Have you ever been to a place that felt like your soulmate? A place where you felt you belonged, sure as if someone had scooped up a handful of the soil and formed your body from it? For me that place is Eugene, Oregon, the town where I spent my early twenties. The city where my books take place. Last month, during that mid-August hot spell, I went back for four glorious, bittersweet days. These are some thoughts I collected during that time.
As I drive through the Willamette Valley I can sense the years peeling away, feel time flipping back like calendar pages in an old time movie. I buzz by small towns I’ve driven past many times without stopping—Dever, Conner, Scio. The father south I go, the more my soul settles in. I’m happy with the journey, not just the destination. I begin to enjoy the drive. Cruising south of Salem, south of Albany, through that flat gold and blue expanse of Willamette Valley. The sun, hot and blaring, soaking into my bones. The Coast Range to the west with its rugged bluffs. The dry and dusty fields on either side of the interstate. Plumes of brown trailing a tractor as it rumbles through the fields. Each overpass, each creek, is a familiar name. Each knoll, covered with oaks, an image burned into my memory.
The first thing I do when I get to Eugene is drive under the bridge that leads to Springfield and park in its shade. The temperature gauge on the dash reads 99 degrees. The air is hot and sultry on my skin, the wind thick with the sweet smell of cottonwood. Balm of Gilead. Just drawing it into your lungs heals you of all your spiritual ills. I get out of my car, go down to the river, and cry. I cry for lost youth, for the ache of being reunited with the place that is my geographical soulmate. I cry with envy toward the people who never had to leave, and with confliction because I have two homes now.
Then after a few minutes I can see it’s just a river running under a bridge.
As I drive through the streets of Eugene, I cruise though my history. I feel like I’m living in my characters’ world. Sometimes I drive these streets in my dreams. Sometimes they’re an odd mishmash of roads from Eugene, Portland, Spokane and Hickory.
I remember coming down here almost exactly 25 years ago on a hot summer day much like this, preparing to begin my sophomore year at the U of O. I’d transferred from Whitworth in Spokane, so it was all new to me. This valley with its golden fields, its blue-green buttes, drew me in, welcoming me to my new life.
I clicked right into place when I moved to Eugene—like a puzzle piece recovered after being misplaced for 19 years. I knew the value of what I had while I was here, and I didn’t want to leave. But the need to try my hand at racing was stronger than the need to stay. When I moved to Portland after five years in North Carolina, it was a near fit. A little sanding, a little pounding, and the puzzle piece managed to fall into place. Not quite perfectly, but close enough. Something in me longs to move back to Eugene. The problem is, I’m connected to the other Portland pieces now. They’ve formed a bond with me, and it’s not so easy to let go.
I left Eugene before the technological revolution, and now I come back with a car full of electronic equipment. Digital camera to record my memories, digital recorder to catalog my thoughts. Why can’t they build a digital device to capture the heady scent of those cottonwoods? Technology isn’t quite as perfect as we’d like to think. I go to Skinner Butte Park and see a woman with her feet in the Willamette and an iPhone in her hands and I think, that’s something that wouldn’t have happened 25 years ago. How can the world change so much so quickly?
I’m not sure if this is killing me or making me stronger. I marvel both at the way things have changed and the way they’ve stayed the same. The question is, will I leave here feeling filled up, or aching with the need for more?
Sometimes I think I never should’ve left Eugene, but then I realize, I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t. Would I even have learned to weld and fabricate? Studied mechanical engineering and horticulture? Would I have learned how to be compassionate? Would I have written four books? I know one thing for sure. I wouldn’t have married my husband or met the friends I have now. That makes it worth the loss, but still that busy part of my brain boggles contemplating who I might have met, what I might have done, instead.
Someday I’ll go back. I’d like to complete that elusive bachelor’s degree. I’ve got enough credits for a couple of them, they’re just not the right credits. And psychology sounds intriguing. It would be nice to walk the U of O campus again, taking classes in old buildings whose history now intrigues me. For the most part, I think the college experience is wasted on people who are too young to appreciate it. But then, that obliviousness of youth is one of those things that makes it so magical when you’re looking at it in the rear-view mirror.