Friday, January 19, 2007

Aumsville: A Portrait of a Small Oregon Town

Aumsville is a town-let, the sort of place that never has had much life of its own, given the short eight-mile hop from the larger city of Salem. The long, wide corridor of highway 22 carves its way through the purple-blue Cascade Mountains, passing by unaware of tiny Aumsville away to the south.

If one noticed the exit off to the right of the highway and followed the short distance into the core of “downtown” Aumsville, one would find a town of mixed character: fine, newer construction set haphazardly among broken homes, their yards filled with the carcasses of old automobiles and the windblown yellow of overgrown grass. Walking or biking along the streets of town, one sees the scurrying teenage population wandering with the awkward poise and affected detachment that only junior high school can impress upon a person.

In some sense, the center of the town’s identity is anchored at the small, sparsely stocked grocery store at the center of town. Its parking lot is small and uneven, a few American-made cars and one or two expensive imports barely populate its fading yellow lines. Walking inside, the store is closer akin to a gas-and-convenience store than the one-stop grocery malls that provision our American suburbs. The store never quite has everything on the shopping list, and the outrageous prices ensure the dwarf-sized shopping baskets pushed by patrons are never quite full.

The patrons themselves are a mixed lot, just like the homes that spread out from the grocery store like worker bees from the hive. Some are well-groomed soccer moms trailing children who eye greedily the candy bar and toy displays scattered about the store. Others are older residents of Aumsville, those who have sustained its economy for decades and who are not about to leave town to save a few dollars on milk. A few teens hang out at the magazine racks, flipping through People and Guitar; long, black-haired and pimple-faced boys steal glances at the glossy contents of the latest Maxim. Here and there, a flannel-clad man with a baseball cap cradles a carton of eggs or a case of beer.

While the store maintains four or five checkout stands, one rarely sees more than two of them in operation, a cart or two waiting in line for a turn at the newly-installed debit card sliders or selecting a Scratch-It from the Plexiglas display. A corner of the store holds an equally small selection of VHS tapes and DVDs for rent. Most appear to be 80’s movies.

Along Main Street, down from the grocery store, run a discordant array of shops—the Pizza Peddler, a venerable gas station with a dozen owners in twice as many years, an established and respected veterinary clinic clearly serving more than dogs and cats, judging by the trailers and trucks along the driveway. A post office squats, bunker-like, between shops, a single glass door granting entrance to its blank brick face.

All along Main Street, one finds a short grid of streets venturing off into streets lined with homes, the same sort found in every American town. There are the older homes, the nicer homes, the cul de sacs, the parks with the fun but rusting merry-go-rounds and swings and the newer, safer, and less interesting plastic slides and climbers. Churches too dot the streets: churches too young for the mystery of stone and stained glass, too old for the hip-ness of multimedia projectors and espresso carts.

Nearer the edge of town, just beyond Aumsville’s claim to anything like an industrial area lies Aumsville Elementary School, a brick edifice of narrow aspect but impressive grounds. A wide gravel parking lot and a shifting row of yellow school buses throughout most days speaks to the vitality of the place, a congress of families who make up the core of the town.

In the distance, where Main Street and Aumsville Highway intersect, a larger than usual city park straddles the road that leads out of town. One side is a new, all-concrete skate park, well-appointed for a such a small town. The other side is the decades-older park which backs up to Mill Creek. The park, filled with tall pines and broad-armed oaks, awaits the summertime for the Corn Festival, the town’s best claim to solidarity and joy. There, between the two parks, suspended on a cable above the road, a lone yellow light blinks slowly. It is a thin curtain through which one may leave the veil of Aumsville for the green of rural Oregon.

1 comment:

ted said...

You forgot to mention the smell of the dairy. Or the huge sewage pond across 22 from your parent's house. You also forgot to mention the Aumsville Market where a kid can still go buy throwing stars or glass pipes and water bongs next to the sign that says, "for tobacco use only."