What I Learned in Burns: On Landscape, Nostalgia, and Identity -The Toast

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I am a Portlander. I say that, on balance, without pride or shame. I like the soccer teams, the bike culture, the queer community; I don’t care for the manufactured quirkiness or the skyrocketing housing prices. I was born and raised elsewhere in Oregon, and I hope you’ll forgive me for using that fact to differentiate myself from the flood of other young transplants to the city. Places are different things to different people, and Oregon, to me, isn’t craft booze and a booming tech industry. The landscape of my childhood, the one that defines this place for me, is one of hand-built log bridges, country stores hawking homemade jam, towns that define themselves by college football rivalries, perpetually overcast skies. The skies are more or less the same here. The rest of it, I miss, in a way that sometimes makes me lonely in this city of well-dressed 20-somethings from New York and the Bay.

More than anything, I think, I miss people who live somewhere because that’s where they’ve always lived.

A few months ago, feeling restless, I started daydreaming about getting on the freeway heading east and driving through the desert. I was tired and bored and wanted quiet and emptiness, but just as much, I’d been feeling the pull of the rural Pacific Northwest, which feels so different, and in many ways, so much realer than Portland. On the first day of 2016, I went, driving east until the city stopped, and kept going until I was in the rain shadow cast by the Cascades and the trees gave way to rolling, snow-dusted hills. I was heading to Burns, a town I’d guess you’ve heard of by now. I liked how far away it looked on a map, and I wanted to see a vast pristine wetland in the dead of winter.

Places are different things to different people, and Oregon, to me, isn’t craft booze and a booming tech industry. The landscape of my childhood is one of hand-built log bridges, country stores hawking homemade jam, towns that define themselves by college football rivalries, perpetually overcast skies.

The thing you realize driving into Eastern Oregon is that there’s rural, and then there’s rural. The remoteness of the small towns out east, compared with those in the forested western section of the state—which is what I’m thinking of when I imagine those log bridges—is a shock. In sixty miles here in the Willamette Valley, you might pass by a half-dozen small towns, and too many farms to keep track of. In the bone-dry east, people think nothing of driving sixty miles to buy groceries. And this is to say nothing of the landscape itself: starkly, soul-stirringly beautiful, mostly snow-covered this time of year, a land of low ridges and distant rocky outcroppings. Each bend in the highway gives way to a view of more emptiness. There’s a deep, almost cosmic silence in every direction. This desert makes you feel small and alone in a way no other landscape can.

And, of course, there’s the smallness of the towns themselves. Looking at a map of this region is deceptive: on paper, a neat succession of names dots each highway at regular intervals. In reality, these names might be actual towns, or they might be four buildings clustered around a general store, or they might be all but abandoned. The people who live here are rural people in a way valley-dwellers simply aren’t.

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I realized at some point that I hadn’t seen a single bumper sticker in hundreds of miles, quite unlike the trucks plastered in crosses and faded George W. Bush stickers and, appallingly, Confederate battle flags I’m so used to seeing on highways near where I grew up. Nobody in Harney County feels the need to declare their ruralness, because there’s nothing to compare it to. This way of life isn’t a political statement.

My family has a personal, if by now distant connection to the area. My great-grandparents once had a homestead near Burns, in the shadow of an extinct volcano named Glass Butte for the obsidian flows on its slopes. They moved there from Wisconsin around the turn of the century, seeking—who knows what? Whatever version of freedom and self-determination anybody who headed west in those days was seeking. The land is part of a ranch now and there’s nothing there anymore, if there ever was much of anything. But I wanted to see that scrap of nothing which is, when it comes down to it, one of the reasons I exist.

At this point, I need to confess that much of my nostalgia for the countryside is invented. The town I come from, Eugene, is a college town and a haven for hippies, and despite having friends and family who live in rural areas, I never did. My dad taught me to shoot as a kid, but his interest in guns is more historical than practical or insurrectionary, and I used to drive his truck down dirt roads, but it’s a ’93 Toyota. I rode horses growing up, and my high school best friend and I were on the school equestrian team together. We’d spend weekends at competitions, barrel racing and saying things like “roping reins” and generally playing at being country people. But we drove home to neat residential neighborhoods, not farms. I’ve lived adjacent to ruralness, but never quite in it.

