They hang like grapes
On vines that shine
And warm the lovers’ glass
Like friendly wine
So I’d give this world
Just to dream a dream with you
On our bed of California stars
Billy Bragg and Wilco, “California Stars”
The riverbank along either side of the Autzen pedestrian bridge over the Willamette River is one of my favorite places in Eugene. It’s an idyllic little spot that is all too easy to take for granted, considering all the pastoral beauty and lush (for now) wilderness that waits just beyond the city limits. I never want to take any of this for granted.
It’s not a secret spot and it’s not hard to find. Most of you have probably walked across this simple little bridge at least once during your time here, and perhaps many more if you’re a fan of Oregon football. But it’s far enough away from the city that the river drowns out the sounds of the city but close enough to be within walking distance of my apartment. On the shoreline, the trees offer enough shade to keep the vengeful sun at bay and enough privacy from other people that it often feels that I’m the only one around.
But I’m never alone here, and that’s probably for the best. The patches of beauty still left in the world are best enjoyed with other people. It took me a long time to realize that.
Syd and I used to come here all the time. After the spring thaw, we’d walk down in the later afternoon with a couple of beers in a backpack to watch the sun sink in the west, to feel the day turn dark and cool. We’d come here at least once a week, sometimes two, if the weather was nice. Sometimes, we were lucky enough to snag a spot on one of the benches on the bridge. Most times, we’d just lean against the railing and look out on the river, splaying out our elbows to make sure no one stood too close to us.
I don’t come back to the bridge all that often these days. The walk there feels much longer when I’m alone.
I went back on an uneventful weekend afternoon, finally motivated in equal parts by a search for inspiration and a desperate need to procrastinate. I expected it to be busy, with gaggles of people vying for position on the bridge and along the shore, but I was wrong, as I so often am. All I saw were some joggers, some bikers, and a few older couples on leisurely weekend strolls, all getting their steps in before the day got too hot to handle. It was hot, but not as hot as it could’ve been, and not as hot as it recently was. For me, it was just right. I’m like a reptile, in that I need a constant source of warmth, or else I start to slowly die.
The benches were all open, so I sat on the one in the middle of the bridge and guzzled down water. Through the bench and the soles of my feet, I could feel the vibrations of the joggers’ footfalls on the bridge. I know it’s natural, but feeling a bridge wiggle and vibrate through the soles of my sneakers is more than a little disconcerting. I thought of the many thousands of drunk people who cross the bridge every Saturday during football season. Then I looked down at the shallow water below and shuddered.
A stiff wind, cool and moist, was blowing in from the Pacific. I closed my eyes and let the wind dry the sweat from my brow. I never want to take the wind for granted, either. It made the day bearable and kept the smoke lurking just beyond the mountains at bay. I could see the haze rising from the southeast. One day soon, the wind will blow from the other direction, and the air will no longer be fresh, clean, and clear.
But that’s trouble for another time, for a slightly older version of myself. Today I am here to enjoy the breeze. Sometimes things really are better out of context.
Below the bridge, between the two main channels of the river, two people were wading in the shallows, the water only reaching up to their ankles. They walked carefully, using their toes to check for slippery rocks. Both of them slipped and fell into the water a few times, laughing the entire time.
A short distance away, another man was wading through the shallows too, searching for the perfect stone to cap his freshly stacked cairn. I watched him for a while as he stalked around, neck bent like a heron hunting fish, until he plunged his arms into the water and pulled out a stone shaped vaguely like a pyramid. He placed it gently on his four-foot pile of river rocks, then walked away content. Without trying all that hard, he’d built a rough obelisk in the middle of the Willamette, just feet away from all the other rough stone obelisks in the shallows.
I took a picture and sent it to Syd. They’d appreciate this view. They always did.
Then I turned to the east, facing the Cascades, backed by a distant, silvery haze. A few hundred yards away, on a little island formed by the historical meandering of the old Willamette, stood a little crowd of people. Little by little, groups of people broke off from the crowd on the island and set off floating down the Willamette in colorful tubes and vessels.
I was jealous. It seemed like the perfect day to float the river.
Or at least, I assume it was the perfect day. I’ve never done it myself, for multiple reasons, but mostly because cold water is the bane of my existence. I am as warm-blooded as a person can be. No one will ever catch me taking a cold shower or taking a polar bear plunge. I much prefer looking at the river rather than swimming in it. The fact that I’ve made it five years in Oregon is actually sort of unbelievable, considering this place spends half the year being cold and wet, my two least favorite things. I once complained that a natural hot spring out past Oakridge wasn’t warm enough for my tastes while it was snowing. Where I come from, swimming spots are the temperature and consistency of lukewarm and watery split pea soup.
That’s all to say that floating on a river made possible by snowmelt from big-ass mountains is all but out of the question for me. But it’s nice to see other people do it. They always look like they’re having so much fun.
This day featured the full spectrum of river floaters. Some were bold amateurs, floating along in cheap innertubes with a beer in their right hand and a plastic baggie containing their important belongings in the left. Others were more practical and set off in inflatable dinghies big enough to stash a few extra beers along with all the other important stuff.
The veterans of the river floating scene lash all their inflatable vessels together with rope, forming little clusters that sail down the river as a unit that can collectively carry far more beer than an individual ever could. More than one group had a separate dinghy dedicated entirely to beer, and one group of real party animals went as far as filling their supply dinghy with bags of ice to act as a floating cooler–not unlike what I imagine the original settlers once did.
And still others took the river seriously as a force of nature, sailing down in kayaks and canoes, paddling intently, never letting their guard down, even when the water was calm. People like them don’t drink while on the river. They know the river shows no mercy.
