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Thursday, September 9, 2021

Goodbye to Bend

Goodbye to Bend

The move to Bend in 2005 was the result of an extensive search that took us to several places around the country that consistently scored well in the “Best Places” articles, as well as visits with friends in various areas. And curiously, the same sort of articles served as points of research twelve years later and led to our exit.


Some of the strongest candidates in 2004 were Alpharetta and Roswell, just above Atlanta, and the greater Boulder area. Both had lots of pluses, and very few minuses. Great quality of living, beautiful surroundings, relatively affordable, and full of great people.


But we kept reading about two small areas in Oregon, and a trip to Bend and Ashland in August of 2004 sold us on the idea of a much less crowded environment in the picturesque state of Oregon. It seemed to be everything we had been looking for, in both a place to relocate, and ultimately retire. Small towns, gorgeous mountains, and what all the write-ups referred to as “four mild seasons.”


We enjoyed Ashland, but ultimately decided on Bend, and picked out a great new house, located in the southwest part of town, directly across the street from a gorge that overlooked the picturesque Deschutes River. The Deschutes, like the Willamette, flows south to north, which seemed odd at first sight. Both have origins high in the Cascades, and empty into the Columbia River Gorge, which separates Oregon and Washington.

Among the factors that led us to Bend were the consistent descriptions of the weather, which were supposedly the afore mentioned “four mild seasons.” The first rude awakening to the fact that the winters are anything but “mild” occurred the day after Christmas of 2004, when we made the 525-mile trek from our home in California, to pick out the options for the new house. What was described as the worst snowstorm in 10 years, transformed the usual 8-9-hour trip into a 17-hour nightmare of a ride. Having spent most of my life in the San Francisco Bay Area, with brief stints in the pleasantly warm climates of Chico, Gilroy, and St. Thomas (yes, that St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands), I was not accustomed to driving in snow. Let alone the prospect of living in it for what would turn out to be many months of the year. But the 2-year-old Toyota Highlander performed like a champ, and we managed to get there, picked out options that made the house seem like “ours,” and moved in on the first day of the following August.


Moving in the middle of summer was a great introduction to the area, with the weather being ideal, and the town buzzing with tourists. Warm, never oppressively uncomfortable days, and cool nights, reinforced the idea that we’d made the right choice. New friends were made, and several long-time friends relocated nearby as well. The gas and charcoal barbecues and the Big Chief smoker were put to constant use, and I even extended the 15-year tradition of the huge summer barbecue party that was dubbed “Meatfest.” But I learned the first year that the traditional Memorial Day weekend event would have to be moved to the middle of summer, where the weather was somewhat more predictable. It snowed the day before the party, which was held at the end of May of 2006. Bend has supposedly gotten snow in every month of the year, except August, during its history. And the weather can never be counted on and will not necessarily be what the evening weather reporters predict. “Wait 10 minutes and it will change,” is an often quoted, and quite true local phrase.


Several years into our 12-year stint in Bend, we took up a new hobby: kayaking. One trip out in a borrowed kayak on beautiful Hosmer Lake, nestled high in the Cascades near Mt. Bachelor, was all it took. We bought a couple used Wilderness Pungo’s, which were twelve feet of indestructible plastic, and very forgiving for new kayakers. These sufficed for three seasons but were about 20 pounds heavier than they needed to be. This was rectified with the purchase of a couple Hurricane Santee’s, as our Christmas presents one year. Awesome boats, and at 35 pounds apiece, they’re easy to maneuver both in and out of the water. My lime green 126 Sport is twelve and a half feet long, and Risa’s Ferrari red 116 Sport is a foot shorter. Both are a total pleasure to paddle, and consistently put ear-to-ear grins on our faces when we get to take them out.


But the summers tend to last a maximum of three months. Late June to very early September is all that can be counted on, in Central Oregon. And the past couple years has seen the last two weeks of both July and August being consistently rainy, and much colder than normal. Our kayaking time was cut to a few weeks a year, and winter seemed to come earlier, get colder, and last longer, each year. Our last winter in Bend would be 2016, during which we had already seen over five feet of snowfall, and the season had a couple months to go.


