Author: Rudy Owens

I have a professional background in journalism (MA from UNC-CH), public affairs, and more recently public health (MPH, University of Washington). I publish several online properties, including my web site www.rudyowens.com. My photographs have appeared in a diverse number of media and print publications. I also have traveled on six continents and in more than 30 countries. Most recently, I have just finished writing my first book.

Lloyd Center before the fall

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There is an entire genre of photography devoted to the collapse of the United States’ consumerist structures, notably the shopping mall.

Malls in decay represent a specific type of schadenfreude in a country where consumer activity drives about 70 percent of our economy. The collapse of the venerable shopping mall, a landmark from the 1950s through the 1980s, in mostly suburban American, reveals deeper troubles in our economy and the promises we were told and believed.

The Lloyd Center, a major landmark in the Lloyd District in Portland, has been slowly dying for years. There were efforts to revive it as late as 2021, and it’s all but certain as of late July 2022 the final nail in the coffin appears to have been pounded in.

I made what might be my last visit to the Lloyd center in late July 2022, when I was working at the state office building nearby, on the hottest day of the year. The center was meant to be open as a cooling center. The ice rink was still being used, even as the thermometer outside was pushing 95F. Nearly all the stores were shuttered, and major retailers had closed their doors.

I for one will miss it because it provided an urban retail space to serve many residents who didn’t have cars and who didn’t want to drive to the suburbs. I imagine there are other photographers like me getting their final photographs before the death of yet another American shopping mall is formally announced.

Wild thing

Spring in Portland is now winding down its cycle of magnificent blossoms from the many ornamental flowers that adorn lawns and parks. Because of a cooler and wetter than expected spring, like we used to have before the onslaught of climate change conditions, flowers bloomed a little later than we have seen the past five to seven years. Tulips and daffodils have come and gone.

The last great entrant I am seeing now, on their final leg, is the Japanese Iris (Iris ensata). The iris genus, which has many varieties that are planted by gardeners, is among the wildest and sexiest of all flowers planted by gardeners on the west side of the Cascade Mountains, in Oregon and Washington. It prefers wet soil and shade. Most of all, it is delicate and crazy at the same time, with its sultry mix of delicate petals and bold colors. For me, it is a rare gift from nature, which marks the culmination of moisture, sun, pollinators, and of course the flowers themselves. And, dear readers, because I am not a gardener, please correct me if I identified this one incorrectly.

So, with that, here are a few words describing my reaction to seeing these beauties last night. It was the Jimi Hendrix version I heard in my head too:

Wild thing
You make my heart sing
You make everything groovy
Wild thing ….

New Portland murals and the legacy of cultural appropriation

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In late winter 2021, trail users on Portland’s Springwater Corridor were suddenly greeted with Northwest, Coastal Salish, and Alaskan Native imagery on utility towers and graffiti-covered surfaces of the Ross Island Bridge.

The artist, Stephen Cutler, appears to be a Portland-based creator who has been using Native imagery for years in his work. I do not know if he has Native ancestry or if he has worked with Native artists. I also do not know if groups whose iconography he uses have weighed in on these creations.

Appropriation of Coastal Salish, Tlingit, Haida, and other tribal cultural traditions has been going on for decades, sparking controversy about the rights of non-Native persons to use traditions that are not theirs. These important discussions about cultural appropriation have not ended—and the voices of those whose traditions are being used by others needs to be centered in all discussions and displays of such work.

At the same time, I also know that art is never meant to remain static. It never has been as long as humans have created art since they first painted wild animals in caves many millennia ago. Creation involves taking ideas and inspiration from others and reinventing those creations to make something new. In addition, anyone from the public who encounters art, I believe, can both like something that is beautiful and question the larger story around it.

As for these new murals, I like them, aesthetically. They are vital. They adhere to beautiful traditions I have seen first-hand in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, including in living studios of Native and First Nations artists in those places. These pieces also bring life to an area that is shared by the public. It is a space used all residents for biking, hiking, walking, and other sports, and it is a de facto home to Portland’s large houseless population, who live in the elements a stone’s throw from where you see these pieces. So far, no graffiti artists who tag the concrete and steel spaces in this area have covered these pieces. It appears there is respect by that community too.

