Letters from Home

Four Oregonians on the places where they live

This summer, Oregon Humanities asked Oregonians to exchange letters about the places or communities where they feel at home as part of our Dear Stranger project. Between July and October, 134 writers from all over Oregon sent in letters. Though they are written for an audience of one, many Dear Stranger letters are too evocative or compelling not to share. With the permission of their authors, we've collected a small sample of our favorites from this year's project below.

From Ann in Gearhart

Dear Stranger,

The corner of Oregon I call home is green and lush, with trees that tower at the edge of the sea. Spring comes in a wave of green that crashes over the grey winter and saturates the ground, spilling over the forest floor and pressing out over the river banks. Oil-backed river otters, sturdy-legged Roosevelt Elk, blush-tinged Steelhead, and rosy Chinook salmon move through the streams to spawn, and trickster coyotes are frequent players in the ecosystem.

The economy, just thirty years ago, sat on the back of this ecosystem; logging and fishing filled the mills and the canneries with fish and trees so large, one truck could only carry a section of tree. But these days, logging trucks travel past our home stacked high in double trailers with twigs just eight inches in diameter on their way to be pulped. The canneries and net houses are long gone. Tourism is now the main source of income for those who evolved and changed with the times. Survival was slow and for many is still a paycheck-to-paycheck reality.

Oregonians that live in tourist towns gamble with risk. Tradition and community are sometimes sacrificed in order to harvest money for the long winter. Large homes sit empty nine months out of the year as vacation rentals, while elementary schools close from lower enrollment when young families cannot find affordable housing, and businesses cannot find enough staff. Wages are low and hours are determined by the seasons.

In the summer visitors travel from the valley to gather on the beaches, renting houses, and filling restaurants in the evenings. The roads are filled with cars; parking is scarce. There is an excitement in the air. Memories grow as easily as trees in the hearts of people who vacation here.

At the apex of summer, the high valley temperatures pull in a thick blanket of marine air, catching tourists off guard. Shorts and tank tops are quickly covered by sweatshirts and pants purchased in gift shops. The weather changes here on a dime. You can tell the locals by their layers.

Summer fades into a crisp-aired fall that slides into winter. Winter lingers in muddy puddles and frothy streams through spring until summer finally arrives. And once again, the warm sunlight pulls locals out of our homes to the beaches and trails. The forest, once bare of leaves, flourishes green to court us once again; to trick us through another winter.

 

From Jennifer in Corbett

Dear Stranger Soon to be Friend,

This day I sit in my chair, coffee in hand, cat on my lap, new puppy nearby napping, and think about how to tell a stranger about this place I call home.

Last year I attended an Oregon Humanities Conversation at my local Columbia Grange. The facilitator asked us to introduce ourselves and tell where we live. The friends, neighbors, community members named Hinkle or Evans or Larch Mountain Road, Corbett, Springdale, Troutdale, the location of their house or the place they got their mail. I said I live in the Columbia River Gorge.

My little spot on the map, an old, remodeled farmhouse, filled with light and the colors I love sits on five acres. I am looking out now on an old pear tree, some red and golden leaves still hanging on, the little chickadees and one noisy scrub jay feasting on their breakfast at the feeders. Beyond that now that the leaves are getting sparse, I have a better view of the silvery Columbia River, Vista House, Beacon Rock. Hamilton and Table Mountain and the farmlands of Washington sit quietly green and golden in the distance, though it probably won't be long until I wake up to find snow dusting the tops of the ridges.

In the summer I rise early to watch the light come on and the sun rise. This time of year I can sleep in later and not miss the show, though sunrises are less visible among the fog that often sits on the river and the clouds that fill the sky.

Every day I say thank you that I get to live in this place, my little world of alder forest and meadow and a seasonal wetland that will fill when the rains begin to fall, telling the ducks its time to arrive. I call my garden The Garden of the Best of Intentions, as I try to keep up with more than one person can really manage. I never take any of it for granted, and this last year that has never been more true in the sixteen years I have lived here.

It was just over a year ago that I evacuated as the Eagle Creek Fire raced its way in the wind towards my little piece of paradise. For ten days I stayed with friends and wondered where I would live, who I would be, really, if I didn't have a garden to tend, waterfall trails to hike, a community of friends and neighbors around me who look out for one another. Houses can be rebuilt, but having a sense of place requires so much more than a building. The forest is healing from the fire and so am I. We are both resilient and are thriving in a new way now, with the realization that difficult and unexpected things can bring new growth.

I'll be 62 years old in a few months and I realize at some point this place will be too much house and too much land for me to care for. There will be too much driving to stay connected to my life in Portland, where I lived before this place and will return to when the time feels right to do so. In the meantime, I soak in every bit of beauty, birdsong, and stars in the night sky that I can, so when it is time to pass this place on to the next steward I can hold it in my heart and carry it with me always.

