About Dear Oregon
Dear Oregon was born from our exploration of democracy. A true democracy is reliant on the voices of its people. Given the complex and at times confusing nature of our current political climate, we felt that these voices weren’t being heard. We sought to connect with Oregonians to understand where our state is, what they are thinking about it, and where they want it to go.
If you are interested in writing your own letter to Oregon, you can submit it here.
Letters from across Oregon
Monday morning. Grey and overcast. Taxes. Mud season. I woke after a weekend of sideways sleet, lost steelhead, and a tire flatter than a pancake and decided something needed to change. Driving by newly calved cows on my way to work under a sky moodier than a cat dancing across hot coals in the rain, I felt caught in the upside-down bowl of this place. Winters, they say, will drive you away.
And driving to work I swear on my Schlappen and Coche steelhead wuppin’ wooly buggers there is no sky cupped more like an upside-down hand than the sky in Wallowa County. From the cracked callouses of hard worked canyons, to the soft doughy palms of the Zumwalt and the sharp knuckles of the Wallowa mountains, it is a hand cupped to capture the clouds. Isolated except by a single road that cuts through the county like a life-line, sometimes even that is closed off by rock slides or severe weather. This hand covers and hides those of us who live here.
Most of Eastern Oregon is like this. I look up into those clouds cupped close and the night’s calves being licked clean and ponder a life style change, but from experience I know the novelty of flaking alfalfa for cows, lambs, horses, and a goat ancient as the basalt columns along the Wallowa River wears off, as does the smell of pig slop and chicken coops. And while there is something exciting about watching someone rip around in a red or yellow or green tractor skewering 900 pound bales of hay and loading them onto a flatbed truck while working the gear shift with one hand and with the other tipping back a triple shot Americano, the color of those tractors are too much the color of stoplights, and there are no stop lights in this county, and haven’t been many in my life.
The thing is, Oregon, folks change in a variety of ways, and while mine has always been to go fishing, fishing is precisely the thing I need a break from. I’ve started growing moss like a tree from standing in the rain and sleet and snow so much, my waders have developed the irreversible stink of river sludge, fish slime, salami, beer and stale cigars due to the companions I’ve been fishing with, not to mention the layer of mud and dust coating the lower half of my vehicle has become so thick it is lowering my gas mileage. Sometimes so much feeling good makes me feel bad.
And maybe it is time to feel bad for a change. I know your insides are made of basalt, air and ashes. Skin of bunchgrass and duff. And I know your lichens, your tendrils and curls, soft burgeoning edges, body of warm Chinook breath. Somedays your matter is not my matter, your face I return and ask forgiveness. How often this indecipherable sadness of tracking late winter’s footsteps farther and farther into the muddy fields. To live in a state where most creeks, streams, and rivers make it to the ocean, but to still know some don’t.
My life has been spent living for weekends and wild rivers. Waiting for fish to return past trawlers and concrete dams. I’ve heard there are seven billion hungers in this world. Thirsts. Has-beens. The ocean that receives us and always the other
unreachable in drought.
Even in Wallowa County we have dark woods that slip into themselves for miles, soft ground which sinks under footsteps. Has grown in the belly of unfathomable puddles. To push what has no form. To swim into what has no container. What hope there is to remain dry is a fool’s hope. What errand must be made in the rain. But who is so foolish to wear water and expect a fish to leap into hands?
My fly rods swing from an old fly line strung between grips. Even though it is spring, the fall is never far off. Stopping beside the river, low sun warm enough to rest in, I slip into the thick familiar skin of waders. Boots wet from yesterday and maybe the days before. On the dusty haze, I can almost taste the char of burnt fields, ponderosa pine licked by fire. I can almost, there in the run, tell a steelhead, and how many. Walk across a bull snake freshly flattened into the gravel road. Sit beside the river and just sit. This, more than anything, is how a river eventually changes us.
A Wallowa Mountain Haiku
Windows facing south
A wintery world beyond
I watch, warm inside
Close by, a black cat
His tail twitches – the magpie
Comes a step closer
The eagle confused
Near to breaking glass – I flinch
Tufted leg feathers
The arc of the sun
So low, no warmth in winter
The cows breathe out mist
The land drops away
I look down on birds gliding
The air lifts their wings
Miles and miles
The wind bent wheat fields flowing
Fences corral them
Inch by inch the work of ice
Warm soil where trees grow
Out of sight, the lake
Dug by glaciers receded
Cold water memory
Raising high above
Starting in sky, the mountains
Reaching still higher
I have loved you since I first arrived by car in rainy March 1973 from sunny Florida, to register for an exchange term at UO. I was amazed that you had bike paths that I could ride on, even in the rain. I was completely taken aback by how much people smiled at you and were friendly. I loved that you had a topless ordinance that allowed women to be top naked. I even wrote a poem about topless women on bicycles! And your recycling laws even way back then were groundbreaking. And I loved your health food stores with all the foods in bulk bins, smelling so delightful of real food.
After my one Oregon term I returned to Florida. But after graduating from college, newly single I was drawn back to your green arms. Starting over was hard but I had a camaraderie of like-minded individuals and the solace of your amazing nature and so many campgrounds. And your beaches, even with their cold waves, were a place I felt safe and at home.
