Monday, July 14, 2008

My Rural Travelogue (Part III): Oregon

Oregon is a rural state by many measures and definitions, and we experienced two of its rural regions during our recent vacation. The first was in south central Oregon, around Crater Lake, in the Cascades and down the Umpqua River Valley to I-5 at Roseburg. The second was down the Oregon coast, from Lincoln City south to the California border.

As I suggested in my last post, the area around Crater Lake is remarkably undeveloped. We drove to the park via Klamath Falls, a small city of about 20,000, passing through very few small towns. One small town en route was Fort Klamath, where I stopped at the U.S. Post office to dispatch some postcards. There we saw a few motels and campgrounds, presumably to accommodate Crater Lake’s overflow visitors. On the whole, there’s very little commercial activity there, and it’s not even a CDP on the U.S. Census Bureau’s website.


North of Crater Lake Park, we opted to drive down Hwy 138, also known as the Rogue-Umpqua Scenic Byway. (Bend, in the high desert, is about 120 miles northeast of the Park). Highway 138 winds through mostly federal lands, primarily Umpqua National Forest, but it is also dotted with Oregon State Parks, and we stopped at several as we descended to I-5. The first was at Watson Falls which, at 274 feet, is the fourth highest in Oregon (bottom photo). A well-constructed trail leads almost all the way to the top (less than a mile), and features several nice vista points along the way. Once at the top, you get a similar experience to that at Vernal Falls in Yosemite – a lot of spray! Farther along Hwy 138, we stopped at Fall River Falls, an 85-foot tiered waterfall, and lastly at Deadline Falls, which is hardly a falls at all but where salmon can sometimes be seen jumping up stream.


Down this 80 mile stretch of Hwy 138, we saw extremely little commercial development. There were just three towns. Glide, the self-proclaimed gateway to Crater Lake, was by far the largest, with a population of 1,690 and offering a few motels, diners, and markets. This gorgeous area made it easy to see that Oregon is, indeed, a largely rural state – and we never even ventured farther east, into the much less sparsely populated regions.


The Oregon coast, by contrast, is quite developed. Ok, it is not developed in the way the coast of Hawai’i is developed, but apart from the areas kept au naturel by the Oregon state park system, there’s a pretty steady stream of hotels and motels lining the coast, at least in the central part of the state. Farther south, the coast is a bit more rugged, the development more limited to towns like Port Orford (photo top), Gold Beach (where the Rogue River meets the Pacific), and Brookings. All the way down 101, we enjoyed the steady stream of bridges over the rivers flowing into the Pacific; their art deco motifs made me think they must have been built in the same era, perhaps the 1930s.


Several of Oregon’s small coastal communities are micropolitan, but most are considerably smaller. Those in the former category include Coos Bay at about 15,000 and Newport at just under 10,000. Bandon and Brookings are smaller, with populations of 2,800 and 5,500 respectively.


As we drove through the stream of smallish cities and towns along the coast, we noticed very few chain enterprises. The grocery stores were independents or members of small, local chains. We didn’t see a Home Depot or Lowe's until we got into California, at Crescent City. Instead, a number of small, independent lumber yards and building supply stores are suppling these areas. About the only chain establishment that we saw regularly in small towns along the coast was Dairy Queen, which seems to be the fast-food hold out in towns too small or ill-located (i.e., not on an interstate highway) for McDonald’s to go.


We also saw indications that rural Oregonians defy the rural alignment with Hillary -- either that, or they've already made their peace with Obama being the nominee. (Of course, Obama carried Oregon in the primary, and he attracted a lot of rural voters then; he is also leading McCain in the polls now). In short, we saw several Obama signs --mostly the really large ones-- during our travels, but only two smallish ones for Ron Paul. We didn't see any McCain signs in the parts of rural Oregon we traveled, but maybe we just overlooked them.

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