Because of the places I’ve called home, and, on top of that, my queerness, the tranquility of driving hundreds of miles under an open sky was colored with a drop of uneasiness. I’ve never run into trouble over my sexuality in rural spaces, but it’s always in the back of my head that this might just be because most straight people read me as straight. I don’t assume everyone who doesn’t live in a city is a bigot, but it’s a fact that Eastern Oregon is overwhelmingly conservative. Fortunately, irony favors a certain type of queer woman in the open spaces of the west, where faded jeans and plaid are coded as the garb of hard-working ranch women, not lesbians.

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I spent most of a day driving from the Columbia River Gorge to Burns, over winding mountain roads and through vast ranches (“Like the open landscape?” one sign declared. “Thank the agricultural community!”). Once, I had to give a wide berth to a flock of sheep being herded down the highway. It’s hard to find working radio stations. I turned the stereo off and drove in silence.

In a town called Long Creek, one of the rare oases in the area that boasts not just a store but a motel, I stopped for lunch. Behind the gas station, a herd of deer lingered five yards from a woman working on a truck, a surreal display of trust in this land of hunters and ranchers. On the suggestion of another customer, I ordered potato soup and garlic bread—homemade, and indeed very good—and the waitress asked where I was from.

“Portland,” I said.

“Wow, that’s quite a drive. Hey Mike,” she said to a guy who’d just come in, “she’s all the way from Portland.”

“Portland, huh? What are you doing in a place like that?” Mike asked.

“It’s all right,” I said sheepishly.

We talked a little. He grew up in the valley, not too far from where I come from. One day he hurt his back and moved out here to recuperate. That was 10 years ago.

A guy with a bushy white beard came in and started talking to Mike. His name was Clint, and his daughter had just come to see him for Christmas. “She’s caught in the Matrix over there in the valley,” he sighed. “Said she’s seriously considering voting for Hillary Clinton. I bit my tongue.”

I silently rehearsed what I’d say if they asked me who I was voting for. This whole time, April, the waitress, was trying to come up with something sweet for Clint to eat with his coffee. Nobody had thawed the marionberry pie before she got to work that morning, and all she could come up with was a packaged Danish.

As I left, Mike told me to be careful in Portland, and to come back sometime. I said I would, to both questions, although it had never occurred to me to think of my city as dangerous. The locals went back to talking about getting groceries to an elderly neighbor who was homebound because of the icy sidewalks.

My relief at getting a warm welcome everywhere I went was tempered with the nagging feeling that things might be different if people knew who I really was. Not just in terms of being queer, but also in terms of being a Portlander looking for some other, truer version of my state. I kept feeling this vague need to explain my presence, coupled with a complete inability to do so. People like me don’t just drive to places like Burns in January for no particular reason. A piece of me feels shaped, in some way, by these rural spaces, but a bigger piece knows I basically don’t belong there.

By that day, the anti-government protestors converging on Burns had been camped out in town for a few weeks, and they’d staged a rally protesting the Hammonds’ prison sentence. I’d heard about what was happening, but figured it would be over by the time I arrived. Instead, it turned out to be just the beginning: that was the day a splinter group of protestors led by Ammon Bundy began occupying the visitor center at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Instead of connecting with my past, though, I found myself at a convergence of forces and sentiments that felt frighteningly alien. What did I know about this community, about any of the struggles the people here had been through?

As I sat in my motel room scrolling through Twitter, all of which seemed to be talking about Burns, my uneasiness rose. I nervously imagined how my car, with the Barack Obama bumper sticker, might look to a band of armed militants. If Mike had known much about me, I thought, maybe he would have told me to be careful here, too.

I’d embarked on this trip chasing nostalgia for a life that I’ve never quite lived, but nonetheless forms so much of my self-identity. Instead of connecting with my past, though, I found myself at a convergence of forces and sentiments that felt frighteningly alien. The next morning, as I ate breakfast, I looked at my hiking boots, my flannel shirt. No matter how many times I’d read Sometimes a Great Notion, I was a city dweller—a queer one, no less— looking at rural life like an overachieving teen on a volunteer trip looks at the developing world, as some experience to be consumed. What did I know about this community, about any of the struggles the people here had been through? Ammon Bundy, in his ten-gallon hat, gently explaining that the federal government was the enemy, seemed to know things about it that I didn’t. I felt oddly voyeuristic.

