The Butte

(Originally posted October 21, 2013)

Butte (N): A conspicuous isolated hill with steep, often vertical sides and a small, relatively flat top.

In essence, buttes are equivalent to the runt of the litter when it comes to mountains. They are smaller than most mountains (hill size), not very nicely shaped, and are outcast to an eternity of solitude. Not to mention the name butte is conspicuously close to butt.

This is all well and good, but why does it matter? Why is this relevant to me, and by extension you? If left to my own devices buttes still wouldn’t matter. However, I happen to be taking a travel writing class this term, and class last thursday happened to be, that’s right, taking a trip to our local butte here in Eugene, Oregon. It’s called Skinner butte, and for those of you who don’t know, it’s named after Eugene Skinner, who is also the name sake for the city. Skinner moved to the area in 1846, but it wasn’t until 1889 that the town assumed its current name after being called Skinner’s Mudhole and Eugene City, respectively. The butte itself rises 200 feet above the surrounding landscape and is home to, among other things, a huge (and slippery) yellow “O”, more on that later though.

I knew two things before the class trip: We were going on a hike, and we were to meet in the middle of Eugene. The latter part served to be a point of confusion once we got started. There we were, twenty or so travel writers, ready for a hike that was nowhere in sight. Our professor led us off in a seemingly arbitrary