From my backyard in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, I can see Spencer Butte, the 2,000-foot hill that watches over this normally bucolic college town of 171,000. “The Butte,” stationed at the city’s southern border, has for years hosted a mystical 45-minute hike through old-growth Douglas firs (and more than a few illicit midnight keggers when I was in high school). On a clear day from the summit, you can see the peaks of both mountain ranges that surround the Willamette Valley: the Coast Range to our west, and, to the east, the Cascades, home to the Three Sisters and Mt. Hood.
Today, I can’t see the Butte at all. I can’t even make out the shade trees from one block over, currently shading nobody and nothing because smoke is blocking out the sun. I’m sealed up in this 800-square-foot bungalow with my daughter and her father, obsessively refreshing the website of the local newspaper, which this time of year would normally be devoted to the exploits of the Oregon Ducks football team.
But the pandemic content that replaced the Ducks content is now replaced by numbers: how many acres are on fire in Oregon (1 million), acreage of the burn just a few miles east of me (156,000), current air quality index in my neighborhood (456), how contained the fire near me is (0 percent), how many people in the state have been evacuated (more than 40,000), statements of public condolence and support by the president of the United States as of 2:30 p.m. Friday (zero).*
Oregon is burning. Or, more accurately, both Oregons are, and how you feel about the president’s nonreaction to the wildfires currently engulfing the three West Coast states he won’t win reveals which one you’re in. There’s the Oregon that outsiders have seen on Portlandia, and the far more conservative one they’ve probably never heard of, whose members are scattered widely across the state’s 98,000 square miles. The only thing progressive urban Oregonians have in common with the tiny farming, fishing, and logging towns that dot the rest of the state is that they reside equally far out on their ideological branches—and they’re now all scrambling to breathe as those branches burn to the ground.
The Oregon where I live is, unsurprisingly, the first one, where I quit shopping at the health-food store down the street back in May because they were too wackadoodle-crunchy about the pandemic. When the be-dreadlocked white employees told me to defend against the coronavirus with elderberry lozenges, antipathy toward something called “5G,” and a dearth of vaccination, I made like one of the bumper stickers for sale by the cash register and peaced out.
The other Oregon is the one I visit every Sunday, on the two-hour drives to nowhere I have taken with my daughter every week since the pandemic started, yet another environmentally questionable way to eat up the time that has both frozen in place and progressed approximately 900 years. The countryside is—was—beautiful in these tiny towns covered in conifers and undergrowth: Crow, Jasper, Lowell, Blue River, Walterville, Vida. I would point at the trees, sometimes massive, and the river, always twinkling in the baking dry sun, as I maneuvered white-knuckled down the blind curves of the two-lane McKenzie Highway, sometimes pulling over so that an armada of angry dudes in pickups could continue hurtling unabated at 80 miles per hour. The drivers would yell at me, honk, flip me off.
Neither Oregon has the moral high ground, though both claim it vehemently. Far-left Oregon has a Black Lives Matter sign every third house, but little actual diversity of any sort, thanks both to the Black-exclusion laws that date back to the state’s founding, and the insistence of NIMBYs that high-density housing will bring about certain doom. In my neighborhood, there are still Tulsi Gabbard signs up, a perfect encapsulation of our pragmatic approach to the 2020 election. There is a laissez-faire white liberalism endemic to Oregon’s progressive cities, and it’s largely been this way since 1965 with little self-reflection.
The story of the other Oregon, the one you see the second you leave urban Portland and Southeast Eugene, is a little bit more interesting. Until about the mid-1990s, the state Republican Party was largely dominated by Reagan-era moderates in the mold of Gov. (and then–U.S. Sen.) Mark Hatfield, who was hugely popular across the political spectrum when I was a child. Then, in the 1990s, things got weird. First there was the rise of the Oregon Citizens Alliance, an anti-gay group responsible for numerous local initiatives and, eventually, statewide Measure 9, which would have codified “homosexuality” as “abnormal and perverse,” and which narrowly lost in 1992. Then there was the rise of the anti-tax zealots, whose omnipresent figurehead Bill Sizemore urged the slow (and then less slow) primarying-out of the Hatfield moderates, to be replaced, eventually in toto, by far-right conservatives. As a result, most moderates in Oregon defected to the Democrats, and the state Legislature, U.S. senators, U.S. representatives, and governorship have been heavily Democratic since—leaving a Republican minority now heavily in the QAnon mold, as our latest GOP Senate nominee demonstrates.
What it comes down to is this: My Oregon has the population centers, and thus also most of the electoral representation (aka the reason Oregon has gone blue every year since 1984); their Oregon has the vast majority of land, most of which is east of the Cascades. And yet nothing better encapsulates both Oregons than the Portland metro area, whose downtown has been in the national headlines for prolonged civil unrest, and whose suburbs have also been in the national headlines for their “surprising” conservative bent that is only surprising if you’ve never been there. On Sept. 10, those same suburbs were evacuated as two fires prepared to merge and, unified, destroy them.
A few weeks ago, on a drive with my daughter before all this—those halcyon days when I was merely upset about the pandemic, racism, the election, and the recent death of my father—I got lost in the tiny unincorporated community of Marcola, and only realized where I was when I circled twice past the same farm bedecked in what had to be no less than 35 Trump flags. It is fairly safe to infer that the residents of that abode believe both the pandemic and climate change are hoaxes. It is also fairly safe to say those same residents were evacuated on Tuesday with the rest of their area, and have been camping in a high school gym somewhere, exposed to the coronavirus at close range while waiting to see if their house and their animals and their 35 Trump flags have burned to nothing.
Marcola might be spared from the Holiday Farm Fire, but the vast bulk of the terrain my daughter has come to know from a distance—as I hoped my aged Subaru wouldn’t give out in the wrong Oregon—is now charred twigs and ash, the same ash that currently coats the backyard camping setup I didn’t have time to bring in on Monday night, when one second I could see Jupiter burning above the Butte and the next, the smoke blew in so quickly that I could no longer read the political lawn signs in front of the house across the street. I don’t know whom they’re voting for now.
Outside of Oregon it’s easy not to care that there are two of us. It’s easy to ask, about a state with a total population of 4.2 million: Is there anywhere on the West Coast that isn’t California, and if so, why? If you’ve never thought about Oregon before the fires and won’t when they’re over, I get it. But there are fewer apt physical metaphors for a deeply divided country in crisis than an even more deeply divided state on literal fire. Maybe that divide will be murkier when the smoke clears. I mean, of course it won’t, this is 2020—but perhaps there is still some good to come for both Oregons, and the country watching us burn, now that we all know we’re breathing the same ash.
Correction, Sept. 11, 2020: This article originally misstated that 500,000 Oregonians had been evacuated; while the state’s Office of Emergency Management originally claimed that many had been evacuated this week, it later said it had done so in error, and that the true figure is more than 40,000.