72 Hours in Eugene
Track Town, tie dyes and sumptuous cuisine
January 1 2011By James Sinks
Eugene is a kaleidoscope. It is a swirl of color against a verdant backdrop. Oregon’s second-largest city, Eugene is home to 157,100 people, the University of Oregon, has miles of bike paths and a vibrant cultural scene. Like a kaleidoscope, Eugene varies depending on your point of view.
Near downtown, at the base of Skinner Butte (the native Kalapuya tribes called the 682-foot-high hill “Ya-Po-Ah”), and close to where city founder Eugene Skinner built a cabin, a tile-decorated column stretches thirty feet into the sky above the Willamette Valley. Around the base, the word “welcome” is inscribed in several languages, along with notations of important historical milestones. Among them: The first farmers’ market in 1908 and the 1995 death of Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia.
The Douglas fir forests that ring the southern Willamette Valley helped to fuel the mills that sustained Eugene through its formative years, but two towering contemporary figures helped shape the city’s personality today. Novelist and counterculture icon, Ken Kesey, drove across the country with his band of “merry pranksters” in the multihued “Further” bus and dabbled in recreational chemistry in the 1960s. He lived just outside the city until his death in 2001. University of Oregon track star and Olympian Steve Prefontaine cemented the reputation of Eugene as Track Town, USA before he died in an auto accident in 1975 at the age of 24. Olympic-caliber runners from around the world still settle in Eugene to live and train.
When you visit, don’t forget a bike and your running shoes. The city is the birthplace of Nike and offers many ways to break a sweat—even a rockclimbing park in a former basalt quarry on the flank of Skinner Butte. In the winter, Willamette Pass Ski Area is an hour’s drive into the Cascades.