Nonfiction The Upper New Review

The River Knows Me

By Tim Ott

When I returned to the United States from Rwanda, having served a couple years in Peace Corps, somebody asked me to teach a sense of place lesson. We were at a place called Davidson Flat, one of the most popular places on the Deschutes River in Oregon, east of the Cascades, in the sagebrush desert of the Columbia Plateau. We hiked up to a place with a pretty view, and I introduced the lesson by poking fun at the idea of sense of place as being a fad that had just popped up into popular consciousness while I had been abroad. I noted that some things in my country had changed while I was gone. Sriracha was out, and Frank’s Red Hot Sauce was in. Something called Tinder was all the rage in the dating scene. And now I was surrounded by people who talked about mindfulness and a sense of place without explaining to me what they were.

Why would anyone need to make an effort to get a sense of place? Had people forgotten how to read a map while I was gone? (perhaps they had—a few months later I was leading a group in the Oregon Cascades using a map and compass, and another hiker passed me on the trail and asked me where my phone was). I got a couple chuckles from the students as I made fun of “sense of place,” then proceeded to teach a sense of place lesson that my co-instructors told me was well done. While I might not have completely understood what a sense of place was, if there is a place I know, it is there, the approximately one hundred river miles flowing north from Warm Springs to the Columbia River.