Monday, 3 December 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 95: Exploring Eugene

Perhaps, just perhaps, my initial impressions of Eugene were a little harsh last night. After I settled into the bottom bunk of the Eugene Whiteaker Hostel last night, I reflected on what had been possibly a slightly substandard entry into the city. My first impressions were perhaps influenced somewhat on the fact that it was raining, I was carrying more weight in bags than I would have preferred, and that I had come across a couple of loud-mouthed youths on my lonely trek to the hostel. I lay awake, listening to the ceaseless hooting of train horns ringing their way through the suburbs, and the unmistakable range of seventies rock rhythms and riffs, and considered that I had just had a 'bad' evening. It was ignorant of me to think in a trip, that has clocked so far 95 days, I wouldn't encounter any issues.

I envy anyone who can enter Eugene, spend a day wandering its streets and avenues aimlessly on cultural pursuit, and immediately come to a solid decision on what they make of the place. For me, a modestly well travelled guy, I'm having difficulties in deliberating whether I like the place, or not; whether I understand its key cultural values, or not; whether I really want to, or not. The truth is, whilst the city shares some urban treasures- a strong passion for art and music, the value of expressing emotion and soul to name but a couple- each corner of every avenue really does it differently, and so I believe this city also thrives on individuality too. It's these values which, for someone brought up in what seems an entirely different world, can make travel either unheimlich or great fun. Last night, I experienced the former, so I awoke this morning eager to start my Eugene experience again, casting aside whatever had happened last night, and looking forward to ploughing through the richly diverse lives of this city's residents.

Deciding to explore the city in much the same way as I discovered Seattle and Portland (walking up and down each avenue anticipating sites of interest and photographic opportunity) I headed for downtown Eugene. I never noticed this last night in the rather premature twilight (4:00pm for sunset is quite early) but at the end of the street an essence of Eugene's individuality was showcased on a house wall, foregrounded by a truck with the same artistic theme. I noted how many colours had been used, which goes a long way to explaining Eugene's culture; colourful.

Having been awoken frequently last night by the passing trains, and wondering where and why people would be travelling at such early hours of the morning, I was surprised not to see a single one on my morning walk towards the centre. I did however hear the clanging of manufacturing. Portland's light manufacturing industries have now been transformed into a very agreeable residential block, but Eugene seems proud to hold onto its work ethic and skill.

I made my way down 6th avenue towards Pearl Street, passing not one but two battered British red phone boxes, bringing me somewhat closer to home, and later came across an inconspicuous tower block, adorning the slightly festive words of "Peace on Earth". I instantly remembered entering Eugene last night, glancing out the window of the Greyhound coach, and seeing a young man salute me with the two fingered peace sign. It was ironic that a culture that believes wholeheartedly in peace, can cause so much unrest to the traveller as I experienced last night.

This block on the very perimeter of the city district would also be the tallest one I would set my eye upon today. Apart from the differences in society, Eugene's city structure is also so totally different from anything I've experienced (and probably will ever experience) on this trip. Its difficult to find downtown here, or just the city centre, but perhaps Eugene just doesn't fit into the Burgess Model, and once again it demonstrates such a keenness for individuality and originality. Like Fairbanks, most of the city's business relies on the students from the University of Oregon, whose campus resides on the east. Shops are no more than one or two storeys high, and on my brief travels around the cohort, I didn't see any recognisable names, so I suspect these businesses are very much independently run, unlike most British cities which are famous for their monotonous string of WHSmiths, Marks and Spencers and Asda.

Most of these independantly run establishments I noticed were tailored very much for the residents of Eugene, rather than passing tourists like myself. Coffee establishments- oh, perhaps, Starbucks is the only name I recognised- lunch and dinner bars, tattoo artists, and laundrettes are scattered unevenly throughout the avenues, and are interspersed by houses. Houses in the center of the city? Well, yes. These suburban detached houses, most of which were well kept, even had modestly sized gardens, which I found both strikingly odd and yet so in keeping with Eugene's 'alternative' city structure. One building had even took city wall art to a new level, creating this effect, which to me makes it look like its been made out of Lego simply for the fun of it.

I thought it would be well worth visiting the University of Oregon, as I had heard the architecture was worth a passing wander, and also to experience how far away campus life seems to be from convention, as that so far today, seemed to be the theme here. Here, building prestige comes not from elaborate artwork, but from the conventional brickwork, the gleaming panes of glass in arch shaped windows, and the way they so tidily meet the edges of well maintained lawns. I had my lunch on a small bench on campus, until I felt the inevitable spots of rain, and having left my waterproof coat at the hostel for fear of getting too hot, I chose another sheltered spot underneath an arch connecting two campus buildings. Almost as if they had jogged from Portland, I saw a countless number of people using this wet Sunday afternoon, not to study enthusiastically the ins and outs of computer games, but to keep fit, one of my most surprising observations about the American people on this journey.

The University of Oregon is lucky to have on campus an art museum. I had my wallet out, anticipating a pricy fee for my admission, but the young lady behind the counter asked me if I was a student. Well, perhaps it was my predantic nature, or her nonspecific question, but I decided there and then that, yes, I was a student (not an Oregonian student) but still a student, and ultimately managed to get into the museum for free.

The museum offered a generous space for the work of Lesley Dill, a contemporary artist from New York, whose work revolves around transforming thoughts and emotion into form and reality. A lot of the exhibits today involved quotations and poetry, like Shimmer. Here, Dill uses over two million feet of wire to try and encapsulate the energy that ocean waves have. As a geographer, I'm always interested in how my subject can find its place in others, and Dill I think has done a fine job.

Apart from Lesley Dill, the museum offers a section dedicated to some of the world's best photographers and a gallery of art formed by Kindergarden students (which in conversion, by my understanding, is anything up to about 12 or 13 years of age). Having covered the museum, top to toe, I decided that time was getting on, and it would take me a reasonable time to get back to the hostel. Tonight, I'm writing this blog from a busy music and games room. Some of the local neighbourhood have come over with their guitars and are jamming away. Suddenly, in this bout of harmony and musical frivolity, the prospect of spending a few more days here in Eugene doesn't seem so bad at all.

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