Soft Splashdown
Eugene, Oregon, March 2001

Me and geetar at my "Intentional Community House" in Eugene,Oregon

Organic yoghurt. Organic pea soup in a tin. Organic cornflakes.Organic oranges. I felt a wave of excitement as I perused Hanna's shelves.She seemed to personify all that I had heard about alternative, sustainably-minded,ecologically-aware, bicycle-militant Eugene Oregon.

Despite crashing at the Costa Rican time of 3am I wokeat 7.30 am. Her apartment was comfortable and non-threatening, a good transitlounge between cultures. It was part of retirement village recently openedto a younger crowd, and the only issue seemed to be the wafer-thin walls.

The company I was going to work for was the maker of thebicycle I had been riding for the past four years, and Hanna was the boss'sdaughter. She had travelled much of the States by the tender age of 23, andwas now being groomed as vice president of the family business. She had startedcollege but quit after a year, declining to walk the walk expected of youngAmericans who aspire to having any kind of remotely respectable job. I admiredher resource. It seemed that many people study to do (or delay doing) whatshe had been doing for eight years - helping grow a successful family business.As far as I could see the little company was fuelled by the do-or-die passionand vision of the two brothers, Alan and Hanz, who had a dream about makinga folding bicycle that was not a toy, and were persuing it with the unstoppableenergy of a runaway meteorite.

We got on out Bike Fridays and pedalled to work alonga serene bike path that flanked the Amazon Creek, the rather grandly-namedslew canal running along the back of the bike shop. Fat mallard ducks waddledalong the embankment, occasionally accompanied by the kind of long neckedbird I had seen languishing on the banks of the Rio San Juan between Nicaraguaand Costa Rica. This 'soft splashdown' as one colleague put it, eased mygear-change from third world to first world, from steamy rainforest crawlingwith strange bitey things to well-tended indoor plants in plastic pots, frompotholed track to unblemished concrete, from rice and beans to sandwicheswith five different breads and twenty five different toppings.

The climate was not the bucketing rain and damp drizzlychill and I had been told about by everyone south of Florida. It was briskyes, but politely so - a finger of cold wormed its way through my sleevebut let go when I kept moving. Although the cars moved swiftly along theperfect wide roads, the traffic was as sparse as the trees slicing into thegrey sky, making Eugene a lot quieter city than most.

The clapboard houses were gracious and Christmas-cardquaint, styled in a time before wars, aluminium sliding doors and remotecontrol garage doors, and painted in subtle hues of pink, yellow, blue andblue-grey. A covered porch with chairs was a prominent feature, harking backto a time when garages did not exist and people walked through the frontgate and paused to say a few words to a neighbour sitting on his own porch.The modern man now drives straight into his garage and disappears into thebowels of his boxy and bland brick veneer dream (sans porch), a dream thatlacks the grace, charm and rampant cherry blossom trees growing in the frontyard of these charming old relics.

The office and bike factory was at the semi-industrialwest end of town, where the quaint clapboard houses thinned out and becamelow-slung tin and concrete warehouses. Right across the road stood a concretehorizon of supermalls, megamarkets and fast food outlets, beckoning visitorsquietly into their cavernous confines rather than reaching out screamingfor their custom - clearly Eugene was an example of understated America.

Right next to the office was a giant compound of tin warehouseseach with a line of identical, small blue doors that converged to a vanishingpoint. This was Self Storage Inc., where all the stuff that had spilled outof the megamalls into these quaint clapboard houses, ballooned like Elvisin the living room and finally burst through the back door eventually cameto rest, incarcerated under lock and key, the final resting place of a consumer'swhim.

I hiked across the concrete and bitumen plain to the firstdouble sliding jowl on the horizon. By the time I got there I needed a reststop. I ordered a a sub sandwich by verbally ticking off the multi-levelled,multiple choice quiz of options presented to me, and spent $5 in five minutes.

There was a similar array of options to get my film developed,including spurning the hallowed Kodak processing to have a pimpled collegestudent with a pierced tongue pass it through a dish of whiteboard cleanerfor the cheapskate price. I went for it.

In the cavernous food section of Safeway, I saw bananasfor ten times the price I had been paying a few latitudes south, but tentimes less tasty. Something orange and fluorescent caught the corner of myeye. It was a table of mandarins, perfectly shaped as if plopped out by adonut machine, and glowering with a disturbing orange radioactivity thatreminded me of the day-glo reflecters on my safety vest. Beside them wasa giant pyramid table of lettuces, each encased in a fancy two-colour hingedplastic container the size of a hat box to protect the hundred or so gramsof air, water and fibre within. I left the fluoro-mandos and the inediblelettuce incubators and hiked around to the next aisle.

Something inedible hanging from a hook between bagel varietiescaught my eye. I strode towards it. It was a coupon wallet, or rather a clutchof them. Yes, someone had invented a special multi-compartmentalised holdallto organise the plethora of discount coupons appearing in the slab of theSunday paper dedicated to coupons. I suspect you could order them by dateand set a little buzzer to ring when a coupon is up for redemption.

Somehow had I managed to spend $25 in half an hour.

I had barely reached my desk when Steve, the bespectacledtheatre-graduate-cum-webwally, emerged from his becabled hideout and toldme to go out and see a slice of America. He cringed. I did, and it was huge,a street machine on steroids. Gravedigger! be continued...