In search of the ordinary
STORY BY JIM EARL - PHOTOS BY TODD COOPER
I love the way we come into a town. Some towns are like medieval walled cities, dense right up to the edge — then suddenly you're in the country, in farmland. Towns in Lane County aren't like that. We enter them gradually. If you're driving you might not notice how gradually, but if you're walking you can sense a small town a half hour away.
You watch the size of properties along the road get smaller: from open farmland down to 15-acre plots, maybe some orchards, houses as far apart as possible; then down to 10-, and five-, and then two-acre "estates," an occasional decaying barn, then a gated community; then the first edge-of-town businesses — an auto repair, a dog kennel, a church that looks a lot like a house; then a trailer park, across from a mini-mansion with an RV garage.
You still have a ways to go before you get to a gas station where you might buy a Coke or sit down, and it's been a couple of hours since the last country store. Those are about halfway between towns — like halfway between Creswell and Cottage Grove, or halfway between Springfield and Marcola. The one between Springfield and Walterville closed down recently, which for a walker is a pretty big deal. Then again, there aren't too many walkers!
I like to walk the roads from town to town in Lane County. These are the kinds of things you see — and you have so much time on your hands that you can't help thinking about them. They sink in so deep that you can't forget them.
Because I always start my walks at my house — at 18th and Olive, right downtown — the conclusions I draw are based entirely on our little corner of America, places with names like Lorane, Crow, Harrisburg and Peoria, or like Creswell, Walker, Saginaw and Cottage Grove; places like Mohawk, Marcola, and Mabel; places like Walterville, Deerhorn, Leaburg and Vida — and of course, right at the center of it all, Eugene and Springfield, our bustling twin cities with their strange balance of opposites.
As a professor, I don't usually write like this. It actually feels daring for me to write about being a normal human being walking down the road, instead of big ideas. Maybe that's why I walk the roads, to get my nose out of a book, to get back in touch with the world, to get back to the surface of things.
A few months ago, back in October, I decided to walk out to my friend Russ's house on Goodpasture Road, up the McKenzie. If you start at 18th and Olive and avoid Route 126 as much as possible, taking the scenic route out Camp Creek Road, and then Deerhorn, it's about 40 miles. At a leisurely pace of a little under three miles an hour, it takes about 14 hours.
Do you know it takes three hours just to walk from my house out to Hayden Bridge? That's the nearest point where you can walk east out into the countryside. Three hours just to get out of town! I can drive it in 12 minutes.
Russ said, "I can't stand the idea of you trudging all that way on asphalt. Why not just drive out to the house, and we'll go for a world-class hike to the top of Black Crater?"
"Trudging? I see myself strolling along the American Highway, in touch with the earth and my country. Me and Walt Whitman. Don't take the romance out of it for me."
It was before sunrise, with a light rain in the air. Most of those first nine miles in town were along bike paths. First along the river: It's quite another world out there on those deserted paths between the two towns before sunrise. And the funniest thing happened. At the darkest spot along the trail, somewhere between Alton Baker Park and Island Park, in that darkest hour before dawn, suddenly two bikes with bouncing lights appeared from opposite directions, and raced past each other just where I was standing. I had to jump off the path! Whish! Whish! Like Grand Central Station out here!
A total coincidence. Doesn't mean a damn thing, but how could it happen that the only three people on the trail that morning converged on each other at the same time in the same place? Walking gives you a lot of unforgettable but totally meaningless memories like that.
It's grown light by the time I step onto the bike path that runs up the middle of Pioneer Parkway. Traffic is picking up for the morning rush, but I'm the first customer when I stop for coffee at Shari's. What a beautiful line of great trees out there along Pioneer Parkway — I never saw them before. The things I don't know about Springfield, even after living in Eugene for 16 years!
After Q Street I turn east along another bike path that unwinds ahead of me between two streets for 35 blocks, between the back yards of hundreds of nicely kept, ordinary houses. Kids are walking to school along the path, or riding their bikes. Way up ahead I see a couple of women standing with their dogs at the edge of a field, talking. Ten minutes later they're still talking — that's the time it takes to reach them, pass them, and disappear again heading east.
I like walking along the backs of houses. I've walked all the alleyways of my neighborhood, College Hill. I recommend alleys to everyone. People keep the fronts of their houses repaired, remodeled and stylish, to present something of a face to the public; property values face forward. But the backs of houses change more slowly; back yards have a more personal feel to them, a little intimate and disheveled; back fences, if they're made of wood, are as often as not broken, or rotting away.
