One-hundred-fifty baskets of pink petunias hang from the light posts all over this city, watered regularly by residents trying to make their community feel alive again. A local artist spends his afternoons high in a bucket truck, painting a block-long mural of a little girl blowing bubbles, each circle the scene of an imagined, hopeful future.
But in the present, vacant buildings dominate blocks. A van, stuffed so full of blankets and boxes they are spilling from the windows, pulls to the curb outside Stacie Blodgett’s antiques shop.
“Look inside of it,” she says. “I bet you he’s living in it.”
Around the corner, a crowded tent city of the desperate and addicted has taken over the riverbank, makeshift memorials to too many dead too young jutting up intermittently from the mud.
America, when viewed through the bars on Blodgett’s windows, looks a lot less great than it used to be. So she answered Donald Trump’s call to the country’s forgotten corners. Thousands of her neighbors did, too, and her county, once among the most reliably Democratic in the nation, swung Republican in a presidential election for the first time in 90 years.
“People were like, ‘This guy’s going to be it. He’s going to change everything, make it better again,’” she says.
Blodgett stands at the computer on her counter and scrolls through the headlines. Every day it’s something new: details in the Russia campaign investigation, shake-ups at the White House, turmoil over Trump’s response to race-fueled riots. His administration’s failed plans to remake the health care system may or may not cost millions their coverage, and there’s a lack of clarity over how exactly he intends to eradicate a spiraling drug crisis that now claims 142 American lives each day — a growing number of them here, in Grays Harbor County.
“Has he done anything good yet?” she asks. “Has he?”
Blodgett was born and raised in this county, where the logging economy collapsed decades ago, replaced by a simmering sense of injustice that outsiders took the lumber, built cities around the world and then left this place to decay when there was nothing more to take. The community sank into despair. Suicides increased, addiction took root. Blodgett is 59, and the rate at which people here die from drugs and alcohol has quadrupled in her lifetime.
She thought opening an antiques and pawn shop on a downtown street bordered by petunias would be fun. Instead, she’s confronted every day with her neighbors’ suffering. They come to pawn their jewelry to pay for medication. They come looking for things stolen from them. They come to trade in odds and ends and tell her food stamps won’t cover the dog food.
She keeps a bag of kibble behind the register.
Now they come to discuss Trump, and their differing degrees of faith that he will make good on his promise to fix the rotting blue-collar economy that brought this despair to their doorstep.
Many here agree that the thrashing and churning in Washington looks trivial when viewed from this place 3,000 miles away that so many residents have been trying so hard to save. Some maintain confidence that Trump will rise above the chaos to deliver on his pledge to resurrect the American dream. Others fear new depths of hopelessness if he fails.
Blodgett just prays Trump understand the stakes — because in places like this, there is little room left for error from Washington, D.C.
There, he is tweeting insults about senators and CNN.
Here, her neighbors have been reduced to living in cars.
Across the country, Trump disproportionately claimed these communities where lifetimes contracted as the working class crumbled.
Penn State sociologist Shannon Monnat spent last fall plotting places on a map experiencing a rise in “deaths of despair” — from drugs, alcohol and suicide wrought by the decimation of jobs that used to bring dignity. On Election Day, she glanced up at the television. The map of Trump’s victory looked eerily similar to hers documenting death, from New England through the Rust Belt all the way here, to the rural coast of Washington, a county of 71,000 so out-of-the-way some say it feels like the end of the earth.
Aberdeen was built as a boomtown at the dawn of the 20th century. Its spectacular landscape — the Chehalis River carves through tree-topped hills to the harbor — offered ships easy access to the Pacific Ocean. Millionaire lumber barons built mansions on the hills. There were restaurants and theaters and traffic that backed up as the drawbridge into town seesawed up and down for ship after ship packed with timber. Now that drawbridge pretty much stays put.
The economy started to slip in the 1960s, slowly at first, as jobs were lost to globalization and automation. Then the federal government in 1990 limited the level of logging in an attempt to save an endangered owl.
Today, the riverbank hosts a homeless encampment where residents pull driftwood from the water to construct memorials to the dead. An 8-foot cross honors their latest loss: A 42-year-old man who had heart and lung ailments made worse by infrequent medical care and addiction. A generation ago, people like him worked in the mills, lived in tidy houses and could afford to see a doctor, says the Rev. Sarah Monroe, a street minister here.
“But instead his life ended living in a tent on the riverbank.”
The county’s population is stagnating and aging, as many young and able move away. Just 15 percent of those left behind have college degrees. A quarter of children grow up poor. There is a critical shortage of doctors. All that gathered into what Karolyn Holden, director of the public health department, calls “a perfect storm” that put Grays Harbor near the top of the lists no place wants to be on: drugs, alcohol, early death, runaway rates of welfare.
