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What Happens When It Happens Here? | Pedaling on Pasta Power
Dribble, Shoot, Pray | Dan Rodriguez Hangs It Up
UO Alumni Calendar | Duck Tales: Dream Child

What Happens When It Happens Here?
Oregon prepares for predicted massive earthquake and tsunami.

Photos: Rob Witter and an international team of geologists at work in the Coquille River floodplain north of Bandon BONNIE HENDERSON
Rob Witter and an international team of geologists at work in the Coquille River floodplain north of Bandon

When Rob Witter’s phone beeped late the night of March 10 with a text message indicating there had been a magnitude 7.9 earthquake off the coast of Japan (later upgraded to 8.9), “That really caught my interest,” he says—and then he went to bed. He woke at 4:30 a.m. when the telephone rang: Due to the tsunami warning on the Oregon Coast, his daughter’s school in Newport would be closed for the day.

“That’s a first,” he recalls thinking. Still, he remained nonplussed.

This was not the tsunami Witter worries about.

Some day, probably in the next fifty to 100 years, part or all of an underwater fault stretching from Vancouver Island to Eureka, California, will rupture. The result will be an epic earthquake—roughly the size of the March 11 Japanese quake, or even higher, according to scientists’ projections—that will shake the Pacific Northwest like nothing has in 311 years. That rupture, the result of the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate’s inexorable, jerky slide under the North American plate, will displace a huge volume of ocean and send a series of massive waves speeding toward the Oregon shore.

That such massive quakes and tsunamis have happened here in the past and will happen again is virtually incontrovertible, according to geologists and others who have spent the past twenty or thirty years uncovering mounting evidence: ghost forests of standing dead trees drowned in one prehistoric fell swoop, patterns of underwater sediment deposits left by submarine avalanches, ocean sand and tidal mud layered like mille-feuille in estuaries, Edo-period samurai scribes’ jottings about flood damage from unexplained waves striking Japan’s east coast—just the way waves from Japan busted up boats in Brookings this spring. Exactly when the next Big One will hit is anyone’s guess. When it does, coastal residents and visitors will have just ten or twenty minutes to pick themselves up off the ground after the shaking stops and to run—not drive, as the roads will be a wreck—to high ground or risk being swept out to sea by the approaching tsunami.

How high will be high enough? That’s the question Rob Witter PhD ’99 has spent much of the past fifteen years or so investigating. It’s become a major focus of the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI), a state agency that, until the past decade or two, was more concerned with regulating prospectors than mitigating natural hazards. Witter joined DOGAMI’s coastal field office in Newport in 2005 as a regional coastal geologist. He’s now managing the agency’s efforts to draw the projected worst-case-scenario high-water line for the state’s entire coastline and communicating it widely and clearly and accurately and compellingly to everyone who will listen, read, or look.

The four-year federally funded project has teamed Witter, a paleoseismologist, with experts in marine geology, geophysics, and computer modeling from around the Northwest. And it’s not just an academic exercise. “We really want to reduce losses from earthquake and tsunami hazards, and one way to do that is to develop maps that show people where to go in case of a tsunami,” Witter says.

“It’s a really ambitious project. Our little agency is splitting its seams trying to get this project done, ’cause it’s so huge.”

No other U.S. state has attempted a tsunami hazard-mapping project this comprehensive. But excluding Alaska, Oregon faces the highest risk of any state to property and lives from tsunamis, because of its proximity to a quake-generating fault line—the Cascadia Subduction Zone—and the many low-lying coastal towns and accessible beaches. With detailed computer modeling of the inundation zone provided by Joseph Zhang of Oregon Health and Science University, Witter’s team is creating maps showing how high is high enough along every inch of the state’s more than 360-mile coastline. Printed maps are being prepared for the major cities and towns and updated maps of the entire coastline will be available online by 2013. (See and search for “tsunami maps.”)

