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Oregon Lost All Its Allure for Transplant

April 08, 1993|AURORA MACKEY | Aurora Mackey is a Times staff writer.

Susan Berg knew it wasn't exactly a trailblazing idea.

If anything, her decision to move from Ventura County to a small, rural town in Oregon was more like pack mentality.

Wasn't Oregon, after all, where just about everyone fed up with the ills of Southern California said they were headed?

Where living, everyone said, would be so much simpler without traffic and smog?

Where her 16-year-old son would be safe from gangs and drugs?

Where she could kick back and enjoy the mountains, the clean air, the lack of urban stress?

Well, yes, that's certainly what everyone said. And that's also what Berg believed when she yanked her son out of Buena High School in Ventura, contacted all the friends she'd grown up with in Ojai and moved to Sisters, Ore., population 820, just a little over a year ago.

But Pacific Northwest living, she's discovered in the meantime, isn't exactly everything it was cracked up to be.

She's desperate to come back home.

And surprisingly, she says, she's in good company.

"I want to know who does PR for Oregon," Berg said, a crackling of static coming over the phone, "because I want to sue them. Really. This is not what I had in mind.

"But at least I'm not the only one. A couple just moved back to Anaheim a while ago. There are plenty of other people from Southern California who are bailing out, too."

The idea of a lawsuit, of course, is actually more of a way of keeping herself sane than a genuine plan of action. It's just one of the mind games Berg says she's used to get herself through another subfreezing night, another icy day of driving, another snowstorm in a series of blizzards that, on more than one occasion, has caused her to break down in tears with the belief that it would never end.

"I had absolutely no idea what it was to live in winter," said Berg, a single mother who had just lost her job as a Ventura phlebotomist ("it's the fancy word for someone who draws blood") when she decided to pull up stakes 15 months ago.

"It's absolutely brutal here. I have no skills for it. It's like living in a Stephen King novel."

That's hardly the way she imagined it when she read an article in Sunset magazine that described Sisters as one of the most picturesque towns in the Pacific Northwest. Nor was it what she foresaw for herself and her son when a series of violent high school attacks convinced her that Ventura County was no longer the place to be.

In the beginning, she even liked Oregon.

"Even though people here call Southern Californians 'locusts' and talk about how they're buying up all the property and jacking up prices, they still were really nice to me," she said. "They came by and asked if I needed anything and were really friendly.

"And my son's high school seemed like something from another century," she said. "There are 200 kids and all the parents are really involved. They were trying to get Matt Groening's 'Life in Hell' removed from the library, which I thought was great. I mean, I could care less about the book, but in California, parents are worried about kids shooting each other."

But then reality began to sink in.

Her daily 22-mile commute to Bend, which hadn't seemed bad in the beauty of August, became a nightmare in blizzards. Her cheaper housing costs were overshadowed by things such as huge heating and electric bills, the cost of winter clothes and snow tires.

And the lack of sun plunged her into depression.

Several other Southern California transplants, she said, told her that they were suffering from it, too.

"I was drawing blood from this psychiatrist and, since I talk to everyone, I asked him if a lot of Southern Californians were depressed because of the weather. He kind of looked at me like I was nuts, but then I asked a real estate agent if he knew of other Southern Californians who wanted to leave and go home.

"He laughed. He said he was selling quite a few of their houses."

Berg knows that the weather eventually will change, that spring will arrive and that Oregon may look good to her once again. Still, she's planning to come back.

She wants to leave in June after the school year is over and move back to Ojai, where she grew up. She's hoping that someone will let her and her son have a couple of rooms--perhaps while they're on vacation--until she gets back on her feet and finds a job.

"Part of me is a little ashamed, and I thought about whether I was just thinking the grass is greener in Ventura County because now I'm away from it," she said.

"But I realized that my son is a great kid and he's going to be a great kid wherever we are. There will be stresses there--I may have to work two jobs--but there are stresses everywhere.

"The difference is," she said, "we'll be home."

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