolate Scotcheroos
Makes about 24 bars

1 cup light corn syrup
1 cup sugar
1 cup peanut butter (I actually think these weren't peanut buttery enough, so I would suggest increasing this to maybe, 1 1/2 cups)
6 cups rice krispies cereal
1 package semi-sweet chocolate morsels
1 package butterscotch morsels
Vegetable cooking spray

1. Measure corn syrup and sugar into large saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until sugar dissolves and mixture begins to boil. Remove from heat. Stir in peanut butter; mix well. Add rice krispie cereal. Stir until well coated. Press mixture into 13 x 9 x 2-inch pan coated with cooking spray. (I sprayed my hands with cooking spray before pressing to keep the mixture from sticking to my hands instead of the pan.) Set aside.

2. Melt chocolate and butterscotch morsels together in small saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly. Spread evenly over cereal mixture. Let stand until firm (or, if you're impatient like me, refrigerate until firm). Cut into bars when cool.

Be sure to check out Amy's Chocolate Scotcheroos too!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Training Day

Justyn and I decided that we want to try running. I mean, like a real race.

I have never considered myself the running type, but I've realized living in Portland, that exercising and being healthy is totally contagious. And, for me that's a good thing, because I've been known to be kind of a quitter when it comes to physical exertion. I feel terribly uncomfortable when I exercise... my hair gets all sweaty around my face/neck, and my face gets all hot and red. And afterwards I always feel like I'm going to pass out. I have a pretty serious fear that I might give myself some sort of heart failure if I over-exert myself. I have no idea what my target heart rate is supposed to be, but I'm pretty sure that mine must get up to like 180 bpm.

Portland has an amazingly large percentage of people that are active. Almost every person you meet is into some sort of outdoor activity: skiing, snowboarding, running, kayaking, climbing, you name it. Which, to me, is kind of odd, considering that Portland is known for having awful weather. Anyway, some people at Justyn's office are training for a half marathon, and he feels left out. The half marathon is in January, so I asked my runner friend Amy if it's possible to train for a half marathon in 2 months (shows how much I know, right?) The answer is a resounding "NO," for those of you who are as ignorant as I am about such things. So she suggested a 5k for winter, and then if it goes well, we'll try for the half marathon in Eugene which happens in May. She also sent me a "Couch to 5k" training plan, and considering we are essentially starting from the couch (aside from some vigorous hiking we've been doing, and 30 minutes a day on the elliptical machine), we decided to go for it.

After a solid week of procrastinating (I'm kind of tired, or it's a little dark, or it's raining, or it's cold, or I have a little headache, or maybe I'm getting sick), we finally got off our rumps to start training. Overall, it went pretty well. I didn't have any problem maintaining the intervals, but I did get super tired after about 12 minutes, and the running portions seemed to get longer. But we stuck with it, and finished our 20 minutes (plus stretching and warm-up, of course). I know I'll hurt tomorrow.

Issues I need to resolve quickly:

Ears - I believe that my ear holes/canals are either abnormally large, or they are aerodynamically shaped in such a way that allows cold air to rush into my ear canal at an alarming rate. The result is that after being outside in the cold (even if it's mildly windy...I promise I wasn't running THAT fast) my ears hurt. Like bad. So, I wonder if I should try earplugs of some sort, or some kind of wrap or hat? Or possibly some earmuffs?

Photo courtesy of http://www.funnyjunk.com/

Breathing - I think I'm not breathing correctly when running. I try to time my breathing with my pace... so for instance, I breathe in for 3 steps, and breathe out for 3 steps. It seems to be working okay but I always start feeling a little stitch in my side about halfway in, which makes me feel like quitting. I also breathe through my mouth, which I'm not sure is the right thing to do. I think not, because the inside of my mouth gets all filmy and weird.

Posture - Sometimes I feel like my bottom half is moving at a different pace than my top half, and that it's quite possible that I look like Quasimodo to bystanders. Also, my neck kind of hurts now (about 3 hours after), so I'm pretty sure something weird is going on. I need to run in a mirror, just to make sure I look cool. Because I'm pretty sure I don't.

