At the crossroads

One of the coolest things about life as a travelling musician is getting to experience the unique quirks and qualities of different communities.

I’ve worked in Pendleton for what seems like a very long time, but the community remains mysterious in many ways. Pendleton is the kind of town  where someone can move her at the age of 10 and die here 75 years later and be eulogized as a “pretty likeable newcomer to our town.”

This morning I was having my first coffee downtown- a time of day that I am singularly unlikely to seek out human company. While just settling down with my newspaper a chap rolled up and sat down across the coffee table from me and started gassing away. My initial impulse was to make an excuse like “oh goddness, I’ve just been texted that my herd of musk oxen have foot and mouth disease!” and run for the exit, but he had me blocked in.

However, as we got chatting, I realized I was actually enjoying myself and learning a lot. Eastern Oregon is a land of old families, and only a few old families. I’ve known for sometime that the great ranches and wheat farms and the various small towns around here are all the work of a few great dynasties.

From these great clans, reach long tentacles of history and influence. One might drive through a tiny, destitute Eastern Oregon village thinking it is completely cut off from the world, but in fact there may be a patriarch of the town whose power and influence is felt regularly in the corridors of D.C..

Today I learned more about the epic cycles of decay and rebirth in the small-town west, and quickly came to understand more of the huge behind the scenes revolutions in neighboring communities that allowed them to bring those places back to life.

Pendleton is a town in an existential crisis. Historic opportunities beckon, but there are old and powerful voices who don’t want to see the town change, but without change, this town is dying. Surely the wise path is to let the town heal and grow while maintaining its historic character, to make restoration and preservation central to regeneration, but I fear there are those who don’t want that. Actually, I know there are those who don’t want that- I’ve seen the debates here.

In our conversation this morning, my new friend told me about another, even smaller, even poorer town further East. I’ve driven through there many times. He said that that it was actually a center of a powerful corporation that is involved in huge environmental and land use issues affecting the entire West. They are there because the town is so poor and the population so uneducated- when they have to post notice of intent for public record they do it in this tiny, unread local newspaper, an nobody says anything.

Is that the future of this community, or are we destined to become a quality of life community where our economy is our culture in all its forms- local architecture, history, food and wine, the arts? Do they build a future, or let the living museum crumble? It is an uncomfortable but incontrovertable fact of human existance that there will always be those who are not content to be rich- they must also know that others are poor. Is it their agenda that will carry the day? Which path will this town choose?

Only time will tell.

c. 2007 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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