The neighbors in the forest
Last updated 6/28/2022 at Noon
Brandi Gregor is a veteran, having proudly served in the Oregon National Guard. She moved to Sisters a while back and has taken up residence alongside FS Road 100, more or less behind Ponderosa Lodge, within easy distance, aided by her walker, to Mainline Station and Ray’s Food Place.
She sat for a lengthy interview with The Nugget last week just outside her newish tent and star-spangled banner camp chair.
She showed a range of emotions from a flash of anger when she misunderstood a question to tears to moments, a few, of joy. But none of fear. She’s been houseless for years, bouncing between Prineville, Salem, and Bend, and currently, Sisters. When asked “why Sisters?” her reply was instant and mirrored that of the three other nontraditional residents interviewed that day: nice people here.
“Nobody yells at me or curses at me or harasses me,” she said. “In Salem I’d get kicked out of stores or run out of restaurants, even if I was buying stuff. Here, if I’m a little short at checkout, the stores or other customers make up the difference.”
She doesn’t panhandle, living off a small, monthly Medicaid check.
She has a cell phone, but that day it was off. She didn’t have enough money to cover it until her next check. For the most part, she knows her neighbors, the dozen or so houseless camped off the spur road, and they mostly get along. She scolds those who are poor housekeepers and trash their areas. Being military at core, she polices her area — keeps it squared away, in Army lingo.
Brandi said that she’s had some troubles with alcohol — “but no drugs,” she emphasized. It is obvious that she is not a ready candidate for employment. She talks bitterly, yet not seeking pity, about her circumstances. She has scorn for “the system,” and landlords are dead center in her circle of disdain.
Her neighbor “River” was working that day. He knew we were doing a neighborhood drop-in and wanted to be on record. His handwritten letter, via Brandi, appears with this article.
Our excursion had been arranged by Jeremy Fields, whose duties for the Sisters District Ranger Station include wearing the title of forest protection officer, and David Fox, a Deschutes County employee who spends two days a week in Sisters working with the houseless population. Together they know nearly all the forest dwellers on a first-name basis, with frequent contact. Fox is a specialist in mental health.
Next we met Andrea and Josh Snavely, who have taken up residence alongside Trout Creek, in an idyllic setting. They have a camper shell, so they’re mobile and move frequently when they may be overstaying the 14-day camping limit on public lands.
The former occupant of their picturesque and shady site left it a mess, with human fecal matter among other waste. Fields had moved him along and asked for the Snavelys’ help in cleaning up what was an eyesore and sanitation nightmare.
Fields had also recruited the young couple, who have lived in the Sisters woods for four years, to dismantle an abandoned RV near a popular Peterson Ridge trail. The RV was a constant complaint of hikers.
It was hard work, especially as Josh, from East Texas, is permanently injured from a mountain climbing fall and needs a cane to ambulate. Andrea, from Canada, and Josh live on an $841 monthly disability payment. Josh is eligible for opiate pain killers but refuses them. Fox hopes to get him some much-needed treatment or nonaddictive pain relief.
With their 10-month-old dog, Beanie, the Snavelys say how friendly and accepting they find their traditionally housed neighbors. There are exceptions with one Crossroads neighbor not wanting to “mix it up,” meaning converse with the couple, who are also unabashed about their Christian faith.
Asked what they would do if they won the lottery, Josh said: “Buy a piece of land by a stream like this, and build a house.” Andrea was quick to add, “But we’d still live in the woods. This keeps us close to nature and grounded.”
Our third stop was off Highway 20, where we met Al and Carol Nickle, who settled in Sisters in 2009 and rented until 2017, when rental prices drove them to nontraditional housing in the forest. From their 30-foot travel trailer, they don’t see many hikers. A few equestrians and an owl, “a big one” that lives close by and who visits daily. It’s a quiet, albeit lonely existence.
Carol sports a sequined Sisters souvenir T-shirt as she looks out at some garden art she has erected. Al tells stories. They have many friends in Sisters. Both are resigned to the insufferable Sisters housing costs that suggest they will be living in the woods for years to come.
Our last stop — we could have a dozen more, Fields noted — was near the rodeo grounds on Forest Service land, where we visited with a woman who calls herself Deborah Nun. It’s not her real name. She is hiding from her husband, who she claims is a physical danger to her and her adult son, with whom she shares a 39-foot Class A motor home.
We were able to verify her claims of having grown up in privileged wealth, attending Stanford and owning large farm acreage in Hawaii. Chronic back problems resulted in spinal fusion and a 24-year regimen of heavy-dosage painkillers. Nun says that she has weened herself off the drugs, to the amazement of her doctors.
With Bible in hand, she is philosophical about her circumstances, not expressing any bitterness. To the contrary, she presented an unusual display of grit and optimism.
For some months she could afford to park at Sisters Garden RV Resort, until price increases forced her onto public lands. Now her only complaint seems to be the cost and availability of water, which she and her son have to obtain 20 gallons at a time.
These are just a few of the 100-plus residents of Sisters Country forests. The next time you’re out, you might introduce yourself as you might a traditional neighbor. The return greeting may not be what you assumed.