Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

February 07, 2004

Butte, MT

The weather was clear in Butte, MT last night when I arrived, but this morning I awoke to snow. I know there are some mountain passes between here and Billings, so I am inclined just to stay put rather than risk a harrowing drive. I don’t want to buy chains! I wouldn’t even know how to put them on.

I like Butte. It is like no other city I have visited. It is scruffy and blue collar. The city’s economy was based upon mining, but most of the mines have closed. Butte has been in a steady decline since its glory days back in the late 1800s.

Downtown Butte is like a ghost town. Dozens of decayed brick buildings built over 100 years ago stand empty, left untouched only because nobody has valued the land beneath them enough to tear them down.

Perhaps one day somebody will see the value in old-town Butte and restore the buildings. It hasn’t happened yet. The local paper is beating the same “hope is around the corner” theme it trumpeted two years ago when I came through, but I see few signs that anything has changed.

Butte has one of the highest concentration of Irish-Americans in the country. An obituary in yesterday’s paper for a 100-year-old local accordianist gave a brief history of the Irish in the area. They came to work the mines. When the mines closed, they stayed on. They maintain connections to the old country, as well as to the Irish in Boston. When the deceased man turned 100, his birthday greetings came not only from the president, but also from Ted Kennedy.

Unemployment is relatively high. The water is bad. Cancer rates are off the charts. But the people are friendly and helpful.

Last time I came through Butte, I noted that the feel was similar to that of a dying farm town in the upper Midwest. After traveling through Arizona and California, that feeling is accentuated. The slow life of the dying areas contrasts with the vital, but frenzied pace of parts of the country where the economy is vibrant.

A vibrant economy is what everybody wants. However, a slow economy may have advantages. There is a greater connection to the past. There is a greater sense of community, created as much by a sense of past as it is by a collective sense of impending doom.

February 06, 2004

Stumbling onward from Boise

It wasn’t long after I left Boise this morning, heading east on I-84, that I started looking for a rest area. I count on them being spaced about fifty miles apart. However, the first one I saw was closed--so I decided to soldier on to the next.

The drama over whether I would make it or not was reaching a peak when I noticed, to my terror, that my gas guage was way below empty. Now I had one full tank and one empty tank and it was clear that neither would make it to the rest area.

Fortunately, there was the town of Jerome, ID. The first exit had no gas stations, so I went on to the second. As I approached the exit, the engine sputtered and quit.

I rolled halfway up the exit ramp before I pumped the gas pedal and turned the key. I got a burst out of the engine which allowed me to coast to the top of the ramp.

At the top of the ramp, I saw the gas station across the bridge. I decided to put on my caution blinkers and give it another try. Pump, pump, pump. I got another roar out of the engine, slammed it into drive and rolled across the bridge.

My momentum carried me into the Shell station driveway. I got out and pushed until I was within ten feet of the pump. At that point, I couldn’t get the pickup over a ridge of concrete-- but a truck driver who had been watching me came and pushed me to the pump with one big grunt. “Whoa, close one!” he said as he walked away.

After I emerged from the restroom, Margaret, the lady manning the till at the gas station, gave me a good-natured scolding about running out of gas when it is so cold. I told her I was heading for even more cold in Minnesota, and she said, “Well, at least you have the best football team in the world!”

Well, I would debate that, but Margaret meant it--she is probably the most unlikely-looking Vikings fan in Montana with her huge pile of backcombed hair and oversized rimless glasses. “I just wish they’d show up to play more often!” she said, and I agreed.

I felt pretty lucky (and stupid) as I headed out for another empty stretch of Idaho freeway.

February 05, 2004

Boise, ID

A beautiful, clear day in Boise--the first clear day here in two weeks, according to my hosts. Boise is surrounded by round mountains which are, at this time, covered with snow.

Right on cue, as soon as I got into cold weather, I caught a cold. It happens every time I make that turn towards Minnesota. Makes me wonder if I just stayed in a warm climate all the time if I would never get a cold at all.

The drive from Burns, OR to Boise, ID is one of my favorites. It is completely remote, passing through mountains which are round and bald--not profound enough to draw tourists, but large enough to prevent farming. The road passes over two passes--one is called Drinkwater, the other Stinkwater. Only two days after a blizzard, the roads had already melted off. Driving was easy.

