|stand of oaks, Running Y Resort, Klamath Falls, Oregon|
As a child on road trips south to visit extended family, and though we crossed the state line within half an hour, I knew we were in the real California once I could see rolling golden hills dotted with oak trees sliding past the car window. Now, many of those same hills are covered in identical drab brown two-story houses and ribbons of asphalt roads, the oaks and grasses long gone, paradise paved as in the Joni Mitchell song. California's international popularity, product of Hollywood, has been slowly, year by year, destroying the natural, wild landscape that drew everyone to it like a magnet—gold dust, gold light, gold hills stretching off into the horizon as in so many cowboy films. By the 1950s when my father's family arrived from Ohio-Indiana, exurban California was blanketed in irrigated orchards of oranges and almonds, since turned into housing developments spreading further and further into Central Valley farmland as population rises. (When the water runs out, California will be not just toast but burnt toast, and then people will flood north.)
|half-pano view of Klamath Lake|
|scrub white oaks, Klamath Lake|
Raised in the high desert of southern Oregon with sage brush, juniper, and ponderosa pine, I did not grow up around oaks, so they to me seem a foreign tree. Oregon's Willamette Valley, where I've lived for almost 10 years now, has oak trees, but they hide among all the pines and broad-leaf maples. While California's oaks stand apart, dotting the hills like ingenues at a casting call, Northwest Oregon's oaks blend into the background, a blur of green in the rainforest—extras, to continue the film metaphor. Medford in Southwest Oregon on the side of the Cascade Range opposite Klamath also has oaks and a drier climate more like northern California's (which is why I sometimes think about settling there, halfway between Portland and the Bay, restless, dissatisfied human that I am.) A little googling shows the Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana) territory ranging from British Columbia all the way down to southern California. California has 20 native oak species, of which the Oregon white oak is but one.
|Oregon white oaks, Running Y, Klamath Falls, Oregon|
|oak leaf litter, Running Y, Klamath Falls, Oregon|
Yet just this year my youngest brother, a former Eagle Scout, told me that the Klamath Basin once had oaks, but the farmers and ranchers found the trees bothersome and chopped them all down. As evidence, K knew of a section of oaks still standing out past Keno, which he'd found while looking at old maps. I asked to one day be taken to these oaks. Then this summer I found them in not just one but two places in the Klamath area—meaning, there must be more.
They are scrubbier white oaks with thinner trunks compared to most Oregon white oaks, but they are oaks—my favorite tree. I first tripped across these scrub oaks by accident while on the Klamath Lake side of the Running Y Resort, which in my childhood used to be a large undeveloped cattle ranch. Oaks in Klamath, really? We had white pelicans, bald eagles, and a crop of seagulls that hung out at McDonald's, a five hours' drive inland from the Pacific Ocean—but oaks? This for me was as if learning dragons were real and living in caves around Crater Lake.
|oak leaf and acorn cap, Klamath River Canyon, Oregon|
On another afternoon, my step-father and I drove down into the Klamath River canyon on a curvy gravel road and stopped at a turn-off park by the river, where we spotted an orange-and-black-and-cream-ribboned California King snake (further proof that we are not far from the California border in my hometown), winding fast into the bushes away from our cameras. Oaks stood above us and all along the canyon walls among the pines. I dipped my toes into the river, the clear water cooling my feet, looked up at the blue sky, and thought about how, regardless of what cynics say, there are hidden depths to the familiar. There is magic in nature all around, if only we're open to it. And so I fell a little in love with the place I always longed to leave.