Thursday, October 15, 2009

Comin' out of Klamath

Klamath Basin
Comin' as I do, from the Klamath Basin down over on the cold and dry side of the Cascade Mountains, I guess I got a certain way of looking at things.

Estimates vary, but the general belief is that the Klamath Basin is home for somewhere between 60 thousand and 75 thousand souls. The main population center is Klamath Falls, which sits on the south end of Upper Klamath Lake. The lake'll freeze over in the winter thick enough to where you can walk all the way across it.

The folks down there's a little rougher, a little more wary. Largely skeptical about people's motives. Dress is less refined, more attuned to the outdoors than you'll generally see in the bigger towns. Everybody wears jeans in Klamath Falls. Which prob'ly accounts for why I grew up thinking there's nothing that looks better on a woman than a good-fittin' pair.

You live there a while, your skin gets leathery, you get hard corners about the mouth. All that high and dry desert air leaves its mark.

It all comes down to the water
Fierce pride and independence, I can vouch for that. There's some hard-fisted folks down there. Reputation more for handin' out ass-whup than for writin' books.

If you remember back, there was a big controversy over water usage in 2001. It all stemmed from a federal court's ruling that curtailed farmer and rancher irrigation privileges (or "rights" as the folks down there call 'em) in order to protect endangered fish in Upper Klamath Lake.

I had occasion to go back there during that time, and I tell you, the place was smoldering like a mound of dry peat. Farmers, ranchers, and concerned citizens up in arms, saying "Civil wars've been started over less than this!" They busted the lock placed by the authorities and opened up the head gates to the irrigation canals. In defiance of a federal order. Feds showed restraint, but it was touch-and-go for a while.

For now, there's a truce on, but don't be surprised if things flare up again in some time of drought.

Lumber mills built this town
When I was a young man, fresh out of high school, I worked and lived the way many a Klamath Basin resident had before me. In the timber industry. My dad's old friend Joe was a foreman out there at DG Shelter and he got me a job in the planer mill. "Pullin' chain," as we called it. The boards would come through the trim saws on the belt and we'd read the grade on them and pull them off to stacks. Sometimes they came out of there pretty fast, and we had to move. Wasn't so bad in the dead of winter, when it was colder than hell. Kept the blood flowin'.

They paid me $7.40 per hour back then. That was real money. But it was work that took a toll on the body. Lots of the old veterans were missing fingertips or pieces of their hands. And they were all pretty broke down, too. Had plenty of 'em tell me, "Son, get an education. This way of life's comin' to an end and it ain't no life to speak of, anyway."

And that was true, for sure. Used to be that a guy could get a job out at the Weyerhaeuser plant going out towards Keno, and make enough to raise a family in comfort. No longer. No sir. World moved on past all that.

OIT campus
Grew up believing in the divine law of Providence. That is, if something lands at your feet, you'd be a fool not to take it. I guess that's why I went to OIT for my schoolin'. It was right there in town, had a good job placement rate, specialized in technical degrees, which was where all the money was back in those days. Besides that, Dad was a football coach there. So, that's where I got my bachelor's degree. Computer engineering.

Can't complain about that. When you go to college in the mountains, the horizons aren't exactly wide open, but that diploma landed me a good payin' job a month after I graduated and I've never lacked for work since. 'Course, I had to leave the Basin. No opportunities there.

Upper Klamath Lake

One thing that never did change: Come Friday night, it was time to go out and get drunk and look for girls. Most of the time didn't get much past the first part. But there wasn't much else to do at night when you didn't have to get up to work or school the next day except get inebriated. Seen more drug abuse and alcoholism in Klamath Falls than I ever have up here in the Big City of Portland, an' that's the God's honest truth.

Hog's Back mountain
Generally, folks from the Klamath Basin have a certain indifference to the opinions of others when it comes to their behavior. If a law doesn't fit the needs of the moment, it just wasn't meant to be followed. Or, to revert to the parlance of the blue-collar stiffs pullin' chain at the lumber mill: "Huntin' license? What for? There's lots of muleys in the woods, 'sides which, if we don't get 'em the Klamaths will." (Klamaths were the Native Americans that lived up on the north part of Klamath Lake before John C. Fremont forced them onto the reservation. We always called them "Indians.")

Some say there is no contempt so strong as self-contempt, and that's about all I can put it down to. Friend a mine used to say of the folks from Klamath Falls, "They're dumb as hell, but you won't catch me tellin' 'em that."

'Course, he was from Klamath Falls, too.


Unknown said...

Dade, thanks for mentioning Dave! It's great to hear that people still think of him like I know we all do! Take Care, Deanna Azevedo

Diane said...

Oh good grief, you're spot-on about this town and I thank you for your honest description. I grew up here, moved to the San Francisco Bay Area for 45 years, then had to move back five years ago for family reasons. I came back kicking, screaming and crying. I thought I would die of culture shock the first two years, then I could feel my IQ going down a point every six months. I'm an amateur photographer, and when I'd take pictures people would stare and sometimes be angry and confrontational because I was taking a shot of, for instance, a stuffed sheep someone had put on top of his warehouse. It's a kind of "Kentucky holler" mindset.

Yes, nice people, I've heard, and have met a few. Lots of suspicious, angry and insular people and I've met many of those. In other words, it did not change one bit in the 45 years I was away. The culture of Klamath Falls is unlike any other place I've been in the world. There is a sort of militant unknowingness, I'll call it. It's a self-defeating town, depressing to those coming back to live here. Well, now I'm here for the long term because my mother and grandchildren are here. Wish me luck, Dade!

Oh, by the way, there are perhaps a hundred of my photos of the area posted on Google Earth.