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Notes from the North

When I was growing up in the Silicon Valley during the 1960s, a mindset everyone there seemed to share was that California was not only the best place in America to be, it was the best place in the whole world to live. We had a wonderful array of climates, and you could be surfing in Santa Cruz in the morning and Skiing in Tahoe in the afternoon if you wanted. There were sweltering deserts and frosty glaciers, lush redwood rain forests and the Hawaiian-like Channel Islands, whatever terrain, climate or environment you wanted we had it.

We went to school in modern new buildings, drove on a new system of state-of-the-art highways, and everywhere you looked there were great works of engineering and forward-looking government infrastructure investments.

Higher education was affordable for all and the rise of Silicon Valley to a world-leading economic powerhouse was built on that foundation of first-class state colleges and universities. The future looked bright and promising, and there was no reason to think anything would ever challenge that belief.

But the reality was by the 1990s things were changing and life got tougher in my home state, and that downward trajectory continued with still today no end in sight, so when I recently decided to retire I began to look elsewhere for a place to hopefully spend some golden years. Wanting to stay close to family meant the options were narrowed considerably, and getting on in years also meant really not wanting to deal with too much rain, snow or the heat of the southwest. Having a lifelong attachment to the mountains narrowed the search even more, and I eventually wound up on a hilltop in southern Oregon with much of the Siskiyou mountain range spread out before me. 

Southern Oregon is just like California — only different. The valley I overlook is filled with some familiar crops, mostly wine grapes and cannabis/hemp grows, just like back home. That's where the similarities with those two crops end, because unlike back in California the cannabis grows here are frequently huge, as are the support industries and the retailing of the end product. Most of the cannabis is grown in enormous greenhouses, many of which cover acres of land each and are sometimes over 45 feet tall and 400 feet long. Unlike in my former home of Lake County, you have to get way off the beaten path to spot the illegal grows here, and although fairly numerous they all seem to be very small scale mom-and-pop affairs. In Lake County much of the illegal cannabis industry is run by Mexican gangsters, who oftentimes treat their workers like slaves and treat the surrounding environment even worse, as they steal water from springs and streams while leaving piles of trash around their grows.

In Oregon I have seen no sign of that foreign organized crime involvement, and unlike back in Lake County, I’ve also seen absolutely no trace of the gang graffiti that covers almost every stationary roadside object between Lakeport and Kelseyville-including some unlucky homes and businesses!

In nearby Medford I have seen a small amount of political graffiti, but no sign of the “MS 13” and other gang tagging seen so often Lake County’s southern half. There are some unsavory types around southern Oregon, generally of the white trash meth-head variety plus the typical rural backwoods rednecks along with the homeless, but they are the exception in my neighborhood and in the nearby cities of Medford and Grants Pass the demographics are decidedly middle class. I have seen some really disturbing behavior by the homeless in Medford along the I-5 corridor, stuff as bad but on a smaller scale than what I have seen in San Francisco or the East Bay, but at least up here the panhandlers don’t make you consider getting a concealed carry permit.

Speaking of guns, everyone here seems to have them and even in my semi-upscale neighborhood it is not at all unusual to hear someone rapid-fire empty a 30 round magazine with their AR or AK, unlike back home where the state limits your rifles and handguns to ten round mags and bans guns with the wrong color grips while making you jump through expensive hoops just to buy ammo. The police presence in the valley is almost nonexistent, and the low crime rate is likely at least partly because of the high level of citizen gun ownership, it's sort of the reverse of Lake County where the cops are everywhere and so is the crime-but the guns not so much.

Some of the easier adjustments to make involve the cost of living-or the lack of it. There is no sales tax, there is no state income tax, and property taxes are low, too. There are several reasons for this, the main one being that Oregon doesn’t have the enormous self-serving Sacramento-based bureaucracy California has allowed to develop. One of the other reasons for the lack of tax burdens on ordinary citizens is that the huge lumber industry is taxed, and it pays the freight on a lot of government spending. Yes, the clear-cuts are ugly (thankfully there are none in my vast view shed), but there are the glorious roads! The great road quality is also partly due to the lumber industry, unlike in California where ordinary drivers choke-up vast sums every time they fill their tank due to taxes and oil industry price fixing, gas prices here have been between $2.20 and $2.50 a gallon this year and I recently filled a 5 gallon propane tank for $6! Lake County-maintained roads are an utter disgrace, in Lakeport and Clearlake they are even worse, in some places there are more lumpy patches than original pavement and Lakeport has never been able to even keep it’s main drag decently paved!

