Small Town Dying

The Dalles Christmas 1966

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Posted By Gorge Connect Staff

I was eight years old running with a dime in my hand, into the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man. I’d sit on his lap, in that big ole’ Buick and steer as we go through the town. He’d tousle my hair and say son take a good look around.This is your hometown. – Bruce Springsteen

Being born in the 1960s and to grow up in the 1970’s in an area where everybody knew everyone. There was no Walmart. No mall. This was small town The Dalles, Oregon. We went to Jones Boys Dairy for milk, ate mostly at home with the occasional treat out from our small Dairy Queen or A&W.

I’d ride with my Grandpa to get groceries at Prairie Market. Then he might take me by the Handout to get a milk shake or a burger. The burger I ate didn’t have a big or whopping name. It wasn’t super-sized or mega-sized. It was a hamburger and it was good. Everybody called everyone else by their first name or a nickname. We had a non-caller ID rotary phone and not a cell or cordless one.

There was a charm and an innocence about that time. I know the world was just as ridiculous then as it is now no matter what people may say otherwise. It was only a few years earlier that anybody not white had to eat somewhere else. Vietnam was only just ending and most of the adults I knew had been there. I am not oblivious to the obvious and inexcusable social injustices of that time.

In the downtown streets you could go door to door and get everything you needed. From where I am sitting right now I can see the downtown streets and I remember the theater, an insurance company, the power company, the department store, the clothing store, a discount store, and an office supply store. Now it’s lots of vacant storefronts and the memories of that time are only ghosts now. Yes, there are still shops, and restaurants but nothing remotely close to the busy sidewalks of those days when people took their daily business to the hometown merchants.

A few buildings are slated for demolition, the property they sit on put to other uses the buildings themselves long since written off as a place to do business.

The Holiday Season is fast approaching again, and as I stand in a clinical and sterile big chain retailer in a mall 95 miles away from home, I look around at the giant posters of fake people smiling fake smiles trying to sell me brands of clothing imported from parts unknown, I can hardly help myself. I can hardly help myself from thinking about the day my Grandpa bought me a comic book off the spinner rack at the Pharmacy. That was a good day.

I walk through a downtown town of empty storefronts and businesses barely making ends meet wondering where has everyone gone? What has happened to us? Yes, you can drive an hour or so down the highway and get everything you could ever want from a large scale shopping mall or wholesale big box store. I can now go through the drive-thru at my two local McDonald’s but the burgers aren’t anything like the ones my Grandpa used to get me. It seems like I go to the big city two or three times a week. When I was a kid we went once a week, sometimes less.

People in the big towns can say what they will about the small ones but there is a loss of something as the small towns wither away. Heart perhaps. But as the big highways pass us by and the high school graduates leave town, seldom to return, I can’t help but feel that something important is dying with it.

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Systems Administrator and Chief Code Monkey at Gorge Connect -- We are Digital Nomads currently living in the Columbia River Gorge. Founders of Gorge Connect and can normally be found haunting the digital streams on Gorge Connect and Gorge Connect on Facebook and Instagram @gorgeconnect.