When you walk along the street with the houses facing out at you, you're in 2005; when you walk the alleyways, or this bike path, it seems like 1950 again. It feels a lot like the neighborhood I lived in then, in Murphy's Meadows, Ind. I take a little detour and walk along the street for a few blocks — Hayden Bridge Way — to see what the fronts look like. Out there people are heading off to work. Grown-ups out the front, kids out the back, just like when I was a kid. Two different worlds.
Out toward Hayden Bridge, Springfield thins out to a lovely example of edge-of-town spaciousness, back yards opening up right into fields. You can see remnants of the old farms and orchards that used to be here. Finally you walk up what feels like a country road, then you cross the river, and surprise — there's a highway there, Marcola Road. Country's on the other side.
Traffic is heavy. At the Hayden Bridge Store you get another cup of coffee, and then, at last, you head down Camp Creek Road along the McKenzie off to the right. There's 11 hours of walking ahead, and those are the hours you're doing this for — but at this point your head's still full of Eugene and Springfield.
As a Eugenean, whenever I'm in Springfield I'm struck by the difference between the two towns. Springfield thinks of Eugene as elitist and liberal, and Eugene sees Springfield as blue-collar and conservative. On that day the difference was especially easy to see, because from Olive Street to Marcola Road I could watch the election signs on front lawns gradually red-shift from mostly Kerry to mostly Bush. Enough said about that!
But it made me remember how a few months ago there was chatter in the newspaper and on TV about whether Eugene and Springfield should merge. What a crazy idea! Obviously we could save a lot of money with just one government instead of two, one set of agencies and districts instead of two. And if government is supposed to save money, why not?
But can you imagine a City Council meeting of a combined Eugene/Springfield? The Eugene council is divided enough as it is! There'd never be any agreement if you added Springfield into the mix. What was Rick Dancer thinking about night after night on the evening news? I think that guy's a trouble-maker!
What is it, anyway, that makes people think bigger is better? It's in my nature to believe in moderation and balance as goals. It's an ancient Greek ideal: moderation in all things. Nothing's more natural than growth — grass grows, trees grow, people grow, families grow, cities grow — but it seems to me everything has a right size. As a teacher I know when a class is too big. It's nice watching your children grow, but it's good when they taper off at 6 feet. And I can tell when I've bitten off more than I can chew.
Wait: who am I, in the middle of a 40-mile walk, to be talking about balance and moderation? Wisdom consists in knowing your limits, knowing when to slow down and stop; and five hours into my day, when I reach that country store halfway to Walterville and find it's been boarded up, all I can think about is how nice it will be to slow down and stop — four miles from now at the Walterville Store.
By noontime, seven hours into my walk and half-way to Russ's, I've had my rest at the Walterville Store and I've doubled back about a mile on Route 126 down to Deerhorn. Now I look forward to many hours of peace and quiet walking along the south side of the McKenzie. Five or 10 minutes go by between each passing car. Under the magic spell that rivers inspire, when time seems to slow down, and maybe even disappear — "Old Man River, he just keeps rolling along" — it's easy to fall back into my nostalgic reverie about old-time, small-town America.
A few months before, my daughter and I canoed 40 miles of the Willamette River from Armitage Park to Peoria, stopping for lunch in Harrisburg's lovely riverbank park. If coming into a town on foot gives you food for thought, you should approach one by canoe! Even industrial Harrisburg is utterly charming as a river town, like something out of Mark Twain. A few miles south of town, a bald eagle dropped out of the sky right ahead of our canoe, plucked a fish out of the river and flew off over the trees. We were in a mythological America, like Lewis and Clark.
You don't feel exactly like Lewis or Clark as you're walking the asphalt of Deerhorn Road, but between the eternal calming pace of the river, and the patient business of moving ahead one step at a time, you do fall into a very different sense of America's history. One reason to go on a long walk is precisely to escape that sense we now live with of faster and faster change. Sometimes everything just seems too big and too fast for this little human body to bear.