Once again, the search was on to find a “new” perfect place to live. I became consumed with studying about a dozen areas around the country, most of which were members of the current crop of “Best Places to Live.” Several areas in Texas caught my attention, as did Fayetteville, Arkansas, Athens, Georgia and even Redding, in northern California. But I kept circling back to Florida, which seemed to have it all. But where to live, in such a big state that I knew very little about? Tales of scorching summer temperatures and humidity levels didn’t sound so inviting. And weren’t there alligators and snakes everywhere? This is a place where they joke that the mosquito is the state bird! Could we live there? Are the 20 million residents all crazy to live in such an environment? As it turned out, Florida has a lot going for it. And it only took one trip for both of us to realize this fact.


We managed to narrow the search to a couple broad areas; Daytona Beach, in the upper eastern part of the state, and Sarasota County, in the southern third of the gulf coast. We had friends and relatives in both areas, so we had direct input on the lifestyles, weather, and pros and cons of each, as well as Florida in general. In May of 2016, we booked a flight to Orlando (in the middle of the state), with the idea that we’d drive first to Sarasota for 4 days, and then across the state to Daytona for 4 more. This would give us plenty of time to explore both areas, see a lot of “the middle,” and hopefully decide that we would or wouldn’t like to live in the Sunshine State.


After landing in Orlando at 5 AM, we picked up the rental car and headed out Highway 4 towards the southwestern part of the state. As the one who does most of the driving, I was immediately impressed with the freeways, relatively light traffic, and the vast openness of the state of Florida. Mountains of any sort are conspicuous in their absence. There’s water everywhere. Small ponds seem to dot the countryside in every corner of the state. And once you get near the coast, there are vast waterways and rivers that empty into the gulf. Long bridges connect the urban areas along the coast, as well as the many islands and peninsulas.


While we both fully expected to be blown away with the Daytona area, the rows of beach front condos, rampant tourism, and relatively crowded conditions, weren’t quite what we were looking for. It came as a big surprise that the Sarasota area, and specifically the relatively small beach town of Venice, totally captivated us. Our 8 days in Florida were awesome, and the combination of great people, amazing weather, great restaurants, and the beaches and endless waterways provided exactly what we wanted. And at least in April, the weather was superb every day.


We admittedly had a great time in the Daytona, Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and New Smyrna Beach area in the northwest corner of the state, but we were pretty sold on Venice. We took a big leap of faith, listed the Bend house (my listing with the realty I worked for), and began planning both the sale, and our next trip to Florida … this time, to find a house.


We’d lived in the Bend house for 12 years and had amassed a huge amount of “stuff” that we knew early on, would not fit in what would likely be a much smaller house in Florida. The contents of a full 3000 square foot home with a 3-car garage, just wasn’t going to fit in a house that was probably going to be half that size. We began packing things that we could do without until the home sold, selling off items that we just didn’t want to move (and try to find room for), and giving things to Goodwill, Bethlehem Inn, and the Humane Society Store, where they would be repurposed to someone who could use them. But there was still so much stuff, and it was clear that it wasn’t going to fit in the new house. We also had no problem parting with the bulk of our winter paraphernalia, including ice and snow scrapers, “yak-trax” (indispensable when you’re walking on ice, which is a frequent occurrence in Bend), and my prized snow blower. My wife planned and executed very successful yard sale, which made a big dent in the extra possessions, and brought in a few dollars at the same time.


The plan was to wait until the house was in escrow (a 30-45-day process), and then take an extended trip to Florida, in hopes of finding a home. The Bend house took longer than I’d anticipated to get an acceptable offer, but it finally happened in mid-December, and we immediately booked a two-week trip to Florida. This time we’d fly into Tampa (vs. Orlando, on the last trip), drive 75 miles south to Venice, and stay in a centrally located motel near the major freeway and cross-town roads. This would allow us to thoroughly explore the area, get a “feel” for the day-to-day lifestyle, and connect with the realtor who had been sending us listings.

The flight was a breeze, and the hour-and-fifteen-minute drive from Tampa International to Venice was gorgeous. One immediately noticeable difference in Florida and Oregon was the quality of the roads, and the higher speed limits. Central Oregon just raised the limit on rural and suburban roads to 65 mph, a year ago. This was previously 55 mph, and it made for a long, slow ride in any direction. Plus, the roads in Oregon leave a lot to be desired, mainly due to the weather. The potholes are legendary, and the tire companies tend to get swamped after big snow and ice events, repairing tires and wheels that managed to find a deep rut in the road. Driving on the wide, relatively uncrowded Florida freeways at 70+ mph, with no snow, ice or potholes to be concerned about, was truly a pleasure.


After checking in to the Best Western at Highway 75 and Jacaranda in Venice, we decided that we were both craving Italian food; something that is sorely lacking in Bend. There are a couple national chain restaurants, but nothing resembling “real” Italian fare. There were so many options in Venice, and we simply cruised down Jacaranda to Venice Avenue, and picked Valenti’s, which was the first one that looked interesting (and had a crowded parking lot; always a good sign). We dined on some great homemade pasta, “house” Chianti, and couldn’t be happier. Our server, Donna, made us feel at home, and told us a little of the history of both Venice and Valenti’s Italian Restaurant.


We met our realtor, Karen, the next morning at her office. I had narrowed down the dozens of places I’d explored over the past months, to a pretty short list of 5 or 6. And she added a couple more that had recently come on the market. We toured all of them, liked some, didn’t like several, and had kind of “this might work” feelings about the last two. All of them seemed to have minuses that outweighed the pluses. We left Karen around four o’clock in the afternoon, and headed back to the hotel, with the agreement that we’d do some exploring around town over the weekend and get together on Monday to look at some more homes.


We’d no sooner arrived back at the hotel, when the phone rang, with a very excited Karen telling us to get back in the car and meet her at a house. A ten-minute drive had us in the south end of town, at a new subdivision called Rapalo. And by sheer coincidence, the builder was the same as our Bend home; D.R. Horton. Karen had pointed these out in our travels earlier but said they wouldn’t work for us because they didn’t allow pools. A stop on her way home, and a brief meeting with the salesperson, confirmed that yes, they do indeed allow pools, and that there was ONE house left in the current phase of the development, and it was nearly finished. We’d be able to move into the house at exactly the time we’d planned to move out of the Bend house, which we were “renting back” from the new owner for two months.


The timing couldn’t be better, the house was just what we were looking for, and it was at the low end of our price range, meaning we’d be able to put a pool in after we moved in. We’d planned to have a much tougher time finding a house, and planned accordingly with a two-week visit, so we were now able to thoroughly explore Venice and the surrounding areas. And for us, it was such a “treat” being able to wear shorts and sandals and enjoy the days of mid-seventies and clear skies, and not have to worry about bundling up to go outside or slipping on the ice or snow. Winter in Florida is awesome. Summers can be a little warm, and includes some high humidity, but this was the reason we wanted a pool and proximity to the beach, and with beautiful Manasota Beach a mere two-and-a-half miles away, we’d have both.


The remaining days of our visit were spent driving around the lower gulf area, walking around Venice, and taking several trips to an area that became an immediate favorite on our last trip: St. Armand’s Circle. I believe we managed to eat at least a half dozen additional Italian meals during our stay, including a second one (take-out pizza) at Valenti’s. We would no longer be hurting for Italian food, in Venice! New favorites included San Marco, Made in Italy, and a combination restaurant and Italian market called Angelo’s.


Our return to Bend meant some quick planning and packing. We’d considered driving both cars, or possibly Risa flying with our cat, but finally opted for she and I and the kitty to drive east in my new Honda. The second car would be transported, and all our possessions would be moved by the capable people at United Van Lines. The “trick” was to pare down our possessions to the few items we needed daily, the clothes we’d need on the trip, and the blow-up queen-size air mattress that we’d need for our first couple nights in Venice. And of course, the luxurious kitty-kennel, portable sandbox, sand, food, and most importantly the “kitty downers” that Emily would need to survive six days on the road (stay tuned for “The Long Ride East”).


