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Twenty years ago today I was on a train bound for Eugene

Published 2015-08-11

I moved to Oregon for grad school the weekend after Jerry Garcia died. I was with my brother at a head shop in Lincoln, Nebraska, where the shop clerk told us Jerry had died. I thought it fitting that a. I was in a head shop when I learned this and 2. I was about to move to Eugene Oregon where as everyone knows the 60s (or perhaps the 70s) never ended.

At that time the westbound Amtrak left Lincoln around 10pm or so. My Lincoln friends got me slightly drunk at O’Rourke’s and dropped me at the train station with my Big Blue Bag, into which I had packed everything I thought I would need to set up house in Eugene. I had a week of clothes, my camping mess kit, a sleeping bag, and my beloved PowerBook 520 (sigh).

Forty hours later I was in Eugene. I rode coach, not a bad way to travel. The ticket cost just under $200. The big western Amtrak cars (at least at that time) had huge observation lounges, and I was in the last row of the last car after some cars were uncoupled in Denver for another route. I ate dinner Saturday in Denver — there was a long wait there, several hours, but this was the only meal I remember. I must have eaten in the dining car otherwise. Probably coffee and Doritos. At this point in my life I had acquired some experience (from hitching around archaeology jobs) with spending two days in the same clothes, sleeping sitting up, and subsisting mainly on coffee and Doritos.

The train arrived in Portland on late Sunday afternoon. There was a weird hustle to a bus for the last leg to Eugene — some holdup with the Cascades service I think — so my first impression of Portland was of being in a terrible rush and wishing I could rest for even a minute in the station.

On the bus to Eugene I sat next to an undergrad from Montana returning early to school. We were at least a month from starting classes. She raved about the sky in Oregon, how she had missed it over the summer. I thought she was nuts. I’d seen the sky in Montana and it beat the pants off the Willamette Valley sky. We arrived in Eugene and I took a taxi to the 66 Motel on East Broadway.

I knew one person in Eugene, I guy named Rob with whom I had worked in North Dakota in ’93 and ’94 —  and he was in the field. So really, I didn’t know anyone in Eugene.

The next morning — Monday — I walked to campus. I was amazed at how bright the asphalt and road striping were. I thought they must have recently repaved and restriped the entire city of Eugene. Later I realized that asphalt and road stripes don’t weather in a place where the weather is always Spring.

I ate a banana crepe at what would become my third-favorite coffee shop in Eugene. I visited the Anthropology Department, where most folks were still absent, in the field. I spoke for about an hour with Dr. Jon Erlandson, then the husband of my advisor Dr. Madonna Moss. I also met, briefly, my colleague Helen who was then Rob’s girlfriend. So now I knew three people in Eugene.

On the bulletin board in the grad student lounge was the phone number of a person looking for a roommate — another new student, Katie. She was moving from Back East the week before classes started. We agreed I’d find a nice two bedroom, and by the end of the day I had. First I had to meet with her cousin Norma, an older woman who was semi-retired in Eugene. Norma was running the background check on me, basically.

I found an apartment on an alley off Ferry St. about two blocks from campus. It cost $550/month (or $275/each), which seemed exorbitant to me at the time. For reference my first apartment in Lincoln, an efficiency studio, cost $105/month. The day I moved in, I met my neighbor James (and his future ex-wife Pam), who would become one of my best friends in Oregon.

About two weeks later my folks drove out from Nebraska with the net remainder of my Earthly possessions. Mostly my bike, a few boxes full of books, and a drawing table I used as a desk. For breakfast we picked plums off the feral plum tree outside my apartment window. Manna from heaven in the land of eternal Spring.

I had a few thousand dollars in savings from my summer gig in Kansas. When you’re twenty-three and unemployed in a new town with about $3000 in savings, you’re basically the freeest person in the world. I hesitate to say things like “this was the best month of my life” because I have a lot of good months, but it was certainly the most stress-free. I spent my days reading (I had discovered the Smith Family bookstore), hanging around coffeeshops, drinking beer, riding my bike. In the evenings I would sniff out live shows around town. I barely talked to anyone. Purple night followed golden day stretching into forever. I was the best kind of lonely.

I spent my twenty-fourth birthday alone. I rode my bike to Hendricks Park and had lunch at McDonald‘s. That evening I had a beer at the High Street McMenamin’s. It was a Nebraska Bitter.

I finagled my university timeshare account a little early, bought a copy of Unix in a Nutshell and was thoroughly mystified by things like troff and sed. Like, why would I ever need to use troff or sed? (20 years later, I never have.) This was also my first prolonged exposure to the World Wide Web, which I had to use because the University had retired its Gopherspace. I had learned my way around that Gopherspace pretty handily.

OK, so, 20 years now, can I call myself an Oregonian yet?