On The Road is Think Out Loud’s radio road trip series: conversations with wanderers, tourists and residents along Oregon’s backroads and highways.
Think Out Loud producer Sage Van Wing and host Dave Miller recently took a drive along U.S. Route 395, from the wheat fields of Pendleton down to the cattle ranching valley near John Day. Along the way they talked to a truck driver, a post office trainee, a store owner who despaired for the economic health of his small town and a couple who had moved to a small town specifically for the economic opportunities available to them there.
Stop One: Kinzua Mill, Pilot Rock
Not far out of Pendleton, the highway dips down from the rolling yellow wheat fields and enters the small town of Pilot Rock. You can tell immediately from the smell of sawdust that the main industry of this town is lumber. And indeed, right along the side of the road we see piles and piles of logs. Jamie Harr, who has worked at the mill for six year, tells us about his job driving a 988K.
It's a big front end loader that picks up about 80,000 pounds ... It's pretty fun. Playing in the mud, and picking up whatever you want.”
Harr tell us that nearly half of the logs the mill brings in come from areas burned by forest fires. Each stack of charred logs has its own sprinkler system, arcing back and forth over the pile. The burned logs are kept wet from the moment they come in until they go to the mill to be cut — which could be as long as six months.
Stop Two: Rhodes Supply, Ukiah
The wheat fields roll on in every direction until we reach the boundary of the Umatilla National Forest. Just before we enter the forest, we drive about a mile off the highway to the small town of Ukiah. There's one small main street in Ukiah, with a hotel, a post office, a cafe and Rhodes Supply – the general store that owner Clint Barber tells us specializes in "pop and cigarettes and beer."
We basically sell what people request or need, so we try to stay up on that ... most everything in this store I bring in from Pendleton.”
Barber tells us he's ready to retire from running the store, but he's having trouble finding a buyer.
It would be very tough to make a living, you'd almost have to have another source of income in the household ... it's a tough show, and it's not extremely profitable.”
Stop Three: Post Office, Ukiah
Across the street from Rhodes Supply is a very, very small post office. Inside, we find Rex Waldron and Beth Shademan. Waldron has been on the job just a couple of weeks. He's still in training. Waldron and his wife moved to Ukiah when they retired, but he finished all the projects that needed doing around the house and got bored. So now he’s learning how do everything that needs done in a small town post office.
All the little forms you have to fill out and none of them are the same ... and you're supposed to do it fast!”
Shademan is the post master in Pilot Rock, which is responsible for the Ukiah branch. She tells us that if the Ukiah post office shut down, people in town would have to drive an hour just to get their mail. There's no rural delivery out here.
Stop Four: Manitou Cafe, Long Creek
Outside of Ukiah the road becomes wooded. For a while we drive along the curving banks of the crystal blue John Day river. Another 50 miles down the road we pass through the town of Long Creek. It’s after noon and our stomachs are growling, so we’re delighted to see a sign for a café.
The door is wide open, and piano music drifts the back, but pretty soon it's clear this café is not open for business. There are containers full of nails and screws and sawdust and cat food on every available surface. A friendly shout brings Rachel Christenson and Peter Wale out to greet us. They moved here from Seattle a little over a year ago with the intention of escaping the hard work and high prices of that city.
As hard as we tried, we could never get enough money together as ordinary working stiffs to be able to afford to buy property there. But we did make savings ... so we bought a lot down the road there and intended to build a house on it, but [the cafe] came up and we were able to get a good price on it.”
Wale and Christenson found the cafe needed a little more work than they had initially planned, so they moved into the building and have been slowly fixing it up ever since. They haven't always had the easiest time with their transition to small town life.
If you don't know the local patois, there's no way to have an easy conversation with locals who've grown up here and fallen into those kind of linguistic patterns.”
Before we left, Wale and Christenson treated us to a duet on their piano. Here's a clip: