The idea of Oregon is a slippery one. Much of the population is concentrated in the western third of the state, primarily in the Portland metropolitan region and the fertile, lush Willamette Valley to its south. Visitors to the state have the false assumption that everything hill here is decorated with rain-drenched Douglas fir trees. Those visitors can be forgiven for their ignorance, because most Oregonians, too, do not know their state, and have rarely ventured east into the dry territory beyond the rain shadow of the Cascade Range, except perhaps to luxuriate in the resorts of Bend or to attend the annual Pendleton Roundup.
Yet Oregon is far more than this movie-set rainforest. Much of the state, speaking in geographic terms, is an arid plateau that is watered—barely—by tributaries of the Columbia River. Further east, still, even beyond the Blue Mountains that ring Pendleton and the high and holy Wallowas that were the Nez Perce’s homeland, the state is even more remote, known better by Idahoans from the Boise Basin of the Snake River than by anyone who was born in the Beaver State. Not far from the state line, the town of Vale sits, once a minor epicenter of a minor but thriving agricultural region that spread up along the Malhuer River and its tributaries. Today, like much of rural Oregon, Vale is a shadow of itself, still cared for but worn about the edges, a place where time doesn’t seem to pass despite the emptying of old strore-fronts, despite the ever-changing processing of new versions of the same old Ford trucks and John Deere tractors that pass through the town each year.
Like most of the rural communities of the state, it lived off of—literally—the railroad, the great road of commerce that funneled the products of the region through the town and in the process connected it to global markets and to a flow of jobs. Yet those same economic forces grew and changed even as Vale did not. Today, the old Union Pacific branch that once stretched to distant Burns (a third of the way across the state) has so little traffic that the mighty UP divested it. It is now operated—just—by a short line called the Oregon Eastern, which has all of one customer, a diatomaceous earth mine.
Whenever it goes, so too the frontier of 19th century exuberance will recede further, as a tide going out from across the land, leaving its wake the rubble of abandonment, decay, and communities whose purpose for existence is more for the sake of habit than any other nameable reason. Perhaps this is only natural—if anything economic can be called so—and perhaps it is, in some larger sense, just. Yet for the people of Vale, home cannot be numbered by the cold rationality of profit and loss, and balance sheets make bad community members.