Our Stories Journeys

What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

How Eugene has put the counter in culture from the 1960s to today.

Story by Ryan Deto and Alexandra Notman
Photo by Cathriona Smith

Illustrations by Alexandra Notman, Christopher Fellows, Edwin Ouellette, Isamu Jarman, Maris Antolin, Mica Russo, and Tony Cipolle

One All Hallow’s Eve in the heart of Eugene, a gentleman emerged from WOW Hall wearing nothing but a loin cloth with a fiddle in his grip. Tucking his instrument beneath his chin, he played in the cool night air as a gaggle of witches gathered. It was the night of the annual Witches Ball and a few days prior, a self-proclaimed “witch buster” had slipped a two page anti-witch manifesto beneath the concert hall’s doors. The proclamation declared that witches had infiltrated the town government and now controlled it. A bomb threat was then called in right before the show, so the witches were forced to vacate the music venue. But the frontman of the band Toth would not have a show cancelled on him, so he followed the coven out into the streets, and played barely-clothed in the rain.

“Strange things happen outside the WOW Hall every single day. The show must go on,” said Bob Fennessy, director of WOW Hall. “Bomb scare or no, rain or no, cold or no, clothes or no.”

Over the last fifty years, Eugene has secured its spot in the history of counterculture, as illustrated in Lane County Historical Museum’s recent exhibit “Tie Dye and Tofu.”  The city has played happy host to such people like LSD advocate Ken Kesey and his rabble-rousing, acid-dropping pack of Merry Pranksters to the doomed romance between Jerry Garcia and Eugene local “Mountain Girl.” To this day it’s clear Eugene’s strange happenings haven’t died. Events like the Faerieworlds festival held on the moss-covered slopes of Mount Pisgah and the good-natured hedonism of the Oregon Country Fair continue to illustrate these eccentricities.

1. Befriending the Unabomber was the best decision Eugene resident John Zerzan ever made. After reading the so-called “Unabomber Manifesto,” Zerzan became a confidant of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, and the mainstream media in turn started to interview him and pay attention to his published works. He did not endorse the bombings, but Zerzan did agree with the message laid out in the manifesto. He is now considered one of the most recognized sources on anarchy theory and hosts Anarchy Radio on campus radio station KWVA.

2. For 33 years, neon lights peered down from a 51-foot-tall concrete cross on top of Skinner’s Butte. In 1997, the cross was removed and transferred to Northwest Christian University after a heated debate over the separation of church and state. The day the cross was set to be removed, a local veteran guarded the cross with his shotgun. A war memorial in 1970, a flagpole and American flag stand in the cross’ place today.

3. How does one make money in the afterlife? Aaron Jamison of neighboring Springfield announced in 2010 that advertising space was available on his urn. He was dying of colon cancer and wanted to make money to defray cremation costs. A Springfield restaurant and Cry Baby Ink, a local tattoo business, have expressed some interest.

4. Tensions between the Eugene government and local anarchists became so uneasy during the nineties that in 1999 one activist intentionally vomited on former Mayor Jim Torrey during a City Council meeting. Torrey took the barfing quite lightly and commented that it was just another strange activity that had become accepted in town. “Eugene can be characterized as a unique city,” said Torrey, “because we enable people of various points of view to feel comfortable in expressing themselves.”

5. What’s more awesome than having the word “awesome” in your name? Nothing, according to the Eugene man now legally known as Captain Awesome. Douglas Allen Smith Jr. changed his name after being inspired from a character on the TV show Chuck, which might be the first time a fourth place show on the last place network has had such a lasting impression on anyone.

6. “Yo to Springfield, Oregon—-the real Springfield” reads a plaque given to the city by Simpsons creator Matt Groening. The Eugene-Springfield area is home to many Simpson’s inspirations including Skinner’s Butte (Principle Skinner), Max’s Tavern (when using a French spelling Max’s becomes Meaux’s then through Americanization becomes Moe’s), and the pioneer statue on campus (statue of Jebediah Springfield).

