It was late afternoon by the time I arrived in John Day, Oregon via highway 395. The light had taken on a beautiful golden tint you sometimes see at the end of the day – the kind that can make a garbage dump look like Venice in the spring.
395 turns into John Day’s main street, with most of downtown lining either side. Signs welcoming home 3 local boys from their tours of duty in Afghanistan were up in every window and there were yellow ribbons around the trees. Unlike Fox and Dale, two down-at-heel hamlets I’d passed through earlier in the day, John Day, seemed like a pleasant, welcoming example of Small Town America.
The first crack in that facade came when I pulled into my motel, the Little Pine
Inn at the far end of downtown. On the outside it looked no worse than anywhere else I’ve ever stayed. Sure, the rough-looking woman who checked me in had a voice like Captain Beefheart and the only other guest was a bearded man who claimed to live in the mountains but I wrote it all off as part of being in a blue collar town well off the beaten track. Then I saw my room.
“Lived in” is one way to describe it, “I expected to find Bob Crane’s tenderized corpse in the bathroom” is another. The brown shag carpet was long enough to hide a marijuana grow-op from passing helicopters, several of the lights didn’t work and everything was covered in what is best described as a thin film made up of equal parts dirt and neglect. When I looked in the bathroom what I saw made me wish I’d found Hogan’s moldering corpse instead. Radiating out from the toilet’s base was a thick ring of accumulated dirt (I refuse to believe it was anything more) and nothing, from the sink to the shower stall, was quite what I’d call clean.
After dropping my luggage and vigorously washing my hands I set off down
Main Street to find dinner. The sun was now almost fully set save for a pink band where the mountains met the sky. The downtown that had, not two hours before, felt like a living advertisement for war bonds now felt like a small seaside town an in H.P. Lovecraft story right before something tentacled rose from the sea and caused everyone to require fresh underpants.
The Mayberry facade cracked and fell apart when I noticed that in many of the windows – right next to the signs welcoming home John Day’s troops – was another sign forbidding entry to anyone displaying neo-Nazi apparel or tattoos. They warned that in the eyes of the community everyone was created equal and hate would not be tolerated. Suddenly I regretted shaving my head before leaving home.
Just then, as if to drive the point home, a scrawny twenty-something with a shaved head and swastika tattoo on his bicep rode past on a bicycle. I guessed John Day, like a lot of towns that have seen better days, was having a hard time keeping its young men occupied when work ran thin.
Dinner was beer and pizza in the Dirty Shame Saloon, not far from the motel.
It was your typical small-town watering hole where the menu incorporates the entire nutritional pyramid (pizza, hamburgers, chicken, deep-fried) and the locals eye you up as you walk in.
Ever paranoid I sat with my back to the wall and ate while a fat woman in a tie-dyed T-shirt sang along with the jukebox. To distract myself I set my mind to figuring out whether the mullet-sporting person who kind of looked like Meat Loaf in the video for “I’d Do Anything For Love” and was stood at the far end of the bar was a woman or a man. After 20 minutes I failed to come away with an answer.
When Aretha was done at the jukebox I could suddenly hear a group of middle-aged tourists at a nearby table discussing “The Celestine Prophecy”, a 1993 novel full of New-Age hooey. The conversation was more literate than I was expecting, given that the book has less intellectual value than “Go Dog Go”. Then one of the participants said, “I’d rather read a list of quotes than an entire book” & I realized I wasn’t listening to people, I was listening to organic tape recorders.
Then I heard “Where love rules there is no will to power” and decided it was a good time to head back to the motel.
Brennan Storr writes the blog Largely the Truth