We were coming back from Crater Lake National Park, heading home to Portland after three nights in a cabin in the mountains, and we planned to stop in Eugene to get ourselves a nice meal. We had decided to wing it. Instead of asking around or doing research online—we had never been there before—we were just going to drive into town and find our way to a good place. But the closer we got, the more preposterous the plan began to seem. Eugene has over 150,000 people; did we really think that we could just show up and figure it out on the spot? The civilized lunch that we’d been salivating over looked more and more like it was going to end up being a cheeseburger.
Once we got off the highway, we followed the signs for downtown: past auto dealers, strip malls, midrange motels, fast food joints. Nothing, so far. The colors were still too loud, the traffic too fast. Finally it looked like we were getting close. The blocks grew shorter; the streets got narrower; trees and people began to accumulate on the sidewalks. A café with some tables outside, a guy with a guitar: we were clearly in the zone. But how far did it go, and in which direction? Could we really find the place—the right place? It looked like we would have to settle for merely okay.
We saw a sandwich board for an organic café around the corner and figured, with a heavy heart, that that would have to do: alfalfa sprouts and avocado, hopefully some decent bread, that sort of thing. We took a quick right into an alley behind an old brick building—there, that was it. But wait. Two doors down, a wine store with some bottles of olive oil in the window. He’ll know, we thought—the guy who runs the place. He’ll know it all. He’s going to be our native guide. We went in—it was a sleepy summer afternoon; the store was empty—and laid our troubles at his feet. Oh yes, he said, there’s a bunch of really good places. This one, and that one, and this other one, but my favorite place, he said, is a French bistro a couple of blocks away. Stop right there, we said; that’s the one for us.
And a very good meal it was, exactly what we’d had in mind. Potato-leek soup, grilled fava beans, pasta carbonara, a couple of glasses of wine, and the sweet taste of victory. We had stalked our food through the thickets of the American social system, and by God, we had bagged it. I thought about an Amazonian tribe I read about a couple of years ago. So attuned are they to their surroundings that a man can walk into the jungle naked and empty-handed and emerge a few hours later with baskets of fruit and game. Apparently, we were equally well-adapted to our niche, even if we hadn’t realized we have a niche. Drop us in a small city, and we can find our way to a bistro in under half an hour. The thought is equally flattering and disturbing. Turn us loose in a red state, and we’d probably starve.
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