No one knows how big the next Big One will be, so Witter is drawing the limit of the evacuation zone at the height required for an extra-large tsunami (geologic records indicate that the last Big One, in 1700, was, relative to previous quakes, merely medium-sized). The project builds on earlier tsunami hazard assessment work completed by DOGAMI in the 1990s, but newer data suggest that that work underestimated the possible height of the inundation zone.

The new evacuation maps actually indicate two maximum tsunami inundation zones. The orange zone is the theoretical worst case inundation from a distant tsunami, such as the one generated by the quake from Japan on March 11—not a particularly emergent emergency. “When you hear a siren or see a warning about a tsunami coming from an earthquake far away, relax,” Witter says. “As long as you stay away from beaches, harbors, and marinas, there’s very little risk.”

Photos: Rob Witter and an international team of geologists at work in the Coquille River floodplain north of Bandon OREGON DEPARTMENT OF GEOLOGY

Cannon Beach flood scenarios.

It’s a local tsunami—whose much larger inundation zone is indicated in yellow on the new maps—that prompted the mapping project. In that case, warning sirens won’t even be necessary: the unmistakable shaking of a magnitude 8-plus earthquake will be all the warning you need. People just need to know where to go and how to get there. That’s why DOGAMI is doing more than handing out maps and posting them online. The project includes holding community meetings and hiring local organizers to begin and help sustain the consciousness-raising necessary to make a community truly tsunami-ready: today, and tomorrow, and long after DOGAMI has picked up its sediment corers and gone home.

It’s not exactly what Witter imagined he’d be doing when he grew up. He was a biology major at Whitman College, but by his senior year he’d lost his passion for the life sciences. Plate tectonics, though—continental and oceanic crusts colliding and pulling apart over eons and right this very minute—now that was interesting. He squeezed in a couple of geology classes toward the end of college, learning just enough to whet his interest and point him toward graduate school. At the UO, he fell in with a visiting geologist studying evidence of huge earthquakes and tsunamis on the southern Oregon coast. Such evidence had already been found elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, but the mouths of the Coquille and Sixes rivers and adjacent coastal plain was virgin territory. Witter had intended to earn a master’s degree at Oregon, but after he and his supervising professor successfully applied for funding from the National Science Foundation, a doctoral dissertation was born. He spent several years with the leading geotechnical consulting firm William Lettis and Associates between grad school and the job with DOGAMI.

If the Japanese tsunami was a wake-up call, recent events in Chile—whose geologic history even more closely mirrors Oregon’s—are equally instructive. Witter made two trips there in 2010, once to deliver a paper at an academic conference and once following the magnitude 8.8 earthquake and tsunami of February 27. Two weeks later Witter was on site, taking sediment cores and documenting the disaster. It gave him a sobering firsthand view of what Oregon has to look forward to.

“It was unbelievable. Constitución was just flattened,” he recalls. Some 350 people were killed in that city alone—a number that might have been much higher had the town not held a tsunami-preparedness drill just two weeks earlier.

“Front-loaders were driving down the main city streets, clearing debris—still, when we got there, two weeks after the tsunami.” Constitución is a smallish seaside resort city spread out on the coastal plain at the mouth of a river.

“That’s Seaside, Oregon,” Witter adds. “Exactly.”

­Bonnie Henderson ’79 MA ’85

Update: Witter was among a half-dozen geologists from around the world who spent early May doing field research on northern Japan’s Sendai Plain, site of the greatest tsunami devastation following the Tohoku earthquake. They tested a computer model designed to estimate the size and speed of tsunami waves from the thickness and grain size of sand deposited by a tsunami. From this work, scientists will be able to more closely estimate the magnitude of past tsunamis on the Pacific Northwest coast—and make projections about what’s ahead.

Pedaling on Pasta Power
Culinary bike touring in northern Italy

Photo: Clockwise from left: 2009–10 ASUO president Emma Kallaway ’10 and vice-president Getachew Kassa; Clifton “Pat “ McArthur ’01; Claude Robinson ’24; Ron Eachus ’70; and Phil Sherburne ’64.
The family that bikes together . . . Rick Price and Paola Malpezzi began organizing bike tours of Italy nearly forty years ago. Daughters Maria Elena and Monica now run the business, taking two-wheeled adventurers around the continent and beyond.

