The Rise and Fall of Our Failed Oregon Utopia

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HouseIn November 2008, after a week-long trip to interview in Portland, Salem and Eugene, my husband, Adam, took a job with an office in Salem, Oregon’s capital city.

Up until we moved to Oregon, we had been doing what was expected of us, taking all the right steps, following all the rules. In a few months, as the economy imploded, we would know we were some of the lucky ones – those just old enough to not be on the cusp of adulthood but to have one foot through the door.  We weren’t going to get stuck living with our parents or working menial jobs. We had the survivor’s guilt of people who know that if they were just a few years younger we might have been eating corn chips in the basement while staring at news of our unhappy generational prognosis – the first Americans whose standard of living would be less than our parents’.

We weren’t even sure what that meant anymore.

“I think it means that we won’t be able to count on getting a good job, having a nice place and feeling secure over the long-term,” Adam said.

“Maybe it just means we’ll have Ipads but no running water,” I said.

We felt, in many ways, like Indiana Jones slipping under a crashing rock door, just enough time to grab our hats.
So we escaped. We chose lifestyle over the city grind. We picked the majesty of the American West and the challenge of creating something new rather than pinning our hopes on what was already established. We picked plaid shirts over tailored suits, Goretex rain shells over pea coats, mud boots over stilettos. And though I know it wasn’t clear to me at the time, I now understand that five years of loving each other across landscapes had taught us that it is always – always – better to be the person who leaves than the one who stays.

We weren’t the first, and we wouldn’t be the last, to chuck it all and head to the Willamette Valley, a long, fertile swath cutting between mountains and the Pacific Ocean, a place the Clackamas Indians are thought to have called “The Valley of Sickness and Death.”[1]

We arrived in a snowstorm in December of 2008.

We introduced ourselves to the people we met on the street, the postman, the neighbors, with the kind of glee  generally practiced by bonneted ladies heading up the welcome wagon. Every time we would announce ourselves: Here we are! We’re new here! Share your lives with us!

A few generations of carpet-bagging Californians who sell their homes in the sunny state south of us had ensured that no one from Oregon will welcome newcomers to Oregon until they find out you’re not from California. We were more than likely to be met with a scowl or a menacing half-smile when we tried to explain what brought us to Oregon, only learning much later that the state motto was not the stated one: Alis volat propriis (She Flies with Her Own Wings), but Governor Tom McCall’s 1971 message to visitors: “I urge them to come and come many, many times to enjoy the beauty of Oregon. But I also ask them, for heaven’s sake, don’t move here to live.”

The Oregonians we were meeting – even the fake ones, who put the I Heart Oregon bumper stickers on the back of their pickups even as they wore a Phillies fan tee under their plaid shirts, welcomed us with crossed arms.

If I had done my research before we moved here, I would have discovered that Oregon – with its come-hither mountains, its lush valleys, its see-through-to-the-bottom lakes, its loamy, fog-drenched forests – has inspired more failed utopian experiments than any other state in the nation.  More than 300 separate communities have come together with a shared dream, planned for that dream, settled land to make it happen, built it from the ground up, thrived for one glorious moment (for all of 20 minutes or 20 years), and then fizzled or fallen.

The Aurora Colony, recognized as the first, got its start in Missouri with a Methodist commune organized under charismatic leader and mystic Wilhelm Keil, one of those crazy dreamers if there ever was one. Keil led a wagon train carrying his dead son, preserved in whiskey, across the Rockies, spurning Washington’s rainy Wilapia Bay for a swath of prairie about half an hour south of what is now Portland (smart man). They were pretty righteously awesome Christians, not shunning the rest of the world or living in seclusion, but building a community of hard work, clear minds, communal sharing and great music. There sure seemed to have a lot of rules for people who had the freedom to create something new – like a long list of creatives “do’s” and “don’t’s” for the new colonists based on the Golden Rule –  but for the most part, the Aurora Colony did it right. They found a way to put their ideals into effect, create something entirely new, and build a family life and a community of sharing far from their ancestral homes. The utopia collapsed, mostly out of inertia, shortly after the death of its founder in 1877.

All Oregon utopias went downhill from there, as far as I can tell. Oregonians still rail about the state’s most disturbing failed experiment. In 1985, leaders of the intentional community in Wasco County called Rajneeshpuram were arrested for deliberately poisoning a salad bar in the Columbia River town The Dalles in order to affect the outcome of a local election.  Led by Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the Rajneesh were a free-love society that had for several years lived in a tense detente with their Oregonian neighbors.

