Huffing and puffing
Oregon, which I reckon I will always call home no matter how many caveats I add, might have relatively mild extremes of temperature as a rule… but the rest of its weather is not for the weak of heart.
People here in Kansas always ask me — isn’t it colder in Oregon? To those found wanting for geographical literacy, it’s a fair question; Portland’s 750 kilometers closer to the North Pole than Kansas City.
My answer to that question carries a bit of nuance. I say “well, the temperatures aren’t nearly as low… but think of the summer humidity here. Now imagine what that same smothering sensation would feel like at 35 or 40 degrees [F.], and that’s what winters are like in Portland.” Silence inevitably follows.
I’ve already referenced the visit I paid to my grandmother before I moved to Lawrence. One of the excursions we took was to Astoria, where she nicely insisted that I climb to the top of the Astoria Column by way of vicarious living all around.
On one of the commemorative plaques at the Column site is my favorite quote about Pacific Northwest weather. That passage was written by William Clark on 1 December 1805 shortly after the arrival of the Corps of Discovery at the western terminus of their journey, in what is now Clatsop County:
“The emence Seas and waves which breake on the rocks & Coasts to the S W. & N W roars like an emence fall at a distance, and this roaring has continued ever Since our arrival in the neighbourhood of the Sea Coast which has been 24 days Since we arrived in Sight of the Great Western (for I cannot Say Pacific) Ocian as I have not Seen one pacific day Since my arrival in its vicinity [emphasis mine —BMH], and its waters are forming and petially [perpetually] breake with emence waves on the Sands and rockey Coasts, tempestous and horiable. I have no account of Capt. Lewis Since he left me.”
When I first read that counterpoint — “for I cannot Say Pacific” — I giggled a bit, and it’s remained etched on my no-longer-steel-trap-like memory.
People go on about the wind in Kansas, but at least here it stops on occasion, even during the winter. Kansas summers want for breezes of any kind. In the lower Willamette Valley and on the Coast, however, the wind rarely stops — in the Valley only when the temperature differential disappears versus points due east and south, and on the Coast hardly ever.
I try to remember one time, during the uncounted days I’ve spent on the Coast, when there wasn’t at least a breeze… and I fail.
A different historical touchstone
Another point I like to make is that the Cuban Missile Crisis doesn’t really register in the memories of Oregonians, because they had more important things to worry about at the time.
In late October 1962, the Valley was digging its way from the destruction of the Columbus Day Storm, which fails to be designated a typhoon only because it wandered too far north. In its wake Portland was without electricity for something like a week, and without radio or television even longer since all of the transmission towers needed to be rebuilt from scratch. Salem and Eugene fared no better. Puget Sound got a big piece of it, too, though one gets the impression that their building codes were stiffer than Oregon’s at the time. Practically every anemometer on the Oregon and Washington coasts registered offscale high, and the peak gust on the Morrison Bridge in Portland — less than 100 feet above sea level — was measured at 116 miles per hour.
All of the infrastructure that was destroyed in the Columbus Day Storm was replaced with works engineered to withstand something similar, so that it would take wind more like Hurricane Camille to bring Northwest Oregon completely to its knees again.
Until I was well into grade school, oil lamps and pantries well-stocked with canned food ready-to-eat were standard supplies for every household of Portland natives who could afford them. Memories of the Columbus Day Storm are slow to fade. Where those trail off, thoughts of a Silver Thaw kick in… and those ice storms can hold their own against the ones here, where I actually saw utility poles lean into the road for the first time.
A little bit of everything
I am attached to Oregon in large part by its weather. Given a 4WD and a late spring day to myself, I can travel across extremes of temperature eighty degrees apart, from rainforest to desert.
In the interest of pedantry, it would be fit to note that Oregon’s wettest spots in Tillamook County are easily a ten-hour drive, mostly on backroads, to the driest valley in the High Desert.
I prefer sweaters to peacoats, and can in fact only imagine a peacoat as an accessory, for two reasons: I can't stand the feeling of nylon (the most common inner shell material for coats and jackets) against bare skin, and in June daily extremes of temperature in Portland have been known to lie fifty degrees apart. That's like travelling through multiple microclimates without traversing an inch, so you bring layers when you leave the house… or freeze your arse off the instant the sun goes down.
You don’t realize until you live there that Portland gets a stretch or two of triple-digit highs every summer, at least during dry phases of the ENSO. The first time I experienced that, I was suffering a chickenpox infection, and my fever peaked on the same afternoon that Portland’s official high was recorded at 100 degrees.
…But at least the yearly extremes aren’t so bad.
Since moving to Kansas, I pay a lot more attention to dew points, especially during the summer when they describe more about conditions than do temperatures. This is doubly true given my standing as a heavy smoker; an August climb up the Hill here means frequent stops, barring a willingness to take my life into my own hands.
You would need to offer me an awfully fat salary to live on the Gulf Coast, that’s for certain.
During my first winter in Lawrence I finally noticed that the discomfort from cold doesn’t really increase once the temperature drops below 15 degrees. Anything worse is owed entirely to wind, and that’s part of what makes hypothermia so dangerous.
For all that I’ve written here about Oregon and Kansas, my favorite weather anecdotes come from Central Missouri and San Diego, set a little less than two years apart. The first came in January 1996, when Missouri was pounded by one of the three really awful winter storms that I’ve experienced. I got cabin crazy, learned by telephone that the University campus was still open, and resolved to go there. On arrival I visited the National Weather Service site; at the time it published temperature maps for all of North America. That facility told me that it was colder in Columbia, Missouri, than in Churchill, Manitoba… which seems like just another datum until you realize than unlike Churchill, Columbia doesn’t sit astride a migration route for polar bears.
…Polar bears, dammit.
By November of the following year I was living in San Diego, and experienced the singular pleasure of wearing nothing more than a pair of blue jeans and a t-shirt on the Monday before Thanksgiving. That made up for my polar bear problem… mostly.