How I Got Here



I'm 68, and spent my first 37 years in Mississippi, most of them in the vicinity of Brookhaven, a town of 11,000. By 1983, I was so fed-up with the heat, poverty, ignorance, provincialism, and my own sense of alienation, that I started looking for a new home. Because my biggest problem was loneliness, I spent most of the next two years visiting communes. Tension at home became high because of my almost constant traveling and my near constant womanizing, and Peggy also objected to my use of marijuana (for which people went to prison back then) and the occasional hallucinogenic.

I wanted her to accompany me on my repeated eight week forays that took me as far as New Hampshire to the north, Colorado to the west, and numerous places in-between, but she was unwilling to give up her job. She did fly to a few communes that I liked. One was in Richmond and another in Denver, but my favorite was a 35 person commune in New York City. It was called The Foundation for Feedback Learning, and the people there embraced me as I had never been embraced.

Although I visited a number of rural communes--including the 1,400 person The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee--I wanted to live in a city, and what better city than New York City? I was to New York City in general, and to the Staten Island commune in particular, like a duck to water. Because my accent immediately advertised where I was from, I had expected New Yorkers to hate me just as I knew that Mississippians would have hated them. I was instead treated like a lost rube who needed protection, not just by the people in the commune, but by the people I stayed with in Greenwich Village (lower Manhattan) through a travel organization called Servas.* The first person I met when I got off the train in New York was a black taxi driver from Alabama, and even he treated me, a white Southerner, like home-folks.

Unfortunately, Peggy felt unsafe in the grungy city, and she had no interest in the hours and hours a day that the people at the commune spent bearing their souls around a huge table and giving one another what could be uncomfortable "feedback." While we decided what to do next, Peggy joined the Traveling Nurse Corps and was offered a three-month stint in a cardiac telemetry unit at St. Agnes Hospital in Fresno, California. We loaded our Ford Tempo and moved into an apartment provided by St. Agnes in April, 1986. We loved Fresno until the 115-degree summer heat arrived. Being skilled in various building trades, I had planned to work as a house painter, but I hurt my knee so badly while playing sand volleyball with the Fresno Sierra Club that I spent all of our time there recuperating. It is that knee that I'm finally going to have replaced in August.

We had previously visited the town of Eugene, Oregon, and would have moved there had there been a job opening for Peggy. The attraction of Eugene was its cool summers, its liberalism, and its reputation as a paradise for people who were looking for alternative lifestyles, i.e. communes, open marriages, and group marriages. I concluded that a group marriage would be even better than a commune because everyone would be more intimate. I had been lonely all my life, and I thought that if I could be close to enough people, I would never be lonely again. 

About the time that Peggy's job ended in Fresno, a permanent opening came up in the intensive care unit at Sacred Heart Hospital in Eugene. She got the job, so we left the Tempo in an acquaintance's driveway in Eugene and flew back to Mississippi to gather our belongings. We made the move in a U-Haul truck, and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly except for the evening that we crested a hill south of Amarillo and slammed into a load of brush that must have fallen off a pick-up. Right away, we smelled anti-freeze, and Peggy started to pull over. I told her to keep driving until the motor started to overheat, and we were able to reach a truck stop.

I had more friends in Eugene in a month than I had in Mississippi after decades. It was still a hippie town back then, and a person could literally make friends walking down the street. Moving to Eugene seemed downright exotic for a country boy from the Deep South. One of my first realizations was that everyone I knew had moved here from another state. When I told one of my new friends (a newcomer from the Bay Area) that Eugene was the first town I had lived in that had a good library, he thought I was joking, his basis for comparison being San Francisco. 

There was so much to love about Eugene that everyday was a wonderful new adventure. In Mississippi, if I wanted whole grain bread, I had to bake it, and the only flour I could find was wheat, while Eugene had several whole grain bakeries and numerous alternative grocery stores that carried grains like spelt and teff that I had never heard of. And instead of summer days being humid and 95 F (35 C), they were more often 75 F (24 C), and if I was out early or late, I needed a jacket. Everywhere I looked, I saw beards, tie-dye, long hair on both sexes, and Birkenstocks. Rather than supporting the war in Vietnam, demonstrators in Eugene had occupied university buildings and burned the draft board. Instead of the only radio stations being commercialized Top 40; Eugene had five commercial-free stations that played everything from talk, to rock, to reggae, to Big Band, to Baroque, and so on. Indeed the inspiration for this post came from listening to a program of classic rock while I did yard work on Saturday (Nazareth's version of "Love Hurts" put me in instant tears, and I hadn't heard "Pictures of Lily in decades).