The Rajneesh were living the kind of free-love society we children of the late 1970s and early 1980s all knew about from nostalgic documentaries but had no real connection to because our moms were the Ally half of Kate & Alley. Even now, every time I hear the word Rajneesh I move from my usual feeling – wondering how my parents completely missed the countercultural boat of the 1960s and 1970s – to being thankful that they did.  The Rajneesh shunned marriage, promoted what I imagined to be strange, unencumbered, interstellar sex, and believed that families, marriages and other such constellations were anathema both to the holy and happy life. Clearly they knew a little something about how having kids changes things, for not a single child was born at the group’s Oregon community, which welcomed more than 30,000 visitors a year.

Hearing about other peoples’ failed experiments in Oregon doesn’t keep dreamers like us from conducting our own. For years, as we proceeded to do everything according to the book – college, career, quarter-life crisis, graduate school. But during longer drives, Adam and I would often lapse into the same conversations about the future, which had nothing to do with other peoples’ expectations of us. Often, we would imagine what we would name our children, with the conversation devolving into a game we called “Worst Name Ever.”

I always won that game, by the way. You’ll probably never see another Horatio Fellatio Diesburg on the playground with Aiden, Jayden or Brayden.

But more often, when we got tired of naming, Adam and I often talked about the kind of little organized community we would build together when our time came to settle down. Ours wasn’t a vision inspired by shared faith, or any particular need to live outside of society, but by a strong belief that life would be really fun if you lived as if you are at an extended summer camp. Having both grown up in smaller, suburban American towns, we could picture many alternatives to the single family, picket-fenced dwelling, and the most promising of them was an entirely possible intentional community where creativity and community were valued in equal measure. Together with four other couples, we would buy a piece of land, not too far from a larger city. Instead of spacing the properties so each would have its own, equal yardage, we would cluster the homes in a village on one fourth of the properties, leaving the remaining space for gardening, chicken-keeping, goat tending, nearby campsites for the kids, perhaps an outdoor grilling station, and all manners of imaginative modern homesteading.

It would work like this: Everyone would hold ownership over his/her dwelling. Each couple could have a few kids, and we would rotate who would be doing the on-site parenting, leaving the other members of the commune to work off the corporate grid or engage in free flow creative activity.  The living would happen in a communal center building placed between the domiciles. Never mind that neither of us had had a baby in the family since we were that baby. We had imagined parenting and adulthood as a kind of extended camping adventure, a shared bunk with a hearty wake-up song, a campus with stations for art and song and maybe even a little pottery studio. Next to the communal village, there would be a wide open expanse of natural land, owned by the group but left to be as it is. In this way, we were sure, we could ensure that we could live with our friends, know our farmers, never let full-time parenting quash our creative impulses, and save a discrete swath of earth from development, let it fill through with lavender and sagebrush.

But the dream was never-to-be, for many reasons, not the least of which was my problem of being a great self-starter but a terrible closer and the fact that we could not come up with four other couples we would want to spend that much time with. We would spend car rides debating the merits of our friends as possible community members.

“How about Mike and Serena?”

“Oh, he’d be great, but you know she’d just try to take the whole thing over and then make it into a blog or something,” Adam said.

“Okay, well how about Jen and Peter? The might be into trying something different,” I suggested.

“He’d totally do it, but I think we’d have a hard time getting her to watch our kids; they’re going to be that childless-by-choice couple that is always talking about how much they love kids,” Adam said.

“How about Bryce and Nadine?” I said, just to needle him.

“Oh hell no. Remember that time he started sleeping with my girlfriend when I was away for the summer?”

“What about Marielle and Luke?” I said, mentioning our hottest friend couple.

“They would be the first people I’d invite to 70’s key party, but they’re not for this,” Adam said.

In all of our discussions, we would always stumble upon one glaring thing keeping us from enacting our utopia. Usually, that one thing was the problem of other people. Among our couple friends, there was always the problem half, the one who we couldn’t imagine playing nice in a commune, a wife who didn’t really eat food,  a husband who spent Sundays watching sports, or the worst of them all, an entire couple where neither of them knew how to cook. We came up with a running, and inevitably, constantly changing list of four couples.

Forgive me. I was 28 years old. I never wondered for even a moment if the problem might eventually be one of us.

