I still remember the two lead stories on local radio the day I moved to Eugene. It was August 1, 1995. Nothing special about the day, except that we gave up the 503 area code. The two news stories themselves were not remarkable either. Only recently have I begun to think of them as a couplet, pushing and pulling on each other and this place that’s now home.
KUGN-AM led the newscast that morning with a warning that two blocks of Pearl Street downtown would be slowed for restriping that day. Motorists should make alternative plans if their travels take them to the east side of the downtown core.
Keep in mind, I was arriving after two years in southern California. Even after two years, I was never able to make sense of the rapid-fire traffic reports coming from Los Angeles. “405 this, 210 that, breakdown in the northbound left lane, add 40 minutes, bridge backed up, take local alternates,” all delivered faster as traffic got slower.
I didn’t leave California for Oregon. I left a daily commute that was 100 miles each way for one that was 1.6 miles. I tried rounding the latter commute to “two,” but I found that those four-tenths of a mile immediately became important to me. This was more than a new place for me. It was a new way to understand “place.”
My family and I found a lovely lakefront cottage in Lowell that seemed a little tight but otherwise just right. My wife and I might have signed rental papers on the spot, except for a mention of “black ice.” Again, the California years had changed our perspective and any mention of ice, regardless of color, gave us pause.
We had always chosen a home that was far from our work, so we could “retreat” at the end of the day, leave work behind and all that. But we saw an opportunity here to try a different strategy. We chose a place that was as close to everything else as possible. If we left the windows open and the breeze blew just right, we could hear the new customer “ding” at the gas station and the take-out voice at the nearby McDonalds.
We liked that bit of bustle. Work and play, job and home — they would be mixed together in a single place, not divided into two places. At that moment, we became localists, happy to be tied to a specific place, for better or for worse. “May I take your order, please?”
The second story on the news that summer day was more tragic. Two hikers were lost and presumed dead after rescue teams had found their car but not them.
I grew up in Chicago and was schooled in New England. I didn’t know it was still possible in America to get so lost that you could not be found.
Enamored as I was with this place, not far from here was —is — “no place.” I had heard of people “getting away from it all,” but I’d never been where you could walk there.
Now I see those two news stories as connected. The nearby empty places heighten our sense of this place. Caring for this place is made easier because the lack of a place is so nearby, and vice versa. It produces in us a visceral resistance to whatever might make this place into anyplace.
Alan Durning wrote a book entitled “This Place on Earth.” He’s in town tonight for a free public lecture at the Soreng Theatre (5:30 p.m.) about how our sense of place can propel us to save all places. He’s here as a featured speaker for a regional conference for architects from across the Northwest and Pacific Rim. On Saturday, he’ll take the train back to Seattle, which has been described as “the first city in the world people have moved to so they can be close to nature.” Exactly.
He’ll talk about what’s special about where we live, and what could be special about us as leaders, produced by this place: “Living on the Edge: How the Northwest Can Lead Us (Out).” Please come.
We’ll save you a place.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs. He’s executive director the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, which is hosting the “Emerald Vision” conference for AIA this week.