All photos by Chris Faraone
One year ago this week, I published the first installment in an online series called “Oregon Tale,” in which I traveled to the Pacific Northwest—twice—to explore the kind of story that a reporter comes across once in a career. If they’re lucky. From evictions, to SWAT teams, to environmental pilfering, to activism, to crooked cops and judges—it’s all in there.
In the past few days, since armed militiamen occupied the federal Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside the town of Burns, Oregon, my series has found a whole new audience and second life. This excites me for two reasons—most importantly, the families at the center of “Oregon Tale” are still fighting for their freedom and property, while also my work may help the public understand what’s happening near Burns, which is about 200 miles east of the valley to which I made two reporting trips.
The following is excerpted from the second chapter, “Your Tax Dollars At Work.” Give it a read—better yet, check out the whole series online at Medium.com/Oregon-Tale—and you’ve a better shot at understanding how the standoff at the wildlife reserve may not be what it seems to be. Indeed, nothing in any neck of the Oregon woods ever is …
There are red, white, and predictable pockets across America where the population is a microcosmic doppelganger of our nation, from polarized political extremes to the quieter moderate middle. Some locales, like tony SoCal and the monied metropolitan suburbs, are conservative-heavy, while communities of color swing left, but as voting social organisms, they tend to behave as expected.
Josephine County in Oregon, population 83,000, is not one of those places.
A national Gallup poll in 2013 showed a record-high 42 percent of participants identifying as independents. In that sense, they’re catching up to the people of Grants Pass, which, according to Oregon historian Percy T. Booth, “from its earliest pioneer days was founded by conservative, yet progressive, citizens.” Here atop the California border, wedged between cascading mountains, the full ideological spectrum appears to haunt each individual. There are bawdy fourth-generation loggers who crusade for food justice, and gun-toting Bay Area expats who grow pot but abandoned standard hippie values between the Kennedy and King assassinations.
There are several ways to climb into Grants Pass, each with unique charm. You can drive in from the beach, take a bumpy ride under the dizzying canopy enclosing the Redwood National Park. Or come up through the Golden State to experience a different swath of the Klamath-Siskiyou, an ecological Xanadu akin to no other in the world. A half-hour due east is Medford, in neighboring Jackson County, the closest city and only media hub within 100 miles. With a population of approximately 75,000, Medford has a dinky commercial airstrip, but the puddle jumps from larger airports are costly, and so I fly into Portland before shooting south in a rental.
As a political junkie I’m elated to be traveling to Josephine during the heated 2014 sheriff’s race, and in the middle of the third citizen campaign in the past three years to push for a tax levy to fund safety measures. As a kicker, there’s also a ballot referendum in play that would “prohibit any person, corporation, or entity from propagating, raising, or growing genetically engineered plants.” Before I enter that scrum though, I’ve some journeying to do, and so I map out a route that curves south toward the yuppie tourism haven of Bend, then jackknifes west past the vineyards of Applegate Valley.
In my planning process I have contacted friends, environmental experts, and acquaintances from Oregon and the Northwest, asking about people, politics, and the lay of the land. Their advice varies — I’ve heard everything from “Skip Crater Lake unless you want to meet a bunch of other tourist assholes like you” to “Don’t tell anybody you’re a vegetarian, and be sure to gorge like a barbarian at Taylor’s in Cave Junction.” But if they’ve all consistently said one thing, it’s that I need to survey details outside larger cities and suburbs, Taylor’s pepper jerky and all.
DETROIT ROCK CITY
I steer off the interstate and onto narrow roads, and within minutes I’m ascending toward peaks that seemed impossible to reach from just a few miles away. Staggering American grace at every angle: ponderosa pines jammed deep into the mountains like javelins hurled down from the sky, lava stones and fine red sand along the roadside juxtaposed with snowy mountains in the distance.
From baby trees planted in neat rows to miles of nylon webs shielding motorists from loose rocks, someone cares about this place.
While hurtling south I imagine the laborers who tamed this wilderness, and I stop at a few pull-offs that explain their efforts on plaques fixed to viewing decks. On a detour over the Detroit Dam, due southeast of the state capital of Salem, a sign acknowledges the Army Corps of Engineers behind the flowing reservoir. Completed in 1953, the facility supplies 10 nearby cities, and standing on a walkway hundreds of feet over the nine-mile lake, I gaze into a green and blue oblivion with sheer amazement at how workers hammered roads into the ancient earth around me.
Before moving on I pit stop in an outhouse that smells like old diarrhea. Reflections of the magical treeline outside are still burned into my corneas as I squint and squirt, but upon opening my eyes I notice that an amateur graffiti artist tagged the wall over the urinal, preemptively pissing on my gratitude for government: “Left Wing = Suck the working man dry of his $.”
