EUGENE, Oregon — This campus is all lamplight and leaves. The ground looks like red and gold wrapping paper. Nice place for a stroll on a moody morning.
Oregon is a little rough around the edges. I like that in a state. It’s a full-frontal fall up here – my weekend in New England.
Wisely, they leave the leaves alone, on the sweeping lawns, letting the maples and the alders have their moment.
This campus has way too many trees and big quilts of green space. You could probably farm it. And there’s a cemetery right on campus. Imagine what went on back there on Halloween night.
Look, I’m no moralist. I’m just a visitor grateful to be here, an outsider with too much color in my face, someone who wears sunglasses, which seem non-existent up here. What umbrellas are to LA, sunglasses are to rainy Oregon.
This whole place smells of wet sweaters. According to lore, the ghost of track legend Steve Prefontaine resides in a vacant Victorian near the center of campus. Sometimes, the rain comes down like curveballs, according to my son Smartacus, the most fabulous freshman I know.
You can see why the California kids like it so much. So different. So “vibey,” as they like to say.
Nike owns the place. One estimate (unconfirmed) is that 20% of the operating budget comes via the town cobbler, Phil Knight. In some ways, these are all trust fund kids.
This day, the scholars seem a little groggy. Maybe it’s the weed, maybe it’s the mid-terms. I’m sure they’re sneaking a beer or a White Claw here and there, despite constant safeguards.
When I leave a 12-pack outside the motel room to chill, it disappears in 20 minutes. Hasta la alcohol, baby. Enjoy!
According to Smartacus, mid-terms have been rough on pretty much everyone.
“One kid fell down the stairs,” someone explains.
“Three times,” adds Smartacus.
On Parents’ Weekend, solid information about college life comes piecemeal. We bribe them with burgers. Who’re your friends? Do you like your classes? Have you showered yet?
“I talked to my friends,” Smartacus says. “They don’t shower either. Even the girls.”
The takeaway: He has made friends, including females, most of whom never shower.
One little nugget: Smartacus and his roommate Jake had the freshman cold and cough — a rite of passage. Making the best of fit, Jake took his cold medicine between two Dorito chips, like a sandwich.
No matter your imagination, you could never come up with the beautiful aura of a freshman dorm. Nothing like it. I think that if Communism were ever to actually work, it would be much like a freshman dorm, everyone equal and supportive while driving each other completely nuts.
The pranks, the friendships, the fiendish fun. Dorm mates are family in this giant, overwhelming campus. Smartacus dubbed one set of bickering neighbors “The Real Housewives of Eugene, Oregon.”
Dorms are quieter than they once were – the gamers content to be with their global cohorts, others squirreled away Snapchatting their social lives to their pals back home.
And there are, apparently, no longer stereos the size of Volkswagens, blasting raspy guitar licks till 1 in the morning.
That’s probably progress. Maybe not.
To his credit, Smartacus likes to get out and walk. And one recent afternoon, his best friend awaited him in front of the dorm, chugging on her leash.
We’d come through Lake Tahoe, up the chalky chowder of Highway 89, praying the semis would hold the highway. It was cold, with tons of early snow…black ice.
Drop-dead gorgeous too, perhaps the most-beautiful lake in the nation, the place where God plops his Christmas tree.
Tahoe is a skippin’-stones kind of lake. It’s snowy magic was sensory overload to a wolf like White Fang. She looked out wistfully at the silvery lake: “Why can’t every place look like this?”
I don’t know, baby. I honestly don’t know.
In the dark, I slipped on black ice, a funny Vaudeville fall. No bruises, no broken bones. As always, I automatically reached for my schnitzels, booth good.
At 6 am, the cashier at the Shell helped me find the coffee cups, then explained “that men ain’t blind, they just like to be reassured that someone is looking after them.”
Now I understand.
Back on the road, the windshield starting to ice – I punched every button, hoping to find DEFROST.
And now here we are – finally in Oregon — reunioning with Smartacus. Rapunzel flies in too.
Smartacus is, after all, our family’s happy place.
The reunion goes well, boy and dog smiling and squealing, White Fang grateful for having found him, me standing back a little misty.
“At one point, I think White Fang might’ve proposed,” Rapunzel said later.
To her mind, Smartacus was either kidnapped or escaped, and now we’ve tracked him down — at considerable effort and expense.
“We’ve found him now,” she thinks. “Let’s take him home now.”
Next: The joys of Parents’ Weekend.