Photo: Alex V. Cipolle

How Eugene, Oregon’s Skinner Butte forever changed my mind, body and soul

You can get to know a place like a person. I did, and it saved my life.

A break in the rain had made room for a few rays of January sun to penetrate the towering Douglas Firs, diffusing a soft glow below the canopy. Through tear-stung eyes, the tilted forest floor of the butte appeared to move. Hundreds of pot-bellied golden-crowned kinglet songbirds, hopped across the wet, mossy earth, all busy and chatty and sprightly.

I stood there in my waterlogged jeans, motionless and grateful. I never thought I’d say this, but I needed those damn birds. They were so beautiful, when everything had turned so ugly.

That was the beginning of my relationship with Skinner Butte, a pretty and sometimes gritty city park, which I would climb more than 200 times over the next six months. This green urban patch—not some faraway place on a list of Top Pacific Northwest Hikes—changed my life, reconnecting me to my town and nature, a transformative experience right outside my door.

Named after Eugene, Oregon’s founder, Eugene Skinner, the butte became a park in 1914, wedged between the Willamette River and the city’s modest downtown. To the west lies a bohemian enclave, and to the east a canary-yellow “O” rises from lush foliage, marking Autzen Stadium, home of the University of Oregon Ducks. From the summit, panoramic views of the Sisters Cascade peaks unfurl in a golden-green blanket.

Eugeneans don’t think much of Skinner Butte, even though it’s sometimes referred to as the “Birthplace of Eugene” and a replica of Eugene Skinner’s original log cabin lies at its foot. It’s oft overlooked or avoided, for the transient folks sleeping under tarps in its wooded pockets, or the trash left by adolescents smoking blunts on the summit. The other butte—Spencer, on the southern outskirt of town—is the majestic one that makes lists of must-sees in the Willamette Valley. Its 2,000-plus feet of elevation whomps Skinner Butte’s humble 682.

Together, they inspire punny bumper stickers and tees stating “Eugene is Butte-ful”.

Eugeneans don’t think much of Skinner Butte, even though it’s sometimes referred to as the “Birthplace of Eugene”. Alex V. Cipolle

Up until that moment with the kinglets, I was sure of it: The end of the world had come. Not in some apocalyptic bang, but in a dreary erosion, an inevitable slouch into the swamp.

At 32, my spine abruptly quit on me. My L5-S1 disc had comically herniated, but was not diagnosed correctly for 10 months, while I suffered searing chronic pain, muscle atrophy and a slight paranoia that no one believed the hurt was real.

After back surgery, came the presidential election. Having lived in progressive Pacific Northwest-by-way-of-Minneapolis pockets my whole life, I was shocked and even more heartbroken. The cartoonish greed, the pompous ignorance, the abuse of truth and ethics, the gleeful hate that had become the new normal was not a world I felt I could navigate.

Weeks later, I was fired, “without cause.” I had never been fired, and it was a job I loved, an arts editor position with an alt-weekly newspaper. For five years, I had honed my beat, worked with some fine (and not-so-fine) people, won some awards and felt like I was making my own small contribution to the community. The abrupt termination was a blow to my ego and my heart.

Then my husband learned his university position would be eliminated within two months.

After this culmination of unfortunate events, our ratty ’90s Ethan Allen couch became my dear friend. I soaked it with tears and snacks and greasy hair and panic attacks; binge-watched Black Mirror and The Fall (which may have not been the most productive choice considering my state of mind). It was a comfortably numb place to be, but my back was not recovering.

My surgeon and physical therapist prescribed 45 minutes of power-walking daily  (power-walking defined as: “Walking like you have some place to be”), but it was January in Eugene, and I had no place to be. I begrudgingly started a daily slog on the low streets of this town, grim and tedious in winter.

One day, looking up at Skinner Butte in the rain, with all that muck stirring in my newly nihilistic mind, I thought, Might as well go up. I took the paved road to the top, my crying and self-loathing disguised by sheets of water, and slowly shuffled down the trails of the north slope where the kinglets awaited.

In the winter, the butte is a solitary place, a mini wonderland of undisturbed bird activity.

In the winter, the butte is a solitary place, a mini wonderland of undisturbed bird activity. Alex V. Cipolle

A few days later, I hiked up and down again. And then again, and again. My route shifted to the steeper, more challenging southern steps. I began summitting twice a day. Fighting gravity, it turns out, is a great way to work through anger and anguish.

Hiking became a daily activity, transforming from chore to respite. The deciduous unfurled, the daffodils sprouted and the temperatures became pleasantly cool, beckoning more people to the leafy city hump.

In the mornings, I would often see a cluster of retirees standing in the same spot, binoculars in hand. One day I stopped to ask about the fuss. An elderly lady walked me over to a hidden marker and pointed to a clearing high in the treetops and a lone pine, top-heavy with a massive nest. A pair of bald eagles had been nesting there for a decade, she said. This was the first year they had not returned. The group of dedicated birdwatchers hadn’t lost hope; they continue to check just in case.

Spring brought the turkey vultures with their fire-red heads. They circle the summit, often swooping low, too close for comfort but great for photographs. The first time I saw them circle, I was on the phone—I had gotten a job interview.

There were rare birds too, not of the avian variety: The middle-aged man who would show up whenever the sun broke, flying his candy-colored kite so high it became a tiny dot in the sky. The serious-faced couples sitting in the parked cars and presumably beginning or ending affairs. The haggard young man dripping sweat while blowing glass pipes out of a Buick on the south side. The young couple bouncing in full coitus in the bed of a pickup truck.

One morning, headphones on, I jumped, startled at the site of man’s boots abandoned mid-trail. Not all characters were savory on the Butte; people had gone missing here before. Removing my headphones, I noticed a figure among the trees. A shirtless hippie stood with arms spread like an eagle, oming aggressively. “That’s what we sound like,” he said cryptically. I shook my head, nervously laughed, and walked on. Namaste, creeper.

Summer ushered in waves of wildflowers, and my new ascent, adjacent to the popular basalt climbing columns on the west side. The crumbling trail to the top is the steepest and longest, its sharp rocks painted with graffiti. In January, I had looked at it and shrugged, That will never happen. But as I had worked through the pain of the last year and fallen in love with the butte, my body had grown powerful. What had started as a soft, weak, inert mass had become a muscular point of pride. These days, I can scurry up that face like the squirrels that sometimes hop over my feet on the way.

I got the job. Now I incorporate the butte into my daily commute. A year has passed since my surgery. I feel strong and empowered. The nihilism has mostly dissipated. Not that there isn’t much to be upset about for the world, but those damn birds were the pin-prick of light that gave me hope to persevere.

Let us not forget the power of green, public spaces within a city, and let us disabuse the notion that nature and healing, are some far-off place.