Photo: Bobby Abrahamson
July, 2011 Long Creek, Oregon
Ballooners have arrived from all over the state for Fourth of July weekend. One group came all the way from Boise. The Boise group sleeps in the room next to mine at the Long Creek Lodge, and every night I hear them stumble in after me, a little drunk, murmuring indecipherables beyond my air-conditioner’s buzz.
At 5:45a.m. I stand in the field behind Long Creek School with a raging hangover while a man staring hard at the morning sky tells me it may be a bad wind for flying. “Wind?” I ask him. Seems to me there’s a pronounced absence of movement in the balmy air. You might describe the atmosphere as crypt-like this summer morning. Inert. “Don’t be so sure,” says the man, with a demonstrative smile. He reaches into the cab of his truck, produces a single black balloon filled with helium, and releases it into the air with a magician’s flair. We crane our necks and watch it shrink fast in the pale blue—like a pupil under a Maglite. The man observes its path, now just pin-dot, and proclaims it was moved only slightly askew.
The rest of the men huddle up and flip a coin while their women gather their work gloves. Heads, they’ll launch. Mayor Dale Henderson comes to me, an eager fellow in a black and tan bowling shirt. “Your ride’s on me,” he says, “No. Let me change that. Your ride is on the City of Long Creek.”
“I’m not sure I’m going up today,” I say.
“Oh you’re going,” says the Mayor, and is if to prove it, gestures to a serious woman with buoyant hair. The woman obediently crosses the lawn toward us and shoves a pair of work gloves in my face and orders me to get in there. I follow her to one of the flaccid balloons and get to work, holding onto one side of the lip while a massive industrial fan fills it with air. The deafening white noise of the fan threatens to lull my woolly head to sleep. Red, white and blue, billowing. Soon, Captain Jack arrives and gives us a double thumbs-up. He cranks on the gas and two jets of rotten-egg flame shoot past me. Now I’m leveraging all my body weight but my feet still skid and lift from the grass. I can’t keep my feet on the ground, and it makes me giddy and also annoyed with that pushy lady and her belittling glove thrust.
I know it’s tired and too obvious to say, but I can’t help thinking: Bloated America. Full of hot air.
I’m floating. Fifteen-hundred feet above Long Creek, Oregon. In a hot air balloon.
“You could write that,” the mayor tells me, “I think it would be really cool.”
I am floating, Fifteen-hundred feet above Long Creek, Oregon. In a hot air balloon. On very little sleep. My stomach like a dock in a tsunami thanks to last night’s fifth of Old Crow, which I swallowed start to finish by the glow of a Night Court marathon, alone in my hotel room. This is how I work to calm my nerves about sleeping in a new place. But now I’m floating. With old man Jack the balloon captain, and Jerry the enthusiastic city councilman. Jerry and I are afraid of heights. He crouches low in the basket and grips it with white-knuckles and says how very neat this is. His smile is strained. For some reason Captain Jack has to keep repositioning me in the basket. He uses his hands to show me where to stand. There’s not much I can do about this. We are fifteen-hundred feet above the earth, after all, in a giant picnic basket.
We float above the little square lots, the neat lawns. The town is a crucifix in negative, arranged around the intersection of state highway 402 and the 395. The latter route is tasked with the peculiar work of connecting the Canadian Kootenays and the Mojave Desert. I spot a row of glass grow-houses below, shimmering in the morning sun. The mayor went up in a balloon yesterday to count their contents. “My civic duty,” he jokes, adding with sudden seriousness “it’s all completely legal.” I learn that Long Creek produces some of the dankest weed in the state, a controversy tearing the town apart. One esteemed local grower barely survived a recent home invasion by thugs who beat him within an inch of his life before boosting his plants.
Jerry points down at a Victorian house with “1890” over the door. I follow his finger to a small but distinct gap in the tree-line in the far off hills where white sky pushes through, as if the horizon were breached by a giant hole punch. Jerry says that’s where the freak cyclone of 1894 came up over the hill, across the valley, and slammed right into the house next door. The owners moved all the way out to Long Creek from Kansas, just to escape the relentless tornadoes. Wouldn’t you know it? They were the only townspeople the cyclone killed. And the wisdom gleaned from this tale: you can run but you can’t hide, when the finger of god pursues you.