If you find yourself in Portland, take a stroll. They pieces can be found just underneath the Ross Island Bridge, on the east bank of the Willamette River.

The Methow Valley, as white as the winter snow

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I became a passionate cross-country skier mostly because I had the good fortune of living in Anchorage from 2004 through 2010. There I was blessed with a fabulous and publicly-owned set of multi-use trails and trail systems in parks. I could ski sometimes nearly six months a year, depending on when the first snows came and when the last snows melted.

I mostly remember skiing being very accessible to nearly everyone because the trails were close to home and because gear was not too expensive for the basic set up of boots, poles, bindings, and skis. You could even get used equipment.

The local group promoting the sport and maintaining the trails, the non-profit Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage, was committed to youth inclusion for all residents. That meant all young people, regardless of race.

When I lived there, Anchorage was more diverse than many outside of Alaska think, with about 65 percent of the residents who identified as white and 35 percent being non-whites, with the largest group being Alaska Natives. Some of that diversity could be seen in the faces of the young skiers competing for the high school teams and on the trails. But even then, in this very democratic and outdoor-oriented place, the faces I saw skiing were like me—white.

However, cross-country skiing in Anchorage is not like cross-country skiing in the rest of the United States. Today the almost entire lack of diversity of this sport nationally remains cross-country skiing’s great Achilles’ heel. That reality is not addressed with the type of debate that is needed.

In my view, everyone who does this sport, either Nordic or single-track style, knows this racial breakdown whenever they ski. If they do not, they are willfully fooling themselves from the facts before their eyes every time they clip into their skis and head out on trails in recreation areas that remain almost exclusively the domain of white Americans.  

Race and country-skiing are mostly taboo topics in the multimedia world dedicated to the sport and those who do it. However I found one recent article on the racial divide in this sport I still love on the FasterSkier website. Refreshingly, it confronted the basic facts about the folks who do the sport and the factors contributing to its glaring and overwhelming whiteness.

In the United States, cross-country skiing remains an outdoor activity mostly pursued by whites, including the many winter recreational visitors to the Methow Valley (like the author).

Skier and writer Ben Theyerl wrote in an article published in August 2020: “The demographics of where the places that harbor Nordic ski communities are on a map allows this statistic to go unchecked. The trail networks linked to small rural towns and resorts that are historically, and presently, white, shelter us from having to confront and come to terms with our sport’s lack of racial diversity. So do the images of our heritage as a Nordic community, and of what it looks like to be an elite Nordic athlete. … We can choose as a community to stay on this sheltered path, or we can take the road less travelled for the Nordic community to finally discuss the overwhelming whiteness of our sport and the places that we do it in.”

Cross-Country skiing in Washington and the Methow Valley

Downtown Winthrop has kept its old West look and feel, even as the surrounding area has become a magnet for wealthy residents of Washington state who have purchased their winter and summer recreation homes here.

As a former resident of Washington state in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then again through 2004, and finally 2010 to 2014, I have cross country skied there during the winters of my now former state. My adventures over these years took me at different times to the scenic Methow Valley, in Okanogan County, just south of the Canadian border and west of the Cascade Mountains.  

Once an area that had homesteads and ranches on former Native American lands, it is now dotted with second and third homes of the upper middle class, the wealthy, and also the extremely wealthy—many from the Seattle area.

Since my first visit in late 1987 to this past weekend, I have seen it transform into a year-round recreation area that promotes winter sports and cross-country skiing. The residents who live and have lived there famously developed a wonderful trail community during these decades. That is seen in the group called the Methow Valley Trail Association (MTVA), which is a non-profit organization that maintains the incredible network of classic and single-track trails, snowshoe trails, and now fat-tire bike trails.

According to the MTVA’s website, the volunteer-led group maintains “over 200 kilometers (that’s 120 miles) of cross-country ski trails in the winter months,” and that network “is recognized as one of the finest trail systems in North America for Nordic skiing, mountain biking, trail running and hiking.”

I would argue that the Methow Valley is, without question, one of the finest cross-country ski areas in North America thanks to its geography, plentiful and mostly predictable snowfall, and the good work of these volunteers and donors who support this form of recreation. The area, like so much of the United States, also has racial divisions that can be seen in where most of the county’s non-white residents call home.

