Our family took a trip a couple of months ago far, far away to the west coast of the US so we could visit my brother and his family. He’s a stay-at-home dad raising three children close in age to my own. His wife is a family practitioner at a local clinic and sometimes works long hours, but we still managed to spend some stretches of time with her during our visit, while she also had to leave often to tend to a slew of newborn babies among other patients.
The visit was challenging in no small part because it was all the way across the country for us, but also because it is that time of year when the weather in the Pacific Northwest is perpetually rainy, chilly and overcast. We weren’t headed west for the sunshine and warmth, anyway, but still the cool damp made it occasionally a bit harder to wrangle six restless small people who are better suited to a wide open field rather than the interior of a four-bedroom home.
When we started off, the kids were terribly excited to get on the plane. This was essentially their first airplane trip, and it was going to be a big one. I had already tested their capacity for a long trip last summer, when we drove for 12 straight hours to Ohio.
To make it a little easier we splurged on a direct flight from Boston to Portland on Alaska Airlines. This way, we would be a lot less likely to lose our checked luggage, and we really needed to check our luggage to make it easier to navigate through the airport and on the plane itself. Also, we wouldn’t have to make it through more airports than absolutely necessary, and the entire trip would be shorter, too. It was worth it.
We arrived very late at night, having picked up a rental car at a strange hotel rendezvous point a good distance from the airport. It happened to be Christmas night, and the E-Z rental car desk we had to reach was set up next to a back door at a Holiday Inn. To get there, we had to catch a shuttle, and we were very disoriented about the whole process, since it was way past our bedtime.
The rental car desk was an odd place, and looked like it was hastily set up to look authentic, as though it was all part of some strange con. The main area of the hotel smelled strongly of cigarette smoke, and included a swimming pool, some seating areas, and access to a bar (where the smoke must have been coming from). A nice young woman at the desk, which was poorly lit and strangely situated so close to the back door entrance, gave us a key for our Mercury Milan.
The drive seemed interminable, although it was really only about two hours, and we were hallucinating all the way down I-5, what River termed “Hypnosis Highway.” It was long and dark and defiantly as straight as could be (not good for us New Englanders), and of course we drove through pounding sheets of rain that came and went. It was blinding rain, and we were accompanied by what seemed like infinite numbers of big trucks that spewed more wet at our windshield. We were lucky to arrive intact.
Once we finally slept, we relaxed and tried to deal with the fact that we were all awake by 6:30 am or so, bodies still on east coast time. Sunrise was also relatively later in Eugene. By about 8:00 am, it was evident that somewhere, the sun had risen, but there was only a vague blue glow outside to let us know.
Before long, six children were hopping about and fighting with wooden swords or playing with Game Boys. My older nephew demonstrated karate moves and attempted to teach my older son.
Some order was maintained when my brother taught the kids how to play Labyrinth. We’re big on games. He pulled out a lot of them during our stay. One big bookshelf in the living room is dedicated pretty much entirely to games, which the kids can get out and mess around with themselves. My niece was more interested in dressing up in various costumes and running in circles talking excitedly or following the main action of all the other kids.
Eventually it became clear that getting outside would help, so we took a walk from the house up to the top of a nearby hill. Winding around behind the houses in the neighborhood is this great paved pathway that climbs uphill and through some woods.
A swath of the woods is gone now to make way for new development, but the path is still charming and mostly easy to navigate. There are parts where it’s excessively steep, but since Eugene doesn’t get much ice or snow, it’s navigable pretty much year-round. There had been a touch of snow at the top of the hill on the morning of our walk, but at the bottom of the hill it was light rain and slush.
I was amazed by the lichen-covered trees in town. Moss and lichen grow on everything in this part of Oregon, which seems to remain just warm enough for it all through the winter. Actually it seems there is little competition otherwise, so the lichen and moss can really take off.
My brother told me moss-scraping is a major industry in high demand. People need help keeping it off their roofs and out of cracks and so on. He said, remember that first sketch in the movie Creepshow, the one with Stephen King in it?
I had forgotten all about that sketch actually, but as we joked about it I had a vivid memory of his character enveloped in the green stuff that oozes and grows out of a meteor that lands in his back yard. “That’s what Eugene is like,” my brother said. Eew.
Then again, it’s got a treasure trove of fantastic varieties of moss and lichen to study, and that seems to please my brother, a currently unemployed middle school science teacher.
He bragged that his three-year-old daughter knows the names of many moss varieties, which I have to admit did impress me.
Over the next couple of days we spent a fair amount of time in downtown Eugene, visiting a public park on a freezing wet day for a pleasant stroll and hassling the local geese. We also stopped twice at the new, handsome public library.
The park was nearly flooded during our visit. It is designed to handle a lot of water, with a lake-like pool area that can handle excess water. An island in the middle of it has some benches for sitting and can be accessed by raised pads of concrete. When the park floods heavily, however, it is possible to become stranded on the island.
The local river adjacent to the park had an immensely strong current, and no major barrier to prevent insane children from deciding to go for a swim. (Fortunately they didn’t go for it that day.) There is also a lovely suspension foot bridge over the river, leading to more of the park up the river.