Ezekiel Crane lives in a small house directly across the street from the Adventist church where he attended services last year. When the congregation asked him to leave their church and not come back, Ezekiel painted two large signs on plywood and affixed them to the front of his house. The messages are in a bubbly script, and each word is assigned its own bright color: “The WORD of God ALONE is trust-worthy,” and “Listen up Earthlings, the spirit of Jesus aint yer puppy!” These are the messages the Adventists take in every day, descending the steps of their chapel. Ezekiel practices something he calls “redemptive writing.” When he lived in the hamlet of Union, in the far northeastern corner of the state, he had a billboard. Sometimes he’d feel strongly that he needed to paint a new message on it, and a few days later a wayward traveler on the highway would stop and tell him that the message seemed intended for them in particular. Ezekiel believes that Jesus was working through him and the billboard, even though he was being misled at the time by the book of Urantia. He believes the Lord’s work through the billboard was pure.
Ezekiel says that “death is unnatural, nothing else in the universe dies.” Death is the result of being infected with sin.
The Urantia Papers, or the “U Book” as he sometimes calls it, is known as the Fifth Epochal Revelation. Legend has it that the book was produced by a man in Chicago between 1924 and 1955, while in an involuntary trance. The man was purported to have channeled various celestial beings. Ezekiel mentions the “U Book” often. Whenever he mentions it his eyes light up with admiration, then a shadow overtakes his face, and he grimaces like a jilted lover. “It is truly beautiful,” he tells me, shaking his head. The conflict has something to do with evolution that I don’t quite understand. Ezekiel’s own manuscript concludes with the following addendum:
“I am a little at a loss for words. The “U” Book as I used to call it… affectionately!?!
makes me think very deeply!
The Argument Basically…
1) Did we + are we evolving?
2) OR… are we devolving?
The U book kinda blends the two beautifully but leaves people in an untransformed spiritual dementia of labeling the Old Testament a lie!
Not a good choice!
It could lead to death!”
Mayor Dale Henderson wears his hair combed to the side. His friendly round face perpetually smiles. He’s the sort of man you’d imagine raking dice across the velvet in Vegas.
Anyone holding public office in one of these little towns has a day job. Jerry the city councilman, for example, owns a small department store in the city of Baker, and a line of women’s bath and body products. He runs both businesses with the help of his friend Roger. “It’s kinda funny,” says Jerry, “a couple of guys making soaps and things for ladies, but women really like them!” As for Mayor Dale Henderson, he’s the president of Sunrise Herbs, a company specializing in the distribution of “high-quality nutritional supplements and health care products.” Supplements like glucosamine, grape-seed extract and bovine colostrum. When business was really good, Henderson paid three full time employees. They worked in the trailer behind his house processing orders and answering phones. He even bought a tanning bed for the trailer, to help everybody through the winter months. A few local high school girls made use of the bed in preparation for prom, but made sure to always bring a friend along. “What? Are you afraid I’m going to tickle your toes?” he teased them.
Annie is Ezekiel’s small daughter. She lives in Pendleton with her mother most of the time but occasionally spends a week or two in Long Creek with her dad. She trots out barefoot from the house into the front yard, still half-asleep from her nap, in a tie-dyed T-shirt and little red shorts, her wild blonde curls spring from her head every which way. Her deeply tanned legs and feet are streaked with dirt.
“Where do you think the best place is?” asks Annie, climbing onto her daddy’s lap and rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
“I like to be in the woods,” says Ezekiel. “To me, that’s the best place.”
“You think the woods are the best place?” she asks him, annoyed.
“Yeah. Where do you think the best place is?”
“Heaven” she says. Obviously.
Annie hops down from his lap and brings me one of her dogs. The dog is about her size but she leverages her 50lbs. and drags him by the collar. One by one she brings her dogs to me, announcing each in turn like debutantes, and lets me scratch each neck before bringing the next. When this is done she gallops into the house and returns with a jar of glitter. She removes the cap and holds the jar over my head. “Go ahead,” I tell her, and she turns it over. I am immersed in a flurry of silver. She empties the contents of the jar, then taps the bottom to ensure every speck has been released. Glinting in the afternoon sun, my head resembles a disco ball.