Within months, Peggy and I moved from a tiny apartment, to a duplex, to owning a house, but within two years of coming here, we "married" a woman named Vicki (our wedding included a ceremony, a cake, and a reception). I had met Vicki during my first summer in Eugene when we both worked at the University of Oregon, but she had since moved to Minnesota to pursue a doctorate in sociology. Meanwhile, Peggy was in pain from moving all of those unconscious patients around in the intensive care unit, and requested a transfer to labor and delivery. When Sacred Heart refused, she started looking at other employment options. I didn't want to move to Minneapolis, but with Vicki there and Peggy able to get an immediate job in an antepartum unit at Abbott Northwestern, I felt that I had no choice. We put our Oregon house on the market, bought another house in the Minneapolis suburb of Richfield, and loaded our belongings into a 24-foot Ryder truck behind which we towed our car.

We arrived in Minnesota in late October, and the first snow fell within the week. I remember driving on a freeway in Minneapolis while imagining that no one really lived in such a shitty climate, but that the whole existence of the city was a joke on me. I don't mean to say that I believed this, but it does illustrate my astonishment that anyone would choose to live in a place that got so cold that a daytime high of zero (-18 C) came to seem downright balmy if the day was windless and sunny. Really cold was -20 to -30 F (-29 to -34 C), which was so cold that I would put on a coat to take the trash out although the garbage can was ten feet from the door.



Vicki and I soon began fighting constantly, so two years after leaving Eugene, Peggy announced that she was going back to Oregon, and I could come if I pleased. The decision was a no-brainer. Peggy flew back first and moved in with two friends, and I flew out a little later to house shop. After finding a place, I returned to Minneapolis and continued to live a hellacious existence with Vicki until the Minnesota house was sold. I then rented another Ryder truck, which I loaded and drove alone.

If I had it all to do over, I would most certainly leave Mississippi again, but I probably wouldn't move 2,500 miles to Oregon, because that much distance makes it impossible to remain close to friends and family, watch nieces and nephews grow-up, and so forth. I miss the South, and while I wouldn't want to live there, I would like to visit. Living in Oregon means being in one corner of the country, and far from the rest. It's not so remote as Alaska or Hawaii, but it's in that direction. Finally, the Eugene metro area has more than doubled in size; gangs have moved in; and although pot is now legal, meth, crack and heroin have displaced acid. Whole Foods and Costco have overwhelmed the little alternative stores; and instead of the lead story on the local news being a house fire, it's more often a murder. 

On the bright side, there has been a peace demonstration in Eugene every single week since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, and even though I haven't attended a protest in years (I used to go weekly), I take inspiration from the fact that Eugene has thirteen peace groups, forty-four environmental groups (including chapters and agencies), several atheist groups, and thirteen LGBT groups as well groups that support the rights of nonhumans.** Such things are like the 40-million year old mountains that surround Eugene (Eugene Skinner, the town's founder, compared the town's site to a bird's nest) in that they make Eugene the special place that it is. Last week, the area held its annual Country Fair (envision full-tilt freakishness)***, and the month-long Bach festival started in June. As with Eugene's opera, ballet, and symphony, these are things that I value though I never go. 

A new poster a year

When I moved here, I found people who believed that there was something unalterably radiant about Eugene in particular, but to a lesser extent, the whole of Oregon. One of my new friends said that if I hadn't already felt the magic in the air, I soon would. Everyone who came here wanted to shut the gate behind them for fear that Oregon would become like the places they had fled. It was an era of billboards and bumper stickers like the one at the top of this post, and an organization called the John G. Baine Society that did its utmost to keep new people out--as did Oregon's "environmental governor," Tom Mccall. Eugene tried to limit industry and outlaw big box stores. The town was no less naive than I. 