I tried to quit you again when I moved to Japan in the early 80s, but again I came home because I missed your spacious, liberal, safe embrace. And all the rain in the world couldn’t keep this Florida girl away for long.
I stay because I can grow a lot of my own food. I stay because kale lasts for the summer and all winter long. I love that you are a blue state, and that I have such amazing representatives like Peter Defazio and Jeff Merkley. This has become all the more important in 2017 when we are living with an unstable, scary person as president. The day after the election, everyone was somber in the streets, many wore black, and most of us cried the first time we saw one another after “that day”. When I am distraught my friends and coworkers comfort me. When I am afraid at night, I am soothed a little because my Oregon representatives are sticking up for what is right. I am proud of that. And when I march, I see determined hopeful smiling teary-eyed faces all around me. And I KNOW I am home.
Yes you could provide more sun, and yes your ocean is chillier than I would like, and yes we have many more gray days than sunny ones, but that all pales compared to the good things that I see and feel here. Besides there is nothing like the thrill and gratitude of those first spring, sunny days, when we all emerge from the wet grey, grinning like fools, overconfidently underdressed in the chilly spring air, faces turned hungrily toward the sun, exchanging giddy knowing looks: sun!
I used to call myself a Florigonian but I think in my true heart of hearts, I am an Oregonian. I am kale girl. I am at peace. You are my home.
Hugs and kisses,
Our natural history, involving the land rising above the sea due to Teutonic Plates, the creation of snowcapped mountains by volcanic activity and the beauty of the Columbia Gorge and our fertile Willamette Valley due to Ice Age floods, came to our attention through the work of a congregational minister, geologist and paleontologist named Thomas Condon.
We know about Native Americans being in the area more than 10,000 years ago due to the discovery of the World’s oldest shoes by University of Oregon professor Luther Cressman.
We can admire the determination and tenacity of the pioneers of the mid- 1800’s through the story of Tabitha Moffatt Brown, who at age 66 made a treacherous journey from Missouri to Oregon. She settled in an area west of Portland and created an orphanage which became Pacific University in Forest Grove.
Washington Irving, the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, is owed credit for bringing attention to the area. Irving wrote about the experiences of John Jacob Astor’s employees, who traveled by land and sea to create the first settlement in the west; Astoria. He also wrote about explorer Captain Benjamin Bonneville, the namesake of Bonneville Dam.
Oregon produced a famous individual that few people know! Vance “Pinto” Colvig grew up in Jacksonville Oregon, became the voice of Goofy, Mickey Mouse’s friend and the first Bozo the Clown on record and television. He is in the International Clown Hall of Fame and considered a Disney Legend.
Our parks system, one of the best in the nation, was due to the efforts of Samuel Boardman, who served as our first State Parks Superintendent and over a 21 year career increased the number of parks from 46 to 181 properties and the total acreage from 4000 to 66,000.
These are just a few of the hundreds, if not thousands of stories within our state. A friend recently said he knows places, but does not always know their stories. I encourage people visiting or living here to take time to find the stories. It is a wonderful way to discover and love Oregon.
FLYING WITH EAGLE
Finally a break from the rain!
But now the sun glares in my face.
I feel stuck on an endless treadmill
Caught up in life’s busy race.
Where went those dreams of freedom,
What happened to those high ideals?
Why when life is such a precious gift,
Is stress, all my soul ever feels?
I languidly watch as an eagle
Comes slowly, turns, and again glides past.
Suddenly I seem to remember
Why my life so close to nature is cast.
So into my truck and up 16th street,
And on up to Coxcomb Hill
I feel eagle’s insistent pull
To come where it’s peaceful and still.
I take those spiral steps two at a time
And catch my breath as I step through the door
At seeing the beautiful, forgotten view
As below me, I see my eagle soar.
Leaning on that wrought iron railing
Gazing out over that dizzying height,
I suddenly catch the eagle’s share of freedom
High up in that warm Astorian spring sunlight.
The eagle’s view of us whom merely walk,
How would he judge what he can see?
Maybe he’s just truly above it all,
Completely, totally, uncaringly free.
Yes therein lies his power,
So I too must just let go to soar,
And suddenly my troubles seem so trivial
There’s always sun, after rain’s downpour.
High up here on this Astor column,
I feel my soul just take flight.
It seems to merge, becoming one with eagle
Soaring through this warm Spring morning light.
Mayhap I’ll glide round Saddle mountain
Visit my brothers Elk and Deer.
Or maybe follow river to ocean
This special day so warm and clear.
I could simply glide through the sky
Just savor that warm sun upon my back
Take a drink from the clouds,
Soaring free, nothing else I need or lack.
I might simply cruise the length of main street,
I wonder how many would look up and see,
Actually comprehend, in our own heart and mind
We hold the key to be totally free.
How long did I stand there,
Wrapped in the eagle fantasy? I don’t know.
But he gave to me that special gift
That my heart was needing so.
Well eagle called me up here
For needed respite from the pace
Though I’m simply standing on that balcony
I’m ready to get back in the race.
My outlook feels renewed
The spring sun is strong upon my face,
As I gaze fondly down on Astoria,
Such a beautifully magical little place.
