On the road, 1979. Limbo between lives. Oregon had yet to register to me as a permanent reality. It was still a gift-shop dream. Green-splashed air fresheners shaped like Douglas firs. Rain Festival tees. Gaudy baubles depicting scenes so sylvan I asked my dad, “Are we moving to the woods?” Remember the Hamm’s jingle? That’s how Oregon sounded.
Mom fled in style, natch: a one-hour sky leap with my baby brother and the family cat tucked in cargo. The Frye men, accompanied by my aunt Nancy’s roommate Linda — who’d decided on the spur of the moment to move to Oregon too, like a plot swerve in a sitcom on its last legs — hit the interstate with our two Australian Shepherds patiently flanking me in the backseat of our 1974 Chevy Nova.
For a six-year-old unaccustomed to thousand-mile treks, this was excruciating. Our windows were useless; there was nothing to see, save the occasional God knuckle digging into dead desert (what I called those dirty hills violently meeting earth) and the passed and passed and passed again exits to McDonald’s. The radio was mostly static, voices fighting through beanbags. I placated myself with the assumption that this was temporary; we’d be back home soon. At the very least, we’d eventually stop driving.
Our forward motion ended in Lebanon, where my grandparents, the Fryes — Lawrence and Barbara, Grandpa Bud and Gramma Sugar (a moniker so bequeathed by me to separate her from Grandma Sundin, or Gramma Sweetheart) — lived. They’d been the second link in our family’s California exodus. I’ve never gotten the whole mysterious story straight — and I’ll sure fuck it up here — but this all goes back to the early ’70s and my grandpa’s brother, my great-uncle Lowell, a Los Angeles cop who for reasons still nebulous wound up in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Some years later my grandparents drove up to visit, and Gramps fell hard for the trees and their tranquil charm. Perhaps they stirred idyllic visions of his childhood in Depression-era Covina, a simpler period of quaint quiet and unlocked doors. When he returned to Baldwin Park, the Frye family center since God knows when, he’d made up his mind. He stuffed everything into a moving van, lashed what he could to his pickup, converted my aunt Carol and then-uncle Randy with his hope-whipped gush, and they all vanished north, forever.
Off in Whittier, my family held out. The green state held no such allure. I recall in bursts a mid-’70s Oregon vacation — nothing really about the trip itself, except for a family pose at the Portland airport before our flight back. It was a heavy moment, that lump-throated au revoir, with a picture to seal it shut.
There are no photographs of our last day as California residents. But I don’t really need one, ’cause I’ll never forget it. The lamp in Gramma Sweetheart’s living room shrugged limply in somber light. It was morning, but still funeral dark. My uncle Steve was there, stoic, his sister’s volunteer LAX shuttle. My aunt Celia was in the hospital, preparing to deliver my cousin Daniel. Grandpa Sundin, that sweet, dear man I miss so much, gently tousled the brick-thick mop atop my groggy form one last time. I’d never seen my grandmother cry before that day. “Are you sure?” she kept asking. “Mom,” Mom assured her with the resolve of an adult still learning to make life-changing decisions, “it’s something we need to do.”
Of course, no one asked me. I was totally against the move. I clung to the hopeless hope that they’d come to their senses. “All our son’s friends are here,” they’d realize. “He’s doing well in school. It’s not fair to uproot him from Valhalla just because we’re too stupid to care how he feels.” Didn’t happen. Barely a day passed that I didn’t overhear my mother on the phone, stamping it deeper and deeper into truth. “Yeah,” she chuckled one afternoon, absently twisting the cord in her fingers, “it’s a little town called Scio. I was talking to Brenda, and she was like, ‘Scio? How do you spell that?’ and I said, ‘S-C-I-O’ and she goes, ‘Oh, Sky-O!’ ” (It’s pronounced “Sigh-O,” actually, and that’s exactly how it feels.)
To this day I’ve never asked either of my parents why we left. I think it’s residue from way back then, when I didn’t care. I’d quietly spend the next 21 years plotting my return. For a while I resented them for denying me what I was sure was a better future, one where I was more handsome, tanned, athletic, and desirable to the opposite sex, instead of a pasty-fleshed waste fist-deep in notebooks like a dick. If it wasn’t for that chump move, I once resolved, I’d probably even know how to surf.
Instead we were on a slow roll to an eco-chasm of tortured blah and forestry. It was night-time in Lebanon when we arrived in our New Life. We pulled into an A&W drive-thru for sustenance and the trip’s one true highlight: When the teenaged beef-slinger reached out the window with our bags, she was greeted by two hooting beasts protecting the driver’s side. I’d like to think they were extending salutations from the Sunshine State.
Everything was new and foreign for a while. The weather took some getting used to. No more short sleeves after dark. It also rained a lot, so much that the morning smelled like diapers. I was surprised to see that our house in Scio was on blocks (!) and was swallowed by flat miles of squat. On our property stood a large tin shed and a dilapidated barn meant to house pigs, but we never had any. There were cows to contend with, a bored horse, a far-off neighbor who gave not thought one to blasting wandering pets, and a shady school with a second-grade class loaded on ten-year-old sadists and one bendable, aerodynamic city boy too small for his age. Meanwhile the calendar ached toward a brand-new decade: 1980, a nascent age of techno-wonder invading home appliances, children’s toys, and pop music.
“We Don’t Talk Anymore” always reminds me of this transitional time. It exists in shadows shrouded in red-led digital warmth. Distant blinks jab life and promise through the void, an overpass view of a city, like the one I saw the night we first drove into my future hometown of Albany. It reminded me a little of L.A.’s buzzing landscape, a magma-pit metropolis of pinpricks in an intricate procession, a traffic jam of stars. The song seemed to converge at the overall future and my own, marching ahead on synth tingles splashed in Riunite. It was doorbell music for the new frontier.