Despite its growing problems, Oregon is still a good place to live in a world that contains fewer and fewer good places. From my perspective, if an area doesn't have one fatal flaw, it's likely to have another. If it's not the heat, it's the cold; if it's not the standard of living, it's the boring topography; if it's not too few people, it's too many people. The worst thing I can say about my part of Oregon--the Willamette Valley--is that it has become too crowded, that its winters are long and drizzly, and that it doesn't have a long recorded history because it was only settled in mid-1800s. or evidence of past inhabitants. On the plus side, temperature extremes are rare in Eugene; Oregon was inhabited by humans as long ago as 15,000 years; and we lived but an hour's drive from places in which we might not see or hear another person for days. Although we're but a ten minute walk from the heart of downtown, we regularly see raccoons, nutria, and Great Blue Herons; our neighbor just put up a fence to keep deer out of her garden; mallards often land in our front yard; we've seen wild turkeys in our backyard; and, in some years, river otters inhabit the canal across the street.

Oregon has more square miles in public lands (both state and federal) than most states have square miles. I can reach a Pacific Ocean beach (every beach in Oregon is owned by the public) in an hour; be hiking in the Old Cascades in less than that; and the high desert that occupies two-thirds of Oregon is but two hours away. Oregon's climate ranges from mild to Arctic; its precipitation from desert to rainforest; its elevation from sea level to eleven thousand feet.

Epilogue (as the screen read when The Fugitive ended****)

Peggy and I still live in the house that we bought upon our return from Minneapolis in 1990, and we'll be celebrating our 46th anniversary in December. When I looked Vicki up a few years ago, she was Dr. ___ and living on the East Coast. As for the NYC commune, my web search showed that it still exists, although the name the commune goes by differs from its non-profit business name, which is what I knew it by. Some of the people whom I knew are still there: http://ganas.org/ .

Peggy used to keep an Ashleigh Brilliant card on the fridge. It read, "Believe it or not, my life is based upon a true story." Our lives are less exciting now; we have fewer adventures to look forward to; and less energy and optimism with which to live on what we and our friends used to call "the cutting edge of the psycho-social frontier." It's a time for reflection, gentleness, and living at the speed of our cats, because god knows we've been through enough craziness and drama. We both have some regrets, and I certainly made many mistakes along the way, but I couldn't see down a road that I hadn't yet taken. Wishful thinking combined with idealism will do that to a person.

* https://usservas.org/
** http://getinvolvedineugene.com/ 
*** https://www.oregoncountryfair.org/
**** http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056757/?ref_=nv_sr_2

19 comments:

PhilipH said...

A truly engaging potted history Snowy. You've obviously found your Shangri-La - or as close as one is likely to find in this ever growing world of ours.

I am certain that one never forgets the hometown, just as one's first love remains alive in heart and mind. I hope you eventually make a visit to Mississippi sometime in the near future. But it might be best just to visit in dreams? Nothing lasts, and each time I've returned to Croydon I've been happy for a few short hours but desperately sad at the 'progress' that has turned this much remembered friendly town into a concrete jungle suburb of central London. But I can't forget the town where I grew up, or rather survived, the hardships and hunger of the 1940s and 1950s.

And I do not want to forget. In a strange way, I am so glad to have been born in the mid-30s and consider myself lucky to have known that era.

Snowy, you have a huge fund of memories and a highly intellectual way of recounting them. Such a pleasure to read. Great stuff.

Hope your new knee will make life so much easier for you in due course. Love and best wishes to you, Peggy and the moggies.

Elephant's Child said...

Finding a good place to live in our uncertain world is a huge win. Nearly as important as finding someone to share it with. Loneliness is a killer isn't it? I think it is the root of most of the calls we receive on the crisis line.
I loved hearing about the wildlife in your area.
I do hope your knee replacement and recovery are easy.

Charles Gramlich said...

Been through Brookhaven many times. So glad personally that I grew up a long ways from many people.

Emma Springfield said...

You and Peggy have a busy past. You seem to have been in need of some wandering for a while. I hope Peggy was able to wander a bit too. I enjoyed readin the story.

kylie said...

You and Peggy have both made some bold moves, I admire that kind of courage.

I hope your new knee is all you hope for and more!

Sue in Italia/In the Land Of Cancer said...