From the second-floor win-dow of my room in the Castello Hotel the mountaintop village of San Leo presented a stunning panorama of tenth-century castles, rolling green hills, and cobblestoned medieval streets. In the golden light of morning, it took a sleepy minute to realize that all this was real and not a feast-induced vision brought on by the previous night’s celebration of fine vino, spinach- and ricotta-filled tortelli pasta, tender veal osso bucco, and two helpings of creamy tiramisu.

While such scenes may indeed have been the stuff of daydreams prior to this culinary biking tour through north Italy, they were now becoming almost commonplace. The “golden triangle” of elements one hopes for on such a adventure—fabulous locations, rejuvenating bike rides, and to-die-for meals—was perfectly fulfilled here. And to think that none of this would have happened had it not been for a UO student’s sleepless night back in 1972.

Rick Price ’72, MA ’79, PhD ’80, and his Italian-born wife Paola Malpezzi, MA ’76, PhD ’79, were spending another rainy February evening in their UO married student housing unit near Amazon Park. As anyone who’s experienced a winter in Lane County can testify, this is a time of year when dreams of far-away sunny places beckon like siren songs in the soggy night.

While Malpezzi slept peacefully beside him, Price was wide awake reminiscing about a bike trip they’d taken the previous summer across central Italy. How they’d like to go back. How they didn’t have the money. Then it hit him.

“If we enjoyed our cycling journey that much,” he wondered, “then why wouldn’t lots of other people?”

In the morning, he shared his brainchild with Malpezzi, who was equally enthusiastic, and they began considering a practical course of action.

Bicycling magazine was not yet a national publication, but in the back of Harper’s Monthly, Saturday Review, and Atlantic Monthly—all magazines I read at my mother’s house in Newport,” Price recalls, “there was a single page of classified ads that were small in size but big on dreams: Rent a villa in Provence! Charter a sailboat in the Caribbean!”

The couple envisioned their own ad: “Bicycle Across Italy! Take two weeks to explore enchanting back roads that convey you from the Adriatic Coast to Pisa, near the Tyrrhenian Sea. Savor Florence and revel in central Tuscany.”

But this was the pre-Internet world, and even small ads cost a lot. “The only option we had,” Price says, “was local networking.” They promoted their plan in Eugene and at bicycle-friendly campuses in northern California—and they were “blown away” by the response.

“We sold not just one, but four different tours to Italy that summer,” he says. “And we’ve never looked back since.”

In their scholastic lives as well, Price and Malpezzi continued developing. “I completed my PhD in cultural geography at the UO,” he says, “and Paola got hers in Romance languages. After graduation, however, reality punctured one of Price’s goals. “We smacked into the old two-academics career problem,” he recalled. “Paola found a job in 1983, and I didn’t.

“It was then I made the choice not to go into academe. I turned instead to what I enjoyed most—designing, selling, and leading bicycle tours, first in Italy, then in Greece, Costa Rica, France, and on from there. All along, I have considered myself as professional as any academic, practicing applied cultural geography.”

They took the name Italian Specialty Tours, Inc. in 1985 and by 1989 they were getting nearly 100 customers filling five tours per year. It was enough business that he could quit a job he’d eventually found running the study-abroad program at Colorado State University.

Price and Malpezzi renamed their company ExperiencePlus! in 1992. Over the next five years, they enjoyed growth on the order of 30 to 50 percent annually. “By 1996, we were taking 600 people per year, and by 1999 it was over a thousand,” Price says. “During July 2004 alone, we took 270 people to see Lance Armstrong go for his record fifth Tour de France win. Business was great.”