And so, our dream of a small-scale, post-suburban commune, preferably with us as its charismatic, all-knowing leaders, died every time we tried to extrapolate it out into its logical conclusions.

Oregon is absolutely the kind of place that attracts this kind of dreamer, people who have had alternatives and want the ideal, something intentional and self-built and self-created. Every time I hear about them I wonder if I shouldn’t sell the house, go live four-to-a-room in a 1910 farmhouse with ten other people in order to work less and have more time to read while someone I trust watches my kids and finally reach my daily nutritional requirements for pickled beets.

Just the other day I heard about a local bachelor utopia, where a group of 20-something men have taken it upon themselves to perfect the high arts of productive domesticity, in this case, living communally and developing a home canning business, with an emphasis on tangy, beet juice-spiked sauerkraut. I don’t know about you, but this is now my personal dream: to live in a house where a group of eight bearded men in their 20s clean house for me, grow me some squash and put up rows up rows of pink vegetables.

What about you? Do you harbor dreamy ideas of what your utopia might look like?


[1] Actually, though some thought they were referring to the seasonal allergies brought on by the area’s more aggressive allergens, they probably didn’t call it that until white settlers flooded their home, bringing with them pestilence and disease

12 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of Our Failed Oregon Utopia

  1. Jessica Ramey says:

    Oh my goodness, how I identify with this article! Jason and I have had many conversations about communal living which is probably a response to our love of our glorified college years. And then our hopes are squelched by visions of reality TV. You are right, the West does allow us to dream a little bigger. Perhaps that’s why I love this state so much. Great article Emily!

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  2. Anna says:

    I’ve dreamt about this so many times! Thank you for writing it so beautifully. My version is more Lancaster County modern colonial with a vineyard, used bookstore, coffee shop, open mic night with several homesteads on a big farm. But it could be in Oregon (the wine would be tastier!). I also love that you are a geographer at heart. Well done, and I’m looking forward to reading the whole thing.

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  3. foyupdate says:

    I believe this is a conversation all Diesburgs have or perhaps it is bigger than that? Perhaps all dreamers have considered their own version of utopia. Jeff and I certainly have discussed it thoroughly. We even did the couple selections. Although our plan always devolves back into the lack of capital. Our plan is contingent upon winning the lottery, which will be difficult considering we never play.

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  4. Angela @ Cottage Magpie says:

    Funny! I had this exact dream in my 20s & 30s, too! Same idea — a central home with communal living space, gardens, kitchens, etc.., and then individual small homes tucked around so that each family could have privacy when they wanted it. I always thought that was the answer to commune failures, was the lack of privacy. Community when you want it, solitude when you don’t. Of course, like so many, I couldn’t figure out the capital part of the equation, especially when land here is very expensive and demands to have a revenue source attached to it. That and finding enough people who want to work together in that way. It’s hard enough making a marriage work, imagine having that x10. I’d still be interested if the opportunity presented itself, though nowdays my vision includes a pastoral bit of land that is dotted with replica 1800s farmhouses and all the land is farmed organically (rented? CSA?) — so the community is on the land, rather than in additional buildings. Like a tribe with houses instead of tipis. And maybe a little more autonomy so that people can come and go if they decide it’s not for them. Meanwhile, I vote that we live as tribally as possible. We all live so closely in this cozy little town. We can live like it’s a commune, even though there’s suburbs between us instead of open land. 🙂

    P.S. I’m sorry that people weren’t more welcoming. I really thought the old “Oregonians hate Californians” thing was a long-gone relic of the 70s and 80s, but maybe that’s an arrogance of lifetime residency. I did find that it took longer to make friends here than it did in the city, but I think it’s because people are used to comers and goers — they wait a bit to make sure you’re planning to stay. Not everyone does. 🙂

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    • Emily Grosvenor says:

      I still think it’s a great idea, but you have to be in a different place when I was envisioning this… like the kind of place where you think about how other people should be created and designed in order to fit your vision. This is NOT NOT NOT a way to be! So I hope this reads a little bit like a quixotic, ill-conceived dream. I agree that it’s hard enough to live with a single other person and then some kids and cats let alone a community, but give the right setup I still think it could happen!

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  5. Diane Miller says:

    Emily, you are a writer! Adams Mom is a dear friend of mine. How are you Adam? I see you have married a writer. I am sending you love. My sister Jan just moved to Salem area and she and her husband who is a retired doctor from the State Department just purchased Bird Haven. Much love. Diane

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