I ask them if they plan to go see the hot-air balloons later and Annie’s face gets red. She looks at her feet.
“Well,” Ezekiel sighs, “I’m waiting on some money from a job to come in so I can get her a ride this afternoon.”
Either the money never shows, or there was none to begin with and Ezekiel can’t bear to let her know it. Annie doesn’t get her ride. They won’t attend the town BBQ either. I guess they don’t feel welcome. The townspeople are nervous around Ezekiel for a number of reasons: his aggressive evangelizing of radical Christianity, his talk of celestial communiqués (to rival Phillip Dick), his wild beard and voluminous marijuana use. But mostly they’re afraid of that day last winter when he chased the school bus up an icy hill in his Chevy Sprint. According to the driver, he pulled alongside the bus hollering and blasting his horn then sped ahead and cut off the bus. The driver claims Ezekiel approached her door raving, threatening to place her under citizen’s arrest because her dead taillight was endangering the children.
LISA WELLS: When did you come here?
EZEKIEL CRANE: Three and a half years ago I bought this place. I wanted to live in Monument. In fact, the place I wanted … it’s a writer’s dementia dream place. There’s one major cove in Monument, and the water comes in and swirls, and it’s about 35 feet deep right there. There’s a big cliff. You can get the morning sun coming up over the John Day River, and it’s just, it’s ethereal.
Anyway I wanted to do that, but that’s a single guy’s program. My ex was with me and I wanted to get a place for the kids.
This is it.
(He begins to weep)
These are the choices you have to make. And they’re not easy. My ex put me in a position of choosing between her and Christ … I chose Christ.
… (the earth) is a place of hell, and the rest of the cosmos is not. The rest of the cosmos has got it together. There’s no death. Death is a problem … we think that we’re the sun of the Universe and God revolves around us. We’re less than the ants, really, in reality. My personal perspective is that we’re teaching a vast cosmos what happens when there’s a break of trust between creation and creator. A place where things die… why? Why? We can’t figure out why human bodies die, they should be able to replicate and regenerate. From a scientific perspective the body doesn’t need to break down, there’s no explanation for it.
Science pales. We’ve got enough of a grip on science to expand our egos to the point that we’re stupid.
LW: Do you see yourself staying in Long Creek?
EC: I’ll stay here as long as I feel like the Lord has something for me to do here. My job is to interject the supernatural into the continuing trauma of human life and suffering, dying, people falling apart emotionally, physically, spiritually, and nations, faster and faster…
LW: Is there anything else you feel like sharing?
EC: We have a creative father, brother, and friend who loves us and this creation is a good creation. Our highest purpose is to overwhelm death with life. And we have that to give. There is a spirit of life in us.
About an hour after I leave their house to join the barbeque, I see them walking together, Ezekiel and Annie, hand in hand past the townspeople gathering in the park. Annie struts by them in a fancy white straw hat with a pink ribbon, her nose in the air, her dirty bare feet skipping down the sidewalk.
Before the barbeque begins, two girls kneel in the grass. Their hair in braids, feathers pinned to their heads. One of the girls is quite small. The other is twelve or thirteen years old. Both girls are clad in leather Pocahontas dresses, and the older girl folds her arms over her breasts self-consciously, as if she’s only just noticed they’ve arrived. The girls kneel in the grass with their baskets of maize while a woman from the Historical Society describes the Camus plant and the early settlers. The girls shift the contents of their baskets awkwardly, and when the woman is done speaking they run away quickly and change their clothes.
We’re told to gather up and form a line for food at the long table. Pastor Paul bows his head. “Father, we love this little town and our life here. Please help us to remember the men who gave their lives to protect our freedom.”
When we all say “Amen” he puts on his baseball hat and resumes flipping burgers. There are plates of baked beans, corn on the cob, numerous salad concoctions and pies.
I wonder which men Pastor Paul means. Does he mean the settlers—those grit-crawed men who slew the Camus loving Indians? Certainly he doesn’t mean the founding fathers. Those flits in wigs who penned their pretty cursive on the Declaration of Independence. No, not them. Not the politicians. He means his cousin, his best friend. Boys who paced the dust in Basra. Obedient crew cuts who returned to discover the old world—with its homemade pies—no matter how it might look the same, had changed. Their place in it erased.