Despite all the traveling, the couple managed to raise two daughters who have since taken over the business and expanded it into several more European nations. Maria Elena manages the overall operations from their current base in Fort Collins, Colorado. Monica ’01, who earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the UO and was honored as one of the Phi Beta Kappa Society’s “Oregon Six,” has taken a more hands-on approach as director of international operations, conducting tours with her cycling-guide husband, Michele Boglioni.

Photo: Clockwise from left: 2009–10 ASUO president Emma Kallaway ’10 and vice-president Getachew Kassa; Clifton “Pat “ McArthur ’01; Claude Robinson ’24; Ron Eachus ’70; and Phil Sherburne ’64.
Italian hill country

“My favorite thing about organizing and leading tours,” she says, “is the intense satisfaction we get from facilitating great experiences for our travelers. Accompanying cyclists throughout the world and sharing their adventures is why we do what we do.” Some of those adventures have included learning how to properly tie short grape vines on wind-struck Dalmatian islands in Croatia, discussing the meaning of life with farmers hand-picking olives during harvests in Provence, and making homemade pasta in Italy.

Malpezzi, currently chair of Colorado State University’s Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, is especially passionate about the food aspect of travel. “Food helps connect to whatever country and region we’re pedaling through. For instance, you see tiny artichokes in the field in Sardinia and eat them that evening, or visit a Parmesan cheese co-op and then lavish grated cheese on handmade pasta that night.” She began collecting and writing regional recipes for the family business’s website, “to try and let people vicariously travel back to the memory of a trip or into the future on a tour they are anticipating.”

Monica echoes her mom’s sentiments, stating, “Bicycle tours travel on their stomachs. In Italy, we focused on the Emilia Romagna region, famed for its amazing assortment of high-quality cheese, prosciutto, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and stuffed pastas. In France, we do the same for wine-growing regions. And while folks may think they can come on a bike tour to lose weight, that’s hard to do with all the food we indulge in! The real gratification is how much you enjoy the food and drink after a day on the road. Relatively guilt-free eating and drinking, and a heightened awareness of the culinary delights of a region just makes bike touring so much better!”

Despite their many triumphs, the road this family has taken has not been without its detours, speed bumps, and potholes. “At the start of both Gulf Wars [1991 and 2003] when the U.S. invaded Iraq, all bookings stopped,” Price says. “Our tours went nowhere near there, but clearly many people don’t like to fly or travel abroad on the verge of war. And of course, September 11, 2001, we had to cancel everything and issue rain checks for 110 customers who couldn’t get to Europe.”

Still, the rewards have been far greater than Price or Malpezzi even imagined. “It’s been fantastic, being able to maintain an international lifestyle and reexperiencing the excitement of going to Italy every year,” he says. “It never gets boring. Yet, at the same time, we’ve enjoyed a relaxed and steady existence in small town, USA, raising two trilingual daughters who feel that they are equally American, Italian, and citizens of the world.”

—Joe Lieberman

Late addition: National Geographic Traveler Magazine showcases an ExperiencePlus! tour in its annual collection of “50 Tours of a Lifetime.” The May-June 2011 issue also lists Maria Elena Price and Monica Price as top ten tour guides.

Web Extra
Click here for some of Paola Malpezzi’s favorite recipe.

Dribble, Shoot, Pray
NBA point guard Luke Ridnour’s faith puts basketball in perspective.

Photo: Luke Ridnour on the basketball court

In the fall of 2002, heading into his junior basketball season at the University of Oregon, Luke Ridnour, citing religious and familial objections, declined to be recognized as one of Playboy magazine’s preseason all-Americans. In forgoing this prestigious honor, Ridnour made very public his private, and at the time still new, religious commitment—a commitment he continues to honor and draw on for grounding and clarity in the NBA.

Though raised in a Christian household, Ridnour’s early worship was upon the alter of the orange rim. “I’d put so much into the game of basketball, it was my idol,” he says. And his devotion was complete; were it not for his parents’ insistence, church would not have interfered with sport. Inspired in part by 1970s NBA virtuoso “Pistol” Pete Maravich, Ridnour spent hours a day working on his ball handling, and from a young age demonstrated the knack for creativity that would keep him improving and innovating as a player: “I thought of the drills myself, or I would go to camps and see the things they would teach and I would pick up on them. Before long I was the one teaching them at camp.”

