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Explaining Oregon

January 22nd, 2016 by dk

We all have friends who don’t understand Oregon. Most of us know lots of people who have never been to Oregon. Many have to use a process of elimination to find Oregon on a map. (“Oregon — it’s that space between California and Washington!”)

We’re not complaining. Part of the Oregon Mystique can only be attributed to being left alone by the rest of the country. Except for those traveling longitudinally — birds, mostly — we’re happy not being on the way to wherever it is they’re going.

Look at the interstate highway map. Once you get to junctions in Denver, Salt Lake City, or Butte, Montana, the system will point you south to Sacramento or north to Seattle. Only I-84 brings hurried easterners just barely into Oregon, skirting the state’s northern edge.

To the 45 states that don’t touch the Pacific Ocean, we’re the “you can’t get there from here” state. Good for us.

Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, we have no interest in national election headlines. Oregon’s primary won’t be until May 17, but even then, television networks won’t send their camera crews here.

What would be they show on the news? People mailing letters that may or may not include their ballots? Couples sitting in their kitchens looking for blue or black pens? (“Honey, did you check the drawer near where there used to be a phone? And sweetheart, did you notice there’s a cameraman in our bushes?”)

No, we don’t work at getting the nation’s attention. People don’t know what to think about us, so usually they think nothing at all about us — and we’re fine with that.

But our invisibility cloak has been slipping lately.

Skip the mass shooting headlines. Those can happen anywhere — and, unfortunately, they do. Thurston in 1998, Roseburg in 2015 — maybe it was just our turn again. Those weren’t Oregon stories. They were gun stories.

But seeing a bunch of publicity-seeking ranchers commandeer a couple of buildings in the middle of sagebrush country south of Burns, that has Oregon written all over it.

We can tell people that the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is nowhere near Rancho Rajneesh, but all they’ll hear is “nowhere near,” because that’s what Oregon means to them.

The last time Oregon led the nightly news with anything that wasn’t a natural disaster, it was in the mid-1980s, when the Rajneeshees, a religious cult terrorized eastern Oregon by plotting assassinations, poisoning salad bars, and even running for city council seats.

People who move past the headlines know the Bundy-Hammond cabal are not Oregonians, but those Marlboro Country vistas they keep showing on the news — those are unmistakably Oregon. People watching can only assume from what they see that we tolerate crazy here because there’s plenty of room to stay out of its way.

Yes, but!

There’s dissonance, cognitive or otherwise., to be addressed. Last night began the sixth season of IFC’s cult-cable hit “Portlandia,” featuring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, playing a cast of idiosyncratic urban characters.

So, “Which is the real Oregon?” America wants to know. The answer is important. Both.

There are not two Oregons. There’s only one Oregon. It contains urban and rural and very little in between. Other places allow them to melt from one to the other, separated by the shapeless liquid of suburbia.

Not here. We roll with full-scale rural, until we don’t — then it’s urban. We build cities that don’t peter out — they stop, wherever the line was drawn. Country mice and city mice are neighbors here, cheek to jowl.

Ranchers who look just like the Bundys keep a list of things they need and make regular provision runs into the nearest city. (Real Oregonians don’t plead for French vanilla creamer on Youtube.)

Hipsters cavort across our cities, just like on “Portlandia” — until they’ve had enough of people just like them and they need some time away. Then they grab a tent and head for the hills.

Each group crosses paths with the other. They might smile and nod as they pass one another, knowing we’ve got something here that no one else understands.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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