The Long Road

Photo of highway heading to Burns, Oregon.

Earlier this year, I graduated from a year-long program organized by the American Leadership Forum or ALF for short (not to be confused with the 80s sitcom – Alien Life Form), designed to grow, develop, and foster leadership throughout the state (Oregon).

ALF challenged me in ways I never imagined and introduced me to concepts and even vocabulary I’d never heard of and used before. Now that the program year has wrapped for classes 39 & 40, I am reflecting on the gifts I received that have left me with the byproducts of an expanded professional and personal network, a broader education about our diverse ethnic populations, and beautiful landscapes throughout our state.

In August of last year, we had our Community Building Week (CBW). I was one of the twenty strangers from varied backgrounds, cultures, organizations, and political affiliations that participated in my class (40 aka XL). It was a grand experiment where we were coached by facilitators through a series of physical and mental exercises that revealed deep-seated feelings around race, emotional traumas, and gender biases. The struggles were real and we didn’t have the use of our cell phones to console us. The absence of gadgets encouraged us to have conversations and listen to one another, something we all rarely seem to do these days. For me, this time was also the longest time the hubster (Eric) and I had gone without speaking and seeing one another in the 21 (now 22) years we’ve been together. I know some of you might be thinking, it’s just a week. True, however the stresses of the outdoors, new people, and the absence of a comfortable bed combined with lack of access to my digital distractions as entertainment, made it really challenging being away from home. Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder and my week away made me appreciate Eric as a grounding presence in my life. So before anyone calls me (us) out for being codependent, I do function well on my own. We’re fortunate after so many years, we enjoy spending time together.  

Anyway, one thing I learned about myself during the first days at CBW was my desire to always want to be the first one to respond to a question. This may not sound like a big deal, but in a mixed group setting, this caused disgruntlement with others who also wanted to speak. Honestly, I never thought that I was causing any harm eagerness and no one had ever mentioned anything otherwise. I had to look inward and ask myself why I did this. What I uncovered was as a child, I never wanted to appear “stupid” or “lazy” in the eyes of my elementary school classmates and teachers, so I’d shoot my hand up with lightning speed in hopes of being called upon; a mindset that evolved and followed me into my adulthood. I never realized I was doing this until I was called out by someone; a female. I inadvertently silenced others, specifically women in the group, from expressing their thoughts and ideas. I was reminded by our facilitators that there wasn’t a competition or need to prove myself in this space and that no one saw me as stupid or lazy.

In 2013, I was previously nominated to participate in ALF, but like with most things, the timing is everything. I had recently received news from my doctor that I had cancer. So I spent the following year after my diagnosis focusing on treatment and recovery. Luckily things were detected early and to date, I remain cancer-free. 

Fast-forward to 2021. I was honestly a little intimidated by some of the folks in the room during orientation. I wasn’t a corporate director, a head of a nonprofit with multiple degrees, a state detective, or county commissioner. Nor did I (do I) possess the academic credentials that many of the other participants had. I was just “Judge”, a leader backed by my lived experiences and commitment to helping my community when and where I can. I thought to myself, what did I bring to this group? I was assured by my nomination and the ALF board approval, that I was in the right place though I may not yet see that. They were right. 

I and several other members of Class 40 live in and around the politically liberal bubble of Portland, Ore. As we traveled throughout the state, we were given the opportunity to learn of the industry, demographics, and the challenges that impacted entire communities such as water rights in Klamath Falls, Ore (K. Falls) that have historic racist roots that complicate modern day relationships in farming, atonement, and even forgiveness. Oh, I also have to mention the impacts of drought further worsening things in the region too. Through compromises made by the indigenous communities and from US lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, the future, though dim, looks somewhat brighter. 

We’d have a travel day and were administered Covid tests on arrival to our destinations. Once cleared, we would have a small program followed by a shared dinner. The following day included a full program with meals and snacks to help keep our brains engaged; this was the model throughout the program and after a full travel day (and regular life stuff) it was sometimes difficult for me to stay present. I’m not a fan of driving or long road trips. I attribute my dislike to being a military brat and having to always take road trips whenever my father was re-stationed. That constant uprooting and packing and wasp infested rest stops still haunts me. I’m also spoiled by great transit options while living in Europe. Something Oregon and the United States continues to struggle with. For ALF, luckily most of the trips I was able to carpool with a fellow cohort which made for a fun way to discuss the course work and get to know one another. When possible, we would travel a day earlier to build in an extra day for rest and exploration. 

On our way to Sisters, Ore, I traveled with two other Black men, and a White guy in a new Tesla (aka Anna). This really isn’t anything strange or out of the ordinary, but we just happened to be heading to parts of the state that were not like Portland. I’ll explain this part later. 