A sign near a state construction site between highway exits declares, “Your Tax Dollars at Work.” A half-hour away, a banner hung outside a truck stop pleads, “Shop Oregon. No Sales Tax.” I think I get the message.
About an hour farther east, the Old Mill District of Bend is inviting, even exciting enough to make a city dog like me wistfully consider life there, something I have never done with anything but horror in places this size back east. A friend of a friend drives us past a couple of popular breweries and describes the city as a sporty hipster boomtown between the indie Mecca of Portland and Grants Pass. We wind around some foothills and through a couple of converted mill yards until we arrive at the Crux Fermentation Project, a futuristic and sustainable suds oasis with locally sourced fixings.
By now I’ve stopped trying to imagine what will come next. I drive by hillbilly fellowship churches with parking lots packed for weeknight services, then a country row of outdoor wine bars in Sisters, which looks almost like a Hollywood façade. I stop briefly for a snack and find myself among vacationing business types in unscuffed boots sitting with natives in overalls and cowboy hats. Down the road, a convenience store has something for all of them, and the kids too: “GUNS AMMO LIQUOR BEER WINE.”
Twenty years ago, it was common to pass 40-foot flatbeds stacked with neat piles of stripped trees on these roads. But with substantially decreased access to federal forests and “old-growth” reserves, the latter a timberland term for larger and more valuable trees, I see only two such rigs over the course of a six-hour drive. Poverty abounds. Entering Jackson County, the final stretch before crossing into Josephine, there is trailer park after trailer park, after a trailer parked in the middle of nowhere.
I’m in desperate need of gas, and after sweating for 15 miles I finally see what appears to be some assistance. But upon closer inspection, it’s just a couple of emaciated tweakers toying with corroded pickups in what seems to be a sketchy former service station. Not far after, I see the sign that I’ve been waiting for: “Welcome to Josephine County.”
A ROGUE RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT
Though Josephine is the sole county in Oregon named for a woman, 19th-century treasure hunter Virginia Josephine Rollins, the mascot for the seat of Grants Pass is an 18-foot-tall fiberglass caveman. Perched on the edge of town, the Neanderthal serves as a rallying point for locals who for decades have dressed like The Flintstones on special occasions to boost local business.
The weather here is famously pleasant, with cool nights in the summer and hardly more than a chill through most of the winter. To remind folks of this atmospheric perk, a signature marquee above the Grants Pass shopping district boasts the regional motto: “It’s The Climate!”
Temp is the only constant; otherwise, the aptly named Rogue Valley is rife with paradoxes steeper than the surrounding mountain peaks.
On a morning cruise around the perimeter of Josephine, I pull over on the side of a deserted federal access road and lose myself in the black and white abyss before me. Disasters have begotten avalanches of ashes where illustrious evergreens once stood, and the scene looks like a charcoal painting. In 2003, a pair of simultaneous forest fires married on the crest of three adjoining mountains here, resulting in a blaze that raged for longer than a month, ravaged in excess of 90,000 acres, and cost roughly $38 million to quell. Such destruction only compounds the diminished state of natural resources in Oregon, where there are remnants of a once-thriving timber industry around every bend.
A sign by the bucolic gorge outside of town holds that the trees along the banks of the Rogue must be “rugged individuals” to “survive harsh conditions.” And not unlike the Douglas firs that cling to fractured rocks, the residents who’ve weathered economic slumps seem firm and strong. The metaphor sounds awfully folklorish, but it begins to explain the healthy business district I discover to a lot of surprise after reading about so much doom. There’s something dainty about Grants Pass, though with a chill holistic West Coast vibe.
Contradiction is a natural occurrence here, one of many byproducts of various cultures clashing with capitalism and each other for centuries. Josephine has plenty of religion. At the same time many are obsessed with sightings of the supernatural and Bigfoot, the latter of which surfaced every couple of years until camera phones became ubiquitous. Downtown there are head shops near Christian supply stores, and a Doomsday survivalist emporium beside a beer boutique that sells growlers.
At a dive with shaded windows by my motel, a bartender says wealthier residents, mostly transplants in pastel golf shirts from Cali, live in the Highland Street area overlooking the main drag. One migration tied to opportunities in the healthcare and retail sectors, which account for the most jobs in post-timber Josephine, spiked in the mid-2000s, around the time Fortune named Grants Pass an ideal place to retire. The magazine’s praise rang like a real estate listing:
A mild climate and one of the lowest wind velocities in the nation, fishing that has attracted the likes of John Wayne and George H.W. Bush, whitewater rafting on the Rogue River, and a new hospital with an adjacent cancer center.
