SCOTT SIMON, host:
This year, NPR, along with the Public Radio Exchange, has launched a new show, STATE OF THE RE:UNION, with host Al Letson. STATE OF THE RE:UNION has been traveling the country, visiting cities and towns to explore the idea of community. One stop: small town of Oakridge in the southern Cascade Mountains of Oregon.
For decades after World War II, Oakridge was a booming lumber town, but by the early 1990s the lumber industry had collapsed and Oakridge has struggled every since, losing families and businesses.
Now, as Al Letson discovered, residents are trying to reinvent the place as a playground for outdoor enthusiasts.
(Soundbite of water splashing)
Mr. RANDY DREILING (Owner, Oregon Adventures Mountain Biking Touring): There's a short climb, so you want to gear down right here.
AL LETSON: Okay.
I'm doing my best to avoid a face plant(ph) and keep up with mountain biking entrepreneur Randy Dreiling. We're negotiating the wet rocks and routes along Salmon Creek Trail.
Mr. DREILING: This is considered the easiest trail around, by the way.
LETSON: I appreciate you taking me on the easy one.
Mr. DREILING: Yeah, no problem.
LETSON: Salmon Creek is a part of some 350 miles of trails that has earned Oakridge a self-proclaimed title of mountain biking capital of the Northwest. This place is lush, damp, green and spectacular, with clouds that cling like cotton balls to the wooded mountainside.
Randy Dreiling, who owns Oregon Adventures Mountain Biking Touring, hopes to help spark an economic rejuvenation for the town.
Mr. DREILING: Mountain biking is a piece of the pie. It's not the end-all be-all, but it's what we've got and it's been good to us. And anybody that's being honest to themselves can see the amount of people that mountain biking's bringing to town, more and more every year.
LETSON: But not everyone here is on board with the change in the focus.
Oakridge is home to old-timers, like Eddie Roberts, who made his living off the old growth lumber that once abound here. There are a lot of economic factors at play, but the death knell for the lumber industry came in 1990.
That's when the federal government listed the spotted owl as a threatened species and declared much of its habitat in the national forest off limits to loggers.
Mr. EDDIE ROBERTS: That spotted owl could care less where he lives. I seen him out on a fence post out in a farmer's field down the valley.
LETSON: Eddie Roberts sees the mostly younger newcomers to Oakridge as an extension of the folks who moved into the town in the '60s, many of them from the college town of Eugene about 50 miles away.
Mr. ROBERTS: We called it, Eugene, the hippy's town, but there was a mess of them and we got them yet today. There are members of Sierra Club that are in our politics today, and they don't want any timber logged.
LETSON: To understand that kind of bitterness, you've got to go back and remember what Oakridge was like in the logging boom times. That was before Main Street was filled with shuttered and abandoned buildings, the poverty and unemployment rates soared, and the population declined. It was a time when the pope in Talbot Mill was running multiple shifts - and the town was jumping.
Mr. ROBERTS: We've four or five service stations. We had a furniture store, appliance center, three car dealerships...
Ms. SHARON BAKER: ...and we had car dealerships and we had clothing stores. And at that time you couldn't find a place here to rent. The town was...
Mr. STEVE MARCOUX: ...more taverns than churches. Kind of like the Wild West here for a while, you know? Go to any tavern, you're bound to see a fight during those days.
LETSON: That was Eddie Roberts, followed by long-time residents Sharon Baker and Steve Marcoux.
After the collapse of the industry, Marcoux clung to logging as long as he could. But for the last seven years, each weekday morning he's driven from his cramped apartment to work in an ice cream factory in Eugene.
Mr. MARCOUX: I don't like my job right now so much. I work at 4:30 and start making ice cream. And then I get off at 1:30 and home at 2:30, relax for about three or four hours and go to bed by about 7:30, 8:00 o'clock, and do it over again.
LETSON: Today, 57-year-old Marcoux's gray-streaked hair reaches the middle of his back. He's added some weight to his lumberjack frame but he still yearns for his days in the woods.
Mr. MARCOUX: Would I have done differently? I would've probably gotten more into learning some machinery, gotten into less fights. Probably would've been a better husband. Wouldn't have lost my wife and kids. But, yeah, I'd done things different but I'd still do it again, even if I knew it wasn't going to be any different, I'd do it again. I liked it. I had fun.
LETSON: But Marcoux says he makes a decent salary and finds himself in a better position than many Oakridge residents.
Unidentified Woman #1: Peanut butter?
Unidentified Woman #2: Yes, please.
Unidentified Woman #1: Spaghetti sauce, tomato sauce or canned tomatoes?
