Eugene and a $200,000 dog called Tom
One man can value his dog more than many. Tom – a Lagotto Romagnolo dog – has found 200lbs of Perigord truffles in his time. At between $1,000 and $2,100 per pound, Tom, then has to be worth between $100,000 and $200,000. He isn’t even a local. He comes up to join in the seasonal hunt for the perigords.
I didn’t connect Oregon with truffles but they are here. And that has led to one Oregon city, Eugene’s, hosting an annual event, the Oregon Truffle Festival, to which not only Tom and his owner, Jim Sanford, go but so do thousands of people drawn by the dogs, the skill and the many different ways you can use truffles. It’s very different from more typical tourist attractions. If truffles seem to be of up-market appeal, the same could be said of fine wines and Eugene is blessed with a string of award-winning vineyards. That’s one of many things that attracts people to visit Eugene and the surrounding area.
There are 18 vineyards within about a thirty minute drive of Eugene all of which have opening days for visitors. You can wander around, sample some and even stay the night at a few. None is huge, most claim to be boutique and that also means that you won’t find many of these wines in the UK. Boutique can also mean expensive but that’s not necessarily the case.
Take the King Estate Winery for example Set at the top of a hill overlooking the valley below, the vineyard flows down from the peak. At the top is the tasting area, the tour and a restaurant. It’s too easy on a hot sunny day to eat, drink and laze to just watch the landscape. But before you doze in the sunshine, try their Acrobat range of wines which are about $12 a bottle or Signature which are more. But as someone who likes to know what he’s drinking, I prefer the way that some bottles are labelled. A bottle of NxNW (North by North West) has all the percentages of which grapes have gone into the blend plus so much information about the source. So much better than many bottles that just say that it is Chateau Vin de Rouge.
Not all the grapes are grown here. Some are brought down from the nearby Walla Walla area which sounds Australian but is actually the name of a local, native American tribe. Strange to think that all the land that is now taken by vineyards was once where tons of onions were grown. But wine makes more money than onions so the vines took over. But the area isn’t just about wine. There are breweries as well such as Ninkasi (which claims, on their website, that “Beer is a staple of civilization.” That may be going a bit far but, situated in the middle of Eugene, it means you can sample a few and walk back to your hotel. For a “smaller” city, Eugene has an abundance of brewers as well as Ninkasi. There is Oakshire, Steelhead (which has British telephone box in their bar) and the interestingly named Rogue Public House as well. Can you think of a UK town of 150,000 that has four breweries and eighteen vineyards all close by or within it?
There aren’t any really big hotels in the city apart from a Hilton. A new one, the Inn at the 5th which opened in the spring is one of a range in the city. This hotel is a little different having no restaurant.
For breakfast it has an agreement with an award winning restuarant so you go there for breakfast. Want a manicure? Go to one in the connected shopping square. The policy is that the owners of the hotel and those that run it understand and concentrate on accommodation. For other things that you find in other larger hotels, they prefer to have local experts that they can join with. And that is summed up in a sign that you’ll see in the adjacent carpark! “Thank you for supporting local people.” As you walk from the hotel to the shopping centre you needn’t even get wet – there’s a covered walkway. And in here you’ll find the second UK telephone box that can be found in the city!
But Eugene has some great little inns/B&B’s – call them what you will – that are comfy, appealing and full of character. Try The Campbell House which dates back to 1892 when a local gold miner settled here. Breakfast is cooked for you rather than left lying around for you to help yourself to and the rooms are spacious. In comparison to some bland hotels they could be considered opulent!
Eugene is known sometimes as track city USA. This is because Nike started here. But even before that it had a strong background in track events. Facilities here have been used for the American Olympics team many times, just as they are for this year. The qualifying races are taking place as I write. It has marathons, 5k runs (yes the distance is in kilometres which in the US seems strange) and more track clubs than any city of its size.
That’s because Eugene is an outdoors place. Found at the bottom of a valley, the Willamette, the city has a cool climate and is surrounded by a temperate rainforest. It rarely snows yet skiing is available within an hour’s drive. If you drop down into the city from the mountains by car or rail, (click here for my train journey) you realise just how many outside activities this area has to entice the visitor.
Up in the hills around Eugene there are signs reminding trekkers, hikers and walkers that there are bears and cougars in this country There’s just too much to see. And too much to do. Do you head off and see waterfalls like Salt Creek Falls, explore the many wetlands, indulge in water sports at Fern Ridge Lake or trek through the Willamette National Forest? This is one destination where planning could save a lot of wasted time. But you’ll still have to decide what you can cram in unless you plan on staying for a while.
So who has ever heard of this city? Not many Brits have unless you read the mystery novels of Carola Dunn, the expat who has now made her home here. There, in the front of each one, it says she lives there. The other writer forever linked to Eugene is Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and whose ‘statue’ can be seen in the centre. Actually it’s a bench that shows Kelsey sitting down and reading to whoever else is sitting on the bench with him at the time.
On the face of it, this compact city is like many others in Oregon. It has a quieter life and, despite having a population of over 150,000, it doesn’t come across as a big city. Spread out on the valley floor it seems a lot smaller as it melds with other towns like Springfield and Coburg. Overall about 400,000 people live in this area but you wouldn’t know it to drive around. And driving – or cycling – is what you need to do. Although there are attractions in the towns and cities, it is the countryside that is the big draw. The Willamette River goes through the city and much of the river side is given over to green belt land where bird watching and cycle paths work hand-in-hand.
But if you want to see birds – and even if you don’t but are being persuaded by others – go to the Cascades Raptor Center in the Spencer Butte Park which acts as a rescue centre and wildlife hospital for birds of prey. If you can’t see a Golden Eagle, a Great-Horned Owl or an American Kestrel in the wild, a visit will get you up close and personal. Some -about 60 – will never be able to be released back into the wild but most will. It may be your one opportunity to see, for example, the Northern Spotted Owl which may yet go onto the endangered species list. Now, having celebrated its 21st birthday, the CRC -still with its widely respected founder, Louise Schimmel – is well known worldwide for the work that it has achieved. As an attraction though, it still only receives 13,000 visitors a year. Why? May be because it doesn’t have paved steps and paths, fast-food outlets serving ambiguous food or chintzy welcoming staff. That’s another reason its worth visiting; this attraction is true to its foundation. Louise and the CRC are concentrating on their task rather than trying to turn it into a theme park.
Before you leave, go up to Skinner Butte Park for a great view of the city, a view that reinforces the fact that this city nestles in a valley surrounded by the great outdoors. You can even go rock climbing in the park. No health and safety here. Just head for the basalt columns and scramble up.
So all around the city, the outdoors can be found. Even in the city there’s an urban forest with 500 different species of trees at the university. And that’s about the only place you won’t find Jim and Tom, the greatest of truffle hunters, looking for the next 200 pounds of perigords.
For more information on Eugene, click here
With thanks to Meg Trendler in Eugene who was kind enough to take me around. Even when I made her walk in the pouring rain!!