From his perch on the op-ed pages of the New York Times, and in the books he’s authored with wife, reporting partner and fellow Pulitzer Prize winner Sheryl WuDunn, Nick Kristof has chronicled some of the world’s bleakest corners, from rural China to the Sudan. Their latest collaboration, though, is different.
Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, unfolds mainly in Yamhill, Oregon, in the corners that missed the wine industry’s boom in the Willamette Valley, where Kristof grew up and where his family farm still stands. The stories are those of Kristof’s old classmates and crushes, his peers, once full of potential, now sapped by chronic unemployment, ravaged by drug and alcohol abuse. Public policy, the authors write, have failed them on nearly every level, from elementary schools eager to wash their hands of problem kids to a punitive judicial system.
Kristof and WuDunn focus on tracing the ripple effects of generational poverty, and what can be done to break the cycle, spotlighting efforts including McMinnville’s Provoking Hope, an addiction recovery nonprofit for which the authors will headline a benefit on Sunday, February 9. They are also in Portland this week for a conversation at the Newmark Theatre on February 6, from 6-7:30 pm, and at the McMinnville Community Center on February 7, for a Mac Reads event sponsored by the Yamhill County Library.
In advance of their Oregon appearances, Portland Monthly talked with the authors about their new book, growing cider apples in Yamhill County, and hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Portland Monthly: What was it like to write about people and a place that you know so well?
Kristof: It was very hard and very painful, in many different ways. Part of it is that, when we interview people in a refugee camp, we have a certain armor when we hear emotional stories. This time we had no armor. We are talking to old friends about their struggles and their children’s struggles. There’s no professional distance to protect you.
We worry a little bit that we are revealing Yamhill’s dirty laundry. I don’t want Yamhill to be perceived as this place where there are a bunch of folks cooking meth and dying early. We also worried that some of the people that we are deeply fond of, because we presented them warts and all, would be perceived by some readers in very harsh ways. And yet we didn’t want to just write about how gorgeous Yamhill is and how wonderful everything is. The struggles are real. People talked to us partly because they thought it was important to explain the struggles of a place like that.
WuDunn: I think that’s also why it was important that we present the Yamhill School District as doing a lot better. They are really trying to build a program that will teach modern vocational skills to high school students, so that even if they get a couple of years of high school and they don’t graduate, they will learn some skills that will allow them to be employed.
Portland Monthly: Nick, do you think it would have been as possible to write this story if you weren’t from here?
Kristof: I think it was really important that I was a local yokel. That was important both for getting people to confide their whole stories, and for trusting us with some really embarrassing parts of their lives. And I think also that people in Yamhill understand that when we write about some of the shortcomings that I love Yamhill as much as they do. This isn’t some outsider parachuting in. This is someone who is part of the community and cares deeply about it and is trying to air problems with the hope that they will be addressed.
Portland Monthly: Tell us more about Kristof Farms (the Kristof family farm, where the couple have recently planted 20 acres with pinot grapes and cider apples).
Kristof: We had always had orchards, in particular cherry trees. Unfortunately, Americans aren’t eating enough cherry pies. We were raising Montmorency pie cherries. The buyer told us that they would no longer take our cherries. So then we were frantically searching for what else do we do. We might have planted hazelnuts, except Sheryl is allergic to hazelnuts. This was when we were also working on the book. We were really struck by how there had been this collapse of jobs locally. The cherries didn’t support many jobs. They aren’t very labor intensive. We wondered whether there was something we could do that might support more jobs, and Yamhill in some way. So then we had the idea of cider apples and grapes.
WuDunn: Which are both very labor intensive! There is an advantage and a disadvantage there. We are just starting! We won’t have a harvest for a couple of years. It takes a long time for these trees and the vines to gestate. It has been complicated. We do see the challenges people have when they try to hire local workers. We have to make ends meet – it is not a charity, we are trying to balance a lot of different things. We’ll have to see what happens when it comes to harvest.
Kristof: We have proved our incompetence at various points. Most notably when we put up this very expensive impregnable deer fence and managed to look deer inside the deer fence.
Portland Monthly: Finally, years ago, you wrote a story about hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail in Oregon with your kids. Have you continued to hike around the state?
Kristof: Yes! In fact, in 2018 my daughter and I finished the whole PCT, from Mexico to Canada. It was a fantastic adventure. We have backpacked a lot with all three kids on the PCT, but my daughter was the one who loved it the most. Every summer we hike around Mount Hood on the Timberline Trail. We do various other hikes. My next backpacking project may be the Pacific Northwest Trail, which runs from Montana to Idaho to Washington, and does not include Oregon. I have also looked at the Oregon Desert Trail, which is a long trail in southeastern Oregon, so I may do that at some point.