How Eugene Looks From Afar

Coney Mountain in New York’s Adirondack Park is half the height and less steep than Spencer Butte. The names we’ve given each reveal a contrast between the coasts. We wouldn’t accidentally describe Spencer or even Pisgah as a mountain. Go ahead, try to call it “Pisgah Mountain.” You can’t do it, because that would disrespect its Cascade neighbors to the east.

A leisurely half-hour hike up Coney offers a Spencer-like, 360-degree panorama at its peak.

Although every hiker knows their vehicle is only a mile away, there is no sign of human life or activity visible from the top — not a building, not a smoke plume, not a single geometric clearing of timber as far as the eye can see. To make a good thing even better, its timber is mostly deciduous. Mid-autumn each year, these trees can’t decide whether their leaves should be green or orange or yellow or red. From this height, you can survey all those colors in bright array.

The expanse itself is impressive. Adirondack Park is the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States — more than 18 thousand square miles. It’s larger than Yellowstone, Everglades, Glacier, and Grand Canyon National Parks combined. Four Lane Counties would fit inside it.

Lots of space and not many people. We had the view mostly to ourselves for nearly half an hour. As we drove to the trailhead, we passed three busses filled with tourists surveying the fall colors. They were stopping only at helpfully labeled roadside overlooks. Leaf viewing in the east is like whale watching in the west — only the hardy do the work to get close. But chartering a boat is much harder than lacing up your boots.

Colors sloped against the sky offer a pointillist canvas worthy of the best Impressionist painter, but the colors underfoot come with a soundtrack. Sugar maple trees hold their red leaves longer than the yellows from the beech trees. Nature denudes itself rhythmically, producing a layer cake of colors on the ground. The color of the forest carpet changes, but also the crunch. In this way, the work of the hike is inseparable from the reward.

The view from above is better for those who earned it.

That’s how the Adirondacks look to a Eugenean. But how does a Eugenean look to those in the Adirondacks? I can tell you.

Andy Studdiford volunteers five days a week at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, NY. Volunteering has shaped his retirement years for decades. Ask him about the weather and he’ll tell you it’s been a mild winter so far — in mid-October! Winter is unforgiving in upper state New York, where snowfalls are measured in feet, not inches.

Studdiford is already bracing himself. He’s among the few hundred year-round residents of the hamlet of Indian Lake, NY. It’s been his home for at least the last 40 years, but maybe twice that.

His job is to chat up the visitors to the museum, answer any questions and elicit more if he can. He roams the exhibit space and boldly initiates conversations.

“Where’re ya from?” is always a good opener. Any answer is consent for more questions.

“Where in the West?”

“Where in Oregon?”

“Eugene? I know something about Eugene. My son does stilts.”

If anyone was listening, they may have thought our conversation was about unusual uses for timber. You and I know better.

“My son loves the Eugene Fair.”

For a moment, I felt responsible to confirm what I already knew. “You’re talking about the Oregon Country Fair, right?” I asked.

“I’ve never been to it, but it’s in Eugene, right?”

Close enough.

Who knows how many Oregon stories Studdiford has collected over the years, asking thousands of people, “Where’re ya from?” But this is the one that stuck for Eugene. Not the Ducks. Not the Bach Festival. Not Nike. Stilts.

Specifically, grown men “doing stilts” — and loving it. I’ve never done stilts myself, but now I feel an urge to get back home and try.

Maybe the view is better from up there.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs