Oregon’s Banana Belt
by Bruce Patterson, December 18, 2013
I bet you didn’t know that Oregon has a Banana Belt. Yup, up here the Crooked River country is famous as a land of sunshine and warmth, monkeys and ocelots. Yet we’ve been here a full roll of the seasons now and I ain’t seen a single banana tree, much less any hairy tarantulas sunning themselves on steaming bunches of ripe bananas.
Now I bet a person could get aboard a bi-plane crop-duster and circumnavigate the globe at this latitude—the nearest big city eastward is Milwaukee, Wisconsin and, westward, it’s Vladivostok, Russia—and never once lay eyes on a banana tree. But that’s not the point, is it? I’m being petty because claims like that ain’t meant to be taken literally. Calling this here a Banana Belt ain’t a bald-faced lie; it’s an innocent little white lie, a harmless fib. It’s an earnest expression of wholesome local pride—it’s advertising. It’s good advertising because, like lizards and bees, people are drawn to places having plenty of warmth and “year-round sunshine.” And even though those two far more modest claims are also horseshit, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because if it causes more people to visit or move here then everybody’s better off. Property values rise, jobs are created, progress happens and all is right in the world.
Besides—relatively speaking—this here country being considered so balmy ain’t too awfully far from the truth. You’ve just gotta suspend your disbelief, jump aboard your fanciful thinking and take a wild leap into blind faith. Moreover, as a practical matter, who cares if there ain’t any banana plantations around here? Who misses the monkeys?
Now it took some talking to convince Trisha to move up to this particular spot. As is generally true of Chicagoans who’ve transplanted themselves to California, Trisha doesn’t like snow. The way I wouldn’t cross the street to vacation in the tropics, the last place you’d catch Trisha is monster walking some coal-stained slushy sidewalk, her arms outstretched to keep her balance, her nose glowing Rudolf red. Since as a Southern California boy I’ve always seen snow as something to go and have fun in and then leave, I couldn’t very well discount Trisha’s memories of what must have been, if not exactly traumatic, then certainly highly unpleasant experiences, what with the hawk ripping in off the lake, the bricks sticky and all.
So when the 8 by 11 inch, inch-thick “Welcome to Crooked River Country” brochure, community profile, prospectus, rulebook and welcome mat arrived at the Boonville post office last fall, I took it home and carefully read it through. When I saw how Prineville’s climate is so benign it’s famous as being the crown in Oregon’s famed Banana Belt, I made sure Trisha knew about it. In fact, I sat her down and ran her through the facts. Prineville only gets about twelve inches of precipitation per year (LA gets 16)—you talk about sunshine! And only a bit more than half of the annual precipitation falls as snow. While I didn’t have a conversion chart handy, I told Trisha that in my professional opinion no way could the annual snowfall exceed two measly feet. That’s snow fall, too, and not stick. And, lookee here, nearly all of the snow falls from mid-November till late April. And—here’s a bonus—nearly all of the summer’s lightning storms bypass us and light up the John Day country beyond the mountains to the east (overhead claps of thunder startle everybody and scare the holy shit out of me). Sure there’ll be some bitter cold days in the dreary dead of winter, I had to admit. But it’ll be a dry cold, I pointed out. No more fog, sideways rain, blackouts, household mold and slimy banana slugs the size of jumbo burritos.
While Trisha remained skeptical, we knew no place is perfect. After she’d done her own research into all things Prineville and felt she had a good handle on what all she was getting herself into, she agreed to give it a go and we shook hands on the deal. And so, at the tail end of last November, we arrived up here with me driving our 20’ U-Haul van towing Jeff’s Toyota, Abel driving my old company ranch truck, its flatbed at max load and roped down under a canvass tarp, and Jeff chauffeuring Trisha and our house cat Last Chance in her little blueberry Chevy Cavalier, itself stuffed to the gills with miscellaneous stuff. Then when we arrived and we’re off-loading it starts snowing. It’s a good dry snow, too, the kind that squeaks when you walk on it, and it kept falling off and on for some days. Then the sky cleared and it got cold, the heat of the days rising to maybe forty degrees, the coldest dawn three-below-zero.
About a week later I look outside and the eves of the houses are hanging crystalline curtains of foot-long icicles, each slightly bent by the wind. Thinking Trisha’s siblings living back Chicago way might get a kick out of seeing where she’s wound up, I grab my camera and urge her to bundle up, come outside and pose under the icicles. So she does and I snap her picture even through she can’t bring herself to say cheese, or even look at me, instead gazing into the empty distance the way my grandma used to do.
By and by I get the roll of film developed, come home, find my would-be family postcard, take a gander and—eek!—what have I done to that poor woman? I can’t show this mug shot to anybody; I can hardly stand to peek at it myself. Good God if Trisha doesn’t look like some bundled up old North Side Chicago bag lady that’d been peacefully sleeping off Christmas Eve on a sidewalk until some bull-hunk beat cop came and kicked her in the foot and ordered to get on up and move it on out. The bottomless resignation in her eyes, the woeful desolation. . .
That was exactly a year ago and this season’s first snow fell the other day (the other morning it was seven-below). I’ve come to learn that, unless it’s late spring, when it snows around here it sticks. The snow that had fallen this time last year stuck until the middle of April, and that was during the driest year in Oregon’s recorded history. And now, settling in for our second winter, I’m able to see how in my pitch to Trisha to move up here I’d sounded like just another jive-assed real estate booster, and how, in a semi-conscious way, I’d been offering her bananas.
Yet, how can anybody think straight when words mean whatever some advertiser designs them to mean? When language itself is reduced advertising? When it comes to naming landscapes and so much else, it means piling falsehood upon falsehood, absurdity atop absurdity. So this here oasis of tropical warmth and sunshine is conveniently located in the middle of the High Desert. I shit you not (Oregon’s gotta Out Back, too, as in the steakhouse chain). In fact the whole Tri-County area of “Central Oregon” (Crook, Jefferson and Deschutes counties) is officially advertised as being High Desert even though it’s like mistaking the Mendocino Coast for the Sea of Cortez; yucca trees for redwoods. I mean, that this land ain’t high, or desert, should be as obvious as a herd of painted mustang horses kicking up dust in a sea of sage. It ain’t, though, I’m sad to report. The old-timers know better, but most everybody else believes it.
What’s funny is that, if you take away the air conditioning and the central heating, living in a real high desert wouldn’t be the sort of thing anybody would be bragging about. Excepting the mighty peculiar and nearly extinct breed once known as desert rats, the high desert is virtually uninhabited precisely because it’s so downright inhospitable to all human habitation all year round: too big, too dry, too hot, too cold and too damned blustery. Besides, desert rats didn’t advertise. They’d rather shoo you off than try’n get you to stay.
The good news is that, when it comes my the culled Old Babushka in Siberian Winter portrait, Trisha swears she wasn’t feeling gypped or marooned, pissed at me or even bluesy. She was just waiting for me to take the damned picture so she could get her rattling bones back inside was all. Although, she let out, while posing it had occurred to her that this latest endeavor might go down as just another one of my jokes fallen flat. Still, it sure makes me feel better.
Trisha has come around to liking the snow, too, especially when viewed through a double-paned window. She doesn’t like it as much as Jeff and I do, but still she appreciates its quiet beauty. She still enjoys her morning walks along the creek even though now its water’s shivering and the ducks are sporting earmuffs. Then, just like back home at the start of a long, rip-roaring, gully-washing winter, about the time the fun’s worn off and a person’s ready for some relief, spring comes rolling along and, like the birds and the furry critters, we gets bursts of energy. As for when exactly that’ll be this year, nobody knows. You just know that, when spring does arrive and you feel it on the wind, it’ll be welcome as always.