Nigger Ben Butte, Sisters to Shaniko

[IMG]

I don’t mean to generalize, but the entirety of the Oregon High Desert smells like cat pee. I think it’s the juniper. I have formed a loose theory about how juniper needs very little water and CATS need very little water and so their individual excretions, the scent of juniper and the urine of cats, have the same concentrated acids that make the same smell. Gus assures me this is biologically impossible. I demanded a better explanation and he had none. Point: Therese’s Brain Science.

I can’t remember now, though in was less than a week ago, what snapped in me. I do remember where it snapped. I have a big green book of Oregon Geographical names in my bathroom. Its short, non-committal entries are absolutely perfect for distracting and relaxing the bowels. (Not totally non-committal, actually. The author does take issue with the 1960’s renaming of “Nigger Ben Butte” to “Negro Ben Butte.” (Apparently the nigger designation was used affectionately, named after a well liked blacksmith who lived at the base of the mountain in pioneer days. Which was, wooo! mighty white of ’em cuz black folks technically weren’t allowed to live in Oregon for most of the 19th century.)

Vacation, I decided. First real family adventure vacation. We were going to some of the places listed in this book. Someplace not the Coast, which is an hour away and repressively safe and has been the default for 20 years. Someplace we can do stuff that’s different.

Go the other way. Inside of Oregon. Over the Cascades, past the grotesque glut of pastels and engorged false fronts that is Sisters (uggg. Sisters. What a whore of a town.)

 

 

Past the triumvirate, Camp Sherman, Sisters, and Bend, that made up my home towns, further, further. Until we came to near nothing. 

The Oregon High Desert.

The clouds poof on top and then line up flush against an invisible ceiling. My husband, who approached this vacation with nothing short of misery, became the most relaxed I’ve ever seen him away from home while driving through these winding miles of uninhabitable near-desolation. To Gus emptiness meant safety. It means you can see what’s coming. And in the case of Central Oregon…all that’s coming is rabbits, antelope and a fairly steady occurrence of brush/forest fires.

We did lots of things, found thunder-eggs and peed out behind my old elementary school (since when do they think they can lock the doors and install security cameras at MY school?)  but I mostly want to tell you about Shaniko…Oregon’s real ghost town.

It’s so, so far away from anything. There used to be a railroad there, and wool. Then there wasn’t. And the people left, the town maintaining a population of around 20 hapless souls through the century. Shaniko was so desolate, not on the way to anywhere but Shaniko, that it just…held there. A few people came back a century later to find the buildings still standing and holding a possibility of profit.

That doesn’t happen a lot in Oregon. This is a place so lush and verdant that people sacrificed their lives by the hundreds to get here. I’ve literally grown a fine pumpkin patch in my backyard because I absentmindedly threw a handful of slippery Halloween seeds into the grass.

There is constant change. Usually it’s through fancy-ification…warehouses becoming microbreweries and farmer’s orchards giving way to expensive housing associations where the homes are designed to look turn of the century, but with televisions that descend from the ceiling.

There are more ghost towns in the wet Willamette valley than anywhere in Oregon, between the pioneers and the gold rushers and the lumber…but they are truly GONE. The rich soil and thorough rains that seduced their creators proved to be succubi,  quickly swallowed them back up as soon as they were abandoned. I have watched it happen. First the moss eats the roof and it softens, dips and falls. Then the rain can blacken and melt the walls and foundation even faster, all the while the blackberry bushes and weeds chew through any open space they can find. The rubble is cleared up or it isn’t, and what held a generation of human life and suffering and excitement becomes a dark outline in the vegetation, if even that.

But Shaniko, dry and cold and too far away from anywhere to be worth hassling with, remained. I found a gift shop, of a sorts, where a hunched lady took a blue shirt and hot-pressed the words, “SHANIKO, OR” on it’s left breast, just for me. She urged me to get it in rhinestones. I told her I was not sparkly.

“So what was this place originally?” I asked her while the giant waffle-iron of a shirt maker heated up, drawing fuel from the portable propane generator in the back of the store.

“This was one of the taverns. Everything is like it was in 19o1. As long as we don’t update it, we don’t have to pay taxes on it. It’s Historical.”

I tried to get to the dried old piano she claimed to be part of the original bar, but could only rub a hand against it, for she also used it as her office table, stacked with soda bottles and papers.

There was a bowl of faded hair scrunchies shoved back against a wall, each baring a plastic teddy bear or rainbow or duck that, along with the sheer tiredness of the exposed elastic, revealed the providence of the 1980s. They were new. But they were 30 years old. I grabbed a greedy handful. Shaniko is set wrong in time, and these scrunchies illuminate it.

I asked about the big brick hotel across the street, one that I had hoped would be a museum. She said the hotel hadn’t been opened for a long time, neither as museum, hotel, gift shop, or cafe.

“He replaced the windas,” she said. “Now he’s gotta pay taxes on it even though it’s just sittin’ there.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

“He” is the billionaire  that bought most of the land that comprised the town, she told us. He had the idea, and it wasn’t a crazy one, to spruce up Shaniko into a Ghost Town!!!” instead of what it is…a deserted, ailing place with remarkably old buildings, twisted Model-T skeletons, and broken buckboards littering the land.

That’s what makes Shaniko truly special. The gentrification that has face-lifted Dame Oregon so many times was begun, but it failed. The billionaire wasn’t allowed to drill his own wells to provide water for the would-be Old West theme-town, so all he managed was to renovate a gas station to sparkling 1950’s standards, down to the phone booth and the sign proudly declaring its acceptance of green stamps. Just like a model you’d see in a box at a hobby store…but real. Shaniko would have been his dollhouse, his train set.

Being stuck cold between three different worlds…1901, 2016, and a potential, half-realized renaissance of cotton candy and shoot-out re-enactments, left the town dangling between realities; a science fiction waystation between worlds. I loved it. I hated it. It felt sick there and so special too. Like Nigger Ben Butte, all wrong, distasteful even, but sickly compelling in its defiance.

When the laws change, Shaniko will be taken away. It will become a sister to Sisters, fake and rouged, a gaudy old west whore sick at the heart but smiling hard. Until then, Shaniko doesn’t know who she is anymore. There is such beauty in her confusion.

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s