In Central Oregon, the roads here wove us through a fabric of burnt out forests and charred communities from the devastating wildfires of 2020. That year the winds carried the smoke north to Portland giving us some of the worst air quality in the city’s history. It was so bad, we topped the list for the worst air quality on the planet. The scenery as we drove through Detroit Lakes was eerie. Our previously jovial vehicle became silent as we continued on our way for what seemed like endless miles of scorched destruction. When we emerged from this dystopian landscape, there were Confederate flags and banners posted in dedication to a former US President. I felt uneasy and I wasn’t the only one. Anna’s owner, Terry, is Black and a former presidential honor guard. He let us know that if shit goes down, he was licensed to keep us safe and gestured to the glove compartment. When we arrived at our destination in Sisters, we found a spot for lunch to decompress from the drive. 

Not all our travels were so…interesting. 

For our trip to K. Falls, we managed to include a side trip to one of Oregon’s most famous landmarks, Crater Lake. There was surprisingly a lot of snow still on the ground as we made our way up the mountain. We were almost at the turn off into the park when we came across a vehicle that must have hit a patch of ice on the road and hit the snow-packed ice wall. The driver was able to walk away and there appeared to be a trail of hot cocoa on the side of the car. Luckily it wasn’t worse. In the park, the lodge and most of the outbuildings were closed for the season. The view was stunning and I can now say I’ve visited another place from my bucket list along with the Eiffel Tower, Pyramids in Egypt, and the Grand Canyon. Looking out at this beautiful and shimmering body of water was such a sharp contrast to the dry arid interior of the Klamath Valley basin below. The drought has significantly impacted the town of K. Falls with wells running dry for people and livestock, prompting the Oregon Governor to declare a state of emergency to provide additional resources to the area including delivering water and storage tanks to over 300 residents.

The longest and most interesting of our trips was to Burns, Ore. Burns is located in the southeast part of the state in the high desert. I was really struggling with this location. As a Black person (and Gay) in a White state, people like me are often not welcome in these smaller and more rural communities. There were also rumors floating around about how racist and anti-gay this small town was that put me on edge and made me think twice about attending in person. So with fewer carpool options, I decided to drive solo, something Eric wasn’t happy with but I felt confident I could go the distance despite my dislike of road trips and fear of small minded people and places. That’s when my ALF Buddy* asked if she could join me. This was great. Now my only concern was getting over the mountain passes that recently received fresh snow. We took our time and made a stop for coffee and pastries from a quaint roadside cafe before heading up the hill. Neither my buddy or I were experienced in winter driving but the April forecast was initially in our favor. So as we started to ascend into the mountain pass, the temperature began to drop. I wasn’t nervous, until I began seeing snow drift across the road. As a smart driver I adjusted my speed until we descended the mountain and any sight of the snow was in the rear view mirror. 

*A “buddy” is a cohort (classmate) assigned to you at the start of the program to help process discussions, course work, and life in general. Thank you Kaia!

Burns, Oregon Wings

When we arrived in town, we checked into our motel. My motel and the room looked like it had seen better days. The room was clean but it smelled like diesel fumes. I told myself, this is only for a couple of nights so I’ll adjust my expectations to avoid the appearance of being an “uppity”; at least the bed was comfortable. My buddy and I were hungry and sought out a place for dinner. We ended up at the Pine Room and we’re joined by other ALF cohorts who also chose to arrive early. This restaurant was definitely the spot to be in Burns. I was able to satisfy my carnivorous appetite with a delicious prime rib dinner! This town didn’t feel like the hostile place I had heard about, in fact just the opposite. After our meal, we were told of the Red Barn Dance taking place and should check it out. Part of the group declined but I was definitely down for the hootenanny. The road was dark and void of any recognizable signage but we managed to find the place. As we opened the doors, there was live music playing, dancing, and I swear the tallest person (7ft+) I had ever met walking past the entryway. His name was Hunter and he was likely in his late teens or early 20s. I really wanted to take a photo but didn’t want to make a bigger scene than what our little group was already making just by being there. We grabbed a couple of beers and found a spot in the corner where we could watch everything. I kept my eye on the exit just in case things got awkward. It wasn’t long before folks popped over to find out who we were. We met a variety of people including ranchers, and other folks curious to strike up a conversation. After only a few hours of socializing we had hit a point of exhaustion and headed back to the motel. We didn’t realize there were two motels with the same name just blocks from each other. Google directed us to a newer (nicer too) one than where we were staying. The night clerk saw our room keys in our hands and knew right away we were at the other motel. 

The morning arrived and I decided to lay low and get as much rest as possible before having to meet up with the rest of the group for dinner and the evening session. The truth was, I couldn’t get comfortable enough to sleep and wasn’t feeling exceptionally social. A group of early arrivers decided to go to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. If that name sounds familiar, this was where the famous standoff and illegal occupation took place back in 2016. I was growing nervous because snow was in the forecast down to the valley floor in Portland on Monday. Snow in April was really late for the season and especially down to the valley floor. Luckily the weather in Burns was cool and sunny with no threat of inclement weather. Besides, if it did snow in Portland, by the time we hit the road for home it will all be melted. 

