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Getting to know Oregon and its people is a joy for East Coast native

(Jennifer Priest Mitchell is a freelance writer in Beaverton. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Last week many school children and couples in love recognized Valentine's Day with chocolates, flowers or homemade paper hearts (my personal favorite).

In addition to being the much-popularized 'second Christmas for lovers,' Feb. 14 is also the birthday of our state. And, as a relatively new resident of Oregon, I choose to celebrate its birthday each year. In fact, I find many reasons to honor this state.

I came to Oregon in September of 2001, shortly after the tragic 9-11 events on the East Coast. That was a particularly difficult time to leave my family and friends behind in Ohio, where I spent the first 35 years of my life. Coming here on an Amtrak Train (travel by air was a challenge in those first few weeks after 9-11) allowed our family of four to truly appreciate the distance of that move.

As we chugged for 52 hours across forests and plains, through various towns and cities, we stopped in Illinois, Minnesota and Idaho, among other states. We saw coyotes, buffalo, grand mansions and tiny wooden shacks. Our children, ages 1 and 2 at the time, collected a rock in each state where the train stopped. The country spread out in front of us. Our families and all we knew seemed to stand still behind us.

My husband's career brought us to Oregon, a state I planned to feel lukewarm about. I figured we would make the best of the rain, the decidedly liberal environment (I am against the death penalty, too, but I would never throw things at the president) and what I thought was a lack of historical landmarks. I regretted leaving Ohio, mother of seven U.S. presidents and home to one of the most beautiful State Houses in the country (where I actually worked for 12 years). Annie Oakley, the Wright Brothers, Neil Armstrong and Thomas Edison, all Buckeyes like me, were almost distant cousins to those of us raised in that proud, conservative culture.

But, somewhat to my surprise, we have enjoyed discovering for ourselves Oregon's unique history and its many 'secrets.' We've hit the biggies like Cannon Beach, Mount Hood and Sun River, but we've also taken some terrific side trips and found that Oregon has its own Toledo (almost as sleepy and uninteresting as the one in Ohio, but we still took photos).

We also enjoyed finding the Darlingtonia Botanical Wayside - six sunny, damp acres of cobra lilies located north of Florence. These carnivorous flowers grow on the slopes of the Cascade Mountains in southern Oregon and northern California, and nowhere else in the world.

We've had fun learning about the only crime lab on the planet that is devoted entirely to crimes against animals (part of the National Fish and Wildlife Service, the lab is located in Ashland). We now make an annual pilgrimage to the Paulina Plunge in Central Oregon, and indulge in one full day of downhill bike paths with periodic stops to swim in waterfalls. This is just risky enough to feel dangerous, but the fact that mountain bike guides gladly welcome children as young as age 4 (riding tandem behind parents) reminds of its safety. Those are just a few our favorite surprises throughout this glorious green state.

But besides all of the weekend getaways and fun places to take visiting relatives, we've been delighted by the friendliness of Oregonians. Within a few days of settling into our first house in the Raleigh Hills area, neighbors brought us cookies, drew us maps of the city, invited our children to play dates and took us into their homes, helping us discover Portland.

I also launched a freelance writing career with just a few cold calls to editors around town who were willing to take a chance on me. While I thought we would have to rely entirely on my husband's co-workers to help us settle in, I found that the people at the Beaverton Library, Powell's City of Books and Trader Joe's were as helpful as anyone else with sharing the ins and outs of the city.

Having someone else pump my gas seems a little extravagant, not to mention time-consuming, and I really miss going to the polls to vote. However, Oregon is home to creative, open-minded, good people (even the ones from California). Oregon is a place where folks aim to help one another just because it's the right thing to do. While a part of my heart will always remain in Ohio where I learned to ride a bike, drive a car, write the alphabet and press releases, I am pleased that my husband and I made the choice to come to Oregon.

A new state slogan (for tourism) was recently adopted: 'Oregon … We love dreamers.' However, I am fonder of the original state motto: 'She flies with her own wings.'

I am spreading my wings and enjoying the flight. Thank you, Oregon. And Happy Birthday.