April 20, 2011
Every spring Culver comes alive. My father spends his days setting irrigation lines and dragging a harrow across a 160 acres of yellow fields to get ready for the growing season ahead. There is something to be said about the first time water runs through the musty aluminum pipes after a long winter of sitting empty. The smell is a bitter turned sweet type of sensation, foreshadowing the dewy alfalfa and crisp orchard grass that will be baled later in the season; It’s what I live for.
Being an Oregonian has been the only consistent part my life. Whether it was the several years I spent on my grandparents farm in the Willamette Valley after my parents divorced, or riding horses with my dad and sister on a hunting trip in the Ochocos, you raised me. My college experience is funded off of your soil. Seven acres of orchard grass hay, split between two different plots of land is insignificant to the majority of your population, but for me it’s a livelihood.
However, a large portion of your population doesn’t know that it exists. For me, Culver is my whole world. This town has shaped me and defined me the same way it does you. These fields and farms are a part of yourself that you should be proud of.
You have been the backdrop for some of my best memories and brought me through my toughest times. However, your people are divided. Not only are there physical divides within you like the Cascades, but, divides of lifestyle and ideals as well.
Some people who are from here, don’t know what it is like to live here; to be a part of the rural communities. If I stood on a street corner in downtown Portland and asked each person that walked by if they know where Culver is, maybe five people who would know.
Your Portland Metro Area accounts for about three counties out of the 36 counties that make up the land within your borders. That small area holds about 44 percent of your population, but, many people in that 44 percent lack knowledge of your other parts and pieces. They don’t know you in the same way I know you.
Sure we can all agree that your forests, lakes and mountain peaks are beautiful and are fun places for all of us to enjoy throughout the different seasons, however, vanity isn’t enough. Its what’s on the inside that matters and Oregon, you have so much more to offer. You truly are an agricultural state, but to the rest of the country Portland defines you.
Society is pulling people away from some of your most beautiful parts. I spend my summers in a tractor cab and waiting tables, trying to pay my college tuition at one of your institutions. An institution that doesn’t prepare me to go back to the community where I grew up, instead it pushes me to Portland or out to a different part of the country to “join the majority.”
When the end of the summer begins to fade into fall, I find myself ready to be done with irrigation pipe and the countless hours driving up and down windrows; but then I leave. You don’t know what you have until it’s gone. It never fails, sometime around December of each year, while I am sitting in a lecture hall, I find myself craving that musty smell of aluminum and water. Even the taste you get – somewhat of a mix of matcha powder and dirt when you take a deep breath of swirling hay dust in the barn.
Oregon don’t put yourself in a position where you crave to sense your most vibrant parts, but find yourself too out of touch with them.
I wouldn’t trade my time with you for the whole world, staring up at the glacial peaks of the cascades from a small two-and-a-half-acre field gives me a unique perspective about your size and power. You have far more to offer than 44 percent, embrace 100 percent of yourself.
I readily give you credit for your lush vegetation, for the snow that brightens even inside our houses, and for just enough rocky soil to make us work a bit for our produce.
But it’s the people who keep me here. The Oregon residents I know, here in the southern part of the state, are easy going, yet willing to work together to improve the lot of the whole community—perhaps because of working hard and being close to the land. Having lived in big cities in the past, I remember the busyness, the unnecessary speed that comes from pressures. Walking on the Greenway each morning is a blessing—a time for creating the new and for solving old problems.
My sincerest gratitude,
author of “Something to Howl About”
I am writing you from the most populous city upon our coastline. Perhaps counterintuitive to this, you can, on our cooler days, expect to smell wood smoke in our downtown core. The pairing of development and small-town style is one of my favorite aspects of Oregon. While we can, from time to time, set the curve for the rest of the nation with our policies, we always remain one very large small town.
Oregon has a great sense of stewardship to the land and recognizes the importance of preserving that land for future generations. This is an example of Oregon playing a long game, keeping its eye on the greatest good over the longest time. We protect our land, both public and private, from being overwhelmed by urban expansion through the use of Urban Growth Boundaries. We are only one of three states that protect their natural landscape with such vigor; Washington and Tennessee are the other two.
In line with setting the bar, our state is the only state that I am aware of in which the press can attend a city’s executive session. While they cannot report of business rightfully conducted in executive session, such as the discussion of real property transactions that may affect local businesses and labor negotiations, they can attend them, and deviations from topics lawfully conducted in executive session may be reported on. This ensures that we are a state that conducts its business in keeping with the highest ethical standards, that no proceedings are concealed from our people under false pretense.
My dream for Oregon is not unlike any other person in service to our state. Idealistic, probably, but such is the purpose of dreams; I want prosperity by every measure. I want sustainable industry that doesn’t poison our land. I want an education system that creates a workforce that is the envy of the nation. I want a healthcare system, if not for our nation than for our state, that sees every man, woman, and child taken care of in their hour of need without contributing to the horrific statistical link between health care and bankruptcy presently evident in our nation, because no one is truly free to pursue life, liberty and happiness if their life’s gain can be swept away by a medical emergency, and a nation is not secure without healthy populations.
