What’s your favorite place? Sounds like a simple question, but it’s not. It was the first day of class in University of Oregon Professor Shaul Cohen’s Geography 142 last fall, and he asked that question. This was a year after I took his class the first time, and a year after an election that empowered white supremacists, militias, neo-Nazis and the religious right.
It’s hard to be positive. It’s hard to see the glass as half-full. But I found a way to brighten up my outlook, to at least contemplate that things might not be as bad as they seem. And I found it here, in Eugene, at the UO.
I took the class again because it’s the only class that Cohen was teaching. I wanted to get his unique perspective again. Like so many of his colleagues, he does a wonderful job of meshing current and world events with the course curriculum. And he helps his students think about bigger questions. Some seem pretty simple on their face, such as, “What is your favorite place?”
One of my true joys of being retired is the privilege of auditing classes at the UO. I get to attend classes in whatever field interests me at the moment. I get to sit in on lectures from world-class experts in their fields, every week. And I get to do it with undergrads and graduate students pursuing their futures.
As a direct result of attending classes, I got to visit the UO’s rimrock rockshelter dig in eastern Oregon, where students are uncovering some of the oldest evidence of humans in North America. I did a field trip to the Klamath River to follow up on class discussions in Pat McDowell’s watershed policy class. Prof. Diane Baxter’s cultural anthropology class totally changed my outlook on immigration while I learned where my jeans were made and who made them.
There is a constant refrain among some in our community, complaining about UO students. I am not in that club. What I have experienced firsthand is an amazing parade of intelligent, hard working, motivated young people who want to make a difference in the world.
Near the end of a bitter, scary presidential election I saw and experienced the reactions of students. After a law professor’s blackface Halloween fiasco, I saw in their eyes what I personally had never experienced in college: fear.
But, what is my favorite place? What first comes to mind, of course, are all of the cool places that I have visited and want to go back to. Places like Yosemite, the giant sequoias in the Sierras or Glacier National Park. Places like Death Valley, Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave Desert. Rivers like the Colorado, the Owyhee or the Snake. Places like Pinnacles National Park and Big Sur, where condors soar.
And places closer to home as well, like the McKenzie River, the Oregon Dunes or the Oregon Coast. These, and many more, are all favorite places for me. But getting it down to one place, one favorite place, well that was going to take more thought.
So I cut class for a couple days and went to another of my nearby favorite places, the Metolius River. It’s been one of my go-to places, and a place where I go to think. It’s as good a place as any to ponder the question. And, on that lovely river that magically emerges from the ground to flow through old growth ponderosa pine meadows and forest, it dawned on me.
I would soon be returning to my favorite place. It’s the place where I spend more time than anywhere else. The place I moved to decades ago by choice. A place with a river running through it. The place where the politics are local, where you say hello to your congressman on the street. Where a small group of concerned citizens organized and stopped a nuclear power plant and created a nuclear free zone. Where citizens put an initiative on the ballot to make city government more accountable.
The place where the coffee has always been good and the bakeries are to die for. A place where you can eat at locally owned restaurants and buy books from a locally owned bookstore. A place where you know who grows your food.
This place charmed me from the first moment I saw it on a sunny Saturday in 1974 as I stepped off the Coast Starlight.
It was love at first sight. The place where I met dozens of what would become lifelong friends. The place where I met Mary, the love of my life. The place where I made a career doing things I liked to do. The place where we raised our son, Chris. The place I come back to by choice, where I always feel welcome, and at peace. My favorite place? It’s here.
It’s the place I call home. It’s Eugene, Oregon.