I punch the accelerator on the Red Rocket and the turbocharger kicks in, sending me hurtling forward at breakneck speed. It’s more vehicle than I need, it gets poor gas mileage, and there are months when I can barely make the payment. But when I step on the gas I feel alive and for that, there is no price too high.
My destination is Eugene, Oregon. Why Eugene? Why not Eugene, is the better question. I have no ties to place or people. I go wherever I want, whenever I want. Where I lay my laptop is home. I am going to Oregon because Oregon called and I answered.
Still, there’s something different about this move. Driving West on Highway 126 through the high desert of Bend, past perennially snowcapped mountains, through temperate rainforest flanked by the McKenzie River, I have the feeling of coming home. As the western slopes of the Cascades flatten out into the Willamette Valley I am surrounded by farms and rolling green hills. This is a land of milk and honey.
The place I’m to call home for the next 5 months—River Terrace—is, on the other hand, a land of MILFs and money. There are Asian kids driving $80,000 cars and college students with $1,000/month apartments in this 200+ unit corporate megaplex, which boasts that it is, “a great place to call home.” To modify a Margaret Thatcher quote, if you have to tell people it’s a great place to live, it probably isn’t.
River Terrace is about as homey as a hotel, the sort of joint where you don’t know your neighbors but you can hear what they’re watching on television, where you call a hotline in Jersey in order to schedule a call from the onsite maintenance man. The clubhouse smells like CK1 and the office staff is friendly in an obviously coached-up way. The obligatory courteousness of people who make less money than you; lawns manicured by Mexicans; an assigned parking spot; a modest selection of free-to-rent DVDs. Here is the sterile promise of middle class status.
I can’t really complain, however, as it meets my three basic digs requirements: a bed, a coffee pot, and an internet connection. With those three elements in place I run my Empire of Dirt. I tell people I’m a writer and they believe me. I jot down the job title on my lease agreement form and it goes unquestioned. I could write anything, really. Brian John Eckert: freelance gynecologist. Brian J. Eckert: taxidermist to the stars. As long as they money is paid on time you can call yourself whatever you want. Brian Eckert: professional rearranger of information.
The “river” in River Terrace comes from the Willamette, which flows through Eugene ½ mile from my doorstep. Even closer to home is Delta Ponds. It borders the apartment complex to the south and, along with the riverbank system that runs through this part of town along the Willamette, forms a green belt here in northeast Eugene.
Historically, the Willamette River flowed through Delta Ponds, providing habitat for fish and wildlife. Over time as the Willamette Valley was settled agriculture, urban development, and flood control changed the nature of the river. Levees were built to contain high flows, dams were constructed to reduce flooding, and riparian forests were cut down to make room for crops and houses.
The ponds, peninsulas, and islands that are present today at Delta Ponds were formed by gravel extraction operations that took place in the 1950s and ‘60s. These activities provided much of the gravel for the construction of local roadways, including Interstate 105.
The City purchased the ponds from Eugene Sand and Gravel in the late 1970s. Since 2004, significant efforts and resources have been directed toward the restoration of the Delta Ponds system. A major part of that project—reconnecting 2.2 miles of side-channel habitat to the Willamette River—was completed in 2011.
Today, one can find all manner of wildlife at the 150 acre network of waterways. Nearly 150 species of birds have been spotted at the ponds over the years and amphibians, reptiles, fish, turtles, beavers and river otters, among other critters, also call the ponds home.
A simulacrum of the natural environment that previously existed in this area, Delta Ponds speaks to the resiliency of Nature. With a bit of investment and, more critically, a little bit of space to call its own, the wildlife doomed by anthropogenic activity does come back. Indeed, as the ponds—sandwiched between two major highways and in the midst of a major suburb—show, even an inch will do.
But in this world inches are worth dollars, which is why areas like Delta Ponds remain the exception, not the rule. What is the value of a Great Blue Heron compared to, say, a luxury apartment complex? I focus my binoculars’ viewfinder on the mighty bird. It moves with long, slinking strides across a submerged log, draws its head and long neck into its chest, and stands in wait for a passing fish. To me, the Great Blue Heron is grace incarnate. To others, it is just that bird on the River Terrace entrance sign.
Across the pond movement catches my eye. I pan to the right, adjust the zoom. On the far bank a man is pacing back and forth, screaming, throwing rocks violently at the water. A lump of bedding and several empty 40 oz. bottles mark his plight.
Do you ever see such people, dear readers, and ask yourself how it came to be for them? How it is, exactly, that a man finds himself living at Delta Ponds, drunk at midday, taking out his rage on inanimate objects? I know I do. The answer, it seems, is that somebody ends up living at Delta Ponds in the exact opposite way that they end up living at River Terrace.
Last night somebody drove into Delta Ponds. Some half dozen ambulances and fire trucks, as well as every cop in town, were at the scene. Good thing for me, as I was driving drunk.
I’d been out drinking in the middle of the week without a job. According to Hank Bukowski, that’s when you need a drink the most.
A few days ago my biggest client, the one who almost singlehandedly has provided me with enough work to fund my rambling, dissolute lifestyle, cancelled our contract. With no money coming in, I begin shopping at Wal-Mart rather than Trader Joe’s. I ditch my smart phone for a flip phone. I drink Café Busto in favor of Dazbog, Busch Light in place of Duvel. I sell my bicycle and use the money to buy weed and fear that my beloved Red Rocket could be the next thing to go. I survey the empties on my deck and estimate how much deposit money they’re worth. I think to myself, “This is how homelessness begins.” I begin to understand that the difference between me and the man living at Delta Ponds was never very big at all.
The difference, of course, is that I’m one of the lucky ones. If you’re reading this you probably are, too. We live in an age of absurdity, a world where some people are trying to feel alive and others are simply trying to stay alive. I take solace in knowing that, in either respect, we’re all bound to fail, ultimately, gloriously.