These are a few of the qualities that make me proud of my home state, and a direction that would elevate the limits of my pride.
Drew Farmer, Councilman
Coos Bay, Oregon
In my home, the Tenino valley that ends towards Mt. Jefferson, there is knowledge of the distance between the Willamette Valley and the Great Rivers are not so far it cannot be walked. My Wasco/Watlala ancestors did under guard and in removal from their cedar plank houses to this valley where tent villages were set up. They brought only what they could carry. Their wealth pillaged and villages burned in the wake of the removals. One could walk the trail, and cross the rivers and creeks streaming from the Cascades, and see every detail of the high desert from horizon to horizon, with sunlit clarity.
There is a reason to love the Oregon’s Sons and Daughters who filled these emptied spaces, even with the vigilantes ripping past by horse to disrupt our villages. Oregon was encouraged to exist by the Treaty of 1855 of the Middle Columbia River, for one. Treaties are Supreme Law of the Land. The children born and raised here in the last two and half centuries are the product of the fertile and volatile land. Their fathers died in logging accidents, drowned in capsized boats, tirelessly rode cattle and built their lives, as did the Indigenous people. Women across cultures kept and traded their knowledge of the land. With the strength of our communities, and many times, with hardship no one truly knows until they lived it, we thrived.
It is the Oregon of contradiction in some ways. The utopia birthed the radicals of the West Coast, both right and left, swirling in a whirlpool. There were the laws that forbade interracial marriage, yet preceding Oregon, there was the Hudson Bay Fur Trading Company that educated their children from tribal mothers to work in world commerce, and joined with the trading acumen of the Chinookan peoples using Chinookan Jargon to rich ends. Their Native families wore the clan plaids and built up the combined Emerald Empire with their fathers. Preferring the Queen’s English to American English of Boston. Their mothers taugh them, along with the First Languages, the difference.
It is a united Oregon of many cultures. The Rim of Fire of the Pacific, the Hawaiians, the Chinese, the Japanese, the East Indians, and the canoe culture with ritual songs used as maps to cross the Pacific through currents and winds. The Russians and Aleuts ripping the fur from the sea otters from the shores, as example. Mexico receded slowly form our lands. It was and will always be the farthest west, and the farthest from anyplace known before. Bear it well, as you carry the blood of the Pacific as power, wherever your people go.
With love, your ancestral Native daughter.
First of all, thank you. Thank you for so much. My life is what it is today because of you and the many ways that you have shaped me. As a little kid my sister and I would dream of the many places that we wanted to move once we were older, but now I realize how lucky we were to be right here in Oregon. We grew up in a state with beauty and I have truly loved getting to see the many unique places hidden inside this state. The Pacific Northwest is such a part of me now that I can’t imagine living anywhere without coffee shops on every corner or a beautiful beach just a few hours away. But sadly, I’m leaving you this year.
Deciding to leave Oregon for grad school was a difficult decision, but if anything it has actually made me appreciate Oregon even more. Deciding to move has helped me realize what Mat Kearney is talking about when he sings the words, “I left my heart in Oregon.” My heart will always be in Oregon, even when I’m not, because this state has been so wonderful to me.
The country is in a scary place right now, but I don’t worry about Oregon because I know that the people here will not let hate take over.
Oregon will always be my home and my favorite place to come back to when I’m living elsewhere.
Thank you Oregon,
I remember you when you were young and innocent. Well, youngish, let’s say, and innocentish. The truth was just starting to dawn on you then, the awful truth, and in a few places I could already see the early catalytic stirrings of the great disillusioning.
It was midway through the 1970s. I remember how you were then, Oregon. I remember it in the warm, golden light of a happy, privileged childhood.
I mean, I didn’t know I was privileged. But then, neither did you.
You were still a little tipsy with the spirit of 1959 back then, weren’t you? Nineteen-fifty-nine, the year of the Oregon Centennial celebration – it had been 100 years since the state was admitted to the union, and boy, did you ever throw a party to mark the occasion and to celebrate that 100 Years of Progress!
Nineteen-fifty-nine, when it seemed there would always be trees to cut and fresh water to swim in and toothsome salmon to feast on. Nineteen-fifty-nine, when a man could get work in the mill or in the woods straight out of tenth grade and make a wage that would buy him a house, put a muscle car in the driveway with a fishing boat to tow with it, put a ring on his sweetheart’s finger and a roast turkey on the Thanksgiving dinner table, with three-four kids around it smacking their lips and waiting for Mom to say grace.
Nineteen-fifty-nine, when culture was a thing one didn’t worry about, when dressing up meant removing one’s “CAT Diesel Power” hat and combing one’s hair. Nineteen-fifty-nine, when the realization had not yet dawned that you were living on stolen land, when you hadn’t yet figured out that your greatest heroes were vandals and thugs and murderers before fortune made them elder statesmen. Nineteen-fifty-nine, when you couldn’t stop progress and neither could the folks at Celilo, the 15,000-year-old Indian village flooded out two years before to make way for The Dalles Dam. Nineteen-fifty-nine, when you still had not yet realized what an awful mistake that had been.
I remember that spirit, Oregon. It was in its twilight years by the time I came along, but I could still feel it, all around me, in the little timber town I grew up in. Four sawmills that town had. One at each corner, running all the time. It was a noisy place, full of four-wheel-drive pickups and big-block Javelins and Mustangs practicing bootlegger reverses in the intersections.
Then the dark years came.
First the trees ran out. In 1959 everyone thought they’d last forever. They didn’t.
I’m that (rare) proud Portland Born and Raised (25 years/ South East – 97202!!) But damn you have changed I’ll be real with you-
34th & Division is no longer that quiet neighborhood that I could run across the street, without looking both ways.
I don’t recognize you and your new face lift.
And… That’s okay…I guess…Because a few more good eats, good drinks, and fun vibes is cool. But is it cool that rent is well over $1,000? Nah. What about a few blocks north in the Hawthorne area where it’s now filled with the homeless from 26th to 50th.
My friends, co workers, and the clients I work with tell me that they too are just one mistake, one slip up from being on the streets. Living paycheck to paycheck is a grind, and I hope that it’s no longer an issue in the next few years.
What frustrates me is that it’s costing a lot to live and stay here in Portland. In the early 2000’s my friends and I would joke that we would have to move to Beaverton…Well some did. Cost of living is getting higher and higher, raising the minimum wage is not going to fix the problem it is only a band aid.
Even though these are some issues your location of being an hour from the coast, and hour from the mountain, an hour into another state is what makes you so special.
I know more and more people will move into Oregon (Thanks…Insider…) but that’s okay too because we should welcome others into our community as you did with my family.
So stay hip, stay bi polar weather, but lets improve the living situation or our community.
-Portland Born and Raised
With all of these great attributes, it’s hard to think of worries or frustrations I have regarding the state, but there are a few. I worry that too many visitors and tourists are becoming enamored by our state and deciding to move here. For many years Oregon has been one of the most moved to states. With more people, I worry that we will see less of the wild and the nature throughout the state and more houses and roads. I worry that the natural areas will become too crowded. These worries aren’t too intense, but they are still worries of mine.
Oregonians all have a sense of pride over this land. We feel that we have helped to keep it natural by doing our part in things such as recycling and turning off the lights. This is what drives Oregonians together. The feeling of doing good and helping out is something that I see in everyone that lives here.
You were always fair to me, you were always decent. My time spent in your green stained, odd-not-bad-just-odd smelling environment was perfectly formative. In my time spent beneath your beautiful cascades of trees I met white friend and white friend. All of whom I love dearly and unconditionally, without whom I could not function today. Amongst the sea of craft beer and Berkinstocks I stood out, dark-ish skin, brillo-y hair, taller than most, and Oregon, I’d like to thank you for allowing me to pass as an athlete for so many years. My skin tone and build acted as an automatic signifier for people to assume I played for the Ducks. Honest and truly, this was one of the only stereotypes I enjoyed fitting, if it only made getting into parties a little easier. Compliments from random freshmen on Sunday mornings congratulating me after a win was especially welcomed.
I dream of an Oregon where people admit they don’t actually like the rain, despite the fact that temperamental and sporadic torrential downpours are commonplace from week to week. Let’s be real with each other, it rains at Autzen stadium, when the Ducks don’t covert a third down, it’s not the ref’s fault, and bike theft is a necessary part of character growth in Eugene. When I say that I love you, Oregon, know that it’s unconditional, as frighteningly caucasian as you may be, your Patagonia-clad residents are some of the best people I know. From the peak of Mount Hood to the numbing normalcy of Clakamas. Where in so many places, with an excruciatingly high volume of white faces, I would’ve felt like an outsider, I only felt different, which was much more than a consolation. If there’s one thing I love about you, it’s that everyone was always a bit different, every subtle quirk from person to person seemed more lovingly amplified. A My 6’2 self in a crop top wasn’t the weirdest thing you’d see on a Saturday afternoon.
You gave me a space to be myself, and while I stood out like, like a, like a black person in Oregon, your absence of racial diversity made me have to confront my own identity. I had to do it, because no one else was going to, I had to think about race because no one else was going to, I had to figure out how to move through the world as a young, black, kid because you made it so that I had to, and while I hated you for it at times, I’m objectively better for it.
I didn’t like that your coast was so far from me, but my time spent there was a welcome respite from an onslaught of trees, and your sandy, blue beaches were as magical as one could find in late November. I didn’t like the fact that you idolized and so loosely sanctioned fraternities and sororities. I don’t like the way that you militantly stand by some of your grosser beverage concoctions, from some of the weirder teas of the entire west coast, to the most middling craft beers you could imagine. I don’t like you all the time, but I’m not entirely sureI want you to change all that much. Were you to be different, or were you to have been different, I fear you would lose all the elements I fell in love with. I wouldn’t have met the friends I fell in love with, the girl I’m currently in love with. Oregon you gave me so much to love, and while you yourself as a state or collection of cities is far from perfect, the collection of faces you ushered into my life, from those same breweries and sorority houses I railed against have made my life infinitely better.
Every day, I speak for the most vulnerable and disenfranchised. You are letting them down by letting me down.
I am not a rich lawyer. I am a juvenile court public defender in Deschutes County, Oregon. For the past 25 years, I have represented children and parents during some of the most difficult times of their lives.
