“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” – JFK
It takes a certain kind of crazy to agree to count the population on a good year. Or rather, count the non-respondents, which are kind of like the rebellious kids in class. Now try finding these kids while they’re skipping school (or distance learning, rather) in a global pandemic. In Southern Oregon, which I’ve come to understand is some kind of Wild, Wild West where the “uncivilized” hide out in the woods and hollows in all manner of living conditions from glossy fifth wheels to rotted out school buses and yurts. Addresses were sometimes just descriptions: “Left after bridge, NE of barn, red house with goats.” Let me preface everything I’m about to share by saying that, while it’s been a colorful experience and wild ride, for the most part, the people I have interacted with have been respectful and nice.
Our work week starts on Sunday, and I’ve already logged almost a thousand miles on my odometer. It’s only Tuesday night. We are in the final week and all stops have been pulled to try to finish the count. I’ve worked about 35 hours already this week in temperatures of up to 109 degrees and unhealthily smoky air quality and I’ve driven 6-7.5 commuting hours per day (paid, of course, gotta love government work).
Some of those hours (usually two trips a day) covered one of the more dangerous, curvy highways in the US, 199 “The Redwood Highway” through Smith River Canyon. Some of those commuting hours were spent covering sketchy logging roads like the ones I grew up on in the Flattops, hoping and praying that they went through according to Google maps and I would get home by the time deadline, my heart skipping a beat when, just as it was getting dark, I saw the sign that stated “Locked Gate Ahead.” Fortunately, it was open, or it would have meant hours of additional driving to go the long way around.
I thought I had happened upon the sister city to my childhood hometown of Yampa, CO when I rolled into the idyllic mountain valley along the Coquille River that houses tiny, historic Powers. The city sign even stated “Gateway to the Siskiyous”, like Yampa’s reads “Gateway to the Flattops.” Now this was a place I could understand. The historic buildings like our own Montgomery’s General Store and Crossan’s market, and even a white wood-sided church, although someone was living in the one in Powers. The small town folks were friendly. Even “normal” by most standards. The town gossip in her Subaru packed with hoarded items was more than eager to help me find anything I was looking for. Then I had a 30 mile washboard rutted forest road to get to Hwy 101 north of Port Orford and I realized how truly special and on its own planet this place was.
When our family friend told me Colorado was like hippie training wheels and the real die-hards were in Cave Junction, I wasn’t sure what she meant.
Let me be clear. These are not just hippies, these are some kind of mutant hybrid that have signs all along their miles-long back road driveways that state “We don’t dial 911” with a picture of a gun pointed at you, then roll up on a 4 wheeler in dreadlocks and, while their seven large dogs scratch the hell out of your driver’s side paint, they smile and proceed to tell you all their thoughts on Jesus and politics. They walk around downtown with no shoes on. There are a gazillion tiny farms, drive through juice stands, eclectic organic stores and even the occasional high-priced hippie glamping farm in the woods.
And in Josephine County, they must be trying to set a record for growing most of the state’s already maxed out weed surplus, both legally and not. Most of the properties I had to enumerate had some kind of grow in progress. So even without hunting season and blaze orange to consider due to the fires, consider that it’s “harvest season” in the woods and I’m an unknown vehicle showing up…it’s a bad situation any way you slice it.
While it’s clearly the ideal climate for growing marijuana, the Siskiyou region also boasts a number of rare plants only found in the Holy Land of Israel, according to one local resident. Myrtle trees, which I found out was another name for my beloved Bay Laurel. And carnivorous pitcher plants that grow because of cyanide in the water from some special kind of shale. I’m sharing all of these statements as local folklore and hear-say, since I am only passing along what I heard, not true research.
Another resident told me the Siskiyou Range is the only mountain range that runs east to west and where they hit the coastal range is the safest place in the world from a nuclear attack because of the weather pattern repellent created by the crotch of the two ranges. “If that’s the case, it truly would be the land of milk and honey,” I thought to myself as I ate a fresh fig right off the tree. “If it wasn’t so odd.” A beautiful, scenic and wild place where crocuses and lilies bloom in the fall amongst the grasses and the evergreens, it feels like an alternate universe.
