When you move to a new city, first you’ve got to settle in. There is the nesting process of obtaining furniture from Craigslist, feng shui-ing your room, and letting your heart settle down as you fend of doubts that this was the right life decision. One of my roommates has quotes written on notes around her room (and around the house for that matter), one of which says, Make a decision and turn it into the right one. “My mom wrote that,” she said. When you you are adapting to a new environment and your brain is in emotional flux, it likes to cling onto corny little snippets of wisdom, ones you might normally scoff at.
Once my little rented space of the world was as in order as it could possibly be, I no longer had a clear purpose. Sure, I had done the pack test, but I had about two weeks before the week-long basic wildland firefighting class began, which meant I had to find meaning and direction in a new town where I knew only my roommates and my friend’s aunt.
I decided I should use this rare time (with no job, no friends, no responsibilities apart from feeding myself) to orient myself in Eugene. I set about exploring, sometimes by bike, but more often on longboard. Eugene is mercifully flat, with a large network of bike trails along the Willamette river, making it an ideal town for cruising on a longboard. I ride through campus, already feeling like a has-been, hike both Skinner’s and Spencer’s Buttes, meditate, and go to yoga classes. Soon I had developed familiar haunts, such as Chipotle (Oregon’s no sales tax means a huge burrito for $6.75!), Costco (part of adulting means a Costco membership, obviously), and my neighborhood coffee house: The Wandering Goat, where I am now as I write this. But the best of these places is a pedestrian bridge over the Willamette.
During my first visit to this bridge I witnessed an osprey diving into the river with a surprising “kerploop”, like the sound of a small stone breaking the water’s surface. It came up with a fish in its talons and disappeared along the treeline. Young swallows also provide entertainment as they dart about, terrorizing swarms of tiny bugs. Each is a little fighter pilot showing off at the county fair. You almost expect to hear the hum of a prop plane engine as they swoop low, close to me, bearing their bellies. All of this bird activity is happening along the backdrop of a macaroni orange sunset and I decide this is my favorite spot in Eugene so far.
Though I have awesome, friendly roommates, they have busy, established lives, which means I had a lot of me time. One of the (few) plusses of loneliness is a newfound connection with music. And books for that matter. These mediums are always willing to be intimate with you when you are craving human connection. The lyrics that echoed in my head most often during these “me time” days were: “I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend” (Fire & Rain- James Taylor), “When everything is lonely I can be my own best friend” (Lua- Bright Eyes), and “I just need someone in my life to give it structure” (I Love You So- The Walters). For all these lyrics about lonesomeness that resonate with me, the least melancholy line is probably “Sometimes I need to be alone…” (Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe- Kendrick Lamar) so I tried to be a big boy and enjoy my solitude while it lasted.
In spite of all this “woe is me” talk of alienation, I did spend a lot of time with friends in the weeks leading up to the firefighting class. It was really only a handful of days where it was just me myself and I. Although I had to either import friends to Eugene or export myself to Portland or Lake Shasta. One action-packed weekend I hosted four friends. We went to a minor league baseball game, went to 80’s night at a barcade, drove out to the coast, and floated the Willamette. By the end I decided being a camp counselor for four adults was more challenging than looking after a dozen teenagers.
My friend’s aunt had me over for dinner one evening. She introduced me to the farmer across the street, who said he had plenty of work for me if I wanted it. This proved the perfect buffer against feelings of existential aimlessness, providing a temporary raison d’etre and a chance to earn a little extra money.
A few days later I arrive at the farm at 9am and am greeted by an ancient black lab mix. His muzzle is white-grey and his jowls are rubber-black. He accepts my pats graciously. The farmer appears wearing a red shirt, overalls, and sun-hat.
“That’s Toby,” he says.
“How old is he?”
“14 or 15. Can’t hardly see and can’t barely walk. He’s probably ready to go to the vet, but I’m not.”
It’s a beef farm in the shadow of Mt. Pisgah with 14 cows and “130 or 140” egg-laying hens. “I was born in that house there,” the farmer points out as we drive a few hundred feet to another part of his property. The farm has been in the family since his grandfather homesteaded in 1910. He gets out of his truck gingerly. “I’ve been disabled for a number of years. Had both knees replaced.” He speaks with a slight southern twang, even though he’s a lifelong Oregonian. Maybe that accent should be categorized as rural Americana rather than belonging exclusively to the south.
He shows me a section of fruit trees, fenced off and strangled by berry bushes. I set about dismantling the wire fence, the clipping the thorny blackberry limbs, getting my forearms torn up in the process. A misguided someone placed some devil’s snare-ish potted plant next to the fence and it weaved and braided its way up one of the asian pear trees.
The whole little grove was an overgrown mess, but once I had pulled out the fence the farmer showed up with his tractor, slowly coming into my view like a car reveal in a Fast & Furious movie. It’s an ancient red capital-T Tractor, made in the 1950’s and still going strong. Its two headlights resemble crab eyes, although one is blown out. It was dragging a big metal square lawnmower attachment, which the farmer proceeded to back into the little fruit tree area. It loudly ate up all the pricker bushes and weeds and even took down an old peach tree, which had been smothered for so long that it was toast anyway.
For four mornings (and some afternoons) I helped the farmer with his many tasks, moving at a leisurely pace (he graduated high school in ’59). My childhood tinkertoy experience came in handy when we fit together long metal pipes to irrigate his fields, during which I slip in multiple cow pies. “We’ll make a farmer out of you yet!” Exclaims the farmer as the sprinklers get up and going, concluding our labors. I got really familiar with a Husqvarna mower/weed-whacker, annihilating fields of thistles and uncovering a secret nest of eggs, sending the squawking culprit fleeing back to her flock. I get several rides on the back of the tractor, legs dangling off the end, musing on how funny life can be.