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Diary: This American Road, Eugene

Eugene 2015 - 2

We rolled into Eugene without knowing anything about it but that a friend who lives near Seattle loves the place — “God’s country,” he calls it. It certainly has one up on Seattle at the moment in terms of not having been recently roughed up by a storm. But much about Oregon’s third city has begun to intrigue me. “They say ‘Keep Portland weird,'” someone or other we encountered on this trip said, “but Eugene’s weirder.” And not long ago in Los Angeles, I happened to meet a University of Oregon professor who brought his family to Eugene six years ago for the job and has found a good deal to like, so we made plans to meet up with him at a local brewery as soon as we got in.

Eugene 2015 - 3

Eugene doesn’t show its best face right away — or at least not right away on a Monday afternoon. Many of the businesses we past looked intriguing (especially in combination, like the saw-sharpener next to the vape shop), but most of the people we passed on the street looked like either runaways or burnouts, and later conversations revealed that, indeed, the place has an unusually high old-hippie quotient with not much in the way of industry to balance it out. But the University of Oregon brings in a lot of new blood, so the professor told us, though a mixture of college students and the Aged of Aquarius does create… a certain kind of place. It certainly creates a beer-loving kind of place: on the light end of the spectrum, you can go with Falling Sky (whose slogan of “Let it Pour” mischievous locals with Sharpies seem to like to convert into “Let it Poop”), and on the dark end, the well-known Ninkasi, who’ve literally changed the color of the neighborhood by painting their large complex with their signature teal.

Eugene 2015 - 5

They call the neighborhood in question the Whiteaker, and it doesn’t want for college-town amenities even in addition to Ninkasi and the other breweries headquartered there, including a food co-op (where I heard a couple of man-buns in line swapping stories about scoby explosions) and a fully equipped barcade. Especially in the Whiteaker, Eugene shows signs of being one of the at least semi-viable bohemias of our time, though I couldn’t get over the emptiness of the drive between it and Portland. It takes only two hours in real time, but the sheer lack of development between the cities makes it feel like twice that — and, for some obscure reason, makes me genuinely angry as I push through it.

Eugene 2015 - 7

Walk far enough out of the Whiteaker, and in not too long you get to Eugene’s downtown — but if you do take too long, you might get there after the point in the evening at which it hands itself over to the drifters. We strolled past the sidewalk tables of one of downtown Eugene’s few night spots in the wake of a violent, nonsensical disagreement between diners and a couple of large, filthy young fellows with their almost as large and filthy dogs in tow. Others of their kind had overtaken several of the public spaces we passed, turning them into open-air bars (or consumption spaces for other substances of choice) of their own.

Eugene 2015 - 4

But the downtown has “good bones,” as they say. On our way out of it back to our Airbnb (a “mud room” with an outhouse, but surely among the nicest outhouses in town), we passed an impressive couple of blocks with a library, community college, and central bus station, all looking recently built. At one point, we found ourselves standing by a stately athletic club, the blue glow of its below-ground pool visible from a sidewalk-level window. I left Eugene feeling like I’d have more to discover next time, given what I’d glimpsed so far (and given the unexpected things I’d only heard about, like the rare Japanese-immersion elementary school to which the professor sends his young son). I’ll just have to grit my teeth to get there.