LETSON: About 1,600 people a month come here to the Oakridge food bank to pick up free supplies. That's about half the town's population.
Unidentified Woman #1: Chicken noodle and tomato and bean soup.
Unidentified Woman #2: Chicken noodle.
LETSON: Just outside the food box, as it's called, we ran into Cameron Nelson with a car full of groceries and four scrambling young children. She's a stay-at-home mom and her husband is an out-of-work painter's assistant. Things are tough these days.
Ms. CAMERON NELSON: If it weren't for this food box, it would make it difficult here. It fills in the gaps. It allows us to utilize the close-to-expired or expired items, which don't hurt you. They're just taken off the shelves at the stores, and it helps stretch the money throughout the month. Stay close, babies.
LETSON: Five years ago, Cameron and her family relocated to Oakridge for its natural beauty. And many retirees have been attracted to the area's bucolic life as well, but Oakridge has also proved a magnet for other reasons.
Ms. SHELLY MILLER (Coordinator, Oakridge Westfir Family Resource Center): My name is Shelly Miller. I am the coordinator for the Oakridge Westfir Family Resource Center.
LETSON: Shelly Miller, who barely keeps her own head above water economically, works long hours helping the poor of Oakridge and neighboring Westfir. Among her many duties is coordinating a washer-dryer giveaway program where donated machines are provided to low-income families. It's a necessity since the area's only Laundromat closed last fall. Miller says out-of-work people have been steered towards her town because it's more than 35 miles from an employment center, and they don't have to look for work every week to justify continuing getting their unemployment and welfare checks.
Ms. SHELLY MILLER (Coordinator, Oakridge Westfir Family Resource Center): It was said, you know, go up to Oakridge, the rent's cheap, you can't look for a job - there are no jobs. And, you know, you get food stamps. And so you can live pretty good there. So as our stronger families had to leave because they'd lost job - their mill job, and so they moved on to either retraining or whatever, then what was left was pretty poor.
LETSON: Hard times aside, Shelly Miller says she can feel something exciting percolating in the town.
Ms. MILLER: We still have a lot of very strong people who have lived here for 70 years, and they're not so happy with some of the change. But I see that their children may leave in their 20s, but they come back in their 30s to raise their children, and that shows, I think, a lot.
So I think it's going to change and be for the better. A lot of people are buying the houses and fixing them up, so the neighborhood is starting to look a little bit better.
LETSON: One place that's looking better is what used to be the rough and smoky Break Time Tavern on First Street.
Unidentified Man #1: You going for a pint beer, sir? Or do you have to run a tab(ph)?
Unidentified Man #2: A half.
Unidentified Man #3: (Unintelligible) a half.
LETSON: Today, the place has been converted into a proper British-like pub. The Brewers Union Local 18 serves its own blend of cask beers and ales. And it functions as kind of a town den, hosting community meetings and Scrabble night.
(Soundbite of Scrabble tiles)
Unidentified Man #4: Oh, look at this. Look what I got.
LETSON: Down on Route 58, East Coast transplants Greg Spoon and Becky Chamberlin opened the Trailhead Cafe seven years to cater to mountain bikers. But now it attracts a cross section of the community. Greg and Becky say it took a while to gain acceptance.
Mr. GREG CHAMBERLIN (Owner, Trailhead Cafe): The old paradigm is the logger's paradigm, which is locals only, we don't want people coming, moving here. This is our area. But the logging stopped and that idea still stuck.
Mr. BECKY CHAMBERLIN (Owner, Trailhead Cafe): In the last few years there's definitely been this very exciting growth that's been happening here. You know? I felt very alone for a long time and now it's like, oh, look at these others. Maybe our job is to inspire other people to do something and do something positive here, create something here; it's finally paying off because now there are flowers and shops and bakeries and a pub and a beautiful massage practice.
Mr. DREILING: This is a gorgeous trail right here, but this doesn't even rank in my top 10 trails in the area. We're going to drop down and go up quick. Careful.
LETSON: Back(ph) riding among the 700 year old trees along the Salmon Creek trail with Randy Dreiling, even a non-biking city slicker like me can feel the attraction of the place.
Mr. DREILING: Sorry.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DREILING: That root caught me.
LETSON: Out on the trail, a friend of Randy's told us about a retiring forest ranger who wrote a letter to the community. And in it he noted that many of former loggers have now bought mountain bikes, and the mountain bikers, who want to keep the trails maintained, have bought chain saws.
For NPR News, I'm Al Letson.
SIMON: That story was produced by Peter Breslow. And you can hear STATE OF THE RE: UNION's full hour on Oakridge - on many NPR stations. You can find a link to that program and more on Oakridge at our website, NPR.org.
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