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Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Mountaindale General Store

Mountaindale isn't really a place. At least, it's not anymore, and it hasn't been for a long time.

When I was a child, there was a little store with a gas pump at the intersection of a couple quiet country roads. For me, it was a sort of landmark; we turned at the store, went past the old, red, one-room schoolhouse, and then we were at Grandma's house. A few times my grandmother took me on a quick errand to get milk or butter at the Mountaindale General Store, although we usually went into the small nearby town of North Plains or further to Cornelius or Hillsboro for any more significant shopping. My memory of the Mountaindale General Store is not very clear, but in my imagination it was a creaky old wooden affair with a few creaky old locals hanging out inside.

Appropriately, during the store's waning years, it served as a shooting location for an episode of some forgotten TV show titled Nowhere Man. I never watched it, but the reviews on IMDb are quite positive. Mountaindale played the role of a Southern town with a population of 37.  "Is this the whole town?" the protagonist asks after getting off the bus. The store was the last remnant of Mountaindale to close.

Recently, I turned down the road past the vacant store when I was in Portland on a business trip. After flying across the country, I took a brief moment with my father to drive by my grandparents' old farm. I had trouble spotting the old red school house, which had been relocated on the same property and repainted a tan color. At my grandparents old place, the barn had fallen down, which did not surprise me. Its cracked frame was barely still standing that last time I came to pick up my grandmother. The house was still there, which did surprise me. Its moldering remains should have been knocked down and cleared out years ago.

The store up the road, meanwhile, was falling apart somewhat more slowly. Interesting, I thought, since it was so much older than the barn my mother and uncle helped my grandfather build when they were children. I did not take the time to stop to take any photos, but Google Streetview did capture images once, in 2012. My grandmother's farm is beyond the reach of Google Streetview, which leaves off right at the Mountaindale General Store. Even in its afterlife on the internet, Mountaindale is the last outpost of commerce.

Since the Streetsview images were taken in 2012, the store's porch has slumped significantly more. All that is left of Mountaindale today is this slowly collapsing old wooden building; a relocated, unmarked old school house down the road that could be mistaken for a shed; the name on a winding country road; and, somehow, a marker on Google Maps and an entry on Wikipedia recounting the history of this former place.

 As we drove through the surrounding countryside, my father lamented that when Oregon passed its major land use laws in the 1970s, he thought this landscape would stay the same. To a shocking extent it actually has. Growth in Hillsboro and Beaverton has been explosive, and Intel's headquarters is a mere 15 minute drive away. It takes 20 minutes to drive to Nike's headquarters, yet the biggest change within a couple miles of my grandmother's old farm is the realignment of 90-degree turns on the road to make more gentle curves so drivers don't keep rolling their cars in the ditch (like my mother did as a teenager learning to drive).  Rather than fading away into the open fields, Mountaindale would have become a sprawling subdivision decades ago without the urban growth boundary.

My father was reacting to the growth in the nearest town, which we drove through, as well as a thin smattering of exurban houses that have popped up over the years. The little town nearby, North Plains, is within the urban growth boundary, and the new residential areas and additional commercial activity is a marked difference from the tiny, sleepy main street where I would go on errands with my grandfather decades ago. Additionally, some of the houses built in recent decades are conspicuous; in many cases McMansions have replaced older, more modest homes.

The fate of my grandmother's old property will be somewhat different. The new owners plan to replace the derelict old house down by the road with their new home up in the woods on the back end of the property. Like the McMansions we drove by, this new house will certainly be more expensive than the house it replaces, but it will be less visible in the countryside.

No landscape ever remains unchanged, and the change here has been quite slow. In fact, for the most part the change has been invisible as the vernacular landscape has slowly and quietly faded away. The old communities have been replaced without leaving much trace. Properties that provided supplemental income for families with working class jobs like pipefitters and truck drivers are now hobby farms for senior managers at tech firms. New homes that are more impressive or removed from view have gradually replaced many of the the old working class houses alongside the road. Local stores that created some point of neighborly encounter and a sense of identity no longer exist.

Perhaps, in a subtle and intuitive way, my father could feel this in a landscape he has known his entire adult life. To a planner, the few McMansions are barely a noteworthy change in the built environment. They have no impact to the ecological system, county infrastructure, or the open countryside as a scenic resource. In terms of social geography, however, they may be poignant signs that the old communities have been emptied of their independent country lives and reduced to the hinterland of the growing metropolis just out of view. These new residents do not earn or spend their money in places like the Mountaindale General Store. Mountaindale isn't a place anymore.

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