Every budget cycle, our state government promises us that they will get to us, that we are on their list. And every year, they don’t. This means the scales of justice have become seriously unbalanced. The salary of each elected District Attorneys is paid by their respective counties. Our DA makes more than $130,000 per year. The state of Oregon pays the salaries and benefits for all their deputy district attorneys, provides them with offices and pays all their support staff. In my county, prosecuting attorneys are paid around $90,000 per year, that’s at least twenty percent more than public defenders. They also receive health insurance, and are eligible for retirement benefits through the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS). The salaries and benefits of their support staff are paid by the state, and the state of Oregon pays their operational and office expenses.
Law enforcement agencies, like the Deschutes County Sheriff investigate crimes and refer them to the office of the District Attorney for prosecution. Deputy district attorneys prosecute the cases. There is a defense attorney on the other side of every one of those prosecuted cases. Most of those defense attorneys are public defenders, appointed by the court and paid for by the state of Oregon. In our county, thirteen employees of the Deschutes County Sheriff are paid more than $100,000 per year. In addition, they receive health care benefits participate in PERS.
The state of Oregon pays Public defenders like me by the case, as independent contractors. I am one of the more than one million Oregonians that lack retirement benefits through my workplace. I am not eligible for PERS. I must fund my own retirement, purchase my own health insurance, pay payroll taxes, cover my own business expenses, including the cost of my office and the salary of my legal assistant, all from the money I am paid per case. If I want to give my assistant a raise, I must accept more cases. I average 100 open cases at any time. About 30 of those cases involve the representation of children.
The law enforcement and prosecution side of the scales of justice are heavily weighted against the most vulnerable. Law enforcement agencies and District Attorneys have reasonable caseloads and plenty of resources. For public defenders, caseloads are too high already, and the system incentivizes us to take more cases. Public Defenders, people with law degrees and years of experience, average salaries of just $68,000 per year.
University of Oregon coach, Mike Bellotti receives $44,750 per month from PERS for his 254 months of service to the state of Oregon. Lawyers who spend their entire career defending those who can’t speak for themselves, will be fortunate to draw in a year what Mr. Bellotti draws in a month.
Oregon, it’s time you stopped telling us there isn’t enough money. It is time you began allocating the resources of the state to protect and defend the rights of the vulnerable, by paying those who represent them the same as the people who investigate and prosecute them.
Stop letting them down, Oregon.
Lori A.G. Hellis
The first time. Escaping from the damp mop that passed for summer in South Florida, my truck packed with everything I owned. Texas, Utah, Nevada, finally to the part of Oregon nobody talks about.
Everyone thinks it’s all about rain and coastline, but I drove into a dust storm, tumbleweeds flattening under the tires. In Burns, the lonely husbands wandered to my door, wanting solace and refuge from their choices. I turned them away, single at thirty-five, alone. Eastern Oregon, the abrupt edge of Steens Mountain, the Alvord Desert a bleached, hard-packed salt pan waiting for rain. Sage bitter in my nostrils, grazing rights, federal overreach, wolves, dissent. One year a woman, someone I didn’t know, filled a backpack with rocks and stepped onto a high point, jumping irrevocably into Moon Reservoir. Gone, with whatever reasons she took with her. This hit me hard, the fact that you could make yourself disappear in Eastern Oregon. Where else in the country could that happen? Here you could sit in a gasless car for hours, days, with nobody stopping by to save you. There was no place for me here, I thought. Oregon didn’t want to let me in, or I had not yet learned how to slip through the panes of desert to reach its beating heart.
The second time. Escaping from rainforest Alaska, trying Oregon again. Emerging from a divorce, I was as tender as a bruise. Wallowa County, they call it the Alaska of Oregon, so I thought that meant something, a stepping stone from the real Alaska, a way to ease back into the lower 48. In many ways it is more isolated here than I was on an island in the Gulf. Two hours to an airport. Plenty of deep quiet in which to think.
Hells Canyon is a deep wrinkle on the earth’s face. I hike here, following the trails of the Nez Perce, the sheepherders, the ranchers, all gone now. This country is prickly and rough but takes me in. As if I could grow bristles myself, arm my body with them so I would never be broken again. That doesn’t work, and I learn that here. Even in a place like Hells Canyon there is a soft underbelly, the gentle sweep of a bench thigh-high with spring grass.
I hike solo, because I like it. Because I need to figure things out. People tell me not to do this, but I go anyway. I arm myself with courage and sunscreen and head out. Even the roads to get here try to discourage. One lane, you turn the wheel wrong and you die.
My friend took up a gun in October, the best month. Why? Wasn’t the turning of the larches enough for him, spots of reflected sunshine on the green furred slopes of Chief Joseph Mountain? The gossip of the aspen trees along Hurricane Creek, the first snow on the canyon rims. The orange robe of wildfire in the canyon. I guess not; land isn’t always enough, even this one. You can grow your porcupine skin, but it doesn’t make you impervious. A place can’t save you; Eastern Oregon, you have taught me that. You save yourself, in the end. Or you don’t.