Ridnour grew up in a basketball household—his father coached the local high school team in Blaine, Washington, and emphasized fundamentals and technical proficiency. “Once I took to the game,” Luke says, “he would come and help me with things, but it was always me going to the gym, me working out by myself.” His father also exposed him to older, bigger players who forced Ridnour to learn to be effective while smaller than his opponents. These skills have paid off enormously in the NBA, where Ridnour, optimistically listed at 6’2”, is still both smaller and a better shooter than almost everyone he plays against.

In high school, Ridnour led the Rob Ridnour–coached Blaine Borderites to two state titles and was ranked among the top players in the nation. At the UO, Ridnour’s focus on the game impressed coach Ernie Kent, who said it is “a coach’s dream to have a kid who wants to work that hard.”

Achievements and accolades abounded for Ridnour, including Pac-10 Freshman of the Year in 2001 and Pac-10 Player of the Year in 2003. He set the UO record for assists in a season (218), and the Pac-10 record for consecutive free throws made (62). The Duck team also fared well these years, winning the Pac-10 Tournament in 2003, and making the NCAA Tournament twice—advancing to the Elite Eight in Ridnour’s third and final season. Midway through his junior year, basketball over, Ridnour elected to sacrifice his studies and senior season to prepare for the summer’s NBA draft. The chance to play professionally was too good to pass up, and he could return to school after basketball (as he still intends to do).

But along with Ridnour’s successes also came defeats and frustrations. Many players find their emotions—and sometimes identities—shaped by on-court events. Ridnour, so committed to basketball, was especially prone to this tendency. “If I played well, I was up. If I played down, I was down. So, everything I accomplished was how I was on the court. I didn’t have a way out. I never had peace, so I started to search that out.”

He drew on lessons learned from the religion of his youth and shared his burgeoning faith with teammates. “I think all of us were kind of in the same place. We were still searching a little bit, but we were all at the same spiritual level.” But it wasn’t until Ridnour began a Bible study with Keith Jenkins—the pastor at Jubilee World Outreach Foursquare Church in Eugene who gave optional chapel before games and volunteered his counseling services to a whole range of Duck athletes—that he fully embraced devout Christianity. “When I started reading the Word, everything changed—the way I thought, the way I acted, my attitude.” And with that, for the first time in his life, basketball was not the first thing in his life.

But as basketball lost primacy for Ridnour, it never lost his commitment. Watch his current team, the Minnesota Timberwolves, play, observe him from up close, and you’ll see his physical grace on full display. He moves with a level of control that even among professional athletes is rare. He glides around the court during warm-ups in long strides, ball bouncing at all angles, returning softly to his hand for another casual redirection. A good dribbler makes the ball do what he wants it to, but what Ridnour does is subtler—and more tender. Rather than making the ball do anything, he seems to somehow grant agency to the ball and invite it to collaborate with him in sending onlookers searching for superlatives.

Ridnour’s absolute comfort with the basketball is the product of melding freakish natural coordination with a lifetime of hard work, and it’s what makes Ridnour one of very few NBA players who can take a hook shoot from his knees (as he once did over 6’10” Robert Horry) and make it look like a trusty piece of his skill set. But it’s Ridnour’s conventional shooting that has made him one of the league’s top pure shooters. Other players shoot better over defenders or coming off screens, but few are more consistent when they have a clean look at the rim. An open corner three-pointer, a free throw—you can pretty much put the points on the board. He finished this season among the league leaders in both categories, making close to 45 percent of threes and 90 percent of free throws. World-famous guys like LeBron and Kobe aren’t nearly as effective in these categories.