Bend was generally a good-to-very-good experience, with some exceptions in both directions. Making a living there is tough, and the fact that the big recession hit two years after we arrived, didn’t help. It’s not an inexpensive place to live, and it was a struggle, and not something that we (or anybody) planned for. My research of so many potential places to move, showed that Oregon, as well as most of the west coast, was so much more expensive than most of the rest of the country. With the exceptions of Honolulu and New York City, the west coast was about the most you could spend on housing, taxes, food, transportation, etc. But Florida came out at or close to the top of all of the “Best Places” lists, at least in 2016. Reasonable housing prices, no state income tax, diverse population, a water-wonderland, and of course the weather, which overall, was excellent.


But I was concerned with the “dark side” of the weather, meaning hurricanes and other tropical events. Everyone knows that Florida gets hit periodically, but the Venice and Sarasota area (as well as Tampa and St. Petersburg) seemed to be less prone to any major or direct hurricane hits. It happens, and there’s certainly a chance of getting brushed by an arm of a passing storm, but chances of major storms and consequential damage, are minimal here. And our house was built to all the current standards, which was comforting as a buyer, and much more cost-effective when it came to buying insurance. And since we’re not in a flood zone, we didn’t have to carry flood insurance.

I also started to get a little “freaked” over the prospect of all the various critters that everybody reads about. There are a million and a quarter alligators in Florida, and it’s common knowledge that they might be found in any fresh water body. This would include golf courses, canals, ponds, and pools that don’t have the ever-present aluminum cages around them. There are varieties of snakes, spiders and other creatures that don’t seem particularly enticing, but if you take normal precautions, you’re not likely to run into them or have them in your house. We’ve seen one alligator in the pond behind the house, and it was kind of fun to watch him. I named him Boris (for some unknown reason), and we watched him move to various parts of the pond and the banks for about three days. They’re known to do a lot of “pond hopping,” and tend to not stay too long in any one place. The exception is the Myakka River, where they seem to be everywhere … all the time. A day trip to this state preserve proved to be an eye-opener.


On the “up” side of the natural wildlife scene, we have an amazing array of birds, that seem to relish in putting on a display for us every morning and afternoon. The ducks seem to be around all day long, but sightings of majestic sandhill cranes that stand four feet tall, as well as ibises, great blue herons, great egrets, wood storks, osprey, woodpeckers, and more, are common. It’s a birders paradise, and we always have several pairs of binoculars and our cameras out on the patio that overlooks the pond behind the house.


As I finish this, it’s July 1st, and we’re in full summer mode. The temperatures average around 90 during the days, and “dip” all the way down to the mid 70’s overnight. It tends to cloud up in the afternoons and rain heavily for a while, then it’s back to sunshine and partly cloudy. We get some wild cloud formations and thunder and lightning, and the rain commonly comes down in torrential downpours for brief periods. It’s more humid here than the “high desert” of Bend, Oregon, but it’s quite bearable and hasn’t proven to be at all oppressive. However, the A/C is on in the house most of the time, although we’ve learned to live with it set at 77, vs. the 72 that we’d keep it at in Bend. Afternoon breezes from the gulf are a huge help and reinforces our decision to locate a couple miles from the beaches.


The pool is under construction, and we expect it to be completed in about 3-4 weeks. The community pool opened earlier in the month, and provides a great spot to hang out, cool off, and work on our tans. I suspect we’ll be tan all-year-long here, as the temperatures rarely get below the mid 70’s, even in the dead of winter.


I haven’t worn long pants since the snowy day we left Bend, in early March. People live in shorts, t-shirts, and sandals here. There’s never a need for a coat or sweater, or any of the snow and ice paraphernalia that I left behind for the new owners.


So … so far so good. We’re struck with the friendliness of the people we’ve met, the quality and abundance of great restaurants (particularly Italian and seafood), the beautiful waterways and bridges, and of course the weather. Time will tell if we’ve found the perfect place to live and retire, but for now it seems like we made the right decision. And we will look forward to a snow-free winter for the first time in 13 years!


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