Eastern Oregon: Our Nearby Nowhere

Oregon may soon lift its ban on motorists pumping their own gas in the state’s least populated areas. Legislation would allow for the first time counties with fewer than 40,000 residents to keep self-service pumps turned on when no owner, operator or employee is around to dispense gasoline. It passed the Oregon House unanimously. The Oregon Senate this week made a few tweaks and passed it back to the House.

Oregon’s ongoing refusal to allow self-service gasoline is rich in romance. If you’re a glass-half-empty sort of person, you might view any change as a loss of one of Oregon’s quirkiest distinctions. Oregon has refused to allow motorists to pump their own gas for no good reason except that it makes us different from every other state — except New Jersey.

That’s not much of a distinction. Oregonians probably don’t care whether they keep that special bond with the so-called Garden State. New Jersey may love its gardens, but that’s only evidence for how much cultivation the state has accepted. Oregon, on the other hand, still has vast swaths of bare in the east and wild in the west.

It is on this point that the half-full sorts can see this proposed change as an affirmation of a different, more durable distinction Oregon can and should claim. If you drive east from here, you don’t have to go very far until you are in the middle of nowhere. No cell phone signal, no lights visible in any direction, no sign of anyone anywhere. That’s not only possible in eastern Oregon; it’s almost unavoidable.

I remember listening to the radio news the first week I lived in Eugene. The lead story of the day concerned a Eugene man whose parked car had been found on a forest road southeast of the city. Rescue crews had already fanned out from there, but authorities were concerned that the man may not have survived.

I listened carefully, because the story didn’t quite make sense to me. At first I thought the man must have been famous and the spot where he was last seen was far away. But neither was true. This was a regular guy. He could have been any of us. And the area where he was lost was very nearby.

I grew up in Chicago, went to school in New England, then worked for my first newspapers in southern California. I didn’t know there were places left in the lower 48 states where you could lose your way and also lose your life. (I suppose that could also happen to you in New Jersey, but your ill fate in that case would probably involve other people.)

Allowing tourists to get gas after dark in eastern Oregon isn’t likely to save any lives, but it could sure feel that way if you’re lost with a minivan full of exhausted children. Gas station owners in Oregon’s outback all have stories of coming to work in the morning, greeted by a groggy or sleeping motorist who literally didn’t know which way to turn.

If we get self-service gas for these regions, and then add a few strategically located vending machines for humans to refuel, we could enhance something that almost no other state can offer — nothing; long stretches of nothing on top of nothing.

I’ve heard experts speculate that there may be portions of the Coast Range that are so overgrown or craggy that they may never have been trodden by humans.

Think about that for a moment. If you’re determined and skilled, you might cut your way through some underbrush and stand in a place where no human has ever stood. That’s not something you could possibly accomplish in New Jersey.

Tom McCall famously bragged about Oregon: “Come visit us again and again. But for heaven’s sake, don’t come here to live.” Today’s advertising consultants would complain only that he used more words than modern attentions can span.

McCall’s campaign could be updated: “Oregon: Get Lost!”

That would be safer and easier if gasoline became more available.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.