I set up my tent near the place where Hat Creek meets the inner canyon. Somewhere down there lurks the Snake River, but I’d have to fight blackberry and poison ivy and snakes to get there. The old trails are disappearing with nobody to walk them, with no money for the Forest Service to maintain them. I see the rock walls that trail crews built, stone after stone, sweat and dirt and love all mixed together in a forgotten stew. Some trails, gone completely; others, I find like a detective, a switchback here, an ancient cut log there. I follow these clues. I piece them together. When I lose the trail completely, I feel both terror and possibility. I have always made my own path anyway, never done the expected thing. That’s what I like about this place. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, another secret is revealed. Ponderosas, hidden in the thirsty draws; the long scratch of bear claws deep in tender bark. Surprise.
Eastern Oregon, you are a hard one to love, but once I figured it out you’re the place I can’t shake. You ask for a lot from your people: Blazing summers, evacuations from wildfire, winters that last an ungodly six months, the in-between ice season that locks the trails up tight. But just like that one man all of us women can’t forget, you sink deep into the bones. You make me want to stay.
This is the last time. No more boomerang back and forth. Eastern Oregon, you make me do it the hard way. Carry six liters of water because Somers Creek might be sucked dry. Slide in a shower of eroding mountainside down from Freezeout Saddle towards the benchland below, a kind of dryland skiing. Crawl under old barbed wire. You have to earn it, but once you do, picking your way down from the rims into the arms of the canyon, you are in.
Hiking solo, I learn how to soften just a little around the edges, butter left out in the sun. Even on the cobble of Eureka Bar there are the starburst of pink phlox clinging to the rock walls. Being soft was a weakness, I had always thought. But here you can ask for help. Here people will give it to you. Faces open as the sky as long as you haven’t given them a reason to close. A handshake a promise. I have learned not to trust people; here I am learning how to again.
You have to be tough to live here, but that’s not enough. There is no hiding here. Here you are exposed. No lights to hide behind, no shades to draw. Everyone knows who you are. What you have done. But they also watch to make sure you come home safely.
After a couple of days in the canyon, I turn feral. I sit in the dirt. I don’t brush my hair. I am as wild as the bighorn sheep that I see down by Saddle Creek. The canyon swallows me up in one big gulp. I may never leave. Instead of disappearing, I am as big as the moon.
I was born and have lived my 62 years in this wonderful state. I love the vast variety of ecology, geology, and demographics. Majestic mountains, the pretty painted hills, beautiful beaches, wonderful woodlands, and all the rest of Oregon’s diverse biomes provide a lifetime of discovery and enjoyment. Driving through the state offers plenty of beautiful scenery. God’s creation is surely highlighted here.
I have found most people to be friendly and helpful wherever we have lived (mostly in the Willamette Valley and more recently in Central Oregon). I appreciate getting to know all sorts of people and am thankful for the opportunities I have had to learn and grow with others. Whether in formal educational settings, writers’ groups, homeschooling, neighbors, churches, volunteering, etc., I have connected and been energized.
However, I am saddened to note recent developments of entitlement and intolerance. We should all treat others as we would like to be treated—doing good, not harm. This builds community and will make our world better. I urge all to work together for the betterment of all.
I just returned from walking my dog on one of your publicly-owned ocean beaches, or the “Great Birthright,” as former Governor Oswald West memorably described them.
It was raining. I saw gulls, bald eagles, sanderlings, a decomposing whale, three driftwood forts and the remains of several bonfires. I didn’t see another human being for miles in either direction. Great notions for love and life emerged, as they always seem to do when I walk on the beach.
My experience didn’t cost me a cent. As long as You remain the state I love, it never will. If there ever comes a day when a fee is required to access beaches, You will have certainly died.
Please don’t die. The hot word is out about You again and people just keep coming and coming. Most newcomers have no idea about our unique legacy of publicly-owned beaches and the groundbreaking legislation that codified it into law. My job is to educate them. I will do this until the end of my days. It’s the least I can do. I owe Oregonians from decades and decades ago for saving the beaches from privatization. It has made the crucial difference in my Oregon life. It does every day I visit.
When I came here to you 40 some years ago from Ohio I was lured by romance, but I had been here before as a kid, and I knew something different was going on in Oregon. At first, it was easy to figure out. Like California, the landscape was spectacular and varied, with blue lakes and gorgeous rivers and an occasional volcanic cone somewhere nearby. Who couldn’t love this?
The dingy industrial edge of Ohio cities and the monotonous roll of Ohio’s cornfields were not to be found here. As time went on, I understood that people also acted differently here, perhaps because of those loving feelings about the Oregon earthscape. The awe that people had for the land seemed to promote a certain respect for the peoples who lived here. It was subtle, and there were always bozos who didn’t seem to share that congeniality, but mostly it was sublime to be in Oregon with Oregonians…and it seemed to be like that everywhere I went across the state in the 1970s, from Rome to Aloha, in mountain towns and desert stops, and in Portland where it was always easy to want to be there.
Service organizations and environmental groups thrived here as Oregonians considered new, smarter ways to do things, and government seemed to me to be accessible and worthwhile. In Ohio, I always felt like I was simply along for the ride and didn’t have much of a voice. In Oregon I embraced opportunities to help develop the emerging Cascadia viewpoint.