“Things went from extremely good to not good to bad to worse, and we’ve got generations now where they don’t know anything else,” she says. “We have a lot of people without a lot of hope for themselves.”
Forrest Wood grew up here; his parents even picked his name in tribute to the local timber history. He watched drugs take hold of his relatives, and he swore to himself that he would get out, maybe become a park ranger. But he started taking opioid painkillers as a teenager, and before he knew it he was shooting heroin — a familiar first chapter in the story of American addiction.
He sits under a bridge next to a park named after Kurt Cobain, the city’s most famous son, the Nirvana frontman and a heroin addict, who shot himself in the head at 27 years old in 1994. Wood is 24. He plunges a syringe full of brown liquid into his vein, though he knows well how this might end.
“My uncle died right over there in his truck,” he says, pointing to a cluster of battered houses and blinking back tears. “He was messing with drugs. He did too much.”
Wood’s mother got treatment at the county’s methadone clinic and has stayed clean for years, paid for by her coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
Holden was so happy on the day President Barack Obama signed the legislation, she cried. It’s an imperfect program with premiums and deductibles rising for some, she says. But thousands here received coverage; the uninsured dropped from 18 percent in 2012 to 9 in 2014 — one of the greatest gains in the state.
She reads about all the proposals Republicans have offered to topple it — repeal and replace, just repeal, do nothing and let it buckle on its own — and believes the consequences of an unstable system will be most painful in counties like hers, where residents die on average three years younger than those in the rest of the state. For two terrifying weeks this summer, no insurer filed to provide coverage for the county through the exchange next year, threatening to leave thousands without an option. Other initiatives seem to be on the administration’s chopping block, too, like family planning programs to combat the high rate of teen pregnancy.
The health department last year collected 750,000 needles at its syringe exchange designed to stem the tide of drug-related disease — an incredible number for a small community, but still down from more than 900,000 the year before. Holden attributes that improvement to the methadone clinic that helps Wood’s mother and nearly 500 more stay off drugs.
Molly Carney, the executive director of Evergreen Treatment Services, says each client costs $14.75 per day for a combination of counseling and medication that prevents the sickness that strangles so many addicts’ attempts to get clean. More than 95 percent of her patients are covered by Medicaid. If the nation’s health care system collapses and patients are left uninsured, Carney says her clinic and others won’t survive, and even more will end up homeless, in jail or dead.
Tarryn Vick and Anjelic Baker line up before dawn every morning outside the clinic. They both beat crushing addictions by drinking their daily cup of pink liquid, and without it they believe they would tumble back into that deadly spiral. On this morning, they worry together over the possibility that Obamacare will be undone. Baker begins to cry.
“Are we going to lose our coverage?” she asks Vick. “Are we going to die?”
Vick shrugs, shakes her head and says she doesn’t know.
“Every day,” she tells her friend, “I wonder more.”
Robert LaCount flips open his Alcoholics Anonymous book, the binding frayed from a decade of reading, and pulls out a funeral program he keeps tucked among its pages. The photo on the front shows a woman with long hair and sad eyes, 32 years old, a mother of three.
He walked her down the aisle at her wedding. Eight months later, he carried the casket at her funeral. She had been addicted to heroin, recovered, relapsed and hanged herself.
“It’s too sad,” says LaCount, himself a recovering addict. “But it happens all the time.”
For years, LaCount cycled in and out of jail and it did nothing to stop the addiction. He endangered his own children, spent Christmases in missions, didn’t care if he lived. Then one day it occurred to him that his life was so empty no one would care enough to claim his body from the morgue when he died. He got clean nine years ago, and now runs a sober housing program and fields 10 calls for help a day that he has to say no to because there’s so much need and so few resources.
LaCount is a Trump supporter looking eagerly to Washington for action on the addiction crisis. The president this month declared the opioid epidemic a national emergency, potentially unlocking federal funding for deterrence and treatment. However, other moves by the administration have LaCount concerned.
He was stunned when Trump’s attorney general announced a return to the tough-on-crime sentencing policies of the War on Drugs, and he’s unnerved by Trump’s calls to undo the health insurance system that he and many addicts rely on to get clean. LaCount recently finished a $90,000 treatment that rid his body of the hepatitis C he contracted using injection drugs. Those trapped in addiction have little chance to get out of it without health coverage, he says.
But it’s hard to tell sometimes what news is real and what’s blown out of proportion, he says, frustrated by what he sees as mass obstruction to the president’s every proposal. People in big cities, rooting for Trump’s failure, don’t have nearly as much on the line as they do here, LaCount says.