And what about you, Stranger and Friend? What place do you call home? I look forward to learning about that from you.

 

From Craig in Portland

Dear Stranger,
When I sit at my improvised desk and look out the living room window I first see the backside of a bar. I see a brick wall that's been painted, as if to joke with us, brick red, and also a parking lot that plays host to various sorts of loud commotion most evenings—this despite a sign enjoining people to respect the neighbors and keep the noise down. Another sign. this one taken more seriously, threatens to tow cars belonging to people who are not patrons of the bar, and it further specifies, in an added-on fragment of text, that no, you can't claim to be a patron just because you once drank here—you have to be a customer while your car is parked there, no loophole technicalities allowed. If my eyes scan upward, I discern a small, incomprehensible ecosystem of satellite dishes and, in the distance, houses tucked among evergreens. There is a billboard that's always changing as well as, recently, several cranes in motion.

Off to the left, I see a white and red one, though I swear the other day it was some other color, while the one to my right is the particular sort of yellow that I associate with industrial technology and its attendant social forms: the yellow of Caterpillar-brand bulldozers, of school buses, of parking lines, of hardhats and certain brands of overalls. If I were younger, I would likely find magic in the sheer size and the dexterity of these cranes, the uncanny accuracy with which they operate, an ability that seems, for such a large machine, disproportionate. Perhaps up close, if I stopped to stare, I would feel exactly that. But from my vantage point here at the window, the magic they possess comes from how they confound my sense of distance. Are they a block away? Several? Ten or more? I truly can't say. I often pass construction sites while walking around my neighborhood, and when the chain-linked fence isn't covered in tarp I may walk somewhat close to one of these cranes. But in those moments, I'm not certain that it's the same machine that I espied from my living room. They're everywhere, after all, and to my ignorant eyes, not much distinguishes one from another.

It reminds me of a short story I read years ago. A man was visiting Paris and somehow got separated from his family. I think it was in a crowd, an outdoor market or something. He could see the Eiffel Tower from where he stood, so he decided to walk in that direction, reasoning that it was the most likely place he'd find his family. (The story was written and therefore set, I should mention, before there were cell phones.) Beyond that skeleton of plot, though, I remember nothing—not if he arrives at the Eiffel Tower or, if he in fact does, whether be finds his family there. Perhaps the story ends with a happy reunion, but I think it doesn't. In the fog of my memory, I recall a damp cold and the man dying of some disease associated with that sort of weather. I now wonder if his walk actually took place or if he simply hallucinated it while he lay in bed, feverish and missing a family that disappeared years before, or perhaps a family that he never had. 

However it ended, the story comes to mind because of that strange experience of seeing an immense landmark in the distance and then trying to navigate the ground to get there. When I walk, I feel myself taking steps, tripping distractedly on a curb, avoiding a puddle: the daily drama of a person walking on a city street. But that large mechanical neck rising in the distance, it seems impervious and disinterested in the mosaic of life stretching out around it. I suppose it doesn't simply seem that way—it is, in fact, wholly impervious and disinterested. It can't begin to do the thing we do when we take interest.

I live in Portland, have lived here for almost a decade, and over that time I think I've heard more conversations about how the city is changing than about anything else. It's our bread-and-butter small talk. I don't think that's a unique characteristic of this city—in most places I've lived people talked about how much things were changing—but perhaps we're feeling it more intensely these days than we have before. And I don't mind change in itself. On the contrary, I think there are many changes that would be very good for us. But that's only the case so long as we deal with whatever it is that's in the process of vanishing. I want us to recognize this process and then do at least two things: discard whatever small-minded habits we've adopted out of fear or bigotry or ignorance, leaving them behind for more solidarity and love for those around us, and then properly mourn those things we've lost that have value for us, those things that deserve to be mourned. I want us to pay some sort of homage to this world that wakes up each day to live its own disappearance, this world being constantly remade by cranes and people and flows of capital that care nothing for what gets in their way. This world of clouds, I guess. I imagine that this observation is not particularly new or original, but here I offer it as a way of closing this letter: I believe that whatever is massive, haughty, and unreadable in the present, in any present, is never without an accompanying sphere of mammalian routine and banality that lives and breathes and produces things that are, at least to someone, meaningful.

 

From Hannah in La Grande

Dear Stranger,

Oregon has always been home to me. I have lived and worked here my entire life and, while I travel often, I always feel joy when I return to this beautiful state. I feel lucky to call two places in Oregon home: La Grande (in Union county) and John Day (in Grant county). Both are small rural towns in Eastern Oregon. John Day (population around 1,600) is where I was born and raised and La Grande (population around 13,000) is where I went to college (Eastern Oregon University) and it is also where I currently live and work. Both counties have a rich history of Native American culture, Chinese influence, and gold mining and logging. Both are also near some of the most beautiful mountains and landscapes anywhere. The Painted Hills, the Eagle Cap wilderness, the Blue Mountains, Wallowa Lake, the John Day Fossil Beds, and the most beautiful sunsets around are all in the area.