But for all his ability, Ridnour’s career has not been without disappointment. In eight NBA seasons, his best result has been a 2005 second-round playoff loss with the Seattle Supersonics. The only other time he’s made the playoffs, his Milwaukee Bucks lost in the first round. And the Timberwolves currently are among the worst teams in the league. Individually, he has been widely criticized by commentators for his shortcomings as a defender.

In Minnesota, he’s not so much disparaged as ignored. The Timberwolves drafted Spanish prodigy Ricky Rubio in 2009 to be their point guard of the future; since then fans have hung their hopes on Rubio’s willingness to eventually leave Europe for Minnesota and join Lake Oswego High School grad and NBA All-Star Kevin Love to form the core of a winning franchise.

A younger Ridnour might have been distracted or stung by this kind of thing, but now he pays almost no attention to anything in basketball off the court. When told of his free throw percentage, his response is amusement that anyone bothers with such trivia. His approach to basketball is to handle what he can control and leave the rest up to God. “Having that perspective makes it a lot easier to handle the trades and how I play. I don’t get too up, too down, I just keep going.”

This perspective can seem awfully convenient for a guy who has the rare fortune of being in the NBA, but for Ridnour, a key element of God’s plan is humility. “The Bible just reinforced the belief that I can’t put myself above anybody else,” he says. Faith and humility were recently tested when his wife gave birth to twin boys—with the kind of complications no parent would want. Though he prefers to keep the details private, he says, “We believe God is healing them. It’s exciting to see God’s power touch them daily.” In light of these life circumstances, it’s not hard to understand what Ridnour has understood for years: basketball is just basketball and a free throw is just a free throw. Asked what one of the league’s best foul shooters does when he takes the line, he says, “I’ve never told anyone this before, but I bounce it three times and on each bounce I say ‘I love Jesus.’ And I shoot it.”

—Scott F. Parker ’04

Dan Rodriguez Hangs It Up
Alumni Association director reflects on his long run at Oregon.

Photo: UO Alumni Director Dan Rodriguez
Dan Rodriguez on the pep rally stage before the BCS football championship game in Glendale, Arizona.

Dan Rodriguez has heard a lot of stories in his two decades as alumni director. Alumni call, sometimes they write, and frequently they need something. The alumni director is their man.

There have been innumerable requests for Duck football tickets, inquiries into the status of a child’s or grandchild’s application to the University, pleas for national title game tickets, and even once a request to scatter the remains of an Oregon fan on the field at a bowl game. “That one definitely takes the cake,” says Rodriguez, who is retiring from the UO in June after twenty-three years serving as executive director of the Alumni Association and associate vice president for alumni affairs. “I’m going to miss dealing with and meeting alums. It’s what truly makes the job interesting and rewarding.”

Plucked from the University of California at San Diego, Rodriguez arrived in Eugene in 1988 and led the effort to establish and build a dues-paying alumni association at the UO. Today more than 18,000 alumni and friends are members. Perhaps most satisfying, Rodriguez helped champion the cause to build an alumni center on campus. As he approaches retirement, the 60,000-square-foot, four-story Cheryl Ramberg Ford and Allyn Ford Alumni Center is preparing to open on East 13th Avenue adjacent to Matthew Knight Arena (a ribbon-cutting ceremony is set for June 10, and on June 13 an open house will take place in conjunction with commencement and Grad Fest).

His best memories are of working with graduates on behalf of the University. “There’s great job satisfaction,” Rodriguez says of his role as alumni director. “Alumni have a special love for this campus, University, and city. Our campus is still small enough at 23,000 people that there’s an interaction among students, faculty, and alumni that makes us unique.”

Which brings Rodriguez back to the request to scatter the ashes of lifelong Duck fan Bob Havercroft at a bowl game. His wife, the late Jean Havercroft, was a longtime alumni volunteer. After her husband’s death in 1994, she had successfully, and surreptitiously, honored his Duck spirit by scattering portions of his ashes on the field at the 1995 Rose Bowl and 1996 Cotton Bowl. In the weeks leading up to the 2000 Holiday Bowl, Havercroft called Rodriguez and asked for a favor. “She wanted Bob’s ashes spread on the field in San Diego,” Rodriguez explains. With the help of a Holiday Bowl official, Rodriguez got onto the field at Qualcomm Stadium moments after the game. He scattered the ashes of Bob Havercroft in the corner of the end zone where Joey Harrington ’01 had scored on the trick play pass from Keenan Howry in the game’s first quarter.

