I Dream Corvallis

On the romantic illusions of road tripping

Having lived here going on eight years now, Eugene has become like family for me: I love it, but sometimes I don’t like it very much. For all the ballyhooed benefits of its artsy liberal veneer and outdoorsy appeal, Eugene remains, at its core, a small town steeped in vice, fractured by disarray and floundering in untapped potential — sorta dirty, kinda unpretty and altogether a tad menacing and drug-addled, like a white utopia revved up on the downslide.

All those things are fine by me — I lean toward grit and conflict — but sometimes you just need to get out. One of the great gifts of living in Eugene, and the Northwest in general, is that, like the weather, everything can change in an eyeblink. Drive for a couple hours in any direction in the rural Midwest and nothing alters; you’re still in the middle of flat earth, plains as far as the eye can see. It’s like being stuck on a loop of background.

But drive for a couple hundred klicks north, south, east or west from Eugene, and the landscape drastically alters: ocean, mountains, desert, farmland, forest, all within easy reach. We live in the land of road trips or, if you’re of a more geriatric disposition, day trips. Get in the car and go go go.

All trees are basically the same, but each city is a city in its own special way, and if you’re feeling dyspeptic about the Sherwood Andersonian grotesqueries of your own hood and needing a townish reboot, here’s an odd and risky suggestion: Motor up north and visit downtown Corvallis.

(Yes, yes, I know: Rivals, right? Ducks and Beavers don’t mix, right? But travel is a letting-go as much as a moving-forth. If the idea of getting beaved ruffles your tail feathers, just pretend you’re an inter-county expatriate, like some podunk Bogart making time in Casablanca; you’ll be fine.)

Downtown for downtown, Corvallis is to Eugene what Muhammad Ali is to Mike Tyson — a more graceful, seductive, sophisticated and humane version of the platonic form of a small Northwest college town. It substitutes Eugene’s ragged, eclectic pageantry of pagan hipness for a kinder, gentler vision of hippie populism and liberal social planning: artsy trashcans covered in ivy, preserved frontier architecture, little cafes with outdoor seating and a general atmosphere of quaintly unified purpose.

What the nature of that purpose is, I have no idea; I’ve only been to Corvallis twice. Road trips, after all, are about romance, dreaming, first impressions. Places remain nice places to visit precisely because you don’t live there.

My sources from Corvallis, both of them transplants to Eugene, give me a quizzical look when I wax poetic about the place. Why would you live in Corvallis when there’s Eugene? Why would you live in Eugene when there’s Portland? Exactly.

But, after a minute, they both get a dreamy look in their eyes — the look of new-found sentimentality, and fond recollections of Corvallis place-names: Eating at Local Boyz (“order the chicken”) and Block 15 (“my absolute favorite”); seeing movies at Darkside Cinema (“probably the most interesting place in town”); “cute and enjoyable” walks downtown to visit Peak Sports, Many Hands Trading, The Book Bin and Grass Roots Books & Music. Drinking coffee at Tried & True.

Maybe they, in turn, could tell me what they like about Eugene; it’s easy to miss the trees for the forest, sometimes. Or maybe, when I’m feeling a little burnt and on-the-roadish, I’ll get in the car again and hit that old Hwy. 99 northbound through the backcountry, the unspooling miles like an exfoliant for the angst, as I head to Corvallis for the day.