Even in the middle of nowhere here you find high quality pavement and great maintenance on the roads, I hear that in the big cities up north (like Portland, Eugene and Salem) the roads are not so good but that is likely mainly due to bad local management and a lot more rain. One adjustment California drivers have to make in Oregon is to the fairly consistent lack of shoulders on the roads, and the almost mandatory deep ditch there instead, which is likely the result of the thinking of people in state government based in the rainy northern part of the state. Another adjustment involves some of the traffic rules, like the flashing or steady yellow arrow signal light for left turns, or the amusing city-placed sign (recently removed) in Grants Pass which warned drivers of a “surprise intersection” downtown. Like everything else the government does here auto registration is far cheaper than in California, and much simpler too.

The flip side of the road coin is that roughly 20% of Oregon drivers seem to have learned their motoring manners from watching Mad Max movies, they will tailgate you like a NASCAR driver until they pass you at a high rate of speed on a blind corner. Maybe that's why the crosswalks are so well marked, they want pedestrians to know every time they step off the sidewalk they are taking their life in their hands.

The housing market is tight here, though by California standards still a bargain, and many businesses have help-wanted signs up that offer $13-$15 starting pay for entry level jobs like pumping gas (there are no self-serve stations in Oregon). Some retail items like certain food products are cheaper as are many services like garbage rates, which aren’t only lower but give you more than twice as big a can! Having no sales tax is a hard brain adjustment for life-long California residents like me to fully make as we have been programmed to mentally add 8/9/10% to the cost of everything, the savings on sales tax alone are enormous, especially when you buy something big like a car. 

Well, you may be thinking, that's all well and good but who wants all that rain? I hear this almost every time I told people I was moving, but oddly enough this part of Oregon gets roughly half the annual rainfall of Lake County, the big difference being that that rain comes over 9-10 months instead of over 4-5 months as it does in California. Once you get up north to the Umpqua basin and Roseburg that changes and it gets a lot wetter, but down in this end of the state we get California-like weather, just a little cooler in the summer and a little less cold in the winter-hence the town motto in Grants Pass of “Its the climate”.

The people here are pretty nice once you get past their dismay at so many Californians coming here to drive-up real estate prices and change the somewhat conservative political dynamics outside of the big cities, and in much of rural Oregon the demographics are much like most of today’s rural America-lots of gray-haired types like me. I guess we have to hope they will have robots running the nation’s farms in the near future because rural America has been in decline for decades, both in terms of economics and population. That's another reason I left Lake County, I owned property there for 37 years and watched it go downhill on multiple levels for that entire time, unlike there around here you see lots of new commercial development and a vibrant economy, even on the small end of the scale.

Instead of just two crops like in Lake County, here in Southern Oregon there is diversified farming with lots of local produce available, and cannabis is far better accepted as a part of legit agriculture. Some wineries have cannabis or hemp growing side-by-side with their grapes, and nobody freaks out when a massive cannabis grow goes in near a school or homes-it may stink a bit but so does the local dairy. The wineries are different too, no big corporate operations like in Lake County, where Gallo, Kendall-Jackson, Beckstoffer and Mondavi all have massive vineyards. Instead it's all the boutique-type family owned variety, and on my street there are around a dozen small wineries which draw carloads of tourists on the weekends to their tasting rooms.

It all makes me wonder how California went so wrong; we had the smart people but the dumb outcomes, and according to a recent poll 60% of the people under 30 want to leave the Bay Area. In Lake County the grape growers and cannabis growers are on different planets and always pointing fingers at each other; here little of that dynamic seems to exist and unlike there here you can see clear evidence of the positive economic impact of the cannabis biz. In Lake County they had fewer candidates for the Clearlake city council than openings for a seat this election — a weird situation that tells you how incredibly little public interest there is in trying to make things better. Here, the number of local candidates for public office is almost overwhelming, and every point on the political spectrum seems to be represented by a candidate.

I feel like I lived through California’s golden age and into its decline, it's still a nice place to visit but now I have a nicer place to go home to — which hopefully won’t change before I’m gone!

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