Closing Out (a community)

This is the last part of my “Closing Out” series; where I give the down-low of life when we moved from The Dalles, OR to Helena, MT.


I grew up in Dufur, OR, just down Highway 197 from The Dalles. As a kid, the function of The Dalles was grocery shopping and the occasional movie and dinner destination. I didn’t really do a lot there. Growing up in the area, I knew a couple things about The Dalles; It got stupid hot in the summer and the town smelled like a chimney in desperate need of a cleaning. It was also a town that I never hear much good report of. All of the rough-edged kids I went to school with made their trouble in The Dalles. To a straight-laced Christian kid who lived off the grid, I didn’t make space for it in my life. I give you that background because when offered the opportunity to accept a job in White Salmon, WA, that bias was in my mind. “We’re not going to live in The Dalles!” we proclaimed to ourselves when I decided to take the position.

Jess’s parents live (maybe lived by the time you read this, they are moving to Helena…) in The Dalles. We planned to just spend a month or so living with them while we tracked down a home near my workplace. Due to a delayed close on the house we were selling in Bozeman and a steep increase in the price of homes in the area, we were all of a sudden unable to afford anything closer to White Salmon. Even the rent in the area was absurdly high. So, The Dalles, it was and after several months living with my in-laws, we needed a place of our own. Not that it was miserable living with them, we just couldn’t be “us” when we lived under someone else’s roof.

I mentioned community in my last post, and it’s this subject that make categorizing our time in The Dalles hard. On one hand, The Dalles is a terrible place. The best way I can put it, is that people get stuck there, maybe for a couple years, maybe forever. But on the other hand, it’s a place so full of potential with some of the most dedicated people trying to make something happen there so others can see it. It’s an odd dichotomy, right? Both sides were pretty evident, but we made a choice to be involved in the later movement.

As both Jess and I have been towing the ol’ entrepreneurial wagon behind us for a while, we set up shop in The Dalles. As Jess was looking to focus on her brand, we decided to set her up under her own business name. She started focusing on couples photography and that eventually led to some opportunities to network build and work for some other small business owners in the area. It was here that we felt the most community. We even had some classic dinners turned sincere gatherings that won’t be soon forgotten. The type of kitchen table discussion that leads to great conversations. Good questions were asked, maybe some solutions, but most definitely more excitement for things to come. One of the things that pained me most in leaving was not getting to be a part of what some of these amazing people were doing.

But that was just a portion of what our experience in The Dalles consisted of. My memories of hot summers were definitely accurate, and the winters ended up being more annoying than anything I had to deal with in Montana. (side note: ice at temperatures right around the freezing point is terrible. I’ll take 20˚ F snow packed road any day over that stuff). My optimism about being close to the recreational outdoors waned. Many of the popular trails were overrun by Portlanders or the type of trails nearby just weren’t conducive to hike with a toddler. Running also was harder to work in. Because of my work schedule (4am wake up call anyone?) but also because the town is built on a hill. That means everyday is a hill workout. I enjoyed some of my runs especially if the sun made its appearance. Jess loves running, if you didn’t know, and this town dampened even her spirits when it came to hitting the pavement. For one, hills are made even more evident with a stroller and two, sidewalks were so inconsistent that there were some pretty dicey situations of running in the street.

Unfortunately, the second thing about The Dalles I remembered from my youth was also true. It smelled like a dirty chimney. May seem like an odd thing, but it’s actually because of a railroad tie treatment plant on the east end of town. I grew up in a house that was 100% heated by wood fire, and a nasty byproduct of burning wood is creosote. It’s a sticky, black substance that coats the chimney and coats everything. I still have books from my childhood that smell of it. In this case, the creosote coats railroad ties, giving them greater endurance to the elements. On still mornings, our house sat in a particular zone in town where the smell sat until air started moving and dispelling the scent. It was my bad for buying a home in that zone, but it got to me some mornings.

It may seem at this point that I’m just ragging on this town. I don’t have much love for the place, but that doesn’t mean I want it to fail. It was rough paying high property taxes, and seeing relatively few things improve and others fall into disrepair. The local grumblings of corruption in the local government didn’t help either. Many people live there because they have to, not because they want to and that can bread some toxic apathy. But the people who are trying to make an impact, turn the corner and transform The Dalles into a place where people want to live, that excites me. They are trying to turn the focus inward rather than using what remnants of historical relevance to hock “tourism” to passerbys.

Just because everything isn’t ideal, doesn’t mean great community can’t exist. I think, sometimes, that we get so focused on how we look to the outside, that we forget to work on the inside. My best hopes and wishes go out to these people who are making an impact. I hope it inspires more people to join in. If what I’ve seen and experienced in my short time there is testament to anything, it will catch on. Slow at first, but as people come into community with one another, it will spread like wildfire.

And there we have it. Another long-winded essay into the past two years living in Oregon, working in Washington and what it means to me. This season has stretched me in ways, some welcome, and others not. As we are expecting a new addition to our household any moment now (as of writing this, Jess’s due date was two days ago) this new season marks a new chapter. I’m far more grateful for what I have than what I have not and I cannot wait to explore this new season with great expectation of what is to come.

Posted by Brent

A God fearing, husband to one amazing woman, and a father to a handsome son (with another child on the way!) A media making, camera wielding, sometimes-running, outdoor enthusing, tinkering, coffee loving man. Oh, and he also does some IT stuff... Brent lives in the beautiful PNW! He is the founder of Thirty Five Media, member of Approach International, and Web & Media Manager for Headwaters Economics.