Maupin capture

A Sort of Homecoming

By A.J. Mangum

I never would’ve guessed I’d be writing a column about my hometown of Maupin, Oregon. Located in Central Oregon’s Wasco County, Maupin occupies opposite banks of a remote stretch of the Deschutes River. A state highway doubles as the main drag, home to a service station, a hardware store, a grocery store, and the landmark Rainbow Tavern. There isn’t a stoplight to be found, but with just over 400 residents, Maupin is the major population center for this part of the county, with the relative metropolis of The Dalles – home to 14,000 people and, of all things, a Google server farm – the better part of an hour away.

When people tell me they’re from “small” towns, I scoff and demand stats.

In spite of its diminutive population figures, Maupin has serious bragging rights. The Deschutes offers world-class whitewater and fly-fishing, drawing from all points on the globe outdoorsmen looking to take on some of the continent’s most challenging rapids or snag record steelhead. Every fly-fishing aficionado I’ve ever met, anywhere, knows the Deschutes, if only by reputation; they’ve always seemed taken aback, though, when forced to contemplate Maupin as anything other than a tourist destination. I once interviewed the novelist and die-hard fisherman Thomas McGuane; mid-conversation, he turned the tables on me, opening with, “So, you’re actually from Maupin? From there?”

Maupin doesn’t have many other claims to fame. It’s worked its way into pop culture a time or two, albeit in understated fashion: director Gus Van Sant shot a brief scene for My Own Private Idaho just outside town; and, I’ve always suspected that author Craig Lesley used Maupin as the model for the fictional town of Gateway, the setting for his novel The Sky Fisherman. (Others will advocate for other Central Oregon locales like Bend or Madras, but Gateway’s similarities to Maupin are too numerous to ignore.) In the mainstream, though, Maupin tends to stay off the radar.

Imagine my surprise when I learned of the Imperial Stock Ranch, featured in this issue, in an article by New Mexico writer Emily Esterson. The ranch, located just outside Maupin, near the ghost town of Shaniko, recently gained worldwide attention as the supplier of the wool Ralph Lauren used in creating the distinctive sweaters worn by the 2014 U.S. Olympic team. The Imperial distributes its wool products all over the country, and has its own fashion line.

There’s a bizarre combination of words and phrases in the preceding paragraph: Ralph Lauren, the Olympics, fashion … Maupin. That thunderous crashing sound you hear? Worlds colliding.

Reading Emily’s manuscript triggered a bit of nostalgia, prompting me to call up Google Maps for some virtual navigation of modern-day Maupin, thanks to Google’s street view. I have to admit, I soon had a lump in my throat. As Google’s camera-car begins its descent into town, the sky over Maupin is a deep blue, a shade I’ve seen only rarely outside the Northwest. The Deschutes is an even deeper blue as it carves its way through a dramatic high-desert canyon.

On the main thoroughfare – Deschutes Avenue, aka Highway 197 – things are quiet. Three cars are in motion. A man is suspended in mid-step on the sidewalk in front of the hardware store. A woman approaches the door of the Rainbow (more power to her). Another woman prepares to jaywalk, a risk-free proposition on this particular day. Homes of high-school friends are easily recognizable, frozen in time, and a couple of businesses that were open in my youth still appear to be operating.

So much has changed, though.

While it’s always catered to rafters and fishermen, Maupin has clearly matured into a tourism-centric town, fully embracing outdoor recreation as its key industry. (The town’s sawmill closed, if memory serves, in the late 1980s, dark days for the timber trade.) Continuing my street-view tour, I see that rafting and fly shops, once relegated to Maupin’s outskirts, now occupy storefronts along Deschutes Avenue. A photo studio, specializing in rafting images, does business next to the grocery store. There’s a real estate office, for crying out loud. And someone opened a bank? (In my day, we drove an hour to deposit a check, and we liked it!)

When you grow up in a small, remote town, familiarity can breed contempt. It can be tough to appreciate your immediate surroundings, as unique and beautiful as they might be, when you yearn to see and experience more. When you do get out in the world, you might not give the old stomping grounds much thought – that is, until a random reference prompts you to revisit, if only virtually. The advantage to a prolonged absence: that which once seemed oppressively overly familiar becomes new again, and takes on an excitingly foreign context. The place begs to be rediscovered.

It’s a concept of particular importance in today’s rural West. Young folks leave small towns in droves, typically for good reasons: educations, jobs, viable futures. As a result, the communities they leave behind often struggle to maintain their populations, economies and identities. There might be a certain Darwinism at work, though: the small towns that will survive – maybe even thrive – have qualities (scenery, recreation, tranquility) that will always draw newcomers, and perhaps lure back some former residents. That new blood pulls the local economy into the present day, creating opportunities and adding to a town’s character. While some small communities will fight losing battles for their existences, others – like Maupin, it seems – will live on, evolving and improving, keeping at bay demographers’ predictions for slow, steady declines into irrelevance.

My street-view virtual tour of Maupin ends quickly, as the driver of Google’s camera-car never veers from the state highway; side streets, sadly, remain unexplored. We descend a steep hill and cross a narrow bridge spanning the Deschutes. Soon, Maupin is left behind and the camera-car continues south on 197, beginning its 50-mile trek to Madras.

I’m not ready to end my visit, so I search online for contemporary images of Maupin. I locate a terrific panoramic by Portland photographer Scott Ripley. In Scott’s photo, the Deschutes wraps itself around the east edge of town. Visible whitewater offers a reminder of the river’s dual personality: hypnotic tranquility punctuated with occasional interruptions of deafening violence. A train travels tracks that parallel the river. Behind the train’s engine, boxcars stretch into the distance. The homes and buildings comprising Maupin nearly disappear into the landscape. There’s a splendid isolation, to borrow from Warren Zevon; the rest of the world is an abstract notion, a theoretical place that might begin at a safe distance far down the rimrock canyon that carries the river.

The little town where I grew up is clearly a special place. And, even though much of my youth was dominated by escape plans and thoughts of what might be found at the end of that canyon, it likely always was a special place.

Editor’s Note, Ranch & Reata magazine, June/July 2014