Irrigon, Oregon isn't the Oregon you know. There aren't waterfalls, a rocky coastline, or lush green forests. In Irrigon, there is corn, sand, and the murky waters of the Columbia. Water that understands it's best to travel West, away from this place and to the Ocean. I've grown certain that this part of the Oregon Trail is where people died of dysentery or maybe exhaustion gazing upon the miles of desert-like landscape and tumbleweed highways. A town so small that your mayor and bartender are one and the same. Residents drunkenly spill their beer and sorrows onto the bartop for one woman to clean.
Irrigon, Oregon isn't the Oregon you know. No one mails postcards from here. Trash and totaled cars are scattered in yards like flower beds and lawn gnomes in the suburbs. Chickens peck at sparse patches of grass as roosters cry their ninja-like calls. Children scooter without supervision to and from school in equal numbers to the gangs of cats that patrol the streets. Irrigation systems tsk in great repetition like a stuttering child learning to read. And a single stalk of corn stands wilting in a field. A symbol of resilience.
Irrigon, Oregon isn’t the Oregon you know. It’s a place where weeds have taken over the job of trees, shooting above heads and providing respite from the sun. The city's parameters can be walked in less than 90 minutes to a chorus of dogs barking at various pitches. Open jaws and sharp teeth yap through chain-linked fences or worse, unbound yards. A discarded push-pop, likely from the Shell station, lies in a ditch next to needle-like seeds that puncture the soles of your shoes. Flat tires and cracked windshields match their owner's spirits. Like Alan and his bull that chomps on moldy bread and unwanted donuts, the town’s version of recycling.
Irrigon, Oregon isn't the Oregon you know. On the outskirts of town, you’ll find jail-like compounds—a city of cement walls and barbed wire. An entire digital world locked inside with unfilled promises from Amazon to beautify the space. But it’s probably not in the budget. Not this quarter, not next. Wary souls trickle into town with the promise of higher wages and homes under $500k—a modern gold rush. Amazon serves as the Company Store. Where you can work in a building with no windows in exchange for 20% off one purchase once a year.
Irrigon, Oregon isn't the Oregon you know. We’ve gambled with our time here with a promise of prosperity. Behind gray drywall and sailor blue siding is where we hide. Our sanctuary of bright colors and green plants, like the places we used to call home. One thousand square feet of art, instruments, and books that transport us to better places. It’s where we whisper "I love you" and dance when we have the strength. Irrigon is only visible through windows and the sand we’ve tracked in from the bottom of our shoes. It’s not Stockholm syndrome if we’re trapped together, is it?
Irrigon, Oregon isn't the Irrigon we know. As I walk, crunching gravel turns into tar that wasn’t there the day before. We enjoy the smooth ride of freshly paved roads splattered with the blood of dead cats from increased traffic. The arrival of another dollar store and a second gas station gets front-page attention. The new playground surpasses the popularity of the merry-go-round fixture that parents in other cities have written strongly worded letters about. Its squeaky metal joints still invite the brave to twirl until they hurl on its metallic-tasting surfaces. But certainly, that will soon be replaced too.
Irrigon, Oregon isn't the Irrigon we know. Sidewalks that used to end are paved to completion. Empty lots of sand and high grass are transformed into rows of identical homes. Where renters will plant grass and dig sprinkler systems only to find the old bones of someone’s pet. Whispers of Microsoft and Google travel on swift winds through the Gorge. Telling the residents that times are changing. Prosperity is coming. A cracked windshield gets fixed. Dog shit is now smeared next to doggie waste stations, waiting for residents to learn how to use them. Fences are opaque, hiding any clutter from the prying eyes of neighbors. The new elementary school becomes the nicest building in town.
Irrigon, Oregon isn't the Irrigon we know. The squatters are removed from dilapidated storefronts, and people stop burning their trash for heat. The kid who used to kick a can down the street now plays with a Nintendo Switch… inside. Residents buy another old car, boat, or RV that they’ll work on ‘one day’. One day when they’re not too tired from their thirteen-hour shift or too hungover from the beers they consumed to wash down the feeling that something isn’t right. That maybe their town was better before. Maybe they liked it that way. The solitude. Its unchanging ways. That maybe modernity has a price, an amount they can no longer afford.
Irrigon, Oregon isn't the Irrigon we know.