Loved reading the Saga of Snow and how you came to live where you are. Oregon is on a short list of places where I would live if I was not tied to my family in Michigan. We did recently move to the outskirts of my beloved Ann Arbor as rapid development had made it unpleasant to live in.

Snowbrush said...

“I hope you eventually make a visit to Mississippi sometime in the near future.”

It’s a long way, and I wouldn’t know what to do with the cats. I’m sure the cats wouldn’t be an issue for a lot of people, but Peggy and I take our responsibility to them very seriously, and am painfully aware that it would be extremely stressful to them to have us gone. Since starting my study of genealogy, I’ve learned that I had many ancestors (on my maternal grandfather’s side) in a town called Kosciusko, so if I were to visit down there, I would probably walk around my hometown and then visit the graveyard at Kosciusko. It would be sad to not visit living people but rather the haunts of dead ones, and that’s another reason I hesitate.

“I am so glad to have been born in the mid-30s and consider myself lucky to have known that era.”

I was born in ’49, but feel the same about having grown up in the fifties and sixties. Despite all the things we’ve gained in the modern era (for example, my friendship with you and other bloggers; my ability to research my genealogy online; the fact that I am only alive because of a machine for sleep apnea that was invented in the ‘80s; and my access to joint replacement surgery for knee pain), I’m painfully aware that much has been lost.

“I loved hearing about the wildlife in your area.”

I’m glad to hear this. I left out the fact that we have sea gulls (sixty miles from the sea!), and then are the crows, kingfishers, plovers, tree squirrels, and green herons. We also had a number of non-poisonous snakes until the cat population of the neighborhood exploded.

“I do hope your knee replacement and recovery are easy.”

I have another month to wait, but the latest steroid shot is still helping. The problem with steroid shots is that they sometimes help so much that it’s hard to hang firm about going through surgery, but I keep reminding myself that the shot will wear off, and I’ll be back to limping.

“Been through Brookhaven many times.”

Oui, but of course, everytime you go up the old I-55 on your way to Arkansas. If I were still in Brookhaven, you and I probably would have gotten together by now because it’s no more than, what, eighty miles? Peggy has family around Hammond, so that would put us over half way to where you are, and I can’t imagine getting that close to where you are and not dropping by.

“So glad personally that I grew up a long ways from many people.”

I guess you meant relatives. I had the opposite problem in that I grew up in a place where everyone had big families, and while I did have an aunt and several of her children who lived within sight of our house, she and my Dad couldn’t stand one another, so that poisoned any relationship that I might have had with them. I longed for family to the point of desperation, and to now learn that I had beaucoups of relatives--on my mother’s side--less than a hundred miles distant in Kosciusko (see my first comment) hurts.

Snowbrush said...

“You seem to have been in need of some wandering for a while.”

I used to love to travel. When Peggy and I were both teachers, we would take off as soon as school let out for the summer and not come home until the week before it re-started. Except for visiting Mexican border towns and traveling through the lower provinces of Canada (from British Columbia to Quebec), we didn’t make any foreign trips, but we hit 48 of the 50 American states, most of them numerous times. More recently, Peggy has visited Alaska and Hawaii, but I had no interest in them, and in fact, I haven’t been more than two hours home since attending Peggy’s mother’s funeral in 2008.

“You and Peggy have both made some bold moves, I admire that kind of courage.”

Thank you. I cut myself a lot of slack about the womanizing because I know how utterly obsessed I was, and it’s also true that Peggy and I had an open marriage for at least fifteen years when much of this was going on. Even so, there was my behavior preceding the open marriage, and there was the fact that I didn’t tell Peggy how many women I was having sex with during the open marriage. Obviously, my behavior was deeply immoral, but if were to again feel the pressure that I felt then, I might very well behave the same way. I hope I wouldn’t because I know I’m more ethical now, but I would still be pretty pessimistic about my odds of behaving differently. Few women can understand what it’s like to be a man in regard to having sex with a lot of people, and I’m sure that there are men who don’t understand it either, but the truth is that men are evolutionarily different from women in that women need a safe, stable, and protective relationship in which to raise the children that arise from their few eggs, whereas men are better served by spreading their sperm all over the place. This basic nature holds firm even if a couple doesn’t want children. I have known a few women who were just as obsessed as I, so maybe they would understand what it’s like for men, but for the most part, women don’t get it, and probably can’t get it. I used to try to explain my feelings to Peggy so that she would understand what life was like for me, but the harder I would try, the madder she would get, so I eventually gave up. So, what is it that makes a Jimmy Carter different from a Bill Clinton? Do the Carters of the world feel less lust; are they stronger of character; are they less impulsive; are they more timid? I have no idea. I just know that Carter was ridiculed after confessing during an interview that he sometimes lusted after women other than his wife. But why was he ridiculed? Was it because he was naive that he didn’t know he was stating the obvious, the obvious being that most men lust after women every few minutes, and can only find relief when they’re asleep, or their lustful feelings have been temporarily displaced by other needs?

