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A return to my hometown

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By BEN OLSON/for The Herald  —  I can only imagine what it’s like to grow up in a normal American town. When you return to your childhood home after some time away, things have changed, but not that much. The old Swanson place has been torn down and they put up a duplex there. New curb and gutter on Elm Street has improved the look in that neighborhood. More dining options on the by-pass include a Taco Bell and a Denny’s.

I grew up in a summer tourist town. From Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, my town of 3000 people entertained up to 30,000 tourists every day. People came from all over the world to visit the sights and ride the rides, but mostly they came from Chicago. Seasonal businesses opened in May and got the bulk of their employees when the high schools and state colleges let out. The season would build, and by the 4th of July everything was in full swing for the next 7 weeks. Business  began to let up when the big city schools opened up for classes in late August. The “leafhoppers” would continue to arrive in September and October to take in the fall colors, but by November the tourists were all gone and we lived in a small midwestern town for the next 6 months.

Sometime, between my youth and the fall of the Soviet Union, that all changed. Perhaps it was the local indigenous American Indian tribe turning their smoke shop into a bingo hall, which quickly turned into a real casino. Maybe it was the dog racing track, one of six scattered around the state. (they all folded up within 5 years, thanks to the onset of native American Indian casinos) Perhaps it was the timeshare resort at the golf course and 250 foot vertical drop ski hill just west of town.

We got a McDonalds at one of the lightly developed exits off the freeway. I was told that, at the time, it was the first McDonalds in the state to open in a town of less than 10,000 residents.  I would venture to say that what turned our seasonal tourist town into a year-round enterprise was the opening of the two largest indoor water parks in the world. There are 10 of them now.

This all takes a little getting used to. Coming back after only a year of being away, you notice a turnover of t-shirt shops, souvenir stores, eateries and bars. New signs and logos are always brighter and flashier than the ones they replaced. Dumpy old motels get a facelift and new tourist attractions  pop up to compete with the ones that have been there for generations.

The town really isn’t much more populated than when I was a lad. The graduating class at the local high school is about 125 students, the same as my class of ‘71. Of course there is a need for several thousand employees to keep all these businesses running. Many of the workers commute from surrounding towns, towns that are a little cheaper to live in. Most come from foreign countries on special work visas and live in dorms during their stay.

The downside to living in this kind of place? Lots of city people on a holiday bring their big city behavior to town. Traffic congestion is a problem that’s been around as long as I can remember. When the only bridge crossing the river between town and where most of the motels and attractions are located was turned from 2 lane to 4 lane, it didn’t solve the problem of getting anyone the parking space they were looking for. As a high schooler, there was one stoplight in town- now there are 26, and counting, as well as roundabouts to confuse the uninitiated.

The upside? In a town the size of Oakridge there are 200 dining options for all tastes and budgets. You can get any kind of ethnic food you desire and there are more than 2 dozen fine dining supper clubs. If you like to golf, there are 6 courses within a few miles of town. This is the Midwest, though, and if you drive 3 miles out of town in any direction, it’s corn fields and cows.

It was a fun place to grow up, and my salad days were filled with a smorgasbord of delights. The road goes on forever and the party never ends, or so it seemed at the time. At some point, you have to grow up, though, and life takes you in other directions. When I finally moved to the Cascades, I wondered why I hadn’t done it 40 years ago. Better late than never. Though I am currently in my old home town for a visit with old friends, there are many aspects of the old adage “you can never go back” that ring true. The town I grew up in is gone, replaced by something I don’t recognize.

Ben Olson, musician and Oakridge Resident, with his standup bass Ben Olson photo

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