According to the 2020 U.S. Census Bureau, Okanogan County had a population of 42,104 as of 2020. The sparsely populated and beautiful mountainous county includes the towns in the Methow Valley like Winthrop and Twisp and neighboring cities like Omak. The Census Bureau reported that the county is 64 percent white (non-Hispanic or non-Latino), followed next by Hispanic or Latino at 21 percent, and American Indian or Native Americans at 13 percent. The diversity from the two next largest groups can be found in communities closer to the Colville Reservation like Omak and towns like Pateros and Brewster, where agricultural work is plentiful and Latinos have long-settled because of farmwork-related employment opportunities like other communities in central Washington.

However, that diversity is not visible in the Methow Valley. During my recent three-day visit, I saw some visitors who I would identify as having Asian ancestry, but no one on any trail who was African American. Most of the skiers I saw on the gloriously groomed trails were white like me. It is a fact that one cannot ignore when enjoying the beauty of this great sport. This fact has not changed in the last 12 years since I began skiing there after returning to the Lower 48 from Alaska (as Alaskans refer to the lower states).

The Future in Washington’s wealthy, winter Shangri-La

As the ski community grew in the Methow Valley in the last two decades, so did the country’s income inequality gap. That gap has accelerated the concentration of wealth in the hands of an ever smaller number of richer Americans since the Great Recession, and more recently the pandemic.

That wealth concentration can be seen in patterns of land use in the Methow that are visible to any visitor who travels there. Those who can afford to purchase retirement homes and summer and winter second and third homes—mostly white and wealthy affluent out of towners—have chosen to settle in this area, with its spectacular vistas and abundant forms of recreation that cater almost entirely to white Americans.

Winthrop resident Solveig Torvik described this in her column from Aug. 4, 2021. “The Methow many of us so smugly assume is a model of a caring community with widespread civic engagement … reads instead much like a cautionary tale of a failed society,” she wrote. Torvik pointed to a study of the valley by a Washington State University sociology professor, Jennifer Sherman, who described the obvious divisions: “The Methow Valley is a deeply divided community where wealthy urbanites ‘blind’ to their privilege ‘hoard’ their social capital while impoverished, excluded, resentful rural old-timers struggle to survive.”

The valleys surrounding Winthrop are now dotted with high-priced, new homes that cater to wealthy residents, who are not afraid to flaunt their wealth, and the affluent who are choosing to live in what the local media The Methow Valley News calls a new Zoom town during the so-called “COVID land rush.”

According to an Oct. 7, 2020 story in the local newspaper called The Methow Valley News, a virtual “COVID land rush” is underway, fueled also by the pandemic: “One thing it means is a dramatic increase in median home prices in the Methow Valley. The median home price in September this year was $440,000, compared to $329,000 in September last year and $312,000 in 2018, based on statistics [broker Anne] Eckmann compiled from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. In mid-September, there were 34 homes available for sale in the Methow Valley — 10 of them priced under $350,000 and eight priced over $1 million, Eckmann said.”

This is not that different than other winter resort areas in the country in Montana, Colorado, Utah, and Vermont. What’s different now is how visibly those new, rich residents have settled in the last 15 years in the Methow Valley, particularly around the town of Winthrop. I have seen that change since I first Nordic skied here in 2010 when I moved back to Seattle, and then visited a friend who lives near Winthrop. It had been eight years since I was last there in February 2014.

Battles over future comprehensive planning in the county and water rights remain active, with many newcomers seeking access to the limited water resources and groups seeking to manage and plan for future growth. Growing threats from climate change and wildfire also have further exacerbated debates over growth tied to the desires of the wealthy to live in the fire-prone wildland urban interface, in places like the Methow Valley. The battles will likely continue there, similar to conflicts in communities in the West that have confronted the old maxim that “water flowing uphill to money.”

I do not know when I will travel to the Methow Valley again. It is a 400-mile journey by car from my home in Portland.

I took this trip to take a needed break from my work on Oregon’s pandemic response. I needed a recharge, and Nordic skiing is one way I can do that. It worked, too.