Clothing/Temperature Control - Tonight when we ran it was somewhere between 55 and 60 degrees. I wore cotton yoga pants, a sports bra/top and a light cotton jacket. I ran the first few intervals with the jacket on, then got super hot and so I unzipped it. Then it proceeded to flap around while I was trying to run, so I tied it around my waist. That wasn't much better, because then it was not only flapping around, but was also hitting my legs at the same time which was super annoying. But, my top half was cooler so at least that part worked out.

Timing - I have a Timex Expedition watch, which I have had for a while (I use it as my 'casual' watch). I have never used it for its functions. It's a good thing. The first week of the 5k training is to run for 60 seconds and walk for 90. My timer only has one setting, so I can time the 60 seconds each time I start to run, but then don't have a way of timing the 90. So I thought maybe the Chrono setting would work, but then I'm having to do quick math in my head and have to look at my watch constantly. Not fun. Not to mention that it is uber-dark where we ran, so I had to also hit the Indiglo button so I could read it. Maybe I need a stop-watch, or some kind of funky running/training device that I don't realize even exists?

I'm telling you all of this because I figure I should just get all my excuses out of the way first. I realize that these things could undermine my goal and I'd rather just get it out in the open. All of that being said, I did feel pretty good afterward. Tired, but good. And hungry.

I hope this doesn't come across as a negative post... on the contrary: my hope is that someone out there reading this will realize that maybe they're not the only ones who have all of these hangups. And then maybe you will get off your rump and start running too!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Can't See the Forest for the Trees

I have a confession... I'm coming out of the closet.

I am a tree-hugger.

And when I say "tree-hugger", I mean I'm a hard-core tree hugger. You see, I have always cared a lot about the environment, even when I was a kid. I remember running back from the mailbox screaming, "MOMMA!! CAN I ADOPT A WHALE???" I felt a strong sense of urgency that if I didn't convince my parents to let me adopt an acre of the rainforest, that the world would come to an end and all the trees would disappear off the face of the earth.

But, I kind of thought it was a phase, and I think my parents did too (or at least they hoped). I did quiet down about it for a while, you know... writing "Stephanie loves Brandon" all over my kitten-covered trapper keeper and competing with my friends to see who could blow the biggest Bubblicious bubble seemed more important once I hit my teenage years. But the flame was rekindled once I became an intelligent, independently thinking adult, and now here I am. I have never really classified myself as a "tree-hugger" until now. I mean, I care about the earth, conservation, sustainable living, etc. but...me? A tree-hugger? Nah.... I'm not one of those people that will go out in the forest and strap themselves to a redwood to keep someone from bulldozing.

At least, I wasn't...until I moved to Portland. Since I've moved here, I've discovered that I have a deep love, not only of nature in general, but of trees specifically. I mean, look at this picture, and try to imagine being there in real life:

Now tell me you don't want to hug it. You know you do. The cool, crisp air in your lungs, trees towering hundreds of feet above you, the sun peeking through the branches... ahh... it's absolute heaven. I took that picture on the trail to Cape Falcon, which goes along the Pacific Coast.

It's a nice hike that goes through an old growth forest, and we thought it was a great introduction to the region. I had no idea what an old growth forest was when we first came out... and for those of you too lazy to click the link, it means that it has never been cut. Oregon has a thing for clear-cutting forests, which I'm still investigating, and will reserve judgement until I'm able to do further research. But what I have gathered so far does not make me happy. There's a lot of tree chopping going on around what is supposed to be the Greenest City in the country. Do I smell a dirty little secret? Skeletons in Oregon's closet, perhaps? I don't know... we'll see... give me time and I'll figure it out.

Anyway, back to Cape Falcon, the end of the hike is very rewarding...you get a really nice view of a beach, some surfers, and the Pacific:

Back in our neck of the woods (Portland metro), I can still easily get my tree fix. Washington Park is only a couple of miles away, and it's super accessible because the MAX line goes straight to it. Check out this funky tree that is on the Redwood trail:

There is a slogan here in Portland, that "natives" like to use (if there is such a thing, because most people I've met are not actually from here). It says "Keep Portland Weird." This tree is definitely weird. Weird, but cool. Incidentally, I don't care much for the slogan. I'll have to get into that in another post.

Here's a grove of cedar trees. I think they look like green lace:

So, Washington Park includes Hoyt Arboretum, where there a bunch of different trees you can check out. This one is in my top 3 favorites so far:

This is called a Monkey Puzzle tree. I took this picture from the ground looking up, and you can see why it has earned such a name. I don't know if any monkey has ever actually tried to climb one of these, but I know it would confuse the hell out of me and my brain is way bigger than theirs.