A map of the wildlife refuge in hand, I spent the day driving aimlessly down a highway that skirts its eastern edge. I crossed several cattle guards, and in places, snow blew across the road in powdery white rivulets. I stopped at a trail that connects a series of volcanic craters and hiked through the snow, my path crisscrossed with rabbit and coyote tracks.

The desert is so still, so seemingly empty, but the tracks tell a story of a place teeming with life. In one place, there were spots of blood in the snow, and scattered tufts of fur. The trail had a gentle grade, and I kept hoping to reach some summit and get a clear view over the hill, only to get to the top of the next ridge and find the trail kept going up.

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When you’ve heard the name of a place for enough years, it’s easy to imagine you know it. I’ve long known, conceptually, that there are deep divides between the rural and urban parts of the West. I also knew, conceptually, about the hardship faced by rural communities following the decline of traditional economic engines like the timber industry.

But—it’s hard to put this feeling into words, and I hope I don’t come across as condescending when I try—I started to actually get these things for the first time when I was there. The emotional landscape of an issue looks so different when you’re on the ground, in the community facing it. From a small town in the middle of the high desert, the centers not just of government, but of mainstream American culture, feel so far away. The cities that hold most of the population of the West might as well not exist. The only things that seem real to any of us are the things we’ve had in front of us, that we’ve seen and touched.

It’s easy to imagine how a rancher from Nevada, or Arizona, or anywhere, might feel they knew a town like Burns, not unlike how I expected to know it because I was raised in Oregon. But there’s an arrogance to that expectation, regardless of whether it comes from a geographic and historical identification with a place, like mine, or a social and political one, like the protestors’.

Of course, as it turned out, nobody I talked to in Burns wanted anything to do with these strangers or their scripture-like reading of the Constitution. And everyone was friendly and welcoming to me, if a little perplexed by what I was doing there. From my outsider’s perspective, nothing I experienced there suggested anything but a caring, tight-knit community. My back-of-the-head feeling that I didn’t belong there was real, but as a visitor, I think it’s beside the point. Ammon and I were both wrong.

On my way back to Portland, I stopped by my great-grandparents’ homestead, or as near as I could get driving a Volkswagen down an unpaved, snow-covered road. I was following a set of directions my dad cobbled together based on hearsay from second and third cousins, anyway, so I figured getting to the general vicinity was good enough.

So much has been lost in the three generations since the homestead existed, nobody is even sure anymore what the family was trying to do with the land. It seems they raised some cattle, but weren’t terribly successful. My great-grandfather, Samuel Best, apparently made most of his money building houses for other homesteaders and taking odd jobs with logging outfits. He died in 1918 when he got thrown from a wagon and it rolled over him, and his wife and three kids moved north to get work in a fruit cannery.

As advertised, there was nothing there but sagebrush, but it felt like I’d connected with something I’d been looking for, coming to this patch of desert where my ancestors tried to make a go of things and couldn’t.

I don’t know what it says about America that these men from everywhere but Burns were so sure—and, for the most part, so dead wrong—about what people in Burns wanted and needed. I guess it just shows how fractured we are as a nation, if another reminder was necessary. No place is one thing; Oregon is both the tech industry and the logging industry. I do know that my identity is fractured in the same way. Most of us are bits and pieces, just as cities and states and countries are.

Trying to define yourself as a monolith, rooting yourself to some idea about the world and refusing to move, is a hard way to live. Ammon’s been arrested, his refusal to listen to anyone but himself having gotten the best of him. I don’t say this to gloat: in his mugshot, I couldn’t help noticing how oddly small he looks without his ten-gallon hat.


All photos by Katelyn Best.

Katelyn Best is a journalist, writer, and recreational linguist. Her interests include women's soccer and whiskey and she helps make a podcast about Wikipedia.

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