I enjoyed my stay with a longtime friend who moved there years earlier, who shared with me the struggles she is seeing as a resident over development there. In the end, I am left with almost magical memories of groomed trails, snow-covered mountain peaks, and the ongoing awareness that this sport that I once did daily on a community trail in urban Anchorage is still not widely shared by many.  

Sites and impressions from the Oregon road

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Oregon, geographically and geologically, is an assemblage of parts that don’t truly make for a whole. Like its northern neighbor, Washington state, it is divided by ecosystems that also provide a rough border of the political divisions that have never seemed deeper, particularly following the dangerous four years of twice impeached former President Donald Trump.

West of the Cascade Mountain ranges are the state’s most densely populated areas, and they are more to the left in the northwest corner of the state. The lands east of the Cascades are sparsely filled. They include the northern farming counties of Gilliam, Morrow, Sherman, Wasco, Union, and Umatilla.

On this trip I passed through Gilliam County, which features stunningly scenic rolling hills and an endless supply of wind that led to the siting of extensive wind farms. Outside of the federally recognized tribal holdings and communities, the areas is overwhelmingly white, but is now seeing an influx of some Latino residents, who do much of the agricultural work in this part of the state. Politically, this is as red as red gets anywhere in the United States.

I drove south from the Columbia River Gorge on Highway 206 through Condon, then took a right going south on Highway 19 through the abandoned intersection community of Mayfield to Fossil. Here is where landscape turned from rolling hills to deep canyons, revealing millions of years of geological history. Farms that draw from the John Day River line the roads that wind through a “scenic byway.” Some of these stunning geological formations are partially protected in a federal land management area called the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The area has some of the richest collections of fossils spanning a 40 million year period, showing the evolution of species, plants, and ecosystems that existed long before homo erectus walked out of the plains of Africa to populate the planet.

After a brief stop at the monument’s fabulous visitor’s center, I took a right and headed west on Highway 26 that took me through more stunning canyons, multimillion dollar ranch holdings of land barons, and to the turnoff for the Painted Hills Overlook, which are some of the most photographed hills in the annals of photography. I first came here in 2003 and had forgotten how stunning the scenery was.

After taking a great walk and taking my obligatory tourist photos, I jumped back on Highway 26 (the Ochoco Highway), which climbed through the scenic Ochoco National Forest, where sites of recent forest fires were visible. Along the way I observed how severe the drought conditions were, with the Ochoco Reservoir down at least 20 feet. I passed through Prineville, which once identified itself as a town tied its ranching and agricultural past, celebrated in its public art. In reality, it has become a bedroom community for nearby and fast-growing Bend, about 25 miles to the southwest. The community is now home to larger data servers that tap into cut-rate cheap federal power provided by the nearby Bonneville Power Administration dams on the Columbia River.

Facebook recently announced it was building two more buildings here on top of nine existing structures, with operations the size of 80 football fields. The new investments will cost $2 billion. Apple also operates large data farms here as well. These investments make the bucking bronco and cowboy sculpture feel as old an a Roman antiquity sculpture.

Rudy at Paulina Lake

Rudy Owens at Paulina Lake, smiling because it snowed the night before in early June 2021.

I ended my drive in Newberry Crater, another national monument about 45 minutes southeast of Bend. This is one of my favorite places in Oregon. It similar geologically to the much more famous Crater Lake National Park, but more developed for campers and fishermen. The day I arrived it was nearly 32 F, and it snowed during the night. I had almost an entire campground to myself. I woke up with white stuff on my tent, and it was still the second week of June. I loved that, actually! From my campground, I did a long overdue nearly 8 mile run around Paulina Lake, which is one of the finest running loops I have done anywhere. That was worth the trip alone.

Flowers work magic on long, long days

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I have not had a proper vacation in more than two years now. I have had some weekends off, and I did have five days off in February 2020 to attend to my mom’s passing.

But these pauses from my jobs do not amount to a week’s break from work. That means I am, at times, tired and at times less elastic than I ideally strive to be.

For the last five plus months, I have been working in Oregon’s COVID-19 response. My job requires long days and, I have to admit, not enough compliments to sustain one’s energy as a day drags beyond 12 hours, with no lunch breaks. The situation is fluid, because this is a pandemic. The nature of my job means that many people I engage may not be satisfied that their needs are not met to their liking. So there is frequently unhappiness that is directed at the person who provides them what they cannot get.