This one was also taken in Washington Park, along the Birch trail. I just love the sun shining through the leaves and how it makes them glow. It makes me happy.

Just looking at these pictures make me less homesick (and of course going out and actually taking them helps, too). That's another reason I know I'm a tree-hugger. If you can't hug your parents, hug a tree. It works, I promise. Then you'll be a tree-hugger too.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Home Sweet Home?

Never rent an apartment you've never seen before.

Wait... what I mean is, never rent an apartment you've never seen before, in a city you've never been to before.

... And don't send them any money either.

How did I come across such invaluable information, you ask? Life experience, my friends. Life experience.

From the time Justyn accepted his job offer, to the time we had to BE in Portland was less than a month. So we really had to get moving. We were both still working (fulfilling our 2 week/6 week notices the company had requested) so we couldn't leave to go find a place. Plus we had to start packing, getting the house listed, sell our cars, etc. So, finding another place to live seemed sort of... secondary... I mean, how hard could the whole thing be, right?

So, I got on the internet and started doing some research. After a fairly short amount of time, I found some good prospects. One, in particular, sounded perfect. It was a 2 bedroom, 1.5 bath with a 2-car garage, and like 1480 square feet. It was within our price range, was right on the river with a view, and the FREE Portland street car was only a block away for Justyn to take to work. We figured we couldn't go wrong. Our house was only 1300 square feet, and since we were going down to one car we figured any extra storage we needed could go in the 2-car garage. So, we sent them a check for our application fee and to hold the place for us.

When we first drove into the city, we figured we should go scope it out and possibly stay there until our furniture arrived. We went to the office to pick up our keys, and they took us over to see it. And, I mean... immediately we knew it wasn't going to work. The layout was more like a townhome (multi-level) which was cool, but the STAIRS. Oh my, the stairs. Did you ever go to like, Mammoth Cave, or Carlsbad Caverns or anywhere like that, where they had the fat man's canyon? The stairs in the apartment looked like this:

And, the whole rest of the apartment was like... small. I mean, really small. I don't know what kind of square feet they're using to calculate apartment sizes here on the west coast, but they ain't the same as they are back home in Nashvull. It was like an apartment made for Minnie Mouse (though I doubt her ears would have fit through the stairwell either). But we're not cartoons. We're BIG people. And we have BIG furniture. We have HOUSE-sized furniture. Our couch wouldn't even fit in the stairwell. So... we go back to the office and tell the lady it just won't work. We looked at a few others in the complex but they really didn't have much for us. Finally the manager referred us to a "sister" property a little further out of downtown, and we went to check it out.

The other apartments were nice...fairly new, very spacious, and right on the MAX line so Justyn could still get to work easily. We didn't have a whole lot of time to search around... I mean, our furniture was already on its way. They say there is a glut of condos in Portland (like every other city...ahem...Nashville...) - so many, in fact, that many have been changed over into apartments because they can't sell. But, we just didn't have that kind of time to spend, plus we were homeless at that point and had to find somewhere for Oliver and our air mattress soon. So, we decided to just rent one for 6 months until we figure out our way around town. So, now here I sit in our 3 bedroom apartment typing my blog (yes, there is a such thing as a 3-bedroom apartment - ha!). It's great, because we have plenty of room for friends and family to come visit.

We called the original property manager back, to thank her for the recommendation and let her know we decided to "stay in the family" or whatever. Then I proceeded to ask when we'd get our money back. Because, part of the appeal of that apartment was a move-in guarantee. You see, if you rent the apartment, move in and decide you don't like it, they give you back your rent, deposit, etc. "no questions asked". Isn't that great? Yeah, it's great if you go ahead and move in, and decide you don't like it. But if you haven't moved in yet, the guarantee doesn't apply. So, we lost a few hundred dollars. We figured we'd just add it to the pile of money we spent coming out here, along with the lost value from all of our damaged furniture. What's a few hundred more dollars at this point?