Well, walking returns you to what I call human timeand human space. It's the only completely natural mode of transportation, a direct expression of the bodies that nature gave us. Maybe e=MC2, and maybe light years are the only constant in cosmic space-time, but in human space-time a mile is 20 minutes, and a long day means from my house to Russ's, right up the McKenzie. Before white settlers came into the Willamette Valley, Indian tribes who lived that far apart spoke different languages, and a full day on the road will tell you why. It's a lot of effort to get your body from here to there! You wouldn't want to do it very often.
Twice during my long trek I halt my forward movement long enough to go down to the river and soak my feet — once on Camp Creek Road, once again on Deerhorn. Walking is solitary enough, but the river's more solitary yet. As I scramble down the bank through bushes and around rocks, I can't help anticipating a special encounter, mythological maybe — and of course what I feel instead is the inevitable letdown: no sublimity, no poetry, no river god; just sore feet. The image of soaking them in the river seemed so perfect, but the river turns out to be overwhelmingly just itself.
I can't tell if I feel disappointment or relief. When you walk you're not really in search of the extraordinary anyway. The hiker and the mountain climber may be after something big, but the walker's after the ordinary. Not a new thought. Countless writers over the centuries report finding refreshment, revelation, or even salvation in the everyday, the ordinary, the obvious — in the earthworm, the sparrow, the leaf of grass, the scrap of newspaper blowing in the street — in the world staring us straight in the face while we look away.
No looking away today. This water's painfully cold. Hot water would be a lot more comforting right now. Still, it's a river, impressive just for being there and for flowing so constantly, and it's great to be here. Five or 10 minutes later, though, back on the road and back in the groove, my body can't even tell it stopped to rest.
Now I'm going to tell you the thoughts that occupied my mind on Deerhorn Road all the way to Leaburg. The morning's observations about the divide between Eugene and Springfield flowed on in a rambling meditation about the river that runs through the middle of Eugene. Eugene, it occurred to me, is really two cities.
Eugene nestles into the hills at the far south end of the valley. There's a natural barrier to the south and east, where development slows down as you get farther into the hills; but to the north and west it's old farm country, and in that direction development can proceed relatively unimpeded. That explains why the urban growth boundary was drawn so close in on the south, hugging the ridgeline, with almost no room left for growth, but so far out on the north, way out beyond Belt Line, to leave lots of room for expansion. Thirty years after the line was drawn you can drive out River Road to Beacon, where new neighborhoods press on the inside of the boundary, and Tom's Apple Orchard, that classic slice of old-time Americana, sits nervously going in and out of business right across the road.
Because of this geography, Eugene south of the river is still pretty much a sleepy little college town, with the ambiance and down-scale economy of a hundred other college towns in America. Like a lot of them, it struggles to revitalize its downtown, so it can be more like it was in the old days, before the shopping centers got built to the north, and the roads connecting the two parts of the city grew into a tangle of cloverleafs and overpasses where outsiders get lost.
In some ways the city expanding north of the river is more foreign to me than Springfield. From the evidence of lawn signs, it too is a red state — well, at least compared to College Hill. (Then again, maybe everything's a red state compared to College Hill!) In any case, like a lot of "gowns," I came to Eugene for the college town, not for the business environment, and I've been surprised by the pace of development. I don't complain about development to the north or west — the south side's no less sleepy, funky and old-fashioned for all that; but because development's a political issue, you can't really be neutral on the subject when elections roll around. It's always growth versus no-growth.
So, far from wondering why Eugene and Springfield don't merge, I'm walking along Deerhorn Road wondering how the two sides of Eugene have managed to stay together! I kind of wish the sleepy college town south of the river and the bustling development north of it could go their own ways. Let each side govern itself! My side could call itself South Eugene, or Old Eugene — or maybe Lesser Eugene.
Left to its own devices, Lesser Eugene would have its own college-town economy, anchored by its one major employer, the university, and by cottage industries providing coffee, pizza, organic vegetables, Tibetan prayer flags, bikes, books, computers and run-down apartments to tens of thousands of temporary residents. Students don't have much money to spend, but they need the basics, and because there are so many of them, they can keep a small economy percolating pretty well.
Mostly, Lesser Eugene would be a residential "bedroom community" — which must be why I keep calling it "sleepy." Its politics would be liberal. Taxes would be high, to pay for all the government services that liberals always want. Growth would stop; cutting trees would be a capital crime; time would flow backwards; the ridgeline would hold; no one would even ask about building anything new to the south or east, on Old Dillard, Spring, or Moon Mountain.
