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Eugene Versus Corvallis

Oregon college towns and cultural counterpoints. Their schools compete fiercely on the field and off, but how do the two cities stack up? A pair of local writers let the fur and feathers fly.

Brian Doyle and Thomas Hager
a counter of candies at Burst's Chocolates in Corvallis, Oregon, picture
Photo credit
Photo: Robbie McClaran
Photo caption
Burst's Chocolates in Corvallis, Ore., offers a bounty of choices for candy-lovers.

They both perch on the same muscular river in the vast golden sprawl of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Both are college towns absorbed by thrilling football. Both are tucked into deep forests, awash in winter rain, and famous for dense coffee, terrific ale, and gleaming fleets of bicycles. Both are colorful and stimulating and friendly places to visit, but neither would be likely to admit the delights of the other, for we speak of Eugene and Corvallis, rivals for more than a century on and off the playing field. To Corvallians, draped in their orange and black, roaring for their vaunted Oregon State University Beavers, Eugene is merely an enormous Nike outlet or a last shaggy and silly bastion of the self-indulgent ’60s; to Eugeneans, adorned with green and yellow, chanting for their renowned University of Oregon Ducks, Corvallis is a rural settlement reeking of cows and envy, a tiny and tinny village for the unadventurous and the unsophisticated.

Happily, there is little truth to such civic incivility, but the long rivalry has led to much that is strange and hilarious. The football teams once vied annually for a wooden platypus (half beaver, half duck) that mysteriously disappeared in the 1960s only to mysteriously reappear four decades later. Or maybe it didn’t—an OSU representative denies it ever existed. And then there’s the two schools’ mutual agreement to forget the worst college football game ever played, the so-called Toilet Bowl of 1983, a scoreless tie featuring howling rain, 11 fumbles, five interceptions, and four missed field goals.

But let us dismiss that nadir, and celebrate a rare, not-invented-for-television rivalry, which colors its engaging cities, thrills thousands of passionate alumni, and annually affords that most basic of civic liberties: the Right to Razz. —Brian Doyle

Corvallis In a contest between Corvallis and Eugene for the most appealing downtown, Corvallis would win in, well, a walk. The city’s charming center is eminently strollable with at least 40 restaurants; eight bakeries (try New Morning for towering cakes and buttery pastries); 11 coffee shops (don’t miss the Beanery, a place of laptops and lingering philosophical discussion); a handful of bookstores; the irresistible Toy Factory, where shelves overflow with blocks and puppets; and Burst’s Chocolates, which makes the best mint truffle in six counties.

Oregon State University anchors this town of 55,000 and is largely responsible for its amiably nerdy culture. OSU’s most famous alumnus is the Nobel Prize–winning chemist and peace activist Linus Pauling. Its most famous nonhuman product is, arguably, the modern maraschino cherry. The ice cream sundae garnish became a major Oregon product in the 1930s when OSU horticulturist Ernest Wiegand firmed up the squishy local cherries by soaking them in a calcium brine.

Studies take a backseat to football on game days, when orange-and-black pennants pop up alongside autumn’s flame-red maples and fans fill the 45,674 seats of Reser Stadium. But those who traverse the 520-acre campus—the only one in Oregon designated as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places—pass world-class labs for agriculture, engineering, and forestry as well as for newer fields such as microtechnology, renewable energy, and ecological modeling.

All that pep and intellectual rigor combine during Da Vinci Days, an arts and science festival with events in spring and summer. The latter dates include the Graand Kinetic Challenge—a race one A grander than any other—in which human-powered vehicles decorated as lobsters, Cheshire cats, and other fantastic creatures and forms rush from land to water and through sand and mud.

Casual visitors need not bring their own lobstermobiles. Dan Crall’s pedicab offers muscle-powered taxi service anywhere in the bike-friendly town for $1 a minute, plus tip. And Rick Bennett, head wrangler for the fleet of cute electric vehicles at Segway of Corvallis, leads travelers on glides along the waterfront and southwest to Avery Park, then back around through the leafy, lovely campus.

Peak Sports rents bikes for adventures farther afield—McDonald Forest’s miles of scenic biking and hiking are a favorite destination. Closer and equally inviting are the trails through the upland prairie and oak woodlands of Bald Hill Natural Area, a 284-acre park west of campus.

On Saturday mornings from mid-April to late November, many a bicyclist heads to the Farmers’ Market at Riverfront Commemorative Park. There, fortified with sweet rolls and coffee, shoppers browse a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, nuts, garden plants, baked goods, and artisan cheeses and meats to the music of buskers’ guitars and fiddles and to the soft ostinato of the river slipping by.

No visit to the city is complete without lunch at Nearly Normal’s, whose “gonzo” vegetarian cuisine—platters of savory tofu with all kinds of steamed veggies or tempeh Reuben sandwiches slathered with stone-ground mustard and zesty sauerkraut—won it an award from Eugene Weekly for Best Corvallis Restaurant We Wish Were in Eugene. Eat your hearts out, Ducks. —Gail Wells

Eugene Want to know what makes Eugene Eugene? Spend a little time in a nondescript strip mall on Willamette Street. Instead of seeing the usual chain stores and fast-food outlets, you’ll find an organic bakery just down from a hip Asian grill, a place selling grand pianos, and Off the Waffle. This one-of-a-kind restaurant is run by two young Israeli brothers who couch-surfed into town, fell in love with the place, and followed their dream of selling sweet Liège Belgian waffles topped with everything from avocado, basil leaves, and goat cheese to sliced banana and dark chocolate sauce. The walls are bedecked with artwork crayoned by pleased customers. The music is alternative. On weekends the place is packed.

That’s Eugene.

Creative, green, and slightly off center, Eugene is the birthplace of Nike (whose founders met as track coach and athlete here), the stomping ground of novelist Ken Kesey (Eugene might be the only city with a statue honoring an unabashed Acid Tester), and home to an annual civic festival that elects a Slug Queen (who is sometimes a guy). The setting is emerald awesome: Climb to the top of nearby Spencer Butte and you’ll behold a picture-perfect town tucked into a sparkling curve of river.

In the spring, you can dodge rain showers to walk the rhododendron garden at Hendricks Park—think masses of flowers 20 feet high. Or come in summer to bike miles of riverside paths that weave through two popular parks, Skinner Butte and Alton Baker. Fill your ears at the world-renowned Oregon Bach Festival and feast your eyes at the three-day Oregon Country Fair hippie fest (both in July).

But locals know the best weather is often in fall, when crisp, mild days offer the chance to see the mighty University of Oregon Ducks football team rockin’ Autzen Stadium. Those who are football averse can spend their time walking the verdant campus, with its more than 500 species of trees, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (notable for its Asian and Northwest collections), and Museum of Natural and Cultural History (known for its fossils and 10,000-year-old sagebrush sandals). The university, famous for its fine programs in education, psychology, and molecular biology, is also infamous as one of the filming locations for the movie Animal House. (Yes, the filmmakers trotted an actual horse through the president’s office.)

Eugene has long drawn an eclectic, talented mix of academics, musicians, writers, runners, foodies, freaks, artists, nature lovers, healers both mainstream and otherwise, and free spirits of all stripes. A good place to meet them is the Saturday Market (downtown, every Saturday from April to mid-November), a must-see mashup of crafts fair, farmers’ market, music festival, and free speech forum—a people-watchers’ paradise.

It’s a good place to drop in and let what happens, happen. As Ken Kesey once said, “The answer is never the answer. What’s really interesting is the mystery.” —Thomas Hager


This article was first published in November 2010, but was updated in December 2015. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.