Words by Emily Olson
Photos by August Frank
Mary Emerick’s house sits on an unpaved, unmarked street edging Joseph, an Eastern Oregon town with a population barely above 1,000. To get there, one takes a two-lane highway bordered by windmills and wheat fields, weathered barns and telephone wires, but not a single stoplight in a radius of 70 miles. It’s a place where posters of rodeo princesses are displayed in living room windows, where fishing flies are sold in the grocery store, where people won’t just recommend the best restaurant in town—they’ll invite you to dine with them.
Everyone knows everyone in Joseph, but isolation is a way of life; most people from the west side of Oregon don’t know Joseph exists, Emerick said. “They think it’s all sagebrush and cowboys. It’s the end of the road, and it feels like we’re on our own—the Alaska of Oregon.”
For Emerick, the Dear Oregon project served as a venue to share that perspective—to document her community in a way she never had before.
In a post-election moment that left many feeling unheard, we asked Oregonians to speak up, asking “If you could write directly to Oregon, what would you say?” We like to think of the result as honest love letters to Oregon. Over the past four months, we gathered nearly 40 original viewpoints— from a cowboy poet in Tualatin, a Chinese immigrant in Portland, a Watlala tribe ancestor in Warm Springs and beyond.
“Some people who are from here, don’t know what it is like to live here; to be a part of the rural communities,” explained one of our letter writers, Desiree Bergstrom, who grew up on a family farm in the Central Oregon town of Culver. We encouraged writers to share their hopes for their community, to unleash their frustrations, to describe what unites Oregonians and what divides them, to be open, to be introspective, to speak their mind. Our goal was to listen.
We’ll admit the idea was not entirely our own. We borrowed it from a now-defunct podcast called State of the [Re]Union. Each episode explored how a particular American city forms its own cultural narrative. The host would ask a group of residents to write letters to their community, then read them on air.
It was a different form of conversation, explained Robbie Wilkins, who worked on the show as a freelancer and now serves as an editor for Vice News Tonight. “It opens up all these other ideas you didn’t know anything about ahead of time,” he said. “You just never know what’s going to come out of it.”
We found that it allowed citizens to comment on community issues in a complete way, unfettered by the questions of journalists and voiced in their own words—an act of democracy in and of itself.
Individual letters include everything from rock hounding and kale planting to homelessness and suicide. Collectively, the letters form a humble but burgeoning cultural narrative, detailing what matters most to Oregonians. They speak to the state’s physical beauty, which the writers describe with reverence and a protective sense of ownership. They comment on politics, highlighting a disconnect between the state’s urban centers and rural majority. And they catalog history—both the history of the state and the personal histories of the writers, creating context for the Oregon we know today.
But we’re just getting started. You can read the full letters and watch a documentary on the project at fluxstories.com.
And we invite you to write your own letter to Oregon, adding your unique perspective to the project. In a time of polarization and isolation—both political and otherwise—now is the time to speak up. We’re here to listen.
- Mary Emerick, Joseph
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. 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.
- Sue Faglade Lick, South Beach
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. […] But it’s like marriage. I’m in love with Oregon, and I have made a commitment to this state.
- Desiree Bergstrom, Culver
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.
- Christine Lorenz, Eugene
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.
- Elizabeth Woody, Warm Springs
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.
- Tom Swearingen, Tualatin
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.
- Finn John, Corvallis
First the trees ran out. In 1959 everyone thought they’d last forever. They didn’t.
The mills in my town closed, one by one. Everyone blamed the spotted owl, but it wasn’t the owls. The mills that were still open were being run mostly by machinery, and you couldn’t cut trees that weren’t there. This was my time. These were my years. Watching you change, Oregon, watching you lose your 1959 innocence. I had a front-row seat for most of those years. First working my way through college as a firewatch guard in your rusty, dying sawmills. H.R. Jones Veneer, Goshen Veneer, Lane Plywood – they’re all gone now – only one of the mills I worked in is still around today.
- Tom Hallberg, Bend
In a state bigger and diverse than people expect, you meet all sorts of people, from ranchers to hipsters, mountaineers to business executives. […] 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.
- Jackson Harloff, Yamhill
It’s hard not to fall in love with a place that is unbelievably beautiful and contains some of the nicest, most thoughtful and wild people in the entire world. […] 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.
- Matt Love, Cannon Beach
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.