Back in town, folks will warn you not be out at dark because the “tweakers” come up from the river and steal your car and you’ll find it somewhere burned out the next day. The crystal meth epidemic explains why almost every back road I drove up had one of these, or a collection of rotting vehicles in the woods. Nice rural farmer-types would tell me the house across the street that burned down but still remains a pile of rubbish was a “drug house.” I almost began to get used to seeing this. Then there were the piles of garbage, the hoarders, the starving feral cats, the roadside trailer parks the likes of which I’ve never seen, not even in Appalachia…you get the picture. Add in a host of other experiences that I’m sure I’m sworn to secrecy by oath to never disclose due to respondent confidentiality.
On the other end of the extreme, the culture is permeated with an excess of ultra right-wing conservatism, giant trucks and “freedom rallies”. It’s a natural resource industry area, and while many of the lumber mills and fishing operations have closed and logging has slowed (possibly another reason for the intense poverty I experienced), there is still a fierce pride in American labor and independence, not unlike the Colorado coal mining town I grew up in.
The dark side of this is an almost palpable underlying pulse of white supremacy. I spoke with a lovely young African American woman who had just moved to my new town from Vegas, and she confirmed my suspicions with her surprise at the way some people treat her here.
It’s backwards and closed-minded and remote, and it seems to draw more of these types from other places like Texas and Arizona. I didn’t realize there was quite the history of racism in predominantly white Oregon, including a very active Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Apparently, Northern California and Southern Oregon have also been trying to secede from their respective states and create their own state, “Jefferson” for some time. There are “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and good ol’ boy redneck “Get Off My Lawn” attitudes to rival Clint Eastwood’s character in “Gran Torino.”
Of course, there were the beautiful moments, chance encounters with the other side of life. The widower in his orchard excited about the apples he was growing, the Asian robotics engineer retiring from California in a dreamy artist bungalow on the top of a mountain, the deep-sea diver author, and the woman playing Debussy on piano in her upstairs loft that floated to my ears from a cozy riverside artist’s cottage surrounded by a garden to rival the one my mind envisioned while reading “Keeper of the Bees”. The arts, and people who practice and appreciate them, are still as important as oxygen for me.
Just today, a lively man in his 60’s with an ocean and mountain view told me there would be many opportunities to come out of this time, and encouraged me to just keep working for myself…these were the people who gave me hope and inspiration. The bread crumbs on my Hansel and Gretel path.
So when I consider the sage advice I just received from a new friend and potential colleague – that my 70+ “real” job applications filed this year were probably tossed aside because the AI robot didn’t catch the words he/she/it was searching for in the right format, but that even if my resume had made it past the watchdog gatekeeper, HR people are looking for a singular upward track in one given career field and focus – I actually felt rather proud of my “non-traditional” work background.
I bet not a single one of these office-types would have lasted a week in my current position, much less solved the riddles and investigative work I had to in order to close my cases in the Southern Oregon mountains while simultaneously watching my back to constantly evaluate the safety of my situation and intuitively making choices to protect myself. This felt more like detective or military work than anything I’ve ever done, but imagine sending out a female soldier completely alone and not even armed with mace (not allowed to even be carried in your vehicle while performing the duties of the bureau). I guess when all is said and done, and I’ve cussed about this job for the last time, I will be proud to say I’ve done my civic duty and served my country in this way. And I have a hunch I may even sort of miss it.
This may have been my most challenging job yet, and that’s coming from a girl who managed an 87-day marketing event road tour with valuable assets in some of the tougher blue collar neighborhoods of all the major East Coast cities from Boston to Atlanta, including Brooklyn, Long Island, Washington DC and Philadelphia…they’ve all got nothing on Southern Oregon.
My mom recently read a nonfiction book about a dual murder attempt that described Oregon as a “strange paradise”. I’ve experienced nothing like it in my life. I joked with her that if there ever was a place I wouldn’t be surprised to happen upon a dead body, it would be the Oregon woods. Good thing I found a “safe” place to ride out the pandemic.
On a brighter note, I can now add to my list of special skills the ability to find all the rare public restrooms in the rural Oregon mountains. The one in O’Brien has a giant statue of a fly on top of it. And when I couldn’t? Well, it is the woods, after all.
Perhaps a local put it best. I was walking around a neighborhood looking for an address when a man on a side street off 199 in Cave Junction stopped me to ask me how I like my Thule roof cargo box. I told him some of the drawbacks (wind drag, gas mileage and no possibility of the convenience of drive-through car washes due to height limits), then explained I mostly like it for camping, because I can store my gear up top and sleep inside my Element.
“When you’re camping?” He looked at me with a quirky smile. “You’re in Oregon. You are camping.”