Springtime in Eugene

I first visited Eugene 18 years ago this weekend. Eugene didn’t become my home until four years later, but the damage was done that March weekend. Springtime in Eugene changed my life.

Spring begins today. Every day in Eugene, from now until Halloween, gets better and better. Enjoy it.

My family and I came to Eugene after touring the country, auditioning cities along the way. We spent five months on the road and saw 43 states. We developed a checklist of what we wanted from a town, and Eugene scored best. I’m amazed how many people I meet who did the same thing — they came to Eugene on purpose, not because of work or family, but because this is where they wanted to be.

We knew we wanted a college town, mixing big city sophistication with small-town safety. We looked for good jazz on the radio, not because we necessarily like jazz, but we had discovered we like people who like jazz. Good schools, low crime, a busy library, affordable houses — the usual stuff. We wanted a place with four seasons, but just barely. Not too hot in the summer; not too long in the winter.

Eugene’s score was not quite perfect. I wanted “grandeur,” and grandiosity was not an acceptable substitute. I wanted something nearby so much bigger than me that I would remember my place. I thought this place wouldn’t offer me the humbling reminder that mountains or oceans can provide.

But then one day I was standing on my front lawn watching the clouds roll in, looking for a place to sit and watch the show. The revelation rolled over me like the low pressure zone forging overhead. The clouds themselves were giving me the grandeur I had asked for. And our clouds shine best against a springtime blue.

Where but in western Oregon can you get soaked and sunburned at the same time? Double rainbows barely turn my head any more. Last summer, a friend and I saw a triple rainbow and, yes, we chased it.

Summer is spectacular in Eugene, as we all know. Meteorologist John Fischer told me once that if you count sunny days between May and October, Eugene is third in the nation, behind San Diego and Spokane.

Autumn brings a new crop of students, with their unmistakable exuberance. Football surpasses other sports by this measure, if only in face-painting. Weather forecasts begin mentioning snow levels, as they dip below 5000 feet. Storms at the coast start rolling in, but the weather in the valley stays balmy.

Winter only occasionally gets wintry. The slightest snow becomes an instant holiday. Snowmen appear, revealing wet green grass all around. Then the snow obliges and melts. Snow seldom falls on snow. Winter doesn’t compound itself.

But spring! Spring piles it on.

The sun lurks low in the sky. It’s not yet finished raining. That cloudy ceiling can be cheated by the sun that shines underneath them. Outdoors looks like a dark room lit by a bare bulb in the next room over. The air can be so thick with moisture that the late-day sunbeams are visible as they cut diagonally toward the ground.

A strong sun on wet bark makes everything look like a Photoshop rendering, crafted by one of those overly exuberant students for an art class. The wet grass in the foreground glistens prismatically. You can almost read the teacher’s comments on the margins of the scene. “This just isn’t realistic. Good effects, but overdone. You’re trying too hard. Get some sleep and give it another go tomorrow.”

Nothing surpasses the transitions from winter to spring and from spring to summer. I’ve lived in New England, famous for its autumn leaves. But that change is for the visitors. It looks great on a postcard and, if you catch it just right, it can take your breath away. But a week later, it’s old news and here comes winter. Our seasonal shift comes slowly, in fits and starts. It’s enjoyed best by those who live here. Travel professionals call these transitions “shoulder seasons,” marking time between an area’s peak season and its dead time.

I grew up in Chicago, described by Carl Sandburg as the “city of broad shoulders,” but it never felt so much like home as Eugene, a city of long shoulders.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) moved to Eugene in 1995 when he bought the Comic News, which he published for a decade. Now he blogs, writes, speaks, and works from and about Eugene.