Today we were traveling through north/central Oregon on our way home from camping. We stopped to have lunch not far from the Washington/Oregon border. Many of the small towns in this region are dying away. This was really brought home to me while I “dined” in the local cafe.
This town had one main street which was the interstate highway. Most folks just blazed through without taking in the local color. Since I am a painter of “vanishing rural America,” I take in everything. This means every derelict truck, tractor, falling down barn, abandoned gas stations and more.
It was one o’clock and my husband thought that we should stop for a bite to eat. This town included a diner which probably had fifty feet of frontage on the main drag, a market which has a sign painted on its side that says, “Last Market for 67 miles,” and a post office. There was also a rock shop to purchase stones from piles of plastic boxes stacked in the yard full of rocks. We went into the diner.
When we drove up an older gentleman also arrived on his lawn mower and parked beside the front entrance. I can only assume that he either didn’t have a car or a driver’s license. He took one of the ten, or so, stools at the counter. There were three additional tables for four people each. We chose a table by the window so we could watch the world drive by.
Not long after our arrival, another man pulled out of an alley between two buildings across the street, but since he was headed the wrong way, he went around the block and pulled up out front, well away from the sandwich sign which stated “open.” No use blocking the information that indicated any signs of life in this little burg.
We ordered from a VERY limited menu, but had not received our food when three elderly folks drove up. There were two women and a man who had trouble exiting the vehicle. I noticed that the waitress already had the coffee or dishes ordered up and almost ready when the various customers arrived. One she asked, “Will it be the usual?”
Once the group of three where located at the table next to us, the conversations began. “Where are you from?” “Oh, I have (insert one of many relatives) from near there.” The conversation continued in a very one-sided way telling us all about things that happened there, how long the man had farmed, how he could no longer farm, how Social Security and the local hospital managed to keep them out of the poorhouse and mostly well. One told how many times she had been married and how it wasn’t happening again. She had outlived those husbands and wasn’t going for a third try. We got quite a tour of the local gossip and their lives, bless their souls. They were kind-hearted and probably excited to have someone other than a local to tell their tales.
Not long after that a couple in their Mercedes pulled up, obviously out-of-towners as were we. They sat at the opposite end of the bar stools from us at the third table for four. The two ladies working the kitchen and the tables took their time in the local fashion. The menu, being limited, meant that there were little complications in producing the requested menu items. I had ordered one of the hamburgers on the menu with a cup of soup. The soup of the day was tomato basil which turned out to be heavenly. I wished I had ordered a bowl instead of the hamburger which was just a diner burger.
Well, it certainly was a view of middle-America. Looking out the window at all the derelict buildings and thinking I could spend a month here painting “Vanishing Rural American” in this town, I was happy to know that the big houses, shopping malls, and overspending ostentatious public had not found this place yet. Though the locals had trouble meeting their hospital bills (which were forgiven by the hospital) and the town only had three of its original (out of dozens) storefronts active, I found an amount of peace here talking with folks who had grown up here, attending one room schools, raising wheat, and growing old in the local cafe with their friends.