09/04/2013 07:18 am ET Updated Nov 04, 2013

Love Letters: Eugene, Oregon

Despite the fact that Ellen Girardeau Kempler now lives in Laguna Beach, California, she is an Oregonian at heart. She owns her own travel planning business, Gold Boat Journeys, and is a poet and nature and travel writer whose work has been published in literary journals, magazines and newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, Westways and the Christian Science Monitor.


As a child growing up on the forested top of a Eugene hill, I escaped every summer day into your shady, sun-kissed bower of delight. The cool forest beckoned right next door to our house on Douglas Drive. "Doug firs" lined a dirt road into what seemed then like unexplored wilderness. Although I knew the route by heart, the unheard, unseen possibility of unexpected excitement lay hidden in the forest.

The thrill was there the day I followed the sound of water into a thicket of broadleaf trees and discovered a small stream lined with mossy rocks. It was there in the spring, when I found lady slippers blooming among the sword ferns. It was there when my sisters, my Chicago cousins and I watched a frightened porcupine climb a conifer just off the road. And it always waited at trail's end, in a newt-filled oasis we called the Salamander Pond, where my friends and I watched dragonflies and caught pollywogs all day. When we got hungry, we picked crab apples off gnarled branches in an abandoned orchard or wild blackberries off bushes as tall as tractors.

As I reached puberty, my wild excitement grew into something more complicated. While I still explored your forests, they began to seem more limited, hemmed in by houses and threatened by development. My exploration expanded into organized neighborhood activities: playing whiffle ball and camping out in a neighbor's field; doing wheelies down a trail on stingray bikes; climbing to the top of an old oak called the Big Tree; building forts in vacant lots; and playing TV tag until dark with the boys down the street.

When I entered junior high school everything changed. Construction started in the vacant lot where we built our fort; camp outs became indoor slumber parties where girls giggled and gossiped; and boys' invitations to play spin the bottle after dark replaced daylight tag games. The owners of the road to the Salamander Pond put up No Trespassing signs at the entrance. Running track every afternoon and walking home from the bus stop (refusing to use an umbrella) during the drippy, gray school year dampened my love for outdoor adventure. It got so bad, I confess, that by high school I was planning to leave you for a college on the southern California coast.

I didn't expect to miss you so much when we separated. Walking each day along coastal cliffs, I soaked in the sun-bleached beauty of sky, surf and sand. But I missed the deep shade of your fir trees; the dogwoods' light-green blooms; the Chickadees' echoing calls; the deer stepping delicately through our backyard; and the way nature framed my life with you.

At Christmas, as the Coast Starlight snaked north toward the Oregon border and my family waiting to meet me at the train station, the scenery grew lusher, greener, more familiar. Whoever said you can't go home again was wrong. You can. And sometimes homecomings make you realize where you left your heart. You know that Heart in Oregon t-shirt they sell online now? Of course I own one. Even after three decades of life in California, going back to Oregon is like falling in love all over again.

Yours Always, Ellen