One of my particular fascinations is with the difference in mindset and perspective between people in urban and people in rural settings. While I have always lived in small towns, having friends and family in larger cities (as well as traveling to cities myself) has opened my eyes to how different life can be between urban and rural places. For example, John Day, and Grant county in general, is especially isolated. There is only one traffic light in the entire county and many towns and areas, such as Monument in the northwest comer, lack cell phone service. There are very few stores in the county and many residents travel three hours to either Bend or Boise to stock up on groceries and go to doctor/dentist appointments. La Grande, while larger in population and less isolated, still lacks many shopping places or specialized healthcare. To me, this is normal and, while the isolation can be inconvenient at times, it is a small price to pay to live in such a beautiful and wild part of the state. In college, I had roommates and friends from larger cities like Portland and Salem. Some frequently remarked that “there's nothing to do here!” while me, being from tiny John Day, was impressed that La Grande has a Wal-Mart.

I believe this type of isolation is unique to the eastern portion of the state. While there are some rural towns and places in the western half, there are usually much closer to population centers than towns in the east. This isolation does make it much easier to connect with your neighbors and your community, though. One of my absolute favorite parts about living in a small town is how neighbors band together in the face of a disaster or tragedy. For example, in 2015, a massive wildfire swept through Grant county and took more than 40 homes with it. It was a major loss for our community because pretty much everyone knew at least one family affected by the Canyon Creek Complex fire. However, neighbors and strangers quickly banded together to help each other out by volunteering any way they could: donating necessities to the families that lost everything, making meals for the brave firefighters, moving and boarding animals and livestock, and many other ways. Some volunteers' houses were under evacuation orders themselves and they were still helping out those who already lost homes. This is just one of the countless examples of neighbors helping neighbors that abound in Eastern Oregon. 

This strong bond between fellow citizens can sometimes be misperceived, though. Sometimes, people in rural areas are stereotyped as being unwilling to accept/embrace change or allow new ideas in. While it is true that it may take longer to enact change in a small town, that could be because anything new to the community will affect the majority of the community (positively or negatively) in some way, directly or indirectly. In larger places, the impact of change is often more specific/localized or can be more spread out to have less of an effect on individuals. It can sometimes take patience to live and work in a rural space because the pace of life is simply slower in general. Another similar stereotype of small communities is the lack of diversity. There may not be much racial or ethnic diversity in Eastern Oregon, but there are a variety of perspectives and people that chose to live and settle in small towns and diversity doesn't always refer to one's external appearance.

One of the most challenging aspects of living in an isolated area is the lack of resources and/or funding for certain programs. This can often put the community's most vulnerable in severe crisis quickly. While people often give what they can, it isn't always enough to meet the need, especially of those with chronically low incomes. In both John Day and La Grande, the cost of living is fairly low compared to larger towns, but the lack of competition among stores (especially in John Day), and the cost of getting products to the areas means that food and other necessities can be really expensive and not everyone has the means to travel out of town to stock up in bulk. The housing market is also competitive in both areas because of a lack of rental housing in John Day and with the university students occupying many of the rentals in La Grande. 

As a whole, though, I am so grateful to live in a small community, especially in a state as amazing and full of variety as Oregon. I believe the best ways to understand other perspectives is to spend some time traveling and becoming fully immersed in another way of life. Realistically, though, not everyone has the time or money for such endeavors, but everyone has the ability to simply start a conversation with an open mind and a willingness to listen and be challenged to learn something new. Another place to start experiencing life in rural Oregon is by reading a local small town newspaper or listening to a local radio station. Writing your own letter and reading mine is also a great place to begin such a conversation, although I do hope that, whoever you are, you are able to come and experience the beauty and grandeur of rugged Eastern Oregon yourself if you haven't already.

Comments

3 comments have been posted.

Those letters are so different from each other and yet equally enjoyable and important. I give my heartfelt thanks to the writers. I moved to Ashland this summer (from Santa Fe, New Mexico) and am looking forward to traveling and discovering as much as Oregon as I can!

Claudie Harris | January 2019 | Ashland

I enjoyed this new site Dear Stranger was sooo good. To see this area thru someone elses eyes was exciteing. You are a wonderful writer. Please always keep writing.

Jon and diane Tierney | December 2018 |

The letters posted here were delightful to read. Each one well-written and thank you for sharing them with us.

Nancy | December 2018 | Vancouver, Washington

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