Autumn arrives early in the Pacific Northwest. In early September, most of the country is still wallowing in summer, but summer never really gets settled in the upper-left corner of the country. Summer comes to Oregon and Washington for a visit, but it doesn't unpack its bags. It pokes around in June, gets comfortable in July and August, and in September gives up and heads back east. There are fewer days above 90 in an Oregon year than in a Memphis August.
The Northwest has only two seasons -- raining and not raining -- and each of them makes the locals forget the other one ever occurs. Celebrations break out the first time there are three straight sunny days in June, and by July, everyone forgets what a cloud looks like. Then, the first time it rains in September, the Malaise sets in. "It's all over," everyone says. "We'll never see the sun again."
In truth, "it" the Good Season doesn't really end in September. The Great Gray Winter doesn't claim the field until November, but its invasion is met with tepid resistance. Autumn is on the scene only long enough to make sure it's safe for winter. So there's never an exact moment when you can say that the party is all over. It's a feeling each individual gets, like the first time Memphis' five-day forecast shows five straight 90-something days and people say, "Uh-oh, it's summer now."
The fact that each Northwesterner experiences the end of summer at different times makes for some fascinating scenes: On a Portland bus, on a 50-degree day, you'll see people in shorts and people in parkas. On the first day of rain, you'll see people relieved the heat is gone and people openly depressed.
I had the opportunity to actually see the fall of 2003 arrive on the Oregon coast. I was camping with some friends at a state park right on the beach. It had been, according to the newscasts and all the locals, "unseasonably warm" for a week. This means that in late August it was -- gasp! -- still in the 90s. The papers were full of the news.
So, naturally, the only cure for this heat was to schedule a camping trip; that works every time. On Thursday, it was 93 degrees, and people were wilting. On Friday, it was still hot in Portland but a little foggy on the coast. And on Saturday, right around dinnertime, I was standing on a dune overlooking the beach, watching surfers and dogs and Frisbee-tossers, and commenting on "those cool-looking clouds out over the ocean."
To complete the picture, erase your idea of what the above beach scene might look like. You'll need to put wetsuits on the surfers (the water is in the 50s), sweaters and caps on the people, and fog on the sea. It was a "nice day" on the beach, which only means it wasn't raining yet. It was the sixth day of September.
The clouds I had commented on were, in fact, cool-looking -- like a little mountain range, with peaks and valleys stretching from horizon to horizon. We watched the surfers some more, commented on a doggie drama that was occurring, and then I noticed the features in the clouds had become less distinct. I thought it seemed a little chillier too. A few minutes later, the clouds were more or less above us, and I noticed more whitecaps out beyond the surf.
A moment later, a strange movement in the sand caught my eye, and I was just about to say something about it when a blast of sand hit us right in our faces. The wind had turned into a monster, and several of us turned our backs on it, rubbed our eyes, and started cussing. There was a loud howling, and I had a hard time standing up. I managed to look back at the beach and saw people chasing hats, a little kid sprawled in the surf, and the ocean an angry, frothy white.
We jogged back to camp, the wind still whistling around us, and found chaos: Paper plates were in the bushes, tents were trying to depart, and the previously smoky, subdued fire looked like a candle about to go out. It must have been blowing 40 miles an hour, and everything I could see was in reaction to it. People were scrambling, children were crying, and trees were bending as if in devotion to the powers of weather.
In about 10 minutes, the blow was over, but we were properly humbled. It was also at least 15 degrees cooler, and a light mist was swirling around. We managed to get in dinner and some drumming around the fire, and then, with a few loud plops, the mist turned to a light rain. I headed for my tent and before I was settled in my sleeping bag, the rain had become serious. I heard dashing footsteps in puddles outside, and a drip formed in the roof of my tent. After that, it sounded like somebody turned on a firehose.
As I drifted off to sleep, I was fighting the Oregon Malaise. I figured the sun wouldn't shine again until June, that all my stuff would forever be wet. I regretted the things not accomplished while the sun was shining. But I had one comforting thought: I had been given a rare chance to see the season change in an instant, to feel the power of nature literally hit me in my face. I had been present at the arrival of autumn.