Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2017

© Tilke Elkins

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Eccentric Eugene

This Pacific Northwest university town is perfect for a laid-back long weekend

Flying into Eugene, Oregon in summer is like touching down in Middle Earth. Fiery emerald green rises up on all sides to cradle you in its damp lushness. Spring here lasts nearly four months, with the first daffodils and brilliant pink camellia flowers coming on in early January, followed by a cascading sequence of lemon-scented daphne, lilacs and rhododendrons in every conceivable shade.

By mid-summer, the memory of rain has faded and the grass has dried and yellowed to gold, creating a Mediterranean-feeling climate where rosemary and lavender thrive. Then by fall, the bright greens of the oak savannas resemble the tawny pelt of a lioness, dotted with the deep-forest tones of the oaks and Douglas firs.

The city is a secret mecca for those who like the good life and who have the inner resources to weather the soft silver light of the perpetual winter rains which promise to end, if you’re lucky, by Independence Day.

Train is the best way to get to Eugene from Vancouver if you have the time. It’s cheaper and the views around Puget Sound are spectacular. Once you’re there, there’s little need for a car. To get the most out of Eugene, rent a bike near the station. Walking and biking will get you anywhere you want to go in the central downtown area, and many places beyond.

The abundance of plant life made possible by the winter rains attracts a close-knit community of organic farmers and foodies. Every Saturday from April to November, Eugene hosts a fragrant farmers' market in the centre of town. You’ll also find the country’s oldest crafts market, where everything that’s for sale is sold by the person who made it. Wares include Eugene’s signature tie-dye, unusual wooden and felted animal toys and silver jewellery forming every letter of the sign language alphabet.

If you go for a stroll in one of Eugene’s neighbourhoods, you’ll be lured by the delicious smells wafting from the food carts that dot the streets and offer delicacies like raw cheesecake, oyster turnovers, and vegan biscuits and gravy.

Bike it or hike it

Eugene is a river town that has had the foresight to preserve its riverfront. Twenty kilometres of riverfront bike paths wind through rose gardens, meadows, forests and community gardens and include five bike and pedestrian bridges over the mighty Willamette River.

Eugene has long been recognized as one of the top 10 bike-friendly cities in the US. The riverfront bike path is connected to a network of 48 kilometres of off-street paths and 145 kilometres of bike lanes. A local company, Bike Friday (bikefriday.com), is a family business that sells its custom folding bikes globally — perfect for train trips, where they can be checked as luggage, or for the bus where they can be rolled on and off in their suitcase-sized state of collapse.

A good post-market walk is the short but vigorous jaunt up Skinner Butte, which honours Eugene Skinner, the pioneer after whom the city is also named. The summit offers a southern view of town and can be also be reached by car, though then you would miss the forest path that’s vibrant with wild cobalt-blue delphiniums in May.

Two other summits provide in-town hikes a short car-ride from the centre: Mount Pisgah, a long slope up through oak savannah, and Spencer Butte, a craggy flat-topped peak wooded with enormous Douglas firs dripping with lichen and home to owls and banana slugs.

Hippy roots

Eugene also has an active alternative community and attracts pioneers in sustainable culture as well as a host of natural-products manufacturers. Hippie culture runs deep. In the summer of 1972, hippie star Ken Kesey’s brother Chuck called in his friends from the Grateful Dead to bail out the Kesey family business, the Springfield Creamery. Thanks to the concert, which Chuck describes as “the stark nakedest event in history,” the Creamery survived to become Nancy’s Yogurt, now a familiar brand which sells across the US and Canada.

Grower’s Market (45 Willamette; growersmarket.net), a community-run food co-op next to the train station downtown is the only food cooperative in the US with no employees, only volunteers. Locals love their small neighbourhood natural food markets so much that Whole Foods, the natural foods mega chain has been unable to establish itself their despite many attempts.

In spring and early summer, Hendrick’s Park on a hill overlooking the University is a riot of rhododendron exuberance and brilliant manicured green swards. It’s the perfect place for a picnic of goat cheese, cherry chocolate-sourdough bread and fresh peas and strawberries from the farmer’s market.

Olympic track

In spite of all this, Eugene is not a city just for hippies. Hailed by many as the world epicentre for track and field, it’s known as Track Town USA and houses Hayward Field, often referred to as the Carnegie Hall of track and field and arguably the most famous track facility on the planet. Hayward will host the Olympic trials for track and field this June. Even though tickets go for well over US$250, they sell out fast.

Visitors can enjoy a runner’s paradise by taking a jog on a 10-kilometre riverside bark-mulch trail established by record-setting long-distance runner and resident Steve Prefontaine a few weeks before his tragic car crash in 1975.

A new hospital in the Eugene area reflects the city’s espousal of a healthy lifestyle. PeaceHealth’s Sacred Heart at River Bend was designed according to research that shows that patients fare better and recover faster when cared for in a calm setting that incorporates natural light, the sight and sound of water, and exterior views of green spaces.

The building feels much more like a lodge than a hospital, with private rooms opening to views of the McKenzie River, kilometres of walking trails, a huge welcoming hearth in the entryway and rooftop gardens. Though tax-payers complain predictably about paying for these luxuries, the attention to beauty that springs from this “evidence-based design” yields results. It’s worth a visit.

Room and board

If you’re looking for luxury accommodation in Eugene minus the calamity necessary for a night at the hospital, you’ll enjoy a stay at The Inn at the 5th (205 East 6th Avenue; tel: 541-743-4099; innat5th.com), which just had their grand opening this March. Like the hospital at Riverbend, the Inn was engineered with environmental sustainability and client care in mind. The minimalist lobby is dominated by the polished midsection of the massive maple tree that was removed during the refurbishing of the old Nike store that is now the Inn.

Room service comes from Marché (296 East 5th Street; marcherestaurant.com), a first-class restaurant in the adjoining Fifth Street Market that almost exclusively uses ingredients from small local organic farms. The LaVelle Vineyards Tasting Room (296 East 5th Street, Suite #25; lavellevineyards.com) shares a patio with the Inn and also offers in-room tasting. The Inn can arrange tours of the nearby vineyards whose numbers burgeon every year. And if you want to visit other parts of the city, the Inn offers free transportation to anywhere within seven kilometres. Right across the street is Belly (30 East Broadway; eatbelly.com), a small cosy local restaurant which rivals Marché for exquisite locally-crafted dishes, and Thalia’s Emporium (299 East 5th Avenue; thaliasemporium.com), a gallery that sells the wares of local artists and serves Turkish coffee and a spicy Mayan hot-chocolate.

You’re also a short walk from the Hult Center for the Performing Arts (1 Eugene Center; hultcenter.org), perhaps best known for housing the Oregon Bach festival, about to enter its 42nd season this summer. Or bike out to the University of Oregon campus for a look at the excellent Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (1430 Johnson Lane; jsma.uoregon.edu), home to works of Asian and contemporary art.

Eugene has the best of what Oregon has to offer. With the coast 80 kilometres away on the west and mountains (with skiing), rainforests, hot springs and wild rushing rivers even closer to town on the east, it’s an outdoor playground. But in the midst of the splendour of the gardens, parks and markets, many Eugenians find they seldom want to leave town.

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