February 04, 2004

What's with this Kerry guy?

I just can’t figure out how John Kerry came to the fore. Four weeks ago, he trailed Al Sharpton in the polls. Now he’s the presumptive Democratic nominee.

It is particularly wierd that Kerry’s momentum was started by Iowans. Their long-time senator, Tom Harkin, had endorsed Dean, and Richard Gephardt was from next door, yet Kerry, the old-money Massachusetts liberal, came out of nowhere to win the caucuses.

I have never thought a lot of Kerry, but his speech last night showed why he is where he is and why he is going to be big trouble for George W. Bush. Kerry’s service in Vietnam is going to stand in stark contrast to Bush’s service in the National Guard. Plus, Kerry is well-spoken, very stern, with a dignified baritone voice. If he plays it right, he will make Bush’s lack of gravitas painfully evident by comparison.

However, there was a little phrase in Kerry’s speech last night which gave me an indication of what might be his downfall. He lacks the common touch, and I don’t think he has a good sense of humor. When the crowd in Washington state responded to one of his applause lines, Kerry chided them for not being as loud as the crowd in New Hampshire. I am sure he was kidding, but it came across as arrogant.

In 1948, Tom Dewey, a rich snoot (like Kerry) from New York was supposed to beat Harry Truman soundly. However, one little event started Dewey’s freefall.

Dewey was speaking from a train platform when the train suddenly jolted. Dewey was thrown off balance briefly. Instead of responding with grace, Dewey said something to the effect that: “Somebody should fire that engineer.”

The incident was reported all over the country, and it betrayed Dewey’s lack of connection to the common man.

Kerry was raised on Park Avenue. He attended elite schools. He was known in college as an upper class snob. One could imagine that his Vietnam experience would have purged him of a patrician sense of superiority, but he has to be careful. Bush has the common touch, and if Kerry seems out of touch, the election could be over.

These little events are so important in a campaign, for better or worse. Reagan won the 1980 nomination with the phrase, “I paid for this microphone” at a debate in New Hampshire. He later won the 1984 election with a clever answer to a question about his age.

Dukakis was finished by the tank photo. Dean was finished by his scream. All of these little events got such big play in the press because they highlighted why everybody suspected were the weaknesses of the candidates. Some candidates rise to the challenge, as Reagan did, while others fall by the wayside.

Burns, OR

Burns, OR is one of my favorite places. It is sort of the capital of eastern Oregon, which is high desert ranch country. Burns is in an enormous basin surrounded by mountain ranges. My Uncle Don and Aunt Lois live there on a cattle ranch.

I came in from Prineville, where I visited two cousins. Bend, OR is the nearest large city. It lies just to the east of the Cascade range. The Three Sisters mountains tower over the town.

The road from Bend to Burns is 125 miles of nothing. I think there were three gas stations, and no towns of any consequence. About half-way into the trip, it started to snow. By the time I reached Burns, it was a blizzard. I am familiar with that area, but I got lost. I blame it on the snow.

Good thing I had a cell phone. I was pretty turned around and ended up in the country at a dead end by an old barn. I thought I was headed east, but I was pointed north. It took a lot of back and forth on the phone with Aunt Lois and Cousin Charlotte to get me to my destination. In fact, Charlotte eventually drove out to lead me to the house.

Twenty years ago, Uncle Don, Aunt Lois and two of their boys visited the homeplace in Minnesota. Just before they left to go back, I asked if they needed some help driving. They said sure, and I grabbed some clothes and went along.

I didn’t drive more than 40 miles, but I stayed in Burns for a month. I'll never forget it. Life moves slower in Burns, even slower than in MN. I had a blast working on the ranch, although I ingested a big rock with the swather which required several days of repair.

So, it is always fun to return to Burns. Spend part of a summer on a farm (or ranch) when you’re young and it becomes a special place for life--even if you grew up on a farm of your own.

Of course now the cousins all have kids of their own, so I got acquainted with them. I admit I am not used to the chaos unleashed by young children, but their hugs more than made up for it.

