Goodbye San Francisco, Hello Eugene

Why did you choose Eugene, Oregon?

When I share my Great American Road Trip idea with people, I get this question more than any other. The short version of my story is that my lover-turned-husband and I took a one-year road trip around the U.S. to discover the place we wanted to call home. 

Jon and I had burned out on living in San Francisco, where we had to sprint just to stay in the same place. Before leaving the city, he paid $1,600 per month for a single bedroom in a Fort Mason house in 2014. These days, it’s even worse and some of the world’s brightest people would gladly offer a pound of flesh to secure very basic accommodations in the area. 

Not too long after we met in SF, Jon and I moved to Argentina together for ten months. I had just started working remotely for Sechel Ventures, a tech company based in the Bay Area, and Jon decided to finally write his novel,All Starships Go to HEAVEn

After this experience living internationally, we knew we could thrive in a life on the road and we cooked up a dream: rather than letting our employment dictate where we would live, why not choose the city that felt right and go from there? What could be more important than loving where you spend your days?

We bought an orange Honda Fit, the “Fireball”  and drove east from California for a cousin’s wedding in Fort Collins, Colorado—our first stop.

Before our Great American Road Trip, Jon and I had envisioned the features of our dream city. We wanted:

  • A progressive college town with plenty of hiking and camping nearby
  • Ubiquitous bike lanes and ample bike parking
  • Nice, non-pretentious, diverse people
  • A cute downtown with murals and tangible artistic energy
  • A world-class craft beer scene
  • Local leadership we could trust to make decisions as we would, being thoughtful about new developments, supporting public education and health, making recycling a priority, and fostering a vibrant environment for creatives
  • A place that wasn’t quite on other people’s radar

In other words, we wanted a really great party before everyone had arrived.  We had our work cut out for us.

Gorgeous Mural By Rachel Wolfe-Goldsmith in South Eugene

During our Great American Road Trip, we went through 25 states, hitting as many National Parks as possible and staying mainly in AirBnBs. While most hotels have the same predictable sterility, the most highly rated AirBnBs are created with pride and reflect specific tastes, hospitality, and culture. They’re a glimpse into a community’s way of seeing the world, and the amount of care these hosts put into their home’s amenities and local recommendations is moving—it reminds me that we all crave human connection and the opportunity to help others. The rewards of being a good person tickle our chests and bring a warm glow to our heads. And nowhere did our chests tickle and our heads glow more than in humble, magnificent Eugene, Oregon.

Since there weren’t many AirBnBs around, I’d found a three-week sublet on Craigslist in south Eugene. The tenant, Rachel, who had grown up  a few hours away in Hood River, was teaching English in Japan for the summer—coincidentally near Niigata, the city I’d lived in for over two years in my early 20s. She loved yoga, gardening, and something called “ecstatic dance.” 

Before we sent her our payment, she texted a considerate video message. She was wearing brightly colored athletic gear and a welcoming smile.

“Hi Jocelyn and Jon! I wanted to give you a feel for the place. Right now, there’s a bit of construction going on since the owners are building some new cottages.” 

She panned the camera over new concrete foundations and piles of dirt. 

“The workers don’t get started too early, but I just wanted to let you know there may be some noise. Thank you for reaching out and I hope this works for you!”

We arrived several days later to meet Rachel in person. Her cottage was spotless and had several Japanese tapestries adorning her walls.

One of the first things she said to us was, “I feel very comfortable having you in my space. I’m happy you contacted me.”

After giving us a brief tour, Rachel grabbed her bags and headed out toward her car.

“One more thing,” she said, handing us the keys with a smile. “The Saturday Market is downtown today. It’s a longstanding Eugene tradition and you should check it out. The bike path will take you most of the way there.”

She pointed to a paved treelined path, waved goodbye, and headed to Portland to catch her transpacific flight.

After unloading our backpacks, we removed our bikes from the back of the Fireball, unfolded them, and set off north toward downtown on a protected bike path far removed from any cars. 

After passing under a tunnel along a rushing creek, a large, grassy park  with a short fence emerged on our left with dozens of happy dogs chasing each other at full speed or cooling off in one of the four kiddie pools around the perimeter.

