“How did she end up there?!” (Read the word “there” with a tone of disbelief and possible disdain.) The question — more of an exclamation — was relayed to me by a friend. He was recounting a conversation he’d had with a long-ago mutual acquaintance who, when informed of my whereabouts after all these years, posed the very question I ask myself frequently.
The average American relocates about a dozen times over their life span. At some point do they, like me at age 77, wonder if this is the last stop. If so, how did I end up here (a tone of disbelief? disdain? delight?).
“Here” in my case is Omak, Washington, a gritty small town that wrestled itself into existence a little more than a century ago, smack-dab in the middle of a shrubsteppe valley — the Okanogan — where natives thrived for at least ten thousand years. Romance brought me here more than forty years ago — love for a man and our mutual love for small-town newspapers. My expectations were clear. We’d have fun running a newspaper until retirement, when we’d move to somewhere more, uh, civilized. Then karma happened, and here I am. Still.
The why-here question arises this gloomy morning with no glint of sun, with dingy snowbanks likely in place until June’s 100-plus temperatures, with memories of the many choices I’ve made in a lifetime. What about those roads not taken? Where else might I be now? Just then, an eagle soars past at eye level, scanning the river for fish, disrupting the ducks that have been quietly meditating just a few yards from my back door.
The river is why I’m here. Not a raging, white-water river nor a large channel with ships and barges. Just a pleasant, hard-working stream, remnant of the Pleistocene-era glacial movement that shaped this valley’s cragged walls. The Okanogan River waters crops and wildlife, nurtures fish and fowl, and entertains folks who float aboard inflatable vessels on a hot summer’s day.
The eagle having lifted my spirits upon her mighty wing span, I turn to breakfast — a few strips of beefsteak over toast. I eat meat only occasionally. These slices of steak originated from an animal raised on friends’ ranch, up-valley, where cattle really do live out their days beneath blue skies, never see a feedlot and are humanely butchered. The toast is artisan bread, baked locally, sold at the Okanogan Farm Stand, where I also buy local organic produce and eggs.
Still, I have an appetite for the world beyond. I open the Feb. 7, 2022, issue of “The New Yorker” magazine as I cut into my breakfast. And there, on page 28, in an essay by the esteemed John McPhee, I’m right back here, in the Okanogan. (Spoiler alert: I plan to give away McPhee’s punch line. If you want to read his version first, go here and scroll to “Citrus, Booze, and Ah Bing.”) An Easterner and aficionado of fruit (he wrote the book “Oranges” among many), McPhee and his wife were touring Washington state in 1982, hungering for cherries. He exults that “the Okanogan Valley is the Oxford and Cambridge of the Bing cherry.”
He describes crossing the North Cascade Mountains on famed Highway 20 with nary a comment about that breathtaking route. His description upon descending into the Okanogan: “Dessicated. Lovely. Irrigated green. Trees punctuated with deep-red dots.”
He didn’t stop at the newspaper office, which was just as well. We were probably busy and would’ve given the famous author short shrift unless he had local news to report. Turned out he did. He’d been given directions to an orchard owned and operated by “a knowledgeable married couple who will prefer to remain nameless.”
Too bad. In small-town newspapers, the rule is, “Names are news.” McPhee tells of arriving at the orchard, finding an abundance of cherries along with “shouting, angry shouting, more shouting, and the married owners appeared, on the apron of their barn, in a fistfight.”
Forty years later, the Okanogan cannot claim to be more civilized, but we are exotic enough to make it into the pages of “The New Yorker.” Could be, that’s why I’m here.