My cousin from Arizona visited earlier this month, and our time together really made me appreciate this part of the country.

Living outside of Phoenix, my cousin is forced to get up at the crack of dawn to get any outdoor activities in before the 100-plus degree heat sets in. She has to constantly look out for scorpions, venenous snakes and tarantulas, especially around her 7-pound Chihuahua mix, whose miniscule size in comparison to predators makes it all the more vulnerable. The plants reflect the hostile environment, complete with thorns, and most vegetation won’t survive. And because of that, almost all food has to be shipped from elsewhere.

So plop someone from there right here in the Willamette Valley, and they’ll feel like they’re in another world. At least, that’s what it seemed like from my cousin’s constant oohs and aahs over the scenery and gorgeous weather.

My husband and I picked her up at the airport and continued north to spend the day at Mount St. Helens in Washington. Not only was the mountain impressive, but she couldn’t stop talking about the amazing variety of wildflowers or the dizzying patterns made by newly planted evergreens. It was truly a majestic and sobering day, appreciating the beautiful countryside and power of God’s creation.

For dinner, we went to a fish market in east Portland that boasted a new shipment of Copper River salmon. My cousin was impressed with the freshness of the fish, which would have lost a lot of that freshness en route to somewhere farther away, like Arizona.

That wasn’t the only food that blew her away. I brought her some marionberries, having been told that she hadn’t even heard of them before, and she soon became the fruit’s No. 1 fan.

This meant that, when I took her antiquing in Aurora, we had to stop and eat some local marionberry pie. She dubbed it the best pie ever.

Fresh berries and other produce were prevalent in our diet, whether we were picking raspberries, enjoying grilled asparagus or gorging ourselves on watermelon.

Everything seemed impressive, including the hop fields that I pass every day to and from work but which were the first she had ever seen, so “can we pull over and take a picture?”

My cousin grew up in Ohio but moved to the desert six years ago because she had had enough of the harsh winters and the humid summers. But her visit here was like a pleasant surprise that offered a dose of homesickness. She loved the small towns that dot the countryside, and how it reminds her of rural Ohio, where people gather for a parade and greet each other as they walk down the street.

Not only do we have an abundance of local farm opportunities and small-town gatherings, but we have an appreciation for history. I took my cousin to the Civil War re-enactment at Willamette Mission State Park, which is the first place either of us have seen a battle re-enacted. What the Northwest Civil War Council puts together is pretty impressive, even though no Civil War battles occurred in this part of the country. From the battles to the costumes to the in-character participants, the day was chock full of interesting information about our nation’s history.

The dozens of antique shops are also proof of our region’s immense interest in the past. The preservation of items from times gone by is astounding, as we ambled through room after room stuffed with gadgets and thingamajigs from another era.

This visit not only made me appreciate my cousin, who’s like another sister, but it also made me appreciate the Willamette Valley. It’s so rich in cultural, agricultural and economic diversity, setting it apart from the rest of the country, yet its small-town feel and appreciation for Americana make it feel like home, no matter where you come from.

I may have grown up in upstate New York and lived in Ohio, but, seven years after moving here, I feel proud to call myself an Oregonian.

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