The kids really enjoyed a model of the solar system at the park, which demonstrates the scale of the planets around the sun in both size and distance. Mercury, Venus and Earth were all clustered somewhat nearby, scattered around the lake area, but to reach Jupiter we had to trek through the cold over the foot bridge and up the path for about half a mile. To reach other planets, like Pluto, we would have had to bike up the path about five miles, which we weren’t up for on that cold, rainy day.
Everywhere we looked, things were so green, it just didn’t feel like December to me, but it was chilly enough that I could believe it.
When we visited the library on day three of our visit, we toured around downtown a little bit beforehand, and I was able to take a few photos of things that caught my eye.
I am a sucker for unusual storefronts and was quite captivated by Bruce Lee’s Martial Arts Supply and Shoe Close-Out Center. I also liked the public plants I observed in huge pots along the sidewalk.
Downtown was interesting—it was clear that significant money has been invested in some of the cosmetic aspects of the streetscape recently, including some public art installations meant to blend in with light poles and the sidewalk. But then there’s also plenty of blight mixed right in, and one gets the sense that the place is in transition.
A lot of the people I saw walking around in the middle of the day were somewhat punked-out white teenagers vacationing from school and looking for places to smoke cigarettes in groups, standing outside in the cold, intermittent rain. There was also the occasional business person type, but not many, at least not in this section of downtown.
I was surprised to learn that Eugene has a population just over 153,000, which makes it almost exactly the same size as Springfield or Hartford, cities I examine closely these days. It felt somehow smaller than that to me, judging only by appearances, and doesn’t have the same kind of central downtown I’m used to that really shouts out “central business district.” River, on the other hand, was surprised the population isn’t bigger, since the city is so spread out and seems like it could handle more people.
We did eventually get to see the entire width of the city since my brother lives on one side and my uncle and aunt live on the other.
When we stopped by the library at one point, our purpose was to catch a free magic show, Invincible Vince. He was very entertaining for a while and successfully distracted us from the cold and the wet.
We also used my brother’s library card to take out books and videos. My brother has a TV at home but no cable access—he prefers to watch everything pretty much either on the computer or by renting and borrowing DVDs and tapes.
On our last day visiting we trekked west to Florence, where we had seafood at Mo’s (a regional chain), which sits on a pier overlooking a tidal river, and then continued on our way to the beach so we could have a look at the Pacific Ocean.
The weather was awful, but not quite as bad as forecast, and certainly not as bad as it was the previous day with high winds and pelting rain. In spite of the cold, my brother wore his shorts, as he can be counted upon to do even if the temperatures are extremely chilly; he seems to have come from a line of sea lions, which makes me wonder about my own lineage.
As soon as we arrived at the beach, which was a beautiful rocky inlet downhill from a lighthouse, some of our kids went dashing for the water. They didn’t realize what they were in for, contending with the tide.
A tidal river lets out into the ocean at this point along the shore, and competes a bit, flow-wise, with the ocean’s tide coming in. The meeting bodies of water appeared to have some kind of rhythm going where the river would push out the tide for a while, extending the wet beach further out, and then the ocean would figure it was its turn and would pummel its way onshore very suddenly, after doing a few gentle ebbs and flows further out to accommodate the river.
The curious pattern, which you notice only after watching it for a while, was totally undetectable to the children arriving at the beach like eager, frolicking puppies, so as soon as they went out to greet the waves with such joy and elation, they found themselves turning around and hightailing it back up to the rocky portion of the beach, only to be overcome by the waves in what looked like a freak accident, and a couple of them got thoroughly soaked, pants and shoes and all.
This was indeed unfortunate since we had planned this part of the outing to be the “dry” and “clean” portion, after which we would go for a wet hike along what was fondly referred to as “the hobbit trail,” and then have the kids change into the dry clothes we brought for all of them, assuming they would need it after the wet and mud of that particular hike.
For them to become soaked right off the bat was a wrench in the works, and it was rather chilly although not quite chilly enough to snow; this made it harder to figure out what to do and how long to stay and whether we had made the right decision in the first place to take this beach trip.
In any case, we were there, and the kids were wet. We decided to let our older son change into his dry clothes (he is an HSP after all), while my brother and his wife decided to have their very wet older son cope with his wet clothes, and save the dry ones for later.
As it turned out, we cut the trip short after making the muddy trip to the top of the hill to see the lighthouse, deciding we were all thoroughly wet and cold and exercised sufficiently, and we had taken plenty of time to do what we’d done so far and really we just wanted to go home now. Outdoor treks can be like that, especially in December, even if the scenery is quite lovely.
Walking uphill to the lighthouse was stellar, with a lush gorge below us where the water entered and churned and created a lot of foam. The pressure of the waves repeatedly entering the small space generated air directed upwards, which would force giant puffs of foam straight up in regular gusts.
These foam puffs floated around and a lot of them landed in a general area in front of the historic residential building near the lighthouse. The green lawn was magically dotted with all these little bits of white.
Out on the ocean, competing warm and cold fronts of air generated an ominous looking dark cloud directly in front of us. We speculated that we were on the prow of a ship and some evil pirates were ahead, bearing straight for our ship.
The sun attempted to come out and then would get swallowed up again by dark and angry-looking low, grey clouds, only to emerge again even brighter.
By the time we reached the beach again, preparing to head home, the sun had come out in full, and there was a thin layer of mist surrounding us, lit up by the gentle late afternoon rays. The beach looked transformed.