Take a drive down any highway in the Northwest, and you'll pass signs for dozens of small towns. There are more than 700 cities under 10,000 people in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Many of these towns came about because of railroads or timber or mines and now they’re trying to figure out what comes next.
It's nearly 2:15 in Avery, Idaho. The mail has arrived. And the post office is about to become the busiest place in town.
The post office occupies a corner of the old train depot – which for years was the center of life in Avery. Only then, the town’s population was much larger. Avery post master Wade Bilbrey says it hummed with the rumble of trains crossing the Bitterroot mountains to Seattle or Chicago.
“You got trains at all times of day and night, coming in and out," Bilbrey explains. "At its height, we had three passenger trains going each direction.”
But the sound of the train has faded, the tracks long ago pulled up.
Like many Northwest towns, Avery is changing. The year-round population has dropped to 25 people. And Bilbrey says there’s another sound that’s gone.
“Just that sound of children's laughter," he says. "When that's missing, it's – I don't know how to say it – it's a quality of life issue."
One of the problems is that there's not much to keep families in Avery. Brandi Scheffelmaier and her husband were the last family with small children to leave town.
“It's getting more popular as far as tourists and people fishing and stuff like that," she says. "But growing up there, there was loggers and just more people around during the week. And now it's pretty quiet, it gets pretty quiet.”
Scheffelmaier says her hour-long commute to work just became too much. Plus, a few years ago, the 1923 schoolhouse in Avery closed -- and it may not open again, ever.
Sheila Cottier with the school district says it's simple arithmetic. Avery property keeps going to retirees looking for vacation homes and they’re not looking for a school for any kids.
“We'd have to have 10 or so families with children move in to re-open and that's just not – not going to happen.”
And then came this setback over the summer. The pub in Avery – a '20s era building where you could still see marks in the floor from loggers' boots, the source of Avery’s nightlife – burned to the ground in the middle of the night.
Postmaster Wade Bilbrey says a Forest Service wildland fire crew managed to keep the blaze from spreading through the rest of town, but he tells me the fire was a major blow.
I asked if he ever worries that Avery is just going to die.
“You know, it could get to the point where the post office could be just totally gone, the zip code could be gone," Bilbrey says. "And as far as the identity of the community, when would we stop being called Avery? I don't know.”
And towns do sometimes disappear, says Bruce Weber. He’s an economist and director of the Rural Studies program at Oregon State University.
“There's a book called 'Geographic Place Names in Oregon' which is filled with names of towns that used to exist that no longer do.”
Weber says very small and geographically isolated towns like Avery are especially at risk. Take Lester, Wash. It became a ghost town. And Valsetz, Ore., was wiped off the map.
But let's pause here. Because there’s something else surprising going on. Contrary to popular belief about small towns, most are NOT dying. In fact, most are stable – even growing.
According to Census data, only about 20 percent of the towns under 2,500 people in Idaho, Oregon and Washington have lost population since 1990. More often, they’re changing -- demographically, economically.
“Towns that have maintained their population bases are tenacious," says Weber. "And the people that live there have wanted those towns to survive and thrive. And people there keep looking for ideas.”
And the signs are there in Avery, too, that the future isn't dim – just different from the past.
The owner of the burned-down pub, Tommy Gray, looks out at the twisted, black pieces of metal that used to be bar stools and kitchen appliances. Gray is one of these new retirees who came to Avery because he liked the fishing and hunting.
And Gray says: He's bringing the pub back.
“I'll tell ya the same thing I told everyone else: We can't replace any of the historical parts. But, we can build a bigger and a better and a safer place," he says. "Even when it was burning down, I was looking at my son and I telling him, 'I'm going to build it better.'”
Gray isn't alone. His son Brandon stands next to him – 20 years old, and one of Avery's newest residents.