Best damn free camping ever

July 3 dawned bright and clear when I finally got up at around 11 that morning. It was a perfect day for driving, and I-5 promised to be one long sheet of golden sunshine from here to the valley’s apex at Eugene. It was a much-needed break from the sadistically persistent reverse Indian Summer (a White Man’s Winter?) that had swaddled the northern Willamette Valley in a damp cotton ball for weeks. When we were packed up, I poured a Henry’s into a coffee thermos and settled into shotgun for a pleasant ride southward.

As the mountains on either side of the valley grew steadily nearer, the sun held bright and warm above us, and thin veils of cirrus hung in the sky like cottonwood seeds. By the time we could see Spencer’s Butte, and Mary’s Peak was off to the rear, we were ready for some serious relaxation with our friends Craig and Denise. We rolled into Eugene with a pair of smiles.

The smiles faded into bemused grimaces by the time we realized that our friends were out of town, or had moved, or both. The thought of driving out 58 to elbow our way into a $10 campsite where we’d need to take care to avoid puddles of vomit, broken glass, and fights with angry, drunken rednecks offering commentary on my fianc�e’s cleavage seemed, for some reason, less than desirable, and our friends’ little duplex sat in the midst of a broad general yard, perfect for a tent… that decision made, we headed to the grocery where we bought a second 12-pack of beer and returned to our new home in the yard.

We were treated to a great little fireworks display from the stadium to go along with our cold pizza and beer. Later, there may have been a few episodes of streaking through the yards, wearing only a straw cowboy hat and a foamy, half-empty bottle of beer, screaming the lyrics to “U.S. Blues,” but our disposable camera had melted to the dashboard by the time we awoke the next morning, so any evidence was lost.

But we avoided arrest, and the next day we set off towards Dexter, Oregon, where some new friends had invited us to join in their Independence Day festivities.

Up Story Creek Canyon we came, until we arrived at a ramshackle letterbox that had blossomed with red, white and blue streamers and balloons. Over an even more rickety bridge that spanned a little creek a dozen feet below, and we had arrived in heaven.

In the parking lot was an old Volvo station wagon, a few hatchbacks, a Porsche convertible, and two school buses, one of which had an entire sailboat welded onto its roof. At the prow of this vessel sat a beautiful dark-haired girl in a gigantic top hat, and a white-bearded man with a bare chest and American flag pants, passing a jug of water between them and waving at those of us who stumbled in. All of us who were just arriving wore the same smile, a secret, stoned smile of wonderment and wicked good humor, like a bunch of kids who’d just mooned their principal and been given 20 bucks each for their trouble.

Through a grove of trees and we were home, walking among giants, myths, and angels. The food was sloppy, and the music was too, but the love was as bright and real and unpretentious as the sun coloring our shoulders. We dipped bicycles and mailboxes into a hot tub filled with paint, and watched a gang of kids chase enormous, amoebic bubbles. We ate BBQ and rolled in the grass. I even got on stage for a while, where I sang along with the beautiful crazy people, “It was just my imagination, running away with me…”

At dusk the party wound down, and we had a nightcap with the folks in the sailboat bus before launching our own little ship towards Portland. The sun was well behind the Coast Range, but the sky crackled and danced as dueling fireworks from Eugene and Springfield bracketed the road and lit the Willamette as it coursed along to the north with us.

I’m not sure what I learned about independence that day, or what I can share with you of the experience, but I will say that I felt reborn, and that music hath charms to soothe the savage beast, and that if you can’t tune a guitar, tuna fish.

And if you ask real nice, I just might show you the best damn free campground in Lane County.

Contact Riggs Fulmer at [email protected]