“I was just humbled that she asked me to do this for her. For me to pull it off was just special.”

As for his retirement plan, Rodriguez plans to do some golfing and volunteering, and to continue to referee high school football, which he has done for thirty-five years now. He will also take his elderly mother back to Spain to visit family. (Rodriguez spoke only Spanish until he entered kindergarten in Sunnyvale, California.) He admits that back in 1988 he didn’t intend to spend the rest of his career in Eugene.

“But after a few years I had to ask myself, ‘Is the grass greener somewhere else?’ Well, it’s been pretty green here.”—Paul Stieber, MEd ’05

Tim Clevenger ’86 has been hired to succeed Dan Rodriguez. Long involved with UO affairs, Clevenger is past president of the UO Alumni Association Board of Directors, a member of the Journalism Advancement Council for the UO School of Journalism and Communication, and vice president of the Leadership Council at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. A fuller profile will appear in the next issue of Oregon Quarterly.

UO Alumni Calendar
Go to for detailed information

June 9
UO Advocate Day at the state capitol

June 10
Ford Alumni Center grand opening
UO campus

June 12
San Diego chapter baseball event

June 13
Ford Alumni Center open house
Ford Alumni Center lobby

June 23
New York chapter alumni boat tour

June 26
Denver chapter alumni reception with UO President, dean Kees de Kluyver, coach Paul Westhead

August 28
Lane County chapter alumni day with the Eugene Emeralds
PK Park, UO campus

UO Alumni Association logo


Dream Child
An adoptive family bonds over backpacks and tiaras

By Melissa Hart

Photo: Little girl in tiara and satin dress, wearing muddy hiking boots, bending over, looking into a puddle.

“You won’t get your dream child. If you want a tomboy who climbs trees, you’re sure to get a princess who wants to stay inside and play fashion show.”

Our social worker’s words sent shivers of horror across my shoulders. “A . . . princess?”

My husband and I—planning to adopt a foster child from Oregon’s Department of Human Services—reviewed toddlers’ photos and profiles with an eye for those kids who seemed most compatible with our lifestyle. Jonathan grew up building forts and swinging from vines on his parents’ vast acreage in upstate New York. I’d spent my childhood hanging from trees, wading through creeks, and conquering the Pacific on a boogie board. We did not want a princess, and to our delight, we got some help, first from the state, and then from the IRS.

We adopted a merry, round-faced seventeen-month-old girl with a pair of mischievous brown eyes and a toothy trickster smile. We brought Maia home from foster care to a nursery outfitted with owl curtains, birds of prey posters, and a stuffed turkey vulture. Nothing pink, nothing frilly, and no tiara.

A friend had given Maia a picture book about a family who treks past deer and leaping salmon into the backcountry—the illustrations of father, mother, and child looked remarkably like us. Inspired, I read the text to her, then hollered for Jonathan. “Hey, let’s take this child backpacking!”

Always up for camping, we’d recently discovered the pleasures of hauling our gear miles away from other campers’ stereos and BMX bikes. On our second week together as a family, we headed out in our blue Volkswagen Beetle—Maia prattling in her car seat—to Scott Lake off Highway 242. We picnicked on a log beside the lake and offered our daughter California rolls, which she ate, likely because there wasn’t a Goldfish cracker in sight.

This was before we capitulated to the cheddar crackers, to the half hour of Sesame Street daily, to the pink stuffed poodle. We were new parents, resolute in our determination to produce a junior outdoorswoman. When Maia sobbed in our tent that night, waking up beside two adults who—despite their insistence on “mommy” and “dad”—were still strangers, we shone our flashlights in her face and attempted to calm her. “Hush, sweetie.” I hugged my new daughter to me. “You’ll scare the owls.”

