Few would deny that the Pacific Northwest is one of the most spectacularly beautiful regions on earth, but our climate is notorious. If you don’t live here, I’m sure you’ve heard that it rains all the time—a hard, steady rain that can last for weeks at a time. The sun doesn’t come out at all during the winter, shrouded behind a layer of suicide-gray clouds. Moss grows on everything, including people. Our home of Portland, with an average of 222 heavily cloudy days per year, falls just behind Seattle as the cloudiest city in the US.
Mere statistics are deceiving, though. Portland gets much of its rain—only 40 inches per year—in the form of mist, and we resident “webfeet” pull out our umbrellas on only a relative handful of days. “It rains all the time” is a myth created to discourage outsiders from moving here. But Portland isn’t San Diego, and if you genuinely hate rain and gray, you wouldn’t be happy living here.
Rain is depressing
For most of my life, like most people, I found rainy days to be depressing. When I came to the PNW on vacation in 1996—in late summer, when the weather is sunny and gorgeous—the overwhelming natural beauty spoke to my soul, and I wanted to move here. I was worried about the rain and cloud cover, though. Wouldn’t I get depressed? On the other hand, I was weary of Georgia’s brutal summers. I finally decided that I would move here, and I vowed to give myself two years. People told me, “Your first two winters will be rough. Then you’ll either adjust or move away.”
So I was prepared. My first winter was pretty much what I’d expected. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I dealt with it. What got to me more than the gray, chilly dampness were the long nights and short days, due to our high latitude. The second winter, though, was a beast—it rained on 90 out of 120 days. Algae was growing in the culvert on my street. I turned 40 on a cold December 7th on which it rained all day, and hard. I hadn’t made any friends yet. I was lonely and miserable, and I seriously considered moving south to California.
But then spring came, and I remembered why I’d wanted to move here in the first place. Leaves sprouted, flowers bloomed, and the sun started to come out in dribs and drabs. Thoughts of moving departed. I’d survived one of the bleakest winters on record, and I knew that not all of them would be that bad.
Maybe rain isn’t so bad
By my third winter, I’d adjusted. Those 4:30 PM sunsets were just the “new normal.” Without the rain, we wouldn’t have our lush greenery. Many residents take a late-winter vacation to Hawaii, Las Vegas, or Palm Springs to dry out their souls. So it went for the next few winters: I tolerated them.
Maybe rain is great!
Then, one day, something happened: I was driving up Interstate 5 in Washington. It was cloudy, misty, and foggy. I passed the site of the now-demolished Trojan nuclear-reactor cooling tower. It was barely visible, a light shade of gray against the slightly lighter gray background fog, with the slightly darker gray trees in front of it. It reminded me of one of those monochromatic Japanese or Chinese watercolor paintings of foggy, misty scenes of nature, where there were only slight variations in tonal value. I’d always found those watercolors to be beautiful. This scene was beautiful, too, and it had the added surrealism of a barely discernible condensation silo among the natural elements. I wish I’d had a camera with me, but this photo will give you the general idea:
That’s when it hit me: why do most people consider rain, fog, and gray skies to be depressing? I’m not talking about people with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is a genuine medical condition. I’m talking about people like me who are “supposed” to find rain and gray to be depressing. From that day forward, I actively began to look forward to winter. I also love the change of seasons, and the fact that they’re mild here.
The PNW is renowned for its summers, with long, sunny days on which the light doesn’t disappear until 10:00 PM (the flip side of those 4:30 PM winter sunsets), and warm-to-hot temperatures with low humidity. We webfeet bask in the solar glory and dry out our feathers. We cook, camp, travel, play baseball, tube down the rivers, hike, and can’t imagine a better place to be. This is when most people from other places visit. They assume that “it rains all the time” is xenophobic propaganda, and they move here, figuring that it’s always this sunny.
Then fall comes, and, after two or three rain-free months, I’m ready for some drizzle and mist, and so are the plants. When we get a cold snap at just the right time, the autumn foliage is spectacular. There are harvest festivals, cider tastings, and corn mazes galore. The Columbia Gorge is ablaze with color. The fog starts to creep in, and I’ve become a fogophile. We usually have an Indian Summer or two, with warm days and cool, crisp nights. I start to feel that the expanse of blue sky and light are too much. I feel exposed and vulnerable, on the verge of agoraphobia. I yearn for the soft, comforting quilt of winter’s cloud cover.
Winter hears me and arrives, along with the holiday festivities I so look forward to. Skiers and snowboarders head out Highway 26 to Mt. Hood to pursue their passions. Down here in the Willamette Valley, we get a snow day or two each winter, with a really good snowfall once every few years. It’s enough for us to experience the white, pristine beauty of a Currier and Ives print, but without the daily drudgery of shoveling snow from the driveway, as my dad had to do in Rochester, New York.
Because of our many evergreens, and the lichens that cover the branches of the deciduous trees, the PNW never becomes the brown, barren wasteland that some areas of the country become in winter. I’ve reached the point where, if the sun pokes through the clouds for half an hour, I consider it to have been a partly sunny day. We get patches of blue among the clouds, which the locals call “sucker holes,” because they sucker you into believing that the rest of the day will be sunny. This is the time of year to sit inside and curl up by the fireplace with a good book, or to head to the coast to watch the winter storms pound the shore.
When winter finally wears out its welcome, spring returns. Nowhere else have I seen as many shades of green as we have during springtime in the PNW. And then there are the flowers: irises, lilacs, dogwoods, daffodils, lilies, tulips—an orgy of color. Early spring is the one time when winter still depresses me, if only briefly. We get those first magical days of sun and 70-degree temperatures, and we all declare the arrival of spring, but then the cold, the rain, and the gray settle back in for a couple weeks at a time. We can experience all types of weather—sunshine, rain, clouds, hail, wind, stillness—in the span of a day. Eventually, though, spring wins its battle with winter, and the cycle begins again.
The beauty of gray
So is rain depressing? Again, barring SAD, I no longer think so. I find it interesting that, in the past few years, gray has become the neutral interior house-paint color of choice, thanks in part to HGTV stars Scott McGillavry (Income Property) and Joanna Gaines (Fixer Upper). Pam got us an exquisite raindrop chandelier for our dining room, and I painted the room gray so that it would look like a rainy day in Portland or Hilo.
What about you? Have you made your peace with gray and rain? Or are you still a creature of the sun?
Featured image at top: Hawthorne Bridge, Portland, Oregon