Snowbrush said...

“I hope your new knee is all you hope for and more!”

I have another month to wait, mid-August being when I wanted it done, and it was also the soonest that the surgeon could do it.

“We did recently move to the outskirts of my beloved Ann Arbor as rapid development had made it unpleasant to live in.”

I think of Ann Arbor as being to Michigan what Austin is to Texas; Lawrence is to Kansas; Chapel Hill is to North Carolina, and so on. I would guess that the best places to live in any state are the university towns because they offer greater cultural sophistication, and thereby more intellectual stimulation. They also have a higher standard of living and are more open to diversity than the surrounding areas. This is even true in Eugene versus in the adjacent city of Springfield, which is only separated from the Eugene by the Willamette River. The University of Oregon was built in Eugene in 1876, which was only 26 years after the town itself was founded, whereas Springfield was always a blue collar mill town. Soon after moving here, a Springfield resident told me that, “People in Springfield don’t approve of the kinds of things that go in Eugene.” He meant to say that many people in Springfield consider Eugene too liberal. For example, it’s legal in Eugene for women to go topless, and there have even been groups of people who rode their bikes nude through the streets here in imitation of the annual nude bike ride in Portland ( http://www.opb.org/news/article/portland-oregon-world-naked-bike-ride-photos-2017/). Such things would be very dimly viewed in Springfield, although Springfield was at least not so conservative that it voted for Trump.

rhymeswithplague said...

As I was reading your long saga I kept thinking, "Weren't they in some kind of 3-way marriage or polyamorous relationship in Minnesota? Where is Minnesota in all this? Why is he leaving that part out?" (because it had seemed like a major event when you had talked about that time while back) and then eventually there it was, so my memory was not playing tricks on me after all.

My dad grew up in Iowa but joined the Navy and spent lots of time up and down the West Coast. He always wanted to retire in Oregon but died at age 60 and never got the opportunity. I rather doubt that my stepmother would have wanted to leave Texas anyway, so maybe they avoided a big family argument. I have had some girl cousins in Grants Pass, Bend, and Klamath Falls but didn't really know them. After getting married,none of their names rhymed with plague any more so you can't look them up. Not that you would, but someone like Yorkshire Pudding would

rhymeswithplague said...

Haven't seen you of late over at my place and meant to mention (but forgot to) that I received five stents in my coronary arteries this week. Check my blog for details spread over a couple of posts.

Strayer said...

I enjoyed the narrative of where you've lived and why. I don't mind Oregon, was born here, never have gotten far from it though, outside of a few years in Alaska and couple in California near Napa. I suppose I do have resentments that so many people move here and its so crowded in many places now. Go hiking and the trail is overcome in people, some places. Hardly anyplace to hike, like I used to, where you never see a soul the entire trip.

Snowbrush said...

“I have had some girl cousins in Grants Pass, Bend, and Klamath Falls”

Oregon is the 9th biggest state in terms of land area (but only the 27th in population, whereas your state of Georgia is almost a reversal of Oregon, being 24th in land area and 9th in population). What I’m trying to get around to saying is that a person might live in Oregon all his life without knowing much about the more remote parts of the state. Because I’ve never taken much interest in southern Oregon, Grants Pass and Klamath Falls are nothing more than names of places I’ve passed through on my way to somewhere else. Bend is only 100 miles from home, and I’ve often been through there on excursions to the Oregon Desert. With a population of 80,000, it’s eastern Oregon’s only town of any size, and my impression of it is that its ugly and sprawls all over the place. Once you get beyond Bend, you’re in serious desert, and really do see sigs warning that the next gas station is 90 miles.

