Thursday, June 24, 2010

21st Century View on 20th Century Oregon

The Santiam Pass, which links Central Oregon to Salem, epitomizes 20th century Oregon. I’ve crossed in for over ¼ of a century. So much of it looks the same, yet my view of it has changed.

It’s beautiful. The Santiam River races from the snowy peaks west, over rocks, through trees, along remnant towns that grew and withered with logging and mill work. (They did not call it Mill City for nothin’.) The river pauses behind a dam to form Detroit Lake (pictured above), which is spectacular, with fir-covered slopes that dive into the pure water. Then, the river continues on, where my dad, brother and I fished from a drift boat in the mid 1980’s. The Santiam Pass is the “Oregon” that non-Oregonians think of: hilly, green, lush, and misty most of the year.

In 1978, I first rode into the hills in the Oldsmobile of Don Jenkins, who was born in 1919 in Mill City. After serving in WWII, Don and his family returned to Mill City. He operated various businesses and had another baby daughter in 1958. The Post-War building boom was good for logging and mill towns. Occasionally, on my drives over the mountains, I’d cruise through Mill City or stop for food or beverage at one of the roadside establishments. Even back then, the railroad bridge was decommissioned, and the train depot stood on a paved street.

I drove through Mill City today. Many of the roadside businesses are boarded up. Not much in town, either. Logging ain’t what it used to be for a lot of reasons. First, machines dehumanized the work decades ago. The spotted owl and environmentalists were not favorites. As the bathroom graffiti stated in the 1980s: “No more tissue; no more towels. Wipe your ass, with a spotted owl.” The boom that supported Don Jenkins’ parents in the 19th century and the post-war boom that supported his return are long gone. The real estate boom of the 21st century bypassed Mill City. General Motors quit making Oldsmobiles in 2004, and Don Jenkins outlived his daughter, making it to 2008.

Part of Oregon’s current strategy is to grow its economy on an environmental ethic and industry, which conflicted so long with the tree-cutting industry that built Oregon. As I now look at the beauty surrounding Detroit Lake, I also see a vast tree plantation of mostly one species, not a true forest. I'm a bit saddened by invasive species such as Scotch Broom and the lack of native plant species that used to support more animal life. I understand the deal struck decades ago to build dams, which kept salmon and steelhead from spawning grounds upstream.

Somewhere, I have a photograph much like the one above, which I took in the summer of 1984, after I took the bar exam and had time to cruise around in my 1962 Cadillac convertible. The scene looks much the same. What I see still thrills me, but now I also know what is missing.

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