We have had mountains of snow this year in Central Oregon, and we are on track to get at least another foot of snow over the next couple of days. We have had snow on the ground since December 6th. But I don’t want to write about snow. Writing about the weather is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
I will write, however, about how it is affecting us here in our community. As I said, it started snowing on December 6th, but the big dump came a week later. And then came the cold – temperatures in the ‘teens dropping to sub zero. Sisters, Oregon is on the edge of the Deschutes National Forest, and is a “destination” town for all kinds of outdoor activities, including camping. Central Oregon rents have been increasing the last few years, and therefore we have a contingent of homeless folks who make camp out in the National Forest or in their vehicles around town. In summer, it is actually doable. Since there is a lot of camping of all kinds, Sisters has amenities to support backpackers and campers. The National Forest allows “dispersed camping” which means you can trek out into the forest, find a spot away from people, and set up camp. So, some people opt out of apartments and elect to follow the primitive lifestyle. And then winter comes, and their campsites are buried in snow, and there’s no plowing out there.
On December 17th, Sisters was shocked by the death of a man who was found in his car across the street from McDonalds. He lived in his car, and he was known around town, at least in passing. He worked at McDonalds, and he spent time in the library on the computers. My son knew him from the library, but not well. The night of December 17, he slept in his car with the car running, and he died. The preliminary cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning. The temperature that night went down to -5, and that was the first really cold night of the season. It was cold, the gentleman went into his car, turned it on, turned on the heat, and then was overcome by carbon monoxide fumes as he slept.
The truth came a day or two later: He did not die of carbon monoxide poisoning. He died of hypothermia. He froze to death. That shocked me and a number of other people in the community. His death was tragic in any circumstance, but with carbon monoxide, it was an accident that could be avoided – open the window, whatever. It was just bad luck.
But when a man freezes to death – that is different. He didn’t die because he was unlucky. He died because he was homeless. Despite having his car running, the cold still killed him. The cold was too much. The cold was greater than he and his circumstances, and it overcame what a prudent man might try to do to stay alive. And that was shocking.
He had family. How do you call his parent? How do you tell a father that his son froze to death in a car across from a McDonalds?
His death sent home the point that subzero temperatures are no joke, and that there are a number of people in our community who are at risk. It also sent home the reality that despite the fact that the economy is getting better, there are still a lot of people who are out there just on the edge of disaster.
I’m trying to think of some message that we can glean from this tragedy, some words of wisdom to impart that will wrap things up neatly, but I can’t. It really affected me that this man passed away, and that he did so in such a manner. It’s sad, and it shouldn’t have happened. Yes, accidents happen all the time, but the death of this man hit close to home, and it just shows that we have work to do, that we can’t just say to people “sink or swim.” These people are doing what they are supposed to be doing, and yet they are still in trouble. They have jobs, they have cars, and yet, they succumb. I guess the thing to do is to be kind. To assume goodness. Most people are good. And help when you can.
On January 1st, members of the community set up the Sisters Cold Weather Shelter in one of our local churches to provide a warm place to stay to anyone who asks on nights where the temperatures go below freezing. This is a great thing, and it makes me proud that we chose Sisters as our home. This is a great example of the things we can do to help.