The aroma of Tacoma

  • The sugar beet factory in not-so-glamorous Billings


My husband grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Whenever we’d go back to visit the cloudy skies of Seattle or Portland, he’d ask, “Can you picture us living here?” and I would try. But I always felt anxious.

He seemed so happy, just posing the question, that I put my trepidation down to that arthritis — latent now — in my left thumb.

Then one day, the question changed. “What about Tacoma?” he asked.

I felt instant comfort, as if I were sinking into warm vanilla bubbles. Turns out, it wasn’t the arthritis that worried me. It was the prospect of living life in a hip, happening, Seattle-or-Portland kind of city, a lucky-you, can-I-come-too kind of place.

I prefer a town whose freshness date has expired, one with a slight funk, a little grit, a mysterious stench wafting on the breeze. Such towns dot our great country, and I’ve lived in a few.

My all-time favorite is Astoria, Ore., on the mouth of the Columbia River. When I pulled into town, it was just getting dark. People peered at me from behind soggy curtains. It felt shifty, mysterious, like I’d stepped into a Twin Peaks episode, and during my time there, that feeling never entirely evaporated. How could it, when it rained so much?

Long ago, Astoria dreamed of becoming the salmon capital of the world. But at some point, the dreamers abandoned her, and let her go feral. When I was there, much of downtown stood empty, its mossy inhabitants whispering that Astoria would come back some day.

Turns out they were right. I got out in 2001, just in time, as that remote outpost of Lewis and Clark let its revitalization take hold. Now, under the big bridge where the hobos used to relax, there’s a deluxe hotel with an on-site spa, its rooms replete with fireplaces and claw-foot bathtubs. Astoria may still be eccentric. But those seedy, decrepit days are gone. Its promoters have probably found a way to suck the fish smell from the air and silence those seals that used to bark me to sleep at night.

These days, I sleep in Billings, Mont.

Billings isn’t quite the sort of town I embrace — Butte is probably more my style — but at least Billings possesses some humility. Although it’s the biggest city in Montana, it knows darn well nobody chooses to live there. People move to Billings for business, or stay because their family wound up there three generations before and never scraped up the smarts to skedaddle. In November, when the sugar beets burn on the edge of town, there’s a singular stink to the air that almost smells like home.

The apple of Montana’s eye is Missoula. Everybody and her Labrador loves that town. I don’t blame people, but frankly, this Missoula worship is tiresome. More tiresome still is Boulder, Colo., where I lived for a stretch. With Boulder’s perfect array of ethnic restaurants, endless bike trails, sunny open space, enlightened public transportation, eclectic cultural offerings and those drop-dead-gorgeous Flatirons, I should have been in heaven.

Correction: I was in heaven. Boulder is heaven on earth.

Trouble is, some people don’t belong in heaven. Some of us just don’t fit in. How weary I grew of Boulder’s relentless enlightenment, its herds of hippies nibbling their sacrosanct vegan concoctions, its fitness freaks with their far-too-healthy habits.

You cannot argue with heaven, but like Lucifer, you can leave.

I’m better off earthbound. After all, I was born and raised in Omaha, one of those towns like Billings or Tacoma that people — most of whom have never been there — crack jokes about. The jokes make them feel better about where they live, but all their negative energy just makes me stronger. I hardly know Tacoma, but the idea of it sits well with me; it’s the kid sister to glamorous Seattle, passing a little gas at Easter dinner. Having spent my entire life as a kid sister, I know what that’s like.

Like certain towns, I’m perverse, determined not to do what’s desired. Obstinate, we turn away from what is right, good or proper. We persist in what’s wrong.

Perhaps this attitude is necessary to my economic survival. I’ve never been loaded, and I probably never will be, and my kind of towns are almost always marked down for quick sale. Maybe if I had more money, I would embrace nirvana, but I doubt it. Money can mask your smell, but it can’t change it. Underneath, it’s always the same stink coming from your pores.

So, Tacoma has its aroma, and I have mine. I believe it might welcome me with moldy, open arms. I know my arms, perspiration stains and all, will be raised in return.

Karen Mockler is a writer, teacher and former HCN intern. She currently breathes the air of Billings, along with her husband and 3-year-old daughter.

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