Regardless of the vessel, the east side of the bridge has calm, shallow water, and the floaters all moved along the river at a leisurely pace for the first few hundred yards. But then the river guides them into the little stretch of rapids that start right below the bridge and continue for about a hundred yards or so along the south bank of the river. From the bridge, I can watch the anticipation build as people in little inflatable rafts prepare themselves for the swift part of the river.
Once they get pulled into the rapids, gleeful shouts rise from below the bridge as floaters get splashed with cold river water and feel the strong grip of the current as it rushes downstream. Some of the floaters looked up to see me watching them. I waved. They waved back and yelled something I couldn’t understand before being whisked away.
It’s a lovely sight, seeing people enjoy themselves. Sometimes it feels like people have forgotten how to have fun. I know I have.
After a half hour or so, the sun started to burn through my hat, so I decamped down to the shoreline on the south side of the river, just below the west side of the bridge. The way down is through a door in the fence of an old, dried-out baseball field, along a little well-worn dirt path lined with blackberry vines, and down a little bluff kept intact by tree vines. It’s easy to miss if you don’t know where to look.
On the shoreline, in the shade of big ash and maple trees growing on the bluff, there were a handful of people lounging around. I settled into a naturally chair-shaped rock formation and lounged by the river and let the time pass by. A few weeks ago, this shore would’ve been packed with people celebrating the arrival of summer. But summer has been around for a while now, and the college crowds dwindle every week. By now, most people have gone home for the summer, or graduated and left Eugene entirely. The people here today are townies; they’ll always be here, every day of every summer, forever.
At the far end of the shore, there were some dudes drinking beer, getting high, otherwise enjoying their youth. Two of them kept running down to the end of the shore and leaping into the river, pulling themselves out back at the other end before the Willamette whisked them off towards Junction City. One person was scribbling in a notebook, just like I was–maybe they were looking for a bit of inspiration, too. I hope they found it. Another person was leaned up against a fallen tree trunk, sitting on a towel, reading a book. On my left, just a few feet away, a young couple canoodled with their feet in the river. On my right, a little farther away, an old couple sat next to each other in little camping chairs, giggling about something.
And in the middle was me, fighting to stay present in the moment, avoiding the temptation to both dwell in the recent past and count on a hazy future. That’s the problem with calm and blissful scenes–they’re packaged with the burden of memory and the anxiety of what comes next.
The afternoon got away from me. I sat by the water and thought about nothing and everything for a while, my focus only broken by the occasional floater zipping along the shore, hooting and hollering through the rapids. I didn’t bring my phone; I didn’t bring a book to read. I didn’t even feel like writing any more lines in this stupid little notebook I always carry around with me. All I could do was sit and simply exist, and that’s impossible when I’ve got choices to make.
To distract myself, I stared straight ahead at the island in the river right across from me. Throughout my time in Eugene, I’ve been fascinated by the many little islands formed by the meandering of the old Willamette River. They’re all sort of mysterious in their own way, just little isolated patches of land in the middle of a small city. By my count, there’s roughly 33 or 34 river islands within the general metro limits – some barely more than sandbars, others big enough to sustain their own riparian ecosystems. Some manage to get some pretty big trees growing out of them.
I’ve often wondered whether it would be possible to just live on one without anyone knowing. There has to be at least one or two people living a life in the middle of the river, surviving on fish and duck eggs and the occasional swim back into society. Maybe they have some sort of raft they use to get back and forth. That doesn’t sound so bad, I think. People have intentionally put themselves in way worse scenarios.
That right there is something I love about Eugene: it’s a place where it’s still possible to disappear in plain sight.
I’ve always wanted to swim out to one of the islands in the Willamette, just to spend the day alone on an island. I’ve got this odd love for islands – and only partly because I grew up on one. The line between earth and water is about as definitive a boundary that exists in the world. Crossing that boundary requires effort and at least a little bit of dedication, whether it’s getting your legs wet, or having to swim, or getting on a boat.
It’s worth it. The reward, of course, is that fleeting feeling of being apart from the rest of the world.
Later in the afternoon, the sun outsmarted the trees and started to bake the rocky shoreline. The warmth was nice for all of a minute or two. Then I began to fry.
So I took off my hat and I took off my shirt. I slipped out of my socks and sneakers and then dipped my feet in the river before pulling them out with a hiss. It’s so cold. Even a few seconds in the water made my toes go numb.
I’m working on a lot of things. My stupid little notebook has a vague list of “goals” scrawled on the front page, and I try to make myself look at it every day. I’m working on my follow-through, my motivation, my commitment to this goddamn ridiculous path I’ve put myself on. I’m trying to listen more, to absorb more, and to avoid taking anything and anyone for granted. And most importantly, I’m working on getting back to enjoying that great and confusing sense of uncanny discomfort in a place where nothing quite adds up and where, even on the hottest days, the water is too cold to be totally comfortable.
Being less of a baby about cold water is on that list. It’s pretty low, but it’s there nonetheless.
The river was cold. Real cold. So fucking cold. I could feel my lungs constrict and my body tense up as I was swept away by the rushing current. I gasped for air as my body began to panic.
And then I slowed down, and I clawed my way up on the rocky shore, gasping for breath and desperate for warmth right alongside the pair of dudes that had been jumping in the river all afternoon.
“Really wakes you up, doesn’t it?” said one of the dudes, lifting his can of White Claw over his head in a salute.
It really did. And it felt pretty nice.
So goodbye, old Willamette River, and farewell to the ghosts on all your islands. I hope people don’t take it for granted, because I’d like to come back someday.