Moving is expensive, ya'll.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

BFB: Chocolate Pecan Pie Bars

I've mentioned my best friend Amy to you before, and how she has a baking blog. (Incidentally, she also has a running blog if you want to check it out.) Amy and I have been friends for 17 years, since that fateful Burrito Day we shared in the 6th grade cafeteria! About a year ago, I guess, I was complaining to her about my lack of a hobby (an ongoing theme in my life). She said, "You know, you should try baking. It's right up your alley." Baking, as you may know, is a very delicate science. Measurements must be accurate and directions must be followed to the letter. So, I said, "Yeah... you know... that would probably fit into my OCD tendencies pretty well!" Since then, I've been baking more and more, and I do really enjoy it. Now, almost every time I bake something, I think of Amy, and if I have a problem, I think, "What would Amy do?" And if I still don't know... I call her. Missing Amy has been one of the hardest things about moving across the country, so my baking ventures are a way for me to feel closer to her.

Anyway, after I moved here, we thought it would be a good idea for us to do some long-distance, cross-country baking. So, when I was in town last, we picked out a cookbook together, and from time to time we'll be choosing a recipe to make together (but apart). I realize this doesn't have much to do with Oregon, with the small exception that the ingredients are from here, and I'll be baking IN Oregon. But hopefully you'll find something you like and you'll bake it too!

The first BFB (Best Friends Baking) recipe we chose was Chocolate Pecan Pie Bars. Check out Amy's bars here. I thought they were pretty good, but the chocolate really takes away from a genuine "pecan pie" flavor. I think if I make them again I'll leave the chocolate chips whole (not melting them into the syrup). Also, I had problems mixing the crust (not the crust's fault, but more of an operator-type error). I would recommend using a pastry cutter. I halved the recipe since I'm only baking for 2. I'll list the full recipe here, though:

Chocolate Pecan Pie Bars
from Favorite Brand Name Best-Loved Chocolate Recipes

Makes about 32 bars

3/4 cup light or dark corn syrup (I used dark)
3 squares (1 ounce each) semisweet chocolate, or 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 cups coarsely chopped pecans

Bar Cookie Crust
non-stick cooking spray
2 cups flour
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold margarine or butter, cut into pieces
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat oven to 350. Spray 13x9-inch baking pan with cooking spray.

2. First, prepare the bar cookie crust: In large bowl with mixer at medium speed, beat flour, butter, 1/3 cup sugar, and salt until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Press firmly into bottom and 1/4 inch up sides of prepared pan. Bake 15 minutes or until golden brown.

3. Meanwhile, for filling, in heavy 3-quart saucepan stir corn syrup and chocolate over low heat just until chocolate melts. Remove from heat. Stir in sugar, eggs and vanilla until blended. Stir in pecans. Pour over hot crust; spread evenly. Bake 20 minutes or until filling is firm around edges and slightly soft in center. Cool completely on wire rack. Cut into 2 x 1 1/2-inch bars.

Happy Baking!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Oregon Produces the Best Produce

So, before the weather changes completely, I HAVE to tell you about the farmers market here in Portland. It is absolutely amazing. I had always heard that Oregon produce was great, but experiencing it first-hand has been truly profound. It's one of the first things we sought out when we first moved here, and it has really changed the way we eat at home. We heard the Beaverton market was a good one, and that's the side of Portland we live on, so that has been our market of choice so far. The sights, sounds, and smells at the market are so vivid, it's hard to describe in words, but here's a picture of one spread in particular that I found inspiring.

Portland has 36 different farmers markets in the metro area each week. That's impressive! You can find such a wide variety of produce there, virtually anything you can imagine. And, a wide selection of organically grown fruits and veggies, which is great. I'm a nut for buying organic. You can find lettuce, tomatoes, green beans, purple beans, artichokes, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, marionberries, huckleberries, a phenomenal assortment of cherries (mmm...Rainier), plums, peaches, nectarines, I could go on and on. You can even find fresh flowers:

To me, supporting local agriculture (and organic, at that) is one of the most rewarding things I can do as a community participant. We have had so many meals already that were 100% local (with the exception of spices...sorry). For example, we had a beautiful piece of sockeye salmon that was caught fresh THAT DAY, corn on the cob, organic zucchini, and a fabulous salad of locally grown lettuce, tomatoes (oh, god, the tomatoes... they will change your life). Eating that way really makes me feel warm and fuzzy.