On the road yet again...

I am driving today--I will be posting later this evening, just so you regulars don't think I've perished or something!

February 02, 2004

Prineville plant

A cousin and his wife work at a wood products plant in Prineville. Cousin Joel was kind enough to give me a full tour of the place this morning, and I was very impressed.

The plant makes wooden window parts for Anderson Windows. They basically saw lumber up and glue it back together without the knots and in stronger configurations. Anderson is so fussy that they can't even have a 1/100,000th of an inch gap between the parts they glue or the part will be rejected.

What was really impressive was the speed of the workers. Incredible. One man had to decide the best way to saw up each 16 foot plank to minimize waste. He had 7 options to choose from, but he had only about 1.5 seconds with each board before it was swooped away and replaced by the next. I can't imagine!

Another man had to line small, knot-free boards up to be glued while inspecting them for flaws. The assembly line moved at a speed of 100 pieces per minute--not a lot of time to decide.

Joel's wife Nadra plans what sizes of wood will be sawed from which piles to produce the needed final product. She issues the orders for that part of the plant. She must minimize waste by figuring out what combinations of wood, when glued together, will most efficiently fill the bill.

Some of the lumber used is logged around here, but more and more is being shipped in from New Zealand and South America. It is still cheaper to make windows out of wood than it is to make them out of plastic.

And if you wonder why Anderson windows and doors are much more expensive than any other, I can tell you. As my cousin said, "they are way over-engineered," meaning that their standards or quality are almost ridiculously high.

However, the most impressive part of the tour was simply seeing the skill of the workers. It bordered on athleticism.

Super Bowl Party

I am visiting cousins in Oregon who were invited to a work-related Super Bowl party yesterday. I tagged along, despite my apathy about all things associated the game.

The food was good, the beer was plentiful, there were 100 people there and about five big-screen televisions. Kids running around, people shouting loudly, a few interesting conversations, (using a broad interpretation of the word "interesting") a typical Super Bowl party.

The game was fine, I suppose. But the commercials--which are supposed to be the big draw, since the game is usually a washout--were juvenile. A farting horse. A dog which bites a man in the groin, forcing him to hand over his bud light. A bunch of kids with soap in their mouths from saying "Holy shit!" at the sight of some new car. This is fifteen year old stuff!

Then, the half-time show--which climaxed with gyrating Janet Jackson getting it on with Justin Timberlake in front of a billion people. No surprise that she came disrobed at the end of the performance--it was clearly a planned scandal. Headlines today: "CBS apologizes for Janet's exposed breast, says it was an accident."

And ratings soar.

I know I am sounding like a moralizing puritan, but isn't there any taste and decorum left in the world? The ads and the half-time show amounted to a celebration of raw bodily functions. Not an ounce of subtlety. No real humor.

If you're going to do nudity and sex, take a lesson from the Europeans and do it with some class. I am not a prude, but please, show some taste.

February 01, 2004

The High Desert of Eastern Oregon

The east side of the Cascade range in Oregon is ranch country. The mountain range wrings the moisture out of the clouds, so the grass is brown on the east side and the trees are much smaller than they are just a few miles to the west. As you go farther east, it turns to high desert, which means sage brush, not cactus. Eventually I will reach Burns, OR, where the elevation is over 4000 feet. The stars are crystal clear there!

The politics change as you cross the Cascades as well. The wet, forested west side of the Cascades is more liberal, the ranch-dominated east more conservative. The issues? Logging is probably the perennial sore spot. Western OR environmentalists are against it, while those who depend upon logging for a living on both sides of the mountains, including those who work in the mills, are naturally more in favor of aggressive logging.

Over all, it seems that the split in the state's politics is deeper here than it is in Minnesota between the rural and suburban/urban interests. Many of the suburbanites in MN have ties back to the farm. I get the feeling there is no such connection between eastern and western Oregon.

The federal government owns huge tracts of land in OR. Therefore, the policies of the Department of Interior have a great impact, both on logging and on ranching. There is greater resentment of the federal government in rural areas here, it seems, than you might find back in Minnesota where the state DNR is usually the prime villain.