A few times in my life I’ve had the feeling of traveling through time. Once, on a 4th of July, we took a tour of Paul Revere’s house, and standing in his bedroom, I had the distinct sense that I had invaded a living person’s privacy. Once was when my husband and I got lost in Montana (a thing not to do) and found ourselves in a ghost town. And yesterday.
Yesterday on our way home from the coast we took a detour to satisfy ten years of curiosity. We veered off of Hwy 42 and followed it to Powers, Oregon. We’d always wondered about that turn-off, so we took it.
The road knotted its way through the coast range – intensely green land too steep for hills, but not tall enough yet for real mountains. The road, which appeared to be in the habit of slipping off the slopes periodically, was patched and rutted, and so windy that the road signs looked liked snakes and usually just said SLOW, by which they must have meant 20 or less. We passed a dilapidated sawmill and now and then a house – one with a big hand-painted sign “Sam’s Dahlias.” That was about 20 minutes into the drive and we wondered how much business Sam got.
The scenery was lovely – lime green meadows, stands of dark firs growing stubbornly on nearly vertical hillsides, the South Fork of the Coquille River winding through the valley below us. With each mile we felt time reversing. You see, no one drives through Powers – this was the only highway in and it took us half an hour from the turnoff to get there. We’d return by the same road.
“There” was a logging town – or what’s left of it. Most of the houses were either mobile homes or small clapboard bungalows – one was yellow with pretty white lace curtains gracing the windows, but the rest hadn’t seen paint in decades. The roses were untrimmed, the yards un-mowed. We saw some men in their logging gear chatting in front of one house, but otherwise the place seemed empty.
Carnival music blared from tiny, empty park next to a huge ramshackle building that advertised “Lodging (I can’t imagine) and Food,” but no one was around. A storefront boasted a Pepsi sign over the word “Market,” and I wondered about grocery buying and what that would be like there. Along the main road was a small gray building that claimed to be the museum, but it was boarded up, as was the tiny red and white striped shack next to it that said “Post Office.” We saw occasional evidence of the 21st century – a Zumba sign on what looked like a warehouse, the forest service offices. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been sure of my temporal footing. Except that half a century ago this little town would have been healthy and alive.
Which is my point. America is dotted all over with towns like this, towns that once had a purpose. Towns with bustle and hope. Coal mining towns in West Virginia, fishing villages on the coast, farming towns in the Midwest. These towns used to be the heart and soul of America. Norman Rockwell towns. Towns where grandparents kept rose gardens and raised strawberries, and where most entertainment happened in the churches and the tall-windowed schoolhouses, towns small enough that the townspeople kept watch over each other.
The sad thing is that these towns have fallen on hard times, not because the world no longer needs what they can produce. At least for the foreseeable future, society will require lumber and grain and fish and fuel. And yet, all we’ve given these hard-working communities in return is regulation. The spotted owl and its fabricated “needs” is killing Powers. That town is out in the middle of nowhere because that’s where the trees are. And the trees are still there, but the federal government owns much of that land and there the spotted owl, which is dying anyway, reigns supreme.
Fishing villages suffer from fishing regulations. Coal mining towns suffer directly from Obama’s intent to kill their industry. Phony concern about a tiny fish has decimated California’s central valley. Inheritance taxation is demolishing the family farms that supported those silo-boasting, church-filled prairie towns, those Garrison Keillor villages.
America is not Washington, DC, though that is where our national wealth has gathered. America is not Los Angeles, not New York, not Miami – though our cities are exciting, glamorous, shimmering examples of how far freedom can take human society. But our big cities, even our small cities, are not the glue that holds this country to its roots. It is these little hamlets, anonymous and almost hidden, that remind us of what it might have been like to live in our earliest settlements, to know everyone who lived around us, to have felt obliged to uphold our family’s reputation, to care for those in our periphery, to listen weekly to what the preacher had to teach.
I live in the Rogue River Valley in southwestern Oregon with over 100,000 other souls. We have a Costco, a couple of Walmarts, all manner of fast food franchises, and a Safeway. Interstate 5 runs through the middle of the valley and our airport is called the Medford International Airport, though I suspect that’s just because the clocks there can tell you what time it is in London and Tokyo.
Traffic here used to be mostly logging trucks heading in to the huge lumber mills. The whole town smelled of sawdust. The mills are gone now and vineyards dot the surrounding foothills. We were lucky we had something else to offer the world once the woods were off limits. We have a substantial health care community here, but what Obamacare will do to that has yet to be seen. Because it is beautiful in this mountain-circled valley and skiing and theatre and quaintness abound, the tourist trade has propped things up some. Things look better here than in Powers, but the economy is just as precarious.
We all know that America is not what she once was – a place that fostered self-reliance and hard work and innovation. The people who built Powers were brave people who ventured into those dark, towering forests to harvest giant, intimidating trees, to haul them to the mills, where they were turned into the stuff of the homes and buildings of this nation. They were, and are, tough, decent people, believing people. The Baptist church and the school there still look well cared for in spite of the crustiness of the rest of the village.
I would like to haul those environmental judges, the congressmen who’ve sold their souls to the power gods, and the president himself on a national tour of our dying small towns. That’s where America was born and I expect that’s where America will be reborn – if that is ever to happen. Granted, that the few hundred people who live in Powers, Oregon, are not going to make a dent in any election cycle.
This is true, but America cannot go on without them.