Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Cottage Grove

I drove a long way today, all the way from Central California to the middle of the Willamette Valley, and the pleasant town of Cottage Grove.

Or maybe I should say the towns of Cottage Groves, because there really are two of them, as is the case with so many small towns in our unconscious and dysfunctional land today. The old Cottage Grove sits athwart the old north-south highway that used to connect Canada and Mexico via the left coast states -- old 99. The new Cottage Grove initially spread itself between the old town and the road that replaced 99, Interstate 5, and in the last decade slopped over that boundary and expanded eastward, where its momentum was finally exhausted after the bust of 2007.

I'm staying in a motel in the new part of town, near the intersection of Row River and No Name Street, whose stop light appears to be the nexus of the new town, a wasteland consisting of fry pits, strip malls, gas stations, motels, and anchored by the inevitable Wal-Mart. Fully 80 percent of the businesses in this part of town operate out of plastic buildings and have familiar corporate names.

The barn advertising Dr. Pierce's Pleasant Pellets is just north of the old town, on Highway 99, and its condition is very much like that of most of old Cottage Grove's downtown and main street. Old town is dilapidated and seedy, but not dead, unlike the majority of small towns in the western U.S., whose original downtown districts are ruins consisting mostly of boarded-up storefronts, with the monotony of desolation broken only by the occasional "antiques" store or run-down rooms-by-the-week-or-month motel.

But there's still traffic, people on the streets, and a lively atmosphere in old Cottage Grove, despite its having obviously seen better days, and there's even more potential for this town of slightly under 10,000 to become a vital and important local center, because it sits in the middle of prime agricultural land. As our futureless civilization or anti-civilization or whatever you want to call it disintegrates over the next 20 years or so...well, I'll let Jim Kunstler tell it like it is:

...(W)e might become something other than an industrial "consumer" society. My narrative includes the conviction that we will have trouble producing food for ourselves as petro-agriculture fails, and since society can't go on without food production, I see this activity coming back much closer to the center of our daily lives. We're not ready to think about that. The downside of our unreadiness may be that a lot of Americans will go hungry in the decade ahead.
None of this is an argument for despair, by the way, but it certainly invokes the need for steeply revised expectations and serious attention to a national "to-do" list. We're on our way to becoming another nation, whether we like it or not.

In the years to come, as places like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles empty out for environmental and economic reasons, places like Cottage Grove, Oregon, Springfield, Illinois, and thousands of small, rural towns like them will grow in significance and influence, out of necessity. People have to eat, after all. And I hope when that happens, people will revivify their old downtowns and residential neighborhoods, and bulldoze the strip mall cancers that now surround them, killing them like malignant tumors.

So now I suppose you're asking why I'm staying in the new, ugly Cottage Grove, if it's so yucky and carcinogenic, instead of in old town, which after all is cool and organic and where the future lies and all that good stuff. The simple answer is because the motels in old town don't have wireless internet, plus their only outstanding quality is that they're cheap to stay in. Bill and Sally's Shady Rest really is not anywhere near as nicely appointed as the Comfort Inn, sad to say. But maybe someday it will be, again. It does look to have seen better days.

Also, I can't vouch for the pleasantness or lack thereof of Dr. Pierce's pellets, celebrated with such conservative calligraphic rectitude on the facade of that old barn. I just hope the doctor doesn't keep rabbits in his or her back yard.

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