“Haven't seen you of late over at my place and meant to mention (but forgot to) that I received five stents in my coronary arteries this week.”

I can but apologize and vow to visit you. It’s not just you I’ve been neglecting. I’m working to get everything caught up around here before my surgery, and researching my family tree has been taking up much of the time that I am on the computer.

“Hardly anyplace to hike, like I used to, where you never see a soul the entire trip.”

Since selling our van last year, I’ve hardly been in the woods at all, but back when I was going regularly, I never had any problem finding isolated places. Because of my bum knee, I had given up hiking trails in favor of walking along isolated roads, and we invariably camped down abandoned logging roads (our van was high off the ground and could get us to almost anyplace we wanted to go) where we would have been astounded to see another person. I can’t remember if we always did it, but Peggy and I got to where we carried her .38 special on our camping trips. It was a nuisance because we never left the van without it, not because so much in order to protect ourselves as to protect it from the risk of being stolen (the only time we wanted it for protection was at night). You might recall that a couple and their dog were murdered by an unknown person in the woods south of Oakridge several years ago. That’s the only such murder that I know of, but we knew that if we ever did have a problem in some isolated place that we would either have to protect ourselves or die.

All Consuming said...

One of the most fascinating posts I've ever read, and I knew some of the content already! *laughs*. You have both lived an incredibly varied and interesting life, and the thing that stands out the most is your absolute devotion to each other. You stuck together fast and here you both are, still loving each other deeply, and not spending every day arguing over the past, which many couples do. It was all consensual of course, but still, I think resentment can be a silent bedfellow at times and lurk around for years in the dark, only to surface decades later. You're a lovely couple too, and the description of Oregon you give, even of it now rather than way back when has me once again thinking that were I to move country I'd like to live there. Perhaps in Portland.

Love sent for the knee sweetie, and in buckets from this end to both of you. X

Snowbrush said...

"the thing that stands out the most is your absolute devotion to each other."

If we survive until December 19, we will have been married for 46-years.

"You stuck together fast and here you both are, still loving each other deeply, and not spending every day arguing over the past."

When we argue over the past, it's not about the kinds of things in this post, but rather about whose memory is correct over something that happened within the last day or two because we both have some memory loss, although mine is worse than hers.

"It was all consensual."

I had sex with other women before we had an open marriage, and I continued to do so afterwards. Having an open marriage wasn't supposed to mean that either of us could do whatever we damn well pleased in regard to sex, but my behavior was in that direction.

"You're a lovely couple too, and the description of Oregon you give, even of it now rather than way back when has me once again thinking that were I to move country I'd like to live there. Perhaps in Portland."

I can easily picture you in Portland. Its metro area is about two and half million, making it Oregon's largest city by far. Eugene's metro area is 400,000, which makes it about the same size as Salem, the state capital. All three cites are in the Willamette Valley, which occupies a very small part of the land area of Oregon but, percentage-wise, contains nearly all of the people.

joared said...

Our individual life stories are interestingly unique to each of us as we all march to our own drummers. Yours is no exception. Reflecting on our choices throughout life, considering why we made the ones we did sometimes reveals a perspective we didn't have at the time, but other times not. The particular decade in which we came of age with events over which we had no control influenced our actions in ways we might see differently, or not. But it's always interesting to consider as we've learned things we didn't know at the time. I think of the overall world picture and the actions of our own country.

Practical Parsimony said...

Did you ever meet Glen Swift? It sounds like he traveled in the same circles you did. He now lives in Bend.

rhymeswithplague said...

I'm hoping you will read my latest post. It is intended as a sort of peace offering.

robin andrea said...

It's been a while since I stopped by to read your posts. I am so glad I did today. This is a wonderful read, capturing the spirit of the era so well. I lived in Eugene in 1979-81 when I was married to my first husband. I love living there, in a college town. Here on the north coast of California, we are lucky to be surrounded by mountains, rivers, and the beautiful Pacific... and it's a college town. I'm glad you wrote this and shared it.