Lurking Behind the Statistics
Six months ago none of us could have imagined that America – and half the civilized world – would just be sitting around twiddling our thumbs and watching our worlds being mummified, and yet, here we are and few of us are satisfied with the reasons we’ve been given.
The governor of Oregon, Kate Brown (Dem.), just extended the COVID-19 lockdown until July 6, nine weeks away. This has us all stumped because Oregon is barely on the virus map. In my county -- Jackson County (population about 200,000) -- we’ve only had 49 cases, no deaths, and no new cases for the last couple of weeks. It’s been worse up in the more populated Portland area, but still nothing compared to our neighboring state, Washington. So one wonders why. What’s up?
Instead of slogging through huge national numbers, let’s zero in on just a few communities -- that are, I’m sure, much like thousands of other towns across this nation. Let’s see what’s happening in such places.
Jacksonville, Oregon, is a tiny tourist town nestled at the base of the Siskiyou mountains. It is an old gold mining town of about 3,000 souls. Gold mining no longer sustains its economy; tourism does because Jacksonville still looks much as it did in the mid-19th century. The old Beekman Bank still sits on the corner of California and 3rd Street. It looks just like it looked -- inside and out -- on the day old man Beekman walked out and locked it up. He walked up the street to his house, which, like his bank, is open in the summers for tours. He never went back.
On the other side of town stands the Jeremiah Nunan House, which belonged not to a miner, but to the grocer who got rich providing supplies to the miners. He picked out the plans for his three-story mansion from a catalog and had it built in 1891. It has since determined the architecture of the town -- even new buildings look just like this Victorian estate. The estate now houses a restaurant and a B&B.
On the bank corner a tourist can get a peek into one of the mineshafts by leaning over a railing and peering through a glass dome. (Every now and then a street will open up in a rainstorm and reveal yet another of the shafts that lace through the subterranean “basement” of the town.)
If you walk west along California you can stop at a delightful little shop where you can sample their homemade fudge and poke through their collection of all things quaint and farmy. Or you can stop in at the Carefree Buffalo and drool over their butter-soft leather jackets and thousand-dollar Damascus steel knives. There’s the Pot Wrack filled with every kitchen gadget you can imagine, and farther down the street you come to the Bella Union, which occupies the building which once housed the town saloon. The floors are still mended with tin can lids and you can eat out on a patio sheltered by a 100-year-old wisteria. Across the street from the Bella is Terra Firma – a shop that smells of the artisan soaps and candles they sell along with amusing little books, costume jewelry, and bizarre toys. I could go on and on. Scheffle’s Toys, and the Good Bean coffee shop, clothing boutiques, and the real saloon, the J’ville Tavern. There are dozen more of these places – art galleries and antique shops. Don’t forget that these shops are all selling things made by local artisans. And all of these businesses are closed. That little town was alive because of these tiny, but amazing, enterprises. Note the past tense.
Up on the hill on the west edge of town is the Britt amphitheater where we spread blankets on the side of the mountain, drink wine, and listen to world-class music. Britt’s 2020 season has been “postponed until further notice”. There goes another income stream.
Down the road about 15 miles you come to Ashland, Oregon, home of Southern Oregon University and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which is made up of three theaters, one a replica of the Globe. That theater compound, along with winter skiing on Mt. Ashland, just to the south, is the life-blood of the town. The Festival has postponed its season (which usually starts in February) until September 8th.
Ashland, which is a bigger town than Jacksonville, but just as historic and quaint, is filled with five-star restaurants, dinner-theaters, high-end boutiques, Victorian B&B’s, a grand hotel, art galleries, wine shops -- all closed.
Quite a ways north and east of these towns sits Joseph, Oregon. Joseph perches in the high desert and is home to a multitude of art galleries and foundries. If a sculptor wants to do bronze castings, Joseph is the place to go. If things weren’t all shut down.
Bend, Oregon is also in the high desert and sits at the base of a series of volcanic peaks, one of which is Mt. Bachelor where the Olympic ski teams practice. Bend is where you want to be for all things outdoors -- skiing, rafting, canoeing, mountain-biking, hiking, fishing, and the outdoors hasn’t been closed, but in order for people to come to Bend to do these things, the restaurants and hotels need to be open. Bend lives off what these vacationers bring to their beautiful town, a town which has grown to over 100,000 in the last few years.
This virtual tour has a point. You see, here in Oregon we make wine, we cut down timber, we grow pears, but ever since the spotted owl shut down much of our lumber income in the 80s, Oregon has relied on tourism to stay afloat. And now our governor wants to keep everything closed until after the 4th of July, and by doing so she has sentenced this state, and its small, lucrative towns, to economic ruin. These communities will become ghost towns; our livelihoods gone.
But we have to stay safe, they say. What for? If you can’t pursue your dreams, if you can’t preserve your history, if you can’t fulfill your responsibilities, what for? These little towns are the essence of this country; it is in these little towns that we store our history, our culture, and our hopes for our future. This is what we sell here in Oregon -- we sell history; we sell hope.
Yet, some are so concerned for our physical well-being that they’ve forgotten that there’s a lot more to a human being than flesh and blood. A person is a complex bundle of plans and goals, of memories and sorrows, of wishes and dreams. He’s not just a unit of DNA that needs a government handout every now and then to feed himself. People need to create, to remember, to invent. And we need to see the results of our labors. No one person should be able to just rip that away.
The residents of these little towns have built beautiful communities that each provide a venue for the creativity and action that we all crave. Ashland sells theater, Jacksonville history, Joseph art, Bend adventure. They all sell hope. They sell dreams, the American dream. But these towns and those just like them won’t survive unless something changes soon -– long before July 6th.
Deana Chadwell is an adjunct professor and department head at Pacific Bible College in southern Oregon. She teaches writing, logic, and literature.