“We’re banking on him.”
He traded his motorcycle for $30,000 worth of woodworking tools to teach people the skills they’ll need for the jobs Trump promised to create. He sees opportunity all around him: a port, railroads, a lot of open real estate and a beautiful wildness, where deer sometimes meander along city streets. So he’s scraping paint from a run-down church with dreams of building a community center to help other people see it, too.
He considers his old building a metaphor for his community — good bones, a good soul, a working organ that plays beautiful music. It just needs help.
“It’s been sitting empty and it’s tired,” he says. “It needs to get back to life.”
Many others trying to pull their neighbors from despair are similarly optimistic about a future under Trump. People like Chad Mittleider, a paramedic, who applauds Trump’s efforts to renegotiate trade deals and roll back welfare programs and regulations like those that helped drag down his community.
He has brought former classmates back to life from overdoses and responded to their suicide attempts, treating the same people over and over.
“It’s taken us decades to get to where we’re at,” he says, “so it’s not going to be fixed in four or eight years.”
The Rev. Sarah Monroe can’t afford to be patient. Already, she has held seven funerals this year. She tallies the initials of the dead on a tattoo that winds around her bicep: AB, dead at 23; ZV, at 24.
Now she has a new one to add: Shawn Vann Schreck, dead at 42.
Most in her flock are too consumed by the daily chaos of addiction and poverty to be engaged in what’s happening in Washington. But their lives might depend more than most on Trump’s plans for health care, drug policy and the safety net, she says.
Schreck’s girlfriend, Misty Micheau Bushnell, says his death shook her so much she’s ready to move away, and hopes her methamphetamine addiction won’t follow her.
But Monroe has seen this again and again. They claw their way out and get clean— then there’s another friend to bury, the despair returns and the cycle starts anew.
“I don’t think our politicians know how high the stakes are here, and after so many years have gone by with our situation still as devastated as it is, I don’t know if they care,” she says.
“I’m not sure how much worse it can get, and at the same time I’m afraid to see how much worse it can get.”
When Blodgett was young, people could walk out of high school, get a job in the woods and make enough money to ascend to the middle class and shop downtown. They didn’t have locks on their doors. But the addiction and despair plaguing the people of Grays Harbor have fostered other problems now.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Blodgett and her elderly mother got home to find a swarm of police cars clogging their street in the next-door town of Hoquiam. A 95-year-old man who lived in a little house six doors down for 20 years had been found bludgeoned and stabbed to death.
Blodgett adored him. She looked forward to seeing him driving around, his Pomeranian on his lap. He still met friends for coffee twice a day, once in the morning and again in the afternoon, and climbed a ladder to clean out his own gutters.
She held his daughter as she wept, then read the details of his death in the local paper, The Daily World: He’d hired a young woman to mow his lawn. That woman, believed to have a drug addiction, allegedly stole his checks. There was a confrontation, and police say she later confessed that she returned to his home, beat him with a flashlight and stabbed him with a knife.
“It makes me sick to my stomach,” Blodgett says. “I’m sick, just sick.”
And so she checks to make sure her backyard is empty before she goes to sleep every night. As she drives to her antiques shop every morning, she passes block after block of abandoned buildings — homeless people in the doorways, syringes in the streets. She has three grown kids and five grandkids, and she worries about their futures here.
“Kids are being raised around this,” she says. “No wonder when they graduate they get out of it if they can.”
Her worry has turned into anger, directed at the president she once saw as a savior. She sees Trump tweeting about talk show hosts, foreign allies, the nuclear arsenal, his own attorney general — a seemingly endless series of squabbles that will do her and her neighbors no good. Blodgett found Trump’s bluster refreshing when he was a candidate. It seems reckless with the fate of the nation in his hands.
“What he needs to do is quit talking, and do what he said he’s going to do.”
Her brother had a stroke and is in a nursing home, paid for by Medicaid. She has pre-existing conditions, and she’s terrified about what could happen to them both.
She cast her ballot for Trump because he said he’d look after the underdogs, and her community is full of them. But “as soon as he gets in there,” she says, “it’s like to hell with you people.”
Each new headline ignites more regret. So when the computer on her counter beeps to mark the arrival of a news alert, she stiffens.
“Oh my God,” she groans. “What has he done now?”
Text from the AP news story, Trump won places drowning in despair. Can he save them?, by Claire Galofaro
AP multimedia journalist Martha Irvine and data journalist Angeliki Kastanis contributed to this report.
Photos by David Goldman
Visual artist and Digital Storyteller at The Associated Press