In the United States, there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes America what it is.
Wallowa County has been part of my family’s life since the 1950s. We started coming here because my father’s cousin, Jean Sharff, lived in Enterprise with her physician husband, Dr. Bob Sharff.
On our first visit to the Sharff home, I marveled at Prairie Creek, which rushed through their yard on Southeast Second Street. In the 1960s, Bob took me fishing on the Grande Ronde at Troy, Oregon.
When our publishing company purchased the Wallowa County Chieftain from the Don Swart family in 2000, our family’s relationship with the Switzerland of America deepened.
Now my wife and I are concluding three weeks in Enterprise while I’ve been interim editor of the Chieftain.
It has been a gift to reside here for more than a two-day stay. We climbed the East Moraine of Wallowa Lake. We took in a fabulous Bluegrass band at the OK Theatre. We heard the Blue Mountain Old Time Fiddlers at the Hurricane Creek Grange – an evening that was like a moment in a movie. We’ve found great places to eat. And we’ve met quite a spectrum of people. This culture of Wallowa County is rich.
It has been a delight to gaze at the Wallowa Mountains on my walk to work. If one had the time, he could make a meditation of this mountain range, as the Japanese do with Mount Fuji. In my own musing on the mountains, I imagine that the Valkyries of Norse and German mythology live up there. It’s where they fly to on horseback, with fallen heroes.
The Astoria counterpart would be the surging Columbia River, on its final sprint to the Pacific Ocean. Gaze across that wide span in mid-November with some imagination and you’ll see Lewis and Clark’s canoes, on the brink of what would become a dangerous week, trapped at what Clark called “this Dismal Nitch.”
There is a striking similarity between Astoria and Wallowa County – one I did not anticipate. In both places the weather dynamic can change in a matter of minutes. In Astoria, the Pacific Ocean generates the weather. In Wallowa it seems to be the vast mountain range.
If you write for a daily newspaper, your nervous system becomes wired to reach a peak at certain hours in the day. For me, at The Daily Astorian, it was 10 am.
The weekly newspaper rhythm is different. I had done this once before, in the first three years of the Portland alternative paper, Willamette Week. Once the cycle peaks and the paper is in print, your nervous system begins the gradual ascent to the next paper.
To survive in newspaper publishing demands innovation in the digital world. That is what our company is doing. One of our innovations, called Marketplace, recently won first place in a national competition. The Local Media Association, a national organization, gave EO Media Group first place in the category of Best New Digital Initiative. It was sweet recognition, because our team was pitted against much larger media organizations.
Even with the overlay of technology, our company’s basic mission remains the same. And that is news gathering. When I arrived here in February, reporter Kathleen Ellyn had finished a major article on how the Affordable Care Act affects Wallowa County and its hospital. Ellyn’s got to the heart of how the ACA debate in Congress affects rural America. Two weeks later reporter Steve Tool turned out a story freighted with emotion – on bullying in the local schools.
City dwellers succumb to the illusion that big things don’t happen in small, rural places. But they do. Moreover, the human fabric in small towns is just as rich as in cities. Our small weekly, the Blue Mountain Eagle in 2010 covered a huge story when a branch of the Aryan Nation sought to make Grant County its new home.
My wife and I leave Enterprise this week excited about this place. If our publisher Marissa Williams needs help again, I expect we’ll sign up.
Steve Forrester ends his term as interim editor of The Chieftain. He is retired editor of the Daily Astorian and is president and CEO of EO Media Group.