Meanwhile, the economy of Greater Eugene, to the north and west, would be anchored by the commercial zone stretching from Valley River and Country Club Road to Oakway and the Stadium (yes, good news, Greater Eugene: you get the Ducks!); but also by the industrial corridor on Route 99, and the office parks and box stores sprouting along Barger, Belt Line and Chad Drive farther north. And tell you what I'm gonna do: As a bonus I'm tossing in everything west of Chambers, including 11th all the way out to Wal-Mart and the Hynix plant.
In short, the Lesser Eugene of my imagination would comprise exactly the area that the Little Caesar's Pizza across the street from me on 18th Avenue will deliver to: north to Whiteaker, west to Chambers, south to Crest and Fox Hollow, east to Spring Boulevard. When you think about it, it's a pretty diverse little town, a lot more than just a university neighborhood. The new Atlas of Oregon reveals that what I call Lesser Eugene was in fact the Eugene of 1950.
I'm not serious, I'm just nostalgic again for the America of my childhood. It happens when you walk through small towns.
Whew! By the time I get to Leaburg I've walked 30 miles, and I still have another 10 to go. Experienced hikers know that the human foot is only reliable for about 17 miles; after that, blisters and sore muscles begin to intrude on one's peace of mind. One meditates less and less on how one enters a town, on privacy and solitude, on the pleasures of back yards and alleys, on the comforting pace of Old Man River, on democracy, growth and no-growth, and on the America of 1950.
Under these conditions, Leaburg is a nice surprise. I enter it from the river, not the highway. I've passed it scores of times, never realizing that all these streets and houses were here. It would take time to look around, so I stick to my eastward vector and pretty soon I'm on the highway. But here I am, taking a walk purposely to slow down, to reconnect with human time, and still, I'm in too much of a hurry for something? I vow to be less single-minded on the next side road.
It's only a few miles before I get to test my word. Greenwood Drive provides a pleasant mile or so off the highway, and then my maps show an unnamed road running parallel to the highway, so I turn. Three carefully calculated turns later and I'm lost on a dirt road going nowhere. I can't even tell which way the highway is. How is that even possible? I walk back to the last crossroad and stand looking in the four directions. The maps are no help at all.
Make a wrong turn in your car and you lose a few minutes; when you're walking you can lose an hour — and at this point I'm paying for extra steps in pain! I regret my earlier vow. After a while I bump into the dam and power station near Waterboard Park.
At three miles an hour panic is ridiculous. You just keep rolling along, and your thoughts do too, though more fitfully after 10 hours. Maybe because I spent the last half-hour wandering off the map, I find myself thinking about freedom.
"Freedom is on the march," the president says, referring to Iraq. What does he mean by "freedom," I wonder? I don't know what it means to him, but I know what it means to me right now — because out here, no matter how sore my legs and feet are, I remain exhilarated by the freedom of the open road, no less than an explorer immersed in the wilderness or a mountain climber on top of the world. Walt Whitman hit the right note in the opening lines of his Song of the Open Road:
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. . .
O public road … I am not afraid to leave you, yet I love you,
You express me better than I can express myself ...
From this hour I ordain myself loos'd of limits
and imaginary lines,
Going wherever I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself
of the holds that would hold me.
Is that the freedom the president's talking about, the freedom to walk — to search, pause, listen, and gently contemplate — in whatever direction you choose? The freedom even to get lost sometimes? If so, I too wish it on the whole world. But I'm not thinking about the president. The closest I come to an actual political thought this late in the day is the realization that Freedom doesn't march. It walks. Only soldiers march. That's the sort of political commentary you get from a professor: Don't mix your metaphors.
The picturesque back roads of Lane County now feel like burning coals beneath my feet. To make it worse, for a few miles between Leaburg and Vida there's no choice but to walk on Route 126. I hold onto my hat as trucks roar by a few feet away. When you're Walt Whitman walking America, you take whatever the highway dishes up.
To top it off, as I approach the Goodpasture covered bridge there's a sudden downpour. I'm glad covered bridges are covered! When I come out the other end I can hardly believe my eyes: The sun has emerged, the way it does so often in Oregon at the end of the day, beaming horizontally over the landscape, and a rainbow fills the evening sky ahead of me.
Less than an hour later, as darkness falls at last, I knock on Russ's front door. It's seven o'clock, just when I told him I'd be there.
James Earl is a professor of English at UO.