I awoke Monday morning with several notifications at a quickened frequency that made me think it was an emergency. When I opened our group Whatsapp page, there was an image of a tree blanketed in snow. I didn’t realize at first that the image was of a tree outside our motel. Cloaked in a layer of blue-white ice crystals, I wasn’t sure where the photo was taken. Somehow in the stillness of night, snow not only covered Portland to the north, but also here in the southeast part of the state. I don’t do snow driving, and I also didn’t have snow chains. In a huff, I got dressed and headed outside to dig out my vehicle now encased in fluffy whiteness. At least the snow was dry which made it easier to remove. As my buddy and I headed out to meet the rest of the group for the day’s session, blowing snow reduced visibility as I cautiously crept onto the roadway. We showed up a little delinquent but were all in the same boat, and just as blustery as things were, they stopped. The sandy colored and sparsely vegetated landscape from just a day earlier was now covered in snow. The frosty weather conditions prevented several members of the class from attending. They didn’t want to take a chance of getting stranded on the mountain pass or worse and decided to stay put and not travel. 

The weather overshadowed the mood of class to the point where staff modified the coursework so we could leave an hour earlier and take advantage of the sunlight. It was obvious that people were concerned about the long road back. The only one of my cohorts that didn’t appear concerned about the weather was Sarah from a small rural town called Halfway, Oregon. She was used to these conditions. We plowed through the coursework to get to the lunch break. That’s when a few of us, including ALF staff and the facilitator, decided to get snow chains at the local Les Schwab tire center. Since I was driving and wanted to deliver my precious cargo (my Buddy) back home safely, I was treated with snow chains. 

Eric and I have used Les Schwab for years and were in the system. As he read my name (Judge), it was mispronounced and I corrected him. The clerk chuckled and blamed his “country” education. I mentioned that my name was also mispronounced in the big city of Portland too as a way of lightening the mood. Then it got weird. He went on to say people mispronounce his last name by saying it the slave way. WTF?! Did this clerk just say what I thought he said? I stood there frozen, dumbfounded by what I just heard. Our class facilitator, Nancy, happened to be waiting behind me to order her snow chains when the clerk shared his sometimes misspoken surname declaration. “Should I say something to him?”, she whispered in my ear. I told her that it was useless and wouldn’t change anything with the time crunch we were in. Besides, we had things to finish up so we could hit the road. So much for having a racist-free experience in Burns. Though likely not intending to be malicious (giving the dude the benefit of the doubt here), this type of blatant (direct) racism happens all the time! Was it his way of making conversation? Hmm.

We returned to our session location to finish off the day before being released. Because the weather had started to become more winter-like rather than spring, a group of us decided to car-a-van back to Portland taking a longer and less precarious route through Bend, Madras, Maupin, The Dallas, before hitting Hood River. We checked highway cameras to ensure a trouble-free drive. I had never been to these parts of the state before and it was interesting to pass through some of these smaller cities and towns I’ve only seen on maps. 

Our car-a-van of three vehicles, stopped at a marina outside of Hood River for a necessary bio-break and to celebrate our journey over winding roads that would be challenging to any rollercoaster lover. After documenting the moment with a few group photos, the car-a-van was officially disbanded to roll at more liberal speeds. For most of the drive to Portland, the weather was extremely cooperative. There was an abundance of blue sky and sunshine, that made me question the forecast. As we reached Cascade Locks, that’s when all hell broke loose. There was wind, snow, hail, and rain all happening at the same time. Not only was the weather a challenge, there were tons of large trucks on the road that had previously been stranded because of snow covered mountain passes. With every truck I passed, my little car was doused with water-overspray and deicer. My windshield wipers were working double time as I gripped the steering wheel Black-knuckled, constantly adjusting my speed and checking my mirrors to remain safe. I have never been more freaked out while driving before. 

As my Buddy and I pulled into my driveway, we were greeted by her husband waiting to take her home. I was proud of myself. I was able to face my fears of long-distance driving, small towns, and a threat of being stranded in inclement weather. After driving for more than 6 hours and over 350 miles, I could finally relax. I stood outside my little Hyundai Elantra happy to be home again.

Home for many is a place of safety, pride, and new beginnings. This was the common thread in many of the small towns we had the fortune of visiting along the way. We met several former city slickers moving or returning to these places of calm, breathing new life into historic structures to create commerce and opportunity for their new communities. I was impressed by the ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit and wonder in the years ahead, how different these communities will be. 

With our final class session and graduation this past May, we have now become Senior Fellows and members of a larger network of a leadership community as ALF alumni throughout the country. 

Thank you to the ALF staff (Lisa, Kelley, Renee, Melissa) and the amazing facilitators (Cliff and Nancy) for the guidance and support during the class. A special thanks to Class XL (pictured), for being amazing leaders and for sharing your hearts, hopes, humanity in challenging times . 

Class XL Group Photo - Camp Namanu

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