Go home,” scrawled on plywood in Grays Harbor. “Forks is Closed,” up on the Olympic Peninsula. A friendly town sign in Joseph, Oregon, was partially painted over to read “Don’t Come Back.”
When the pandemic first hit, the general consensus for city dwellers, back when Seattle was virus ground zero, cautioned against entering yet untouched rural communities. Anyone who did travel—out of bewilderment, boredom, or a desperate need to escape—was met with unwelcome.
Tiny Elkton in Southern Oregon, a stop between I-5 and the ocean, lurched to a halt. The road through town went silent when the sand dunes on the Pacific Coast were officially closed, catching 22-year resident Raina Rausch by surprise: “I didn’t realize how much of our traffic was dependent on that.” Elkton businesses laid off staff, and only one of its two restaurants stayed open for takeout.
In Washington, the mayor of Leavenworth closed its main downtown streets in May, deflating a town that draws more than two million visitors a year for boozy Oktoberfests and twinkling holiday lights. Across the Northwest, rural residents found themselves without visitors, jarred—or thrilled—by empty streets and store aisles. In a tsunami, the main event is preceded by the ocean pulling back, as the surge gathers offshore; only after does the giant wave actually hit. Apparently the same holds true for Covid-era tourism: It's one extreme or another.
As spring turned to summer, Northwest day-trippers and overnighters alike retook to the roads. The national conversation had diluted and shifted; the biggest outbreaks were traced to factories and care facilities, not tourists. Campgrounds filled every site and cars snaked from national park entrances in hours-long waits.
The Bend, Oregon, city council, alarmed by the influx of out-of-towners, voted midsummer to issue an order to discourage travelers, asking hotels to not even book reservations. It was one of the strongest anti-tourist directives—albeit without fines or legal consequences—in the country.
Many Bend residents applauded, but some, especially business owners, were more measured; Wanderlust Tours owner Dave Nissen knew it would mean taking a hit. “It was regrettable we had that decision to make,” he says. He sent local media a statement noting that while he respected the council, it would “cripple an industry.” He did what he calls “dribs and drabs” of business in early summer, though it got better, especially when locals flocked to his canoe and kayak trips.
Across Washington and Oregon, many rural communities had to come to terms with a symbiotic relationship that had never been laid so bare. Tourist towns, bereft of other industries (or having long lost the reliability of timber, mining, or fishing), needed tourist customers.
At first, says Traci Dewitt, people thought they could outrun the virus. She saw it from her perch at Elbe Junction, a coffee shop outside Mount Rainier National Park. “We thought we’d drive far enough that you wouldn’t have to wear masks,” they’d say, surprised to see her in one.
But even as mask-wearing normalized—a June Pew study noted that urbanites embraced it in greater numbers than rural residents—small-towners struggled to adjust to a new normal. In North Bend, Noelle Blazevich was overwhelmed at first, in her home on the road to the insanely popular Rattlesnake Lake. “The constant traffic by my house—you do start to feel a little overtaken and a little trapped,” she says. She couldn’t use the natural area two miles from her house, a major reason she’d lived in the mountain gateway for 20 years. License plates from New York and Texas and Florida popped up everywhere, and she saw her North Bend neighbors react. “Some people…thought that people needed to stay away.”
Blazevich realized she couldn’t begrudge anyone wanting to escape to Washington’s outdoors; she gave up even trying local trails on weekends. “As a small town we are reliant on visitation,” she says. “I have a choice. I can either be mad or I can adapt, and I choose to adapt.”
Of course, no population—even the smallest ones—reaches perfect consensus. Down in Oregon, Raina Rausch heard blowback from some coastal residents once travel reopened. “People prefer to have things to themselves in general,” she notes, but hypothesizes retirees felt differently than business owners.
Raush is glad to see people stopping again for beer and soda, fishing licenses and to-go snacks. Places like Elkton depend on those visitors, she says. “You may not think that you’re doing them a favor by stopping, but you are.”