Monday, February 15, 2010

Cottage Grove

COTTAGE GROVE, Ore. – I am officially, pitifully obsessed with this village on the southern edge of the Willamette Valley, where rivers and mountain ranges converge, the landscape is forever green and the townsfolk paint murals on their buildings.

I’ve been there precisely once for a couple of hours, but I’ve written an online novel set there and I have a serious hankering to go back for a longer stay. For some reason I feel compelled to refer to the residents as “townsfolk.” It’s got a restaurant called the Brothel Café – now that’s my kind of town. The climactic parade scene of the movie Animal House was filmed here – that’s my kind of town. It gets four feet of rain a year – seriously, that’s my kind of town.

Cottage Grove is not exactly booming. Home prices are low, incomes are low, many of the buildings are old. This, of course, is a good share of its charm. It’s a real town where the homes and businesses reflect a pride of ownership. It’s on the edge of the Cascade Range a twisty 70 miles from the Pacific Ocean. It’s got a paved bike trail on a former railroad bed, an impressive collection of covered bridges and a decided dearth of snootiness. It oozes quaintness and charm, though I’m sure any high school senior in town would probably tell you she’s counting the days to move on to the big city.

In this case, the big city is Eugene just 20 minutes up the freeway and probably, as they say, a world away for young people who haven’t yet learned to appreciate the virtues of their small hometown.

One of my favorite spots in town is the enormous and ugly yellow National Guard Armory, which sits a block off of Main Street like the crazy aunt who comes downstairs from time to time. I can’t say for sure, but you get the sense that the people of Cottage Grove like the armory just the way it is, scabs of missing paint and all.

This is Red State Oregon – lots of pickup trucks and flannel shirts and antlers on the walls. Downtown is not full of cutesy boutiques selling Irish lace or Indonesian teak. Nope, there are small shops that do not open on Sunday, the day of the week I happened to visit. I stopped a teenage girl on the deserted Main Street who was walking barefoot down the sidewalk in a 50-degree drizzle and asked her if there was a courthouse in town, since I wanted to get a picture of it to illustrate my book.

"Not a regular one," she said. I pretended to understand what that meant and thanked her. Turns out, I learned later on the Internet, court is held once a week in city hall. That is my kind of town. Regrettably, it wasn't until a few days after my visit that I learned, while talking to the distillers of Idaho vodka at the Idaho Statehouse, that there is a major distillery in Cottage Grove. Now that is really my kind of town.

There are precious few fast-food joints and a place called the Koffee Kup, with a sign – just like the armory – that needs a paint job and isn’t likely to get it soon.

But speaking of paint, downtown is full of spectacularly beautiful murals. They are not paint-by-number jobs – these enormous paintings are works of art. Even the old Coco Cola and Dr. Pierce’s liver pills signs have been re-done. I want to find the people responsible and give them a hug.

I have developed this fantasy of late about living in a cottage – pun clearly intended – in this nice town, puttering around for a cup of coffee and getting up on a Sunday morning for a drive to the coast, but I suspect I’d grow weary of that after awhile. It’s perhaps best left a fantasy.

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