The next morning, we hiked to the frigid, crystalline Tenas Lakes and jumped in. I have photos of Maia wrapped in a towel, postswim, grinning on Jonathan’s lap. Back at our camp, she stacked cairns of pebbles and swigged apple juice from her sippy cup like a spent athlete chugging a microbrew. Still, on a hiking trip that ended with the child covered in scarlet blackberry juice and wielding a plastic axe, I worried about what our social worker might say.

The Department of Human Services mandates a six-month probationary period on all adoptions, during which time social workers can remove a child from a placement they deem unfit. I scrubbed the berry juice from Maia’s face and hands and asked Jonathan. “What if DHS thinks we’re crazy?”

Instead, because we’d adopted a foster kid, they sent us a complimentary pass to Oregon’s State Parks. For twenty years, the state has offered the pass to foster and adoptive parents involved with DHS in the hope that children who’ve had a rough start in life will find solace in nature.

“Awesome!” I slapped together three peanut butter sandwiches and grabbed Maia’s jacket and the pink poodle. “Let’s go to Silver Falls State Park!”

We sped past the line of cars outside the parking kiosk and Maia waved the green pass at a chuckling park ranger. A half hour into our hike, we stopped behind the largest falls and giggled at the roaring rush of spray that cast diamond droplets on our child’s round cheeks. I kissed her wet nose. “You’re such a nature girl!”

And then a babysitter introduced her to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. True, the intrepid heroine, Belle, is an excellent horsewoman, and if she blanches at the sight of snarling wolves, who can blame her? But rather than focus on Belle’s courage and self-sacrifice, our daughter honed in on her yellow dress—the hoopskirted, off-the-shoulder confection in which she waltzes with the waistcoated beast.

Maia sighed with longing. “It’s a princess dress.”

Over her curly head, Jonathan and I exchanged looks of terror. We’d read Carmela LaVigna Coyle’s picture book Do Princesses Wear Hiking Boots? and so we saw how silk and satin might complement, say, a pair of child’s Timberlines. Still, we quaked.

Just in time, the IRS stepped in to help.

In the years before we’d adopted, Jonathan and I had been so preoccupied with applications and classes and committees that we missed the fact of the adoption expense tax credit—part of the tax bill signed by President Bush in 2001. The year after Maia’s adoption became official, we received a sizable refund check.

“Technically, it’s her money.” I gaped at the numbers on the check. “We should use it for her.”

“Maybe put it in a college fund.” Jonathan furrowed his brow, attempting to impersonate a sensible father.

“Or . . .” I leapt to the computer and clicked on a well-worn bookmark. “We could buy kayaks!”

We’d used my recent book advance to purchase a Volkswagen bus complete with stove and refrigerator and pop-up bed, and we’d chugged Maia all over Oregon from Bend’s high desert to Portland’s Forest Park, from Crater Lake to coastal sand dunes. Kayaks seemed in keeping with our outdoor, antiprincess trajectory, and so we bought two.

Now, we devote most of our weekends to traveling the state, with Maia ever-present and learning to paddle and pedal and snowshoe and imitate owl calls. Still with that trickster smile, she embarks on daylong kayak trips and sleds down snowy thirty-foot slopes. Over her bathing suit or her silk long johns, she wears her “Belle dress.” The hoop in the skirt snagged on a bush and fell out. Burrs have tangled in the flimsy tulle sleeves. But the outfit represents what seasoned parents see as an obvious revelation: a child is who she is, regardless of vigilant attempts to make her otherwise.

Jonathan and I have realized something else, as well. Watching the yellow dress bob ahead of us as the tiny Timberlines blur and the sun gleams down on the pink plastic tiara, we know we’ve proven our social worker wrong. We did get our dream child.

Melissa Hart is the author of the memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (Seal, 2009). She teaches journalism at the University of Oregon.

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