O, Oregon

These are not the geographies of my childhood. The lush, green, and humid forests of the Great Smoky Mountains that I so often describe as “my outdoor homeland” are a far cry from the landscapes I now roam. Four years ago, I left Tennessee for Oregon, coming west for the wilder lands, the summits above treeline, the ragged coast, and the vast places where the sky runs endlessly on. Because of these places, these last four years have been defined by wonder. 

For a naturalist, photographer, and geographer like me, Oregon is an unending inspiration. I would submit that no other state can equal the geographic diversity of Oregon, especially when you consider its size. Perhaps a new unit of measurement is required in this instance: landscapes per square mile. I don’t need to do the math, though. My experience speaks to the grandeur of these varied and wondrous worlds.

From my home in Bend, a city so perfectly placed to ease access to all the wild corners of the state that it seems more than coincidence, I am consistently silenced in awe by the scenes that surround me: both the visible, immediate skylines and the invisible contours that my memory projects beyond the horizon. The High Desert runs out to the east, where lava tubes wind underground and mountain bluebirds perch on the junipers. But I know that beyond that expanse lie giant fault blocks, an alkaline lake, the heights of Steens Mountain, and the canyons of the Owyhee. The Ochocos rise to the northeast, and beyond them I contemplate the undammed path of the John Day, the grand Columbia at its mouth, and the gleaming Wallowas farther still, where wolves roam the forests below the high granite peaks. And then, in the west, there are the high Cascades, the snowcapped volcanos that loom above the ponderosa. Bachelor, Broken Top, and the Three Sisters have become cherished companions, though our conversation is never spoken. These mountains contain enough delights for a lifetime, yet they often obscure the view of other wonderlands beyond: their Cascadian neighbors north and south where Hood and Crater Lake sit in silence (for now), the meandering coast with all its capes, cliffs, and tide pools, the roaring rivers that carry snow to sea, and the humble Siskiyous where ancient geology has created a range brimming with biodiversity.

I’ll never finish exploring Oregon: this is a foregone conclusion. I must try, though, for to one day leave without having made a full attempt to know it would be a sin. O, Oregon, you are a wonder. All I can do is wonder myself, camera in hand.

Chaney Swiney