If I can digress for just a moment: Justyn and I did go to the Nashville farmers market downtown when we lived there, and it was one of the most disappointing experiences of my life. Every booth had the same selection of produce: squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, and corn. That's it. I mean, maybe that's all you can really grown in Nashville? Then every now and then you would come across a stand with some strawberries, cherries, plums, etc. But upon further inspection, I noticed a sticker that said "#4309 Product of Mexico". And I'm thinking, "Uhhh... did you grow this? Or did you buy it at the grocery store and mark it up 20% to try to get people to buy from your booth?" LAME. However, I do want to say, that before we moved we had several people recommend the Franklin farmers market to us, which is supposed to be way better. We didn't have time to check it out before we left, though.

Okay, so back to the berries. Oregon berries are soooo good. One market morning I stumbled upon some locally grown, organic blackberries, and I was inspired to make a cobbler. My dad used to make us blackberry cobbler when we were kids in Louisiana, and it has been years since I've had it. We had wild blackberries growing on our property, and that's what we did for fun... go berry-picking. Actually, it wasn't too fun. It was hot and miserable, and the bugs would eat us alive. But, time has a way of dulling such memories, and all that's left is nostalgia. So anyway, the berries. Aren't they pretty?

My friend Amy has a baking blog, which I have mentioned before, and she is often the inspiration for my baking obsession. I also find other really good websites through hers, and happily came across this recipe for cobbler which looked super yummy. (Disclaimer: Do not go to this website if you have little or no willpower. You will regret it, and so will your thighs.) The only change I made to the recipe was substituting Splenda for the sugar because of a diabetic in the family. You may be wondering why I didn't use my dad's recipe for cobbler, and opted to use some stranger's recipe instead. Well.... I guess I knew that even if I used my dad's recipe, it wouldn't be the same as I remember it. I'm already combatting some serious homesickness, so I didn't think it would be wise. Plus, my dad's cobbler was always kind of soupy (which was how we liked it), and I wanted to try something that was a little more cake-like. Here's a picture before it went into the oven:
And after:Mmmm... delicious! It was SO good. I will definitely make it again.

Anyway, if I can leave you with one thought: go to your local farmers market, even if you don't live in Oregon. Farmers work really hard, and it's good to support them. Plus it tastes better and it's better for you.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The "Home" Stretch

So, we're back on the road once more, for the last leg of our journey. Idaho was pretty boring, and we didn't really drive through it for long (only the southwest corner). We did see some pretty awesome wind farms on our way out, though. I have a fascination with windmills... I could just watch them for hours. For some reason I assign human emotions to windmills when see them. They seem like soldiers that go out into battle, standing up and enduring the elements to protect us from ourselves. Like no matter how tired they get, they never lose sight of their purpose, and they just keep going round and round.

Then, finally, our new home state: Oregon!

The eastern part of Oregon is pretty flat and is mostly farmland. It doesn't get green and "Pacific Northwest"-looking until you are almost to Portland. And, most of the road-side attractions are part of the Oregon Trail historic route.

Tangent: Does anyone remember that old computer game 'Oregon Trail'? We used to play it all the time in elementary school and I don't think I ever made it to Oregon. I'm pretty sure I was the one who always died of dysentery or had to kill all my oxen or something. Here's a screen shot because I'm feeling nostalgic:

We had heard great things about the Columbia River Gorge, which is just outside Portland on I-84. We didn't think we could make it all in one day, so we decided to stop in a little town called Pendleton, which appears to be the largest town in Eastern Oregon. That way, we could leave early the following morning and take our time driving through the gorge. On our way out, we passed this sign:

I'm not really sure what the signifance is, or why anybody really cares, but, I guess I care since I went to the trouble to take a picture and put it on here. I did a little research and the 45th parallel is a great place for grape-growing and wine-making. Apparently, the Bordeaux region in France is also located along the 45th parallel. I have not yet delved into the world of Oregon wines, but even before moving here, I always knew that Oregon reds are often the best. So, I'm definitely looking forward to that.

Anyway, Columbia River Gorge. I actually was slightly disappointed with the scenery in the gorge. It was still pretty brown, and there was a lot of industrial traffic: trucks, trains, etc. However, there were definitely some things that are worth discussing. First, the train traffic is crazy. There are tracks on both sides of the river, so we were constantly seeing freight trains going back and forth. We saw one train so long, it had SEVEN engines pulling it. !!!