Some days my abilities to navigate this are tested. When that happens, I have been fortunate with longer daylight hours and the arrival of spring to stop and literally smell the flowers at the end of my workdays.

Portland’s flowers have brought me much joy the past few months. A flower does not criticize you or bear you ill will. A flower also does not harm human health.

Flowers simply bring joy and provide pollen to our insect pollinator friends. Thank you for making my life more joyful this spring!

Snowstorm in black and white

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It has been two weeks since a winter ice and snow storm hit Oregon and Washington. In Oregon, at times up to 350,000 people were without power, due to downed power lines when the freezing ice brought down countless trees and broken limbs. Some people were without power for nearly two weeks. I was lucky. My neighborhood had power out for just two days. I did not lose any food, and my life was not heavily disrupted.

The storm was a great reminder of the power of nature and the fragility of our electricity-dependent world.

I went for runs the first couple of days of the storm and took these shots when we still had a nice base. I love running in the snow. It is quiet and clean. Everything just feels more calm. I began to miss the snow of my old home in Anchorage for six winters. Well, almost!

And so a year passes

A year has passed since my mom died from Alzheimer’s disease. It’s an illness that will crush and humble most mere mortals, and even the brave and the strong.

I had been awaiting for this day, contemplating its meaning as it got closer and then arrived.

The markers of time the past year have been unlike anything I can remember.

Collectively we have lived through a global pandemic, which was just taking off right after I flew home. The United States’ imperfect democracy nearly collapsed under the continued assault by Donald Trump and his fascist enablers. Wildfires engulfed my state, and I worked through that for weeks as part of the state’s response. Now I find myself working on the state’s pandemic response, never slowing down.

I am relieved my mother is no longer suffering, nor her husband (my stepfather).

I feel like I have changed too. Luckily my solace has been the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

At the ceremony of life for my late mom, on Feb. 11, 2020, the church choir and musicians performed Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (from Cantata 147).

It was if Bach was speaking to my heart across time and space and said: Peace had come. Her journey had ended. All would be fine. I listened again to this piece over the weekend, and it brought great comfort. Bach’s music has let me say farewell.

Eleven Months in and 2 Million Lives Lost

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This week, the world reached a grim milestone since the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Wuhan China in early 2020. The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center reported the global death count from the pandemic had topped 2 million, and was growing daily.

Some days I feel like I have awoken in an alternate reality, seeing mothers walking by, wearing face masks and pushing baby strollers, like I did this morning. It was jarring. I never thought I would experience this, though I always deeply sensed something like this might happen.

I felt that uneasy feeling of disconnect just after the start of the new year in Portland’s Lloyd Center district. I had come there to visit a dentist around noon.

Ordinarily, the business and retail area on the city’s east side would be filled with people, particularly on their lunch hour. Instead it was eerily silent and devoid almost entirely of the site and sound of humans.

I stopped to spin around in a circle, and realized I was alone. We had already retreated, globally, to the safety of closed spaces, eschewing contact, to avoid catching the highly contagious novel coronavirus.

I took a few shots of empty urban spaces of my cellphone, to capture that moment. Looking at the photos now, they look and feel disquieting, just like the scene outside my window of the mother and children, masked out of fear and caution.

Christmas 2010 in the Methow Valley

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Ten years ago, to this day, I finished a trip in the Methow Valley, in north central Washington State. It is a premier North American cross-country ski destination, with dozens of miles of beautiful groomed trails for all levels of skiers.

The best part of the trip was reconnecting with a friend who I hadn’t seen in years who had moved there.

She took me out on some excellent trails, and or skiing pace matched well. We both love good workouts and heart-buster trails, as well as the woohoo downhill screamers that make the hard climbs worth it.

The trip was at the beginning of a two-year journey back to graduate school, which I did not relish. Mostly it reminded me of the importance of friendships in living a good life and feeling fortunate when you have good company to keep.

As for finding the Christmas spirit in this winter wonderland, are you kidding me? Just take a look. It was amazing!

Merry Christmas, everyone, and may you all have a safe, healthy, and meaningful 2021. Remember what is important and what matters, mostly the people in your life.