A love letter to La Grande

By Lisa McMahan, The Observer August 12, 2011 09:14 pm
Impatience to leave mixes with fierce pride for ‘the Paris of Oregon’

There’s something about a summer storm in the valley that tells me I’m home.

It smells like grass and canceled soccer games and counting lightning flashes with my best friend when we were little, sitting cross-legged on my windowseat.

Storms like this don’t happen in Portland, where the rain is so ubiquitous it doesn’t have a distinct smell.

I never thought I’d join the 85 percent of college grads that move back in with their parents and I especially never thought I’d do so by choice.

But here I am.

I applied for a Snowden internship, which places college students at publications throughout Oregon, last winter. There was only one copy-editing internship and it was in a little place called La Grande. If I was going to spend my summer in a small town, I reasoned, it made sense to work in a town with which I was already familiar and where I could live for free.

While the latter has certainly been true thanks to the generosity of my parents (whom I sometimes refer to as my roommates), my assumption that I had a home-court advantage in reporting on the area where I was born and raised was constantly challenged.

I’m usually able to adapt — or at least survive — in new environments, so I never thought coming home could feel so unfamiliar.

That’s one of the great things about journalism, though. There really is no such thing as a stupid question, a sentiment I took to heart when interviewing bowhunters and cowboy-mounted shooters. I was out of my element writing about bison ordinances and school board meetings. Journalism forces you to ask questions that might seem obvious to the interviewee, but that’s the only way to learn. 

After four years away, I realize La Grande’s perks, quirks and qualms.

I love that I can run all of my errands on my lunch break — there may be fewer options here, but it takes about one-third of the time it did in the city — unless, of course, you hit traffic.

Out-of-towners might not consider the roads here congested, but the co-workers with whom I carpooled to my summer job at the plywood mill a few years ago begged to differ, as does my dad, who insists I take a different route to avoid what he calls “the lunchtime rush.” And if there’s a train? That’s going to add at least a few irksome minutes to your grueling commute.

At the railroad crossing, my impatience is replaced with appreciation for this little town. I remember my grandma told me once she thought of my grandpa, a former yardmaster, whenever she saw a train.

I appreciate, too, the connections. I don’t mind anymore when people associate me with my siblings or my parents, and I look forward to discovering how I might know someone — meeting my mom’s former students, interviewing a man who worked on the railroad with my grandpa or playing bunco with someone who traded comic books with my uncle when they were kids at Greenwood.

In high school, I was pulled over on the way to soccer conditioning camp for going the wrong way down a one-way street (in my defense, it was early). Seeing my embarrassed expression, the officer didn’t ask for my information. Later that day, as I recounted the snafu to my dad, he realized he’d already heard the story from the officer himself, who didn’t know he was talking to the groggy girl’s father.

That kind of thing doesn’t happen in Portland. 

In a writing class at school I once referred to La Grande as “the Paris of Oregon” in a half-joking way. I think it reflects the way I often felt about my hometown: leftover feelings of an impatience to leave mixed with a sense of fierce pride. It must have made an impression — I recently received an email from that same instructor asking, “How’s Paris?”

It’s where I can wear my wannabe cowgirl boots to a rodeo, where I know the names of flowers thanks to my sixth-grade wildflower unit and where I can measure the distance of an evening run on Foothill Road in barns, not miles.

It occurred to me while writing that this column has turned into more of a love letter to La Grande.

That’s perfectly fine with me.

And although there have been times this summer — and especially during my time at The Observer — that I’ve felt out of my element, all it takes is the smell of a summer thunderstorm to remember where I come from.


Lisa McMahan is finishing up a Snowden internship with The Observer.