When I looked up at the sign for Big’s Hi-Yu-He-He, I should have seen a fractured people. Too many fractured peoples. Instead I saw a totem pole with a big dumb Indian wearing a shit-eating grin. And when they shuttered Big’s a decade ago, turning away the last hungry logger, they lowered that sign with the unceremonious rationality of global capitalism. No reflection was necessary. No mourning required. No apologies. A new sign now pushes payday loans and discount-cigarettes.
I come from a landscape struggling to heal, and a people who don’t know how to. I was told – in a thousand self-hating whispers – not to stay in Veneta. Only losers stay home. White trash. And I left.
Now, years later, I am making a home downriver in Portland, where the Willamette joins the Columbia. When I’m quiet I can almost here the silent mourning of Celilo falls, making its way down the gorge. Coming down the valley I seem to feel the quaking footsteps of the Kalapuya marching to Grande Ronde. There is a memory in this place that struggles to be recalled by a people who strive to keep it at bay.
I live in a community that knows no communion. I am its fractured son.
Here I sit in Portland. The soft brown waters of the distant Long Tom flow northward over the Fern Ridge Dam, calmly making their way to the broader waters of the Willamette. And through grass seed country and across fields of hay and hops they flow north, taking in whatever comes to them – like some messiah taking on the sins of a people gone astray. They spill over the concrete cataracts of Willamette Falls, and they sooth the quarried remains of Ross Island. Northward they flow, and with a humility and grace only water can reach, they welcome me home.
Mingling in the foggy waters of the Willamette are the material legacies of my past and present and the patient seeds of a future homecoming. Flowing in that quiet water is a little bit of my home coming to me.