Also, the river is HUGE. And we saw at least 3 dams along the way...I'm sure there are more. Here's a picture of one at The Dalles (a city in Oregon):

There's another place along the Columbia River, near the town of Hood River, that is famous for windsurfing. There were TONS of windsurfers out (like hundreds) and it looks super fun. I'll definitely have to try it out.

So, once you're almost to Portland, and if you look back the way you came into the gorge, it is absolutely beautiful... lush and green:

After we came out of the gorge, Justyn and I started to get pretty nervous and excited. It's a bizarre feeling to be driving into your new home city, having never seen it or been there before. Every mile we got closer, we both inched toward the edge of our seats, our shoulders tensed up a little bit, and our eyes started darting back and forth, trying to take in every detail. Our original apartment was supposed to be downtown on the river, so we headed downtown right when we got there. Downtown Portland is cool... it's located right where the Columbia River and the Willamette River meet, so there are tons of bridges, and it makes for a cool skyline.

There it is, folks. Portland. City of Roses. The "greenest" city in the U.S. (yay!). To Portland, we say, "Nice to meet you, hope we get along." And it says to us, "Welcome home."

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

On the road again...

By this time you may be wondering, "How's Oliver doing?" He's fine, see?

He pretty much looked like this the entire trip.

In true Oliver fashion, he was totally chill. He is such an angel, a perfect feline specimen, and he absolutely lived up to these standards the entire trip. He wasn't too fond of hotel rooms where he could hear the neighbors, but otherwise he was great. No vomiting, no feces, no howling or scratching. He's such a joy!

Our next stop was Colorado Springs, where we spent a day with family and went to the Royal River Gorge. It was very beautiful, and was the first place I ever laid eyes on the Oregon flag. I have to say, it's definitely not as cool as the Tennessee flag, but I'm not going to judge a state by its flag.

It was really freaking hot that day, I think it was almost record-breaking, and it we didn't stay long. The gorge was beautiful, and made us wonder if the word "gorgeous" comes from that. I did some research and couldn't find anything to definitively say yes or no, but methinks the answer is yes.

The other thing you may not know about Colorado Springs is that NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) is there. It's hidden in a mountain under granite that's 1300 feet thick, and is protected by 2 blast-proof doors that weigh 30 tons each. It's been there for 50 years, this year being the 50th anniversary. I'm not 100% clear on what happens there, but the gist is that they montior and respond to any disturbances in our airspace. Parts of the facility have appeared in some movies (think War Games and the the Terminator movies). Incidentally, I don't really understand the abbreviation for this place. I like things that are very logical, and as a result I'm thinking this should be called NAADC. But whatever. That's just my OCD coming out.

There also are a lot of prisons in Colorado and I'm curious why. According to my research, there are 30 prisons in the state (including federal, state and private prisons). There are only 17 in Tennessee. Also, the only "supermax" prison in the country is located in Colorado. Many federal and state prisons have a maximum security area, but there is only one in the country that is entirely maximum security, and it's called ADMAX. Lots of famous criminals are there: Ted Kaczynski (the unabomber), Robert Hanssen (the guy they made the movie Breach about), Richard Reid (the shoe bomber - we can thank him every time we take our shoes off at airport security), and lots of others from the Oklahoma City bombings and a few mob bosses I've never heard of.

On our way to our next stop (Salt Lake City) we drove through Glenwood Canyon in Colorado, and it is truly one of the most amazing places I've seen. It's so majestic and dramatic, words cannot describe it:

Our next stop was Salt Lake City, where we drove through at night and thus did not take any pictures of the city. On our way across eastern Utah, though, it was SO gorgeous. This picture doesn't even come close to doing it justice, but here it is anyway:

You probably can't tell, but there is a rainbow in that picture. We thought that was a good sign.

Anyway, we stayed at a KOA campground in my dad's RV which was kind of hilarious. It sleeps like 8 people, and we had our own room, see?

It was kind of a tight fit, really, but it worked out nicely. It gave us a nice break from the road, and my dad keeps it a cool 65 degrees in there all the time. It's also totally equipped with a full kitchen and bathroom (including a shower). But seriously, it was really nice to have a last visit with some family before we said goodbye for a while.

Next up: Idaho and OREGON!!!