17 January 2009

Valsetz, Oregon

A note about this piece: the italicized sections are from an Oregonian special section from 1984. The citation is at the end of the essay. This was initially an asignment for a writing class, but I have grown to like it a lot on its own merits.
Valsetz Oregon

“Valsetz is laid out east to west. In most places it is less than 100 yards wide. To the north, the town is hemmed in by the trees and mountain ridges. A log pond, Valsetz Lake, runs the length of the town’s southern side. From end to end, the town stretches a little more than 1 ½ miles. A person can walk from one end of town to the other in less than 15 minutes.” (Hallman Jr. pg 7)

My grandfather brought me up here to this ridge above our town when I was seven or eight years old. We sat on the warm hood of his old truck looking down over the dark green second growth fir trees at the town far below us. The mill where almost everyone worked dominated the scene, trucks loaded with logs coming and going, smoke billowing out of the power plant’s large chimneys, slowly turning the tree covered hills into 2x4’s and ¾ inch plywood for houses all over the country. Granddad would point out to me the school, the town’s only store, and my house and his sitting side by side on the east edge of the town. Twenty-five years later, I am sitting on the warm hood of my own old car, on the same ridge, looking down over the same hills. No longer does the mill vent smoke and steam like a great dragon’s lair. No more can I see my house and his side by side, or any houses for that matter. The town is gone. If I didn’t know better, I would doubt a community ever existed in this valley. But I do know better, and knowing makes me sad enough to wish I could forget.

“…she took a stack of unemployment forms and walked to the fist table…the clean, white forms contrasted with the dirty, callused millworkers’ hands. The forms were tangible evidence of the mill closure. It was now a fact. It would happen. The men’s pride, security and sense of self worth were slipping away…Jim Smith Quietly read his out loud while Dennis Weaver, Larry Pasley and Tim Hagen discussed the instructions on the forms. Bill Fitzgerald set his to one side…” (Hallman Jr. pg 25)

My home used to sit at the very headwaters of the Siletz River in the Oregon Coast Mountains. This is big tree country. Big trees mean big profits for lumber companies and jobs for people willing to do the work. Back in 1919, a lumber company of the name Cobbs and Mitchell created the town of Valsetz by building a lumber and plywood mill, a school, housing for the millworkers, and damming up the South Fork Siletz to make a large millpond. In 1984, a company known as Boise Cascade did exactly the opposite, laying off employees, knocking over houses as the occupants moved out, draining the pond, and burning down the discarded husk of the mill buildings. From my ridge-top vantage point I can see the old mill-site easily; a big flat area full of densely packed ten foot tall fir trees right next to the wide stretching plain of winter bare alder that marks the basin of the now dry pond. I close my eyes and I can see the mill burning, even feel the heat of the blaze on my face. Not a friendly and warm heat like a campfire gives, but searing and oppressive, wave upon wave of destruction. Opening my eyes again, I see for the briefest of moments flames dancing across the mill-site below, phantoms of memories stirred up by this place.

“The visitor [to town] is greeted by a 6 foot diameter log slice that has been fashioned into a sign. ‘Welcome to Valsetz’ curves around the sign’s top, while the words ‘Boise Cascade’ hug the bottom” (Hallman Jr. pg 7)

“Tree Farm -noun A tree covered area managed as a business enterprise under a plan of reforestation that makes continuous production of timber possible.” (Dictionary.com v1.1 www.dictionary.com)

Coming into the old town site earlier was shocking. Everything has changed. What was town is now tree farm, with jack fir and red alder everywhere. I stop where I think my house used to be, and all I can find that says I grew up here is a chunk of water pipe sticking up out of the rain soaked earth. I walk through the mud, pretending I know where things used to be. “This is where our porch was”, I tell myself. “And here would have been the driveway between our house and Grandma and Granddad’s.” I’m not fooling myself, though. I have no idea if this is where my porch was. I used to play on that porch all summer, jumping my Evil Knevil Stunt Bike action figure off the steps and over Hell’s Canyon again and again. I don’t know if I’m standing in Evil’s landing zone, ore in the middle of the Purdy’s living room, three houses down the street. I take a picture anyway and head back to my car. I hadn’t thought about that old toy stunt bike in many years. I can almost feel the wooden porch decking on my knees, and I wonder if that’s not more important than finding some old house foundation anyway.