During the last thirty years, I found my niche in Oregon education and cultural arenas, got to raise two ducks, and have been able to discover one natural wonder after another for myself. I’ve been thankful to live somewhere where a humane ethic prevails and positivity touches everyone. In an era where we feel threatened by ghostly specters from Washington, D.C., it is the best time to dig deep roots in Oregon and never let go.
If only we hadn’t met. If only I hadn’t given my heart to you, to your beaches, your mountains, your pastures, and your friendly people who just start talking you’re friends when they don’t even know your name.
When I met you on vacation with my husband, you became the Promised Land. You see, I’m from San Jose, from what is now called Silicon Valley but used to be known as The Valley of Heart’s Delight. The orchards gave way to high-tech plants, the gravel roads to freeways, the farms to shopping malls. We were middle-aged college graduates working important jobs and could barely pay the bills. Every day, we sat stuck in traffic, breathing exhaust fumes. We waited in line for everything.
But Oregon, you offered affordable housing by the beach, clean air, bright stars, and life with no traffic, no lines, and a little money left over at the end of the month. Where I live in Newport, with fewer people than fit into San Jose’s sports arena, I could breathe. I could write. I could sing. Here, without a degree in music, I could play the piano at church. I could walk into almost any business and be known. All I ever met in San Jose were strangers.
I have been here a little over 20 years now. I live in a house in the coastal forest. I have a septic tank. I use a pellet stove for heat. It rains more than I ever imagined possible. It snows. The wind blows. During a recent storm, a tree fell, damaging my house and crushing my fence. I’m still waiting to get it fixed because so many other people have the same problem.
I have to drive 60 miles to Corvallis for much of my medical care. The Portland airport is over 100 miles away. Living wage jobs are scarce, and shopping is limited. We don’t have an Olive Garden or a Red Lobster. No Costco. No Staples. Honestly, it’s damned inconvenient.
I see your leaders struggling to make ends meet. I see the homeless people begging on street corners or sleeping outside my church. I know that young people have to go elsewhere to get a good education and jobs that pay enough to live on. If I were younger, without pension money coming from California, I couldn’t afford to live here either.
God knows I’m sick of the rain. (But I love that you don’t have sales tax, and I don’t have to pump my own gas.)
Worst of all, my family is still back in California. I’m trying to take care of my elderly father long-distance. It kills me that I can’t be with him all the time. Although I go back several times a year, I miss birthdays, weddings and funerals. I hate that. My relatives can’t understand why I stay, especially since my husband died.
But it’s like marriage. I’m in love with Oregon, and I have made a commitment to this state. I have set down roots. I have made friends who are closer than family. I have a history here.
Oregon, for better or worse, you’re my home now.
Sue Fagalde Lick
South Beach, Oregon
The state is a petri dish that encapsulates the rifts our nation faces: urban v. rural, gentrified v. forgotten, millennial v. baby boomer. It would be impossible to drive from Seaside to the Alvord Desert without noticing the way prosperity ebbs the further east you drive, and you would be hard pressed to find a group of Portlanders that understand the daily lives and yearnings of ranchers in Burns. Oregon reflects the potential and the failings of the American project. Vastly disparate groups inhabit the state, but they often don’t interact. The Cascades can act as a barrier to cohesion just as much as they act as a rainshadow.
Though much divides us, Oregonians are united in a connection to the natural world, whether it comes from recreation, ranching, or simply a view of Mt. Hood from the West Hills. Artistic potential lies in every corner of the state, from the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland to the burgeoning art community in Joseph. The potential for groups to coalesce behind what makes Oregon wonderful remains as strong as ever, but it requires engagement. We have to realize that Oregon is not just “weird” but inclusive; that while skyscrapers go up along the waterfront life gets harder in the vast Eastern Oregon expanse; that cows feeding on public land feed families, but pose a threat to the desert ecosystem; and that the less we talk to each other, the further apart we become.
© 2017, Tom Swearingen
I’ve roamed all corners of this state
At lope, or trot, or walking gait.
From vantage point of horse’s back
On vast wide range and single track.
Smelled the air of sage scent mesas.
Followed ruts and ancient traces
Of nomads, beasts, and those who came
To stake their claim and bring my name.
Watched desert devils spin and dance,
Their dust trails haze the far expanse.
Then fade and lift to leave behind
My outlook clear with inspired mind.
Cut the tracks of wild Mustang bands.
Packed deep in cool of timber stands.
Spent ’nuff time around city walls
To know I prefer coyote’s calls.
Circled herds on high graze grasses.
Trailed them down steep switchback passes.
Spent lots of nights with stars my lamp,
Bedded down in a remote camp.
Picked way cross rivers snaking down
From mountain range and hilltop crown.
Seen life they bring to valley floor,
Then fresh the salt at ocean shore.
I’ve come to love this diverse land,
Where creative fires can be fanned.
Six decades here have made it clear
I’m glad my roots were planted here.
I’ve found this state a sacred ground
Where coiled up thoughts can be unwound,
Then strung in lines to then be sung
With passioned voice and angel’s tongue.
So now my plan’s for me to stay
Until my final earthly day.
If that works out, then I’ll be blessed
To ride my days out in the West.