Thursday, August 17, 2006

Best of the West: Eugene, Oregon

Funny how mistaken first impressions can be.

Case in point: Eugene, Oregon.

Nearly two years ago, when visiting our son and his freshly minted wife, we had high expectations for Eugene. "It's Oregon's equivalent to Boulder," everyone told us. Unfortunately, we didn't see it that way. The downtown lacked refinement and visual polish. The streets were badly in need of repair, improvements, and a discerning eye towards cleaning up the visual clutter. Even the neighborhoods seemed a bit dumpy, if not fiscally stingy. It was as though the city's residents had the money, but refused to tax and/or spend even the minimal amount necessary to help make their neighborhoods, public thoroughfares, and community amenities shine.

Not at all like Boulder, Colorado -- one of the most picturesque and thoughtfully designed and landscaped cities in the western U.S.

Back to Eugene we recently went just prior to their two-year anniversary. Only this time, after again spending a few days in and around Eugene and its sister-city Springfield, and after experiencing the city the way it was meant to be seen -- by bicycle -- we have a wholly different opinion of the place.

We started our bike tour by renting four Trek bikes from Paul's Bicycle Way of Life on 5th Street. Although we got there late in the morning so only one of the four bikes was large enough for Howard's Family of Giants, the bikes were nice enough and the employee who helped us was very, er, helpful.

After glancing at the city bike trails map, know-it-all Howard headed west. Howard's son, however, knew better and just sat and waited. Howard reversed course and the three proceeded to follow Howard Jr. as he led them over the Peter DeFazio Bridge and along the Willamette River for the next hour. The bike trails (and the weather) were stunningly beautiful and in perfect condition. The photo above of a bike bridge near downtown Eugene is a good example.

Howard's hometown, as well as neighboring towns and cities, have an amazing array of bike trails that help make those towns some of the best biking cities in the country. But none of them were anywhere as thoughfully and generously designed for bikes, pedestrians, and joggers as the trail system in Eugene.

Additionally, this time the downtown was vibrant and lively, auto traffic was very respectful of cyclists, and the number of people on the paths was overflowing, though not so much that we couldn't keep a comfortable 10- to 12-mph pace. Howard's youngest son, who has vowed to never love the bike the way his parents do, even had a great time. He especially loved to lean on the bell that his bike came equipped with to alert pedestrians ahead that he was about to breeze by.

After finishing the loop of the Willamette, Howard Jr. led the group towards Springfield. After passing under Interstate 5, we came across a massive grove of blackberry bushes next to the bike trail, each plump with ripe berries. We stopped and gorged on fresh, free blackberries for about 20 minutes. Apparently, blackberry bushes were not an indiginous species to Oregon, but after taking root in and around Eugene -- everything grows like mad there -- the City decided to let them thrive, even refusing to spray them with pesticides and herbicides so the residents could eat freely and organically.

Howard loves blackberries, though they only come to him in his mountainous homestate via 4 oz. plasticized packages costing $2.50 or more, and only during a few brief times each year. Since Howard also loves the free food, this was a special treat that he won't ever forget.

After the feast, we headed back to Eugene. We four rode through the campus of the University of Oregon, where Howard Jr. studies graduate-level chemistry, and then we headed up to Hendricks Park. Howard and the Jr. made it up the approximately 10% grade that stretched out for about a fifteen-hundred-foot run, while Mrs. Howard stayed back to accompany their youngest son, who was busy remembering why he doesn't so much like cycling -- at one point getting off the bike and walking up the steepest stretch.

Hendricks Park is on top of a hill in the middle of an older established neighborhood, and it is lush and verdant, as one would expect of an Oregon park. Unfortunately, the lushness and verdance screened off any views of Eugene below -- at least where they stopped to rest -- but I'm sure there were great views to be had somewhere nearby. Perhaps at Pre's Rock where U of Oregon track star Steve Prefontaine met an untimely death. We didn't go downhill by that route. The road was too steep and narrow, with blind corners.

Riding back the way we came, we zoomed down and headed back to Paul's Bicycle Way of Life, passing directly through the downtown on our way. Once again, auto traffic was very patient with us as the street we were on did not have enough width to justify a separate bike line, let alone two lanes of traffic.

Our first impression two years ago was colored by the fact that the first apartment that Howard Jr. and his wife rented in Eugene was far to the northwest quadrant of the metro area -- more of a light industrial/strip mall section of town. We were underwhelmed by the lack of visual interest, annoyed by the traffic, and disgusted by the seas of parking lots everywhere we looked. And that unfortunately became our first -- and erroneous -- impression of the City of Eugene.

To all Eugenonians: Sorry about that.

Now to make amends, I am naming Eugene a Why Howard Laughed "Best of the West." The check is in the mail.

Final Note: While driving through Eugene, we played a fun game of Hippy/Not a Hippy. The hippies won in a landslide. Like I said, my kinda town.


Post a Comment

<< Home