“Three years ago, the town built a modern school that is one of the best in Oregon. For most of the spring term, the large, modern classrooms have been nearly empty…There are only 50 students in school. The senior class comprises nine students.” (Hallman Jr. pg 7)

Far below my perch on the ridge I hear a truck motor laboring up the pitch. I’m a bit worried by this, since I am technically trespassing and could, according to the sign down below, be arrested. Arrest me. I don’t care. This was my home for sixteen years and I will not be kept from being here if I wish. When the truck finally rounds a corner and comes into view, I am a little relieved to see not the familiar white and green Boise Cascade logo, but an old yellow Chevy that belongs to a classmate from Valsetz High. I wave him down and we both express surprise at seeing each other here. We talk for a while of old times, school and town memories, talking small to fill the awkwardness of knowing each other but not knowing each other. Fifteen years is too much to tackle here through a truck window, so we talk mostly of missing the home we both shared. We talk of the changed evident to our eyes; the extensive clear cuts, the missing town, our mutual aging. Before long he drives on leaving me alone with my thoughts. I am sad to see him go, as though another link to my past is disappearing down the dusty road.

Looking through my old school yearbook from 1984, the last one ever made at good old VHS, I am startled by the images. The yearbook was published as a sort of memorial to the school, and every graduate from 1940 to 1984 is pictured (it was a small school). There under 1960 is my dad’s young smile, and under 1966 my mom’s. My Aunt Linda is there, class of ’64, and my Aunt Sally in the class of ’71. I think of my senior picture in the Glide High School yearbook, 1986 go Wildcats, and feel as though I’ve been separated from my past. For a long time after Valsetz closed down, I struggled with what to tell people when asked where I was from. I would explain the town’s closure, the mill employing almost all of the town’s residents, the sixteen miles of gravel road into the mountains that served as my driveway. Sometimes, I would get some polite questions or a quiet apology from someone with nothing to apologize for. Most often I would get a blank stare in return. Soon enough I learned to take a different tack. Glide, Oregon still existed, could be visited, and could be comprehended by strangers making polite conversation. In my heart I knew Glide was the easy answer, but not the correct one.

“Fifteen feet from the home, Lige stops the shovel and anchors it to the ground…He drives the jaws [of the machine] through the roof and the ground shakes…The jaws snap to pull apart the roof. The dry wood, which was harvested from the forest surrounding Valsetz, cracks and yields…Carol Wyscaver stopped her car to let [another car] pull onto the street. But after [the car] drove away, Carol lingered and watched Lige at work…A wall on the [house] caved in as Lige swung the jaws back and forth…That was enough for Carol…’What a waste,’ she thought, ‘What a God-damned waste.’” (Hallman Jr. pg 24)

A soft breeze is coming up the backside of my ridge now, sliding past my shoulder and down the clear cut toward the memory of my home. I think about my Granddad, who passed away about ten years ago. I wonder what he, the most pragmatic of people I have known, would think about my sentimental memories of this place. Would he think me silly, or would he tell me stories of the Valsetz he knew. I long to hear his voice again, to sit on the hood of his truck and sip coffee out of his thermos, pretending to be all gown up. Suddenly I am overwhelmed by a desire for a cup of coffee. “No problem”, I think, “I’ll just stop by Mom and Dad’s house on my way out of town.” For just a second this thought hands in my head making perfect sense in the face of all evidence to the contrary. “No, I guess I won’t do that, will I”, I say out loud to the wind. I take one long, last look around before climbing back into my car. “Nope,” I think quietly this time, “I won’t be doing that at all.”

“In some cases, the future holds better jobs at better pay, in others, the future holds compromises: lesser jobs at lesser pay. In still others, the future is uncertain, but the people of Valsetz will survive.” (Hallman Jr. pg 31)

Works Cited
Hallman Jr, Tom, “Valsetz: 1919-1984.” The Oregonian July 1, 1984 (Special Section)

1 comment:

  1. I just wanted to say great well written article! I was shocked to see the date it was written, but never the less still moved by it.

    Thank you for the insite on a place I will never know...

    (Cottage Grove, OR)