I’m looking around every boulder for signs of foul activity fit for a troubled county. Peering in from outside, Josephine is best known for stories about its inability to aid 9–1–1 callers, and for cuts in rural patrols that have left places like Slate Creek, where Tom Roach and his longtime partner Melinda Starba were evicted from their home, with no police coverage on weekends and even many hours during the week. There have also been token shockers, like the thief who was found hiding out in a shed near a grade school not long ago. Though the perp was in possession of a stolen rifle, there were no jail cells to accommodate him.
Critics of the county government allege that Sheriff Gil Gilbertson has inflated crime rates in order to nudge voters toward passing a tax increase for safety services. Violent crimes, they note, have hovered in place, though property crimes have indeed skyrocketed since 2012. Whether real or embellished, the predicament is one Gilbertson plays up to local press, giving comments like “Our county has become a magnet for criminal activity.” After his deputies neglected to respond to family calls to check on an alone 73-year-old womanwho was later found dead, the sheriff told reporters: “Had I had a dispatcher on, there would have been an immediate response.” It mirrored a general warning he gave to the public months earlier:
If you face a potentially volatile situation … You may want to consider relocating to an area with adequate law enforcement services.
As one indicator of the truth between fact and exaggeration, a 2013 survey by the Oregon Values and Beliefs Project found that more residents of Southern Oregon are worried about crime than are worried about jobs. It’s a somewhat telling number in a region that includes the statistically depressed likes of Josephine, where the unemployment rate, depending on the study, was somewhere between 11.2 and 13.8 percent during the last comprehensive counts in the aughts, before the clearcutting of services. The most recent U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey, compiling data from 2009 to 2013, puts employment of 18- to 34-year-olds in Josephine at just 53.3 percent, more than 10 points behind Oregon and the nation as a whole.
Stats withstanding, cutesy Grants Pass is a throwback drag with mom-and-pop and antique shops on one end and big box stores on the other. In addition to typical dining options such as Applebee’s, there are also enough ethnic joints to keep tourists from San Francisco and Seattle stuffed; on day two, I have some of the tastiest Thai soup I’ve ever slurped. Even as this corner of Oregon sees timber subsidies slide, core businesses hold on. The bridal store fills nearly an entire block, with a scene out of a homecoming-themed wedding comedy playing out in the windows. For balance, there’s also a pawn shop stocked with fired guns and dented laptops, a military recruitment complex, sleazy motor inns galore, and more than half a dozen head and vape shops. Yin and yang for blocks — according to a woman at the Chamber of Commerce greeting hut, the most popular athletic pastimes are game hunting and Frisbee golf.
Grants Pass still has music stores, plus other Old-World staples that have largely disappeared from similarly sized American cities. On my second morning here, I’m browsing in an independent bookshop when a jock on the radio interrupts the music to report that nearby Hidden Valley High School is on lockdown. I ask the clerk if she heard what I heard. She didn’t, but doesn’t seem to be surprised either. However common such threats are to natives though, it sounds like news to me, and so I race to the scene.
Motoring south toward Hidden Valley I pass Lincoln Savage Middle School, where an uninvited guest once held a class of sixth-graders hostage at gunpoint. That situation, back in 1995, was defused by a wrestling coach who disarmed the madman. Today’s potential danger is a scraggly 14-year-old who, by the time I arrive, is handcuffed with his head down at the foot of the school’s driveway, his greasy mop and soiled T-shirt pressed against a sheriff’s cruiser. Turns out he only had a knife. Just another weekday.
I snap some pics and retreat before the deputies can approach my rental, as I still have quite a bit of research left to do, and can’t risk being exposed yet. Nevertheless, on the return ride I get an earful from Sheriff Gilbertson, who is in the fight of his political career with Dave Daniel, a Grants Pass city cop and former Oregon State Police trooper. Digging through the sheriff’s campaign filings before flying to Oregon hadn’t led me to expect this kind of media blitz from Gilbertson, since the sheriff had submitted a certificate pledging to raise and spend less than $3,000 on the election. But here he is, pitching me in a commercial on a Top 40 station while I’m heading to the motel.
I will protect your constitutional rights … I will continue my passion to protect our citizens and our community, against any threat, foreign or domestic, and I adamantly commit to protect the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
The juvenile pen in Grants Pass was shuttered in 2012. So after cuffing the blade-wielding delinquent at Hidden Valley, Gilbertson has no choice but to lock him up in neighboring Jackson County. With Josephine’s major crimes unit closed and more than half the staffers purged at headquarters, it’s become a trope among gadflies, from political committee meetings to Facebook groups, that the only functions left for Gilbertson are issuing handgun licenses and running foreclosure auctions. It’s a sentiment shared by members of the North Valley Community Watch, whose full-page ad I see in the Grants Pass Daily Courier back at my preferred dive bar later in the week. The jaded former county cops who got the ax and citizens comprising the group are claiming the “need for new leadership in the sheriff’s office.”
Gilbertson, they say, “retaliates against citizens.”
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.