The general store is closed this Fourth of July weekend, but serves as headquarters for the town’s big festival. There’s a makeshift stage for bands and a small beer garden. It seems a miracle may have happened in Long Creek. The mayor tells me, “Two years ago you could not get a soda pop here on a Saturday afternoon, or gas.” The market and cafe were shut down for long stretches and only recently reopened. The gas station was closed for six years. Weeds grew up through the concrete and the owners of the Mountain Café kept cans of gas on hand to help stranded motorists. But this weekend the living is high. All four corners of town are festooned with red, white, and blue streamers. Many of the pick-up trucks parked nearby have flags affixed to their end-gates and yellow ribbon stickers for the troops. A gray-headed blues combo from Springfield is just getting hot onstage. I tune in as the singer croons It feels so good when your lady tells you how good you make her feel. The fiddle player, an elderly woman in a newsboy cap, shreds with Hendrixian concentration.
Eventually word gets around that I spent time up at Ezekiel Crane’s place, and the sweet and mothering owner of the Lodge stops me in my tracks.
“How long did you spend with … that person?” She asks.
Not long, I say.
“He is crazy and dangerous. Had I known you were down there I would have rushed right out and rescued you.”
I tell her I had a pretty good time talking with Ezekiel. And his kid’s really cute. I mean, I know he’s stoned, I say.
“He’s spent time in jail,” she says, to settle it.
Later, behind the door of my room, I open the letter Ezekiel slipped me when I said goodbye to him and Annie.
There are NO accidents… only consequences. Choosing is the one gift we all have… one of eternal significance. Our Father/Creator/Brother and Friend; Jesus Christ, gives us the proof that’s in the pudding everyday… and it’s entirely subjective. We treat objectivity almost sacredly. As if being objective, has more value than being in harmony with the cosmos. We are so very deluded!
When creation is ‘in tune’ with its creator, it’s an infinite experience.
Not definable or
yet very receivable, and
Mayor Dale Henderson
LISA WELLS: Those ballooners are friends of yours?
DALE HENDERSON: I never met them before. I don’t care about balloons. I don’t care about anything like that. I just got sucked in. Now, I’m not saying I’m hooked or anything, but you know how early I had to get up this morning? Those guys were saying, if you go up once that’s considered average. They got to go up all three times…
LW: Because of weather conditions?
DH: Yep. You see, the little kiddies, they just go up about as high as that tree there. The balloons are tied down to pick-ups. They go up and then they come down. They have about sixty kids in there, in the bucket.
Would you like to go down there (to his trailer) with me for a few minutes, and then come up to City Hall?
LW: Sure. Sure.
DH: We can take the—I call it my “squad car.” The city of Bend gave us that pick-up free of charge. Kind of a big brother, little sister thing. They said, “That little town of Long Creek could use a pick-up.” So they gave it to us.
LW: That’s sweet.
DH: Yeah, I’m thinking it’s pretty sweet because it’s valued at about eight thousand bucks.
(We climb in the “squad car.”)
LW: How do people make a living here?
DH: This is kind of off the record, but I suppose it wouldn’t be because it’s all available on the internet. Assuming that you and I were husband and wife and we had two children here in Long Creek, basically, I wanted to find out how much government aid we could get if we were on welfare. That’s what a lot of people are living on. People like these small areas because the weak link in that chain is the housing assistance. It’s not going to get you, me, Junior, and Bessie a nice place in the city… so they look for these outside places.
I know one family, he said, “Dale, we’re renting a house here for $330 a month,” and in Albany, trailer space to park their trailer was $350. I don’t want to be harping that I’m against it or anything. I’m just stating a reality …
LW: Some people are retired, some people are making it on government assistance, is there any other industry?
DH: No. When I was a kid, a lot of these ranchers would have ranch hands. I could be a ranch hand and make a living, the kids could go to school and you could be the housewife. It just kind of went by the wayside. Well, corporate farming, I guess the corporate ranchers still need the ranch hands but the paychecks are coming out of New York City.
LW: In Mitchell I know a lot of the unemployed men are collecting scrap metal.
DH: Metal is really high right now, we can get an old beater car anywhere. The metal guys will give you a hundred dollars for it…It’s amazing that a hundred dollars, to some of the population here, is a lot. To me it fills my Hummer up.