My friend Sooz has an expression that perfectly encapsulates Eugene, Oregon: it has “a high tolerance for harmless weirdnesses.” This city actually encourages eccentricity, and that’s one of my favorite things about it.
Consider our annual S.L.U.G. Queen contest: since 1983, the Society for the Legitimization of the Ubiquitous Gastropod has chosen an unofficial goodwill ambassador who “rains” in the spirit of environmentalism, free thought, creativity, and counterculture. They don fabulous costumes and volunteer in the community, planting trees, reading to children, organizing events, and engaging in other ceremonial responsibilities. They have names such as Scarlett O’Slimera, Marie Slugtoinette, Eugenia Slimesworth, Slimebledore, and Bruce.
Eugene is full of unusual haircuts, tattoos, and sartorial choices. People’s style runs the range: goth, Harajuku, hand-sewn, Patagonia chic, van-dweller, RPG costuming, Mennonite pioneer, daytime pajamas, grunge, preppy, and hippie camouflage (i.e., tie-dye). It rains constantly, but you can always tell the out-of-towners: they’re the ones with the umbrellas.
Sure, it’s got the unique features of other cities, such as goat yoga, amateur improv, weed snobs, astrologers, crystal enthusiasts, naked bike rides, multiple ultimate frisbee programs, Star Trek Live Theater, and a healthy appetite for hallucinogenics, but this town is extra. We have human foosball, the PSILO Temple (for mushroom trips), nude river beaches, Ferret Agility Trials, and several of the original Merry Pranksters. I once saw a person walking downtown in a full suit of armor in spring—perhaps to ward off the metric tons of pollen that flood this verdant valley from the “Grass Seed Capital of the World.” A Eugenian even crafted the world’s largest rubber band ball—175,000 in total, with sponsorship from Office Max.
Have you ever heard of Irish hurling? Yeah, we have a team for that, too. The Willamette Valley Nomads Hurling Club is one of 11 teams in the northwest. I’ve watched several videos of this sport, which involves players passing, carrying, hitting, or bouncing a small ball across a pitch almost twice as large as a soccer field. Envision lacrosse players bouncing the ball on their scoop-shaped sticks (hurleys) if they ran more than four steps. The rules are still an enigma to me—just when you think you understand what’s going on, a dude kicks the sliotar (the small leather ball) as far as he can—but I love that Irish hurling enthusiasts can call Eugene home.
It’s also legal for women to go topless here, one of a handful of American cities with these protections. Relatedly, this town is one of the most sexually and gender-diverse places in the world. Trans, non-binary, queer, gender void, gender flux, polygender, novigender, xenogender—everything on, off, and around the spectrum of gender identity is represented here and typically welcomed. Among my friends, I count throuples, swingers, polycules, and ethically non-monogamous folks. We may lack racial and political diversity, but we humbly boast an incredible range of ways to relate to one another: the funky gamut of humankind we embrace.
For those itching to taste this anything-goes society, the Oregon Country Fair is the veritable Mecca of Weird. I’ve written about this radically inclusive annual festival—the amplification of the spirit that made my partner and I choose to move here. It’s experimental, pagan, vibrant, and wild, feeling ancient and futuristic all at once. The masks we all wear to fit into society come down in a cloud of eco-friendly glitter, and people’s better nature often shines through.
I wish all communities had more respect for innocuous differences—too many places try to legislate and enforce what they consider “normal,” and it makes everyone miserable and lonely in the process. Cruelty is considered free speech; violence is seen as a means to stealing political power; and Americans everywhere feel divided and victimized.
Imagine a country where differences weren’t pathologized but were treated with respectful curiosity and humanity, where love outweighs hate and fear. Eugene, at its best, is a microcosm of this, cultivating these harmless weirdnesses that live within us all.