7. Every year more than 45,000 participants flood into nearby Veneta to experience the Oregon Country Fair, essentially multiplying the population by fifteen. The event has become Oregon’s predominate counter-culture and hippie haven. Challenged only perhaps by the annual Faerieworlds festival on Mt. Pisgah, where fairy-goers embrace “the realm of the faerie.”

8. Eugene turned Corey Feldman from a boy into a man. While filming Stand by Me in Lane County, Feldman spent a lot of time off set hanging out in Eugene. It was here where the young actor first got drunk, got stoned, and had his first kiss. Granted Feldman’s life went spiraling down with drug and alcohol abuse afterwards, he places no blame on Eugene and looks back on his time here in a positive light.

9. Eugene’s reigning “monarch” of festivities and unofficial ambassador of the city is a slug. Women, and some men, compete for the SLUG (Society for the Legitimization of the Ubiquitous Gastropod) Queen title by flaunting their originality and creativity. To distinguish themselves further from beauty pageants, contestants are encouraged to bribe judges.

10. In addition to the ubiquitous Zombie Crawl, Eugenians get naked and abandon their engine every June. Up to seventy bike-riders in town strip and take to the streets to remind people how vulnerable bicyclists are when sharing the roads with cars and advocate against the country’s dependency on fossil fuels. Only one restriction applies to riders in Eugene: Cover up those genitals, people. Boobs and butts are okay. Speaking of bikes, Eugene’s Sunset Hills is one of the first funeral homes in the country to offer a bicycle hearse.

11. The American Motorcyclist Association says that 99 percent of motorcyclists are cordial, law-abiding citizens. The Free Souls Motorcycle Club (FSMC) is not part of that percentage. Formed in Eugene in 1968, the FSMC is one of the five most dangerous motorcycle gangs in Oregon. In 2007, police raided the homes of six members. Stolen motorcycles, guns, marijuana, and methamphetamine were seized.

12. Ken Kesey once said, “People don’t want other people to get high, because if you get high, you might see the falsity of the fabric of the society we live in.” Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, based in greater Eugene in the sixties, are considered the bridge between beatniks and hippies. Author Tom Wolfe took note, penning a novel inspired by their acid-fueled cross-country bus expedition to New York City, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Fellow Oregonian Gus Van Sant is directing the film version expected to be released this year.

13. In the past century, the Whiteaker area of Eugene has been a small outskirt, dangerous enclave, hippie hangout, and anarchist commune. Entering a stage of gentrification, the “Whit” changes with its inhabitants but crime and seedy activity still linger. To counteract the crime, four markets in the Whiteaker voluntarily banned malt liquor in 2010 because officials thought its cheap price and high alcohol content led to increased crime. And they might have been on to something —the numbers from a three-month ban showed a 70 percent decrease in crime in the area.

14. Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia was introduced to his wife, Carolyn Adams better known as Mountain Girl, by kindred spirit Ken Kesey. Garcia and the Grateful Dead came through Eugene several times playing at the University of Oregon, the Hult Center, and Autzen Stadium. Garcia also played solo at Churchill and South Eugene high schools. After having two daughters, Garcia and Mountain Girl divorced. Mountain Girl, who still lives in the Eugene area, went on to write a book, Primo Plant: Growing Marijuana Outdoors.

15. Holy crap! That piece of shit is seven times older than Jesus Christ. The UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History houses the oldest human North American feces. Scientists found the petrified poop at a cave 220 miles southeast of Portland. Dating placed the age of excrement at 14,300 years, which is 1,000 years before the Clovis people, thought to be the first human settlers in North America.

16. Anyone who walks by the tree across from Willamette Hall on 13th Avenue and exclaims “that tree is out of this world,” would not be wrong. The Douglas fir, known as the moon tree, was grown from a seed that orbited the moon 34 times before returning to Earth. The tree grew despite the fact that the seed, along with hundreds of others, was accidently exposed to a vacuum during decontamination.

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