On our right, skateboarders ollied from the kicker of a large kidney bowl with colorful graphics. It was flanked by large trees and more grassy open space. We passed joggers in bright clothes and sunglasses as we rode by the Amazon Community Center and Pool. We continued along the smooth asphalt and the brand-new athletic fields of Roosevelt Middle School rose from the right. 

We got to our first road and cars on both sides stopped immediately to let us cross toward South Eugene High School—one of the best public schools in the state—with its football field, volleyball courts, modern architecture, and small parking lot surrounded by trees.

After nearly 14 blocks of a carless path straight out the door of the sublet, the road opened with a separate bike lane heading north on High Street, which would take us the last ten tree-covered blocks toward downtown. 

After years of biking aggressively through San Francisco, I noticed how patient Eugene drivers were. Pedestrians, runners, and cyclists seemed to rule the roads and nearly every street had a bike path and signage reminding cars to watch out for us.

Eugene was also the greenest town I’d ever seen. It’s surrounded by verdant Douglas firs, maples, pines, oaks, junipers, and alders. The city streets are lined with apple, plum, cherry, and chestnut trees. Almost everyone farms or gardens, and the saying goes you can throw seeds anywhere and they’ll just grow. The moisture, rich Willamette Valley soil, and healthy ecosystem support thousands of native (and non-native) plant species. 

Fern-filled Mount Pisgah Trail

When we hit downtown, we saw large crowds of people walking west toward an open marketplace with white canvas overhangs. There were bike racks everywhere, so we locked up and headed into the throng.

The countless stalls stretched out several blocks, overflowing with colorful pottery, jewelry, clothing, greeting cards, leather goods, and paintings, as well as fresh meat, local cheeses, fruits and vegetables, flowers, plant starts, and and a local brewery cart. The central courtyard hosted several ethnic food areas, bakeries, and coffee shops. A small stage in front of long, communal tables thrummed with psychedelic rock, as people of all ages bobbed their heads while dining on kabobs, burrito bowls, and Thai stir-fries.

The Eugene Saturday Market is held downtown every Saturday from April through November. It started in 1970, and now hosts around 150 vendors, who migrate indoors in December to the Lane Events Center—the annual “Holiday Market”—adding several artisans from around the state and country for full weekends. There’s one main rule: the people selling the goods must have harvested or made them. 

Our First Saturday Market in Downtown Eugene, 2015

I’d enjoyed plenty of farmers’ markets, craft fairs, and other non-traditional shopping experiences around the world, but I’d never seen anything quite like this. 

First of all, Eugenians looked very different than people from other cities. Most women wore their hair very short, very long, or asymmetrically. Bright colors mingled with earth tones, tattoos covered exposed skin, facial piercings abounded, and elaborate metalwork clung to the earlobes and collarbones of men and women alike. I noticed lots of hippie dandies, brown leather boots, Ducks gear, and neon athleto-leisure wear from North Face, REI, and Patagonia. 

The people also acted differently. There were no hurried, tunnel-visioned pedestrians wearing ear buds. Everyone’s gazes were up and their defenses were down. They were engaging with the flesh-and-blood world, acknowledging others in the present, seemingly unconcerned about the future.  The collective hive was positively mindful, which felt foreign and anachronistic. It was as if I’d unearthed a secret world of old-timey neighborliness, an impression that was confirmed when we rode our bikes back.

Unbeknownst to Jon and me,  Kathie and Eric Lundberg (the owners of the Amazon Cottages development where we were subletting) had sent an email blast to the community asking everyone to say hello and welcome us during our stay. Residents came to the cottage to introduce themselves with handwritten notes; bushels of fruits, veggies, and herbs from their gardens; and fresh-baked breads. 

Who does that? Like many twenty-first century city-dwellers, I’d never spent much time with my roommates—let alone my neighbors. Nobody in San Francisco seemed to forge relationships with people living on the same block. People were just too “busy.” This city is so goddamn neighborly that four-way stops frequently inspire an awkward dance of driver smiles and friendly hand-gestures.

For the following three weeks, we explored towering waterfalls, old lumber roads leading to stunning vistas, meadows of wildflowers, and the forested cliffs along the jagged Oregon coastline with its powerful surf. We enjoyed the U of O campus, live music, downtown art installations, world-class wineries, and family-friendly breweries.

Stunning Silver Falls State Park

Everything felt accessible, non-pretentious, affordable, creative, natural, and genuine. When we shared our story and mentioned that our next stop would be Bend, most locals told us we’d like it much more than Eugene.

Our last day in town, we rode our bikes across the Willamette River to the annual Art & Vineyard Festival, which attracts artisans and winemakers from all over the state. It was the Fourth of July and we happily discovered that fireworks laws are much looser in Oregon than in California. A rock band played 70s and 80s classics as Jon and I drifted between the craft stalls, beers in our hands.

Our mood was bittersweet. We’d enjoyed an unforgettable few weeks in Eugene and cooked dinner for Kathie and Eric Lundberg the night prior, finding them to be kindred spirits and people we’d love to call neighbors. They were among the people who believed Bend would be a better fit for us “big city” California folk with its art galleries, wealth, collection of fellow transplants, and most of all, its rumored 300 days of sunshine. 

The following morning, we left Eugene with open hearts and minds, excited to reconnect with my old college friend and his family, who had graciously offered to let us stay at their house along the Deschutes River while they took a summer trip.

The drive to Bend along the McKenzie River and through the winding Cascades is spectacular. The west side of the mountains is lush with ferns and small roadside waterfalls. It’s often raining until the zenith of mountain pass, which makes way to a much sunnier, drier landscape in the east. 

Bend was just as everyone had described it: manicured, naturally beautiful, and replete with wealthy young families—many of whom I’d wondered how they’d made their money. It reminded me of Aspen or Laguna Beach—nature- and outdoor sports-loving towns with well-heeled smiling white people. They had a carefree country club saunter and a zeal for new bistros and yoga studios. 

Bend is a lot of people’s idea of “making it,” but it wasn’t ours. Eugene is much rougher around the edges. For one, it has a serious homelessness problem and attracts a lot of runaway youth. Some are inspired by the city’s history of celebrating rebels and eccentrics. Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was from this area and his “Merry Pranksters”—many of whom still live in Eugene—were immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. 

The city also has a lot of support for people who have fallen on tough times, including a free luggage/backpack storage by the bus station and the White Bird Clinic’s medical, dental, and psychiatric services. Eugene even pioneered the CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On the Street) program—a mental health group dispatch used in place of the police when appropriate—which was recently celebrated in The Wall Street Journal for saving the city money and being more humane.

Eugene’s Immaculate Downtown Bus Station

Eugene emits love and compassion, and you can practically hear the city’s heart beat. People understand that taxes are integral to the future of their children’s education, their family’s healthcare, and their community’s infrastructure and culture. Similar to many Oregon towns, it’s fiercely protective of its forests, lakes, and rivers. Promoting a green economy, protecting endangered species, preventing overfishing, recycling, and sourcing food sustainably all rank highly among people’s civic priorities. People are unhurried and generous, and I can trust a majority of the city’s leaders to promote policies I support: a more humane criminal justice system, funds for the arts, and thoughtful land use, among many others.

In 2017, we bought a house in the Amazon cottages community where we first subleased, and last year, I married my lover at the local Sweet Cheeks Winery. 

We’d finally arrived.

4 thoughts on “Goodbye San Francisco, Hello Eugene

  1. Careful, you tell too many people about the place and they’ll all try to come here! 😀 I am glad that you mentioned the problems we have; it’s definitely not a perfect city, and housing stocks are low (not as expensive as the other West Coast tech hubs, but still not at all cheap). It is, though, a wonderful place in general, and people here really care about each other and the community. That can make life a little contentious sometimes, but the protests and fairly civil arguments are evidence that Eugenians aren’t willing to just sweep problems under the carpet (or give them a bus ticket out of town, as other cities are rumored to do).

    • I completely agree. In the original draft of this post, I had a line about how Eugene is the right fit for us, but it’s not for everybody, which I think it true. I hope other people are inspired to find their own towns that complement their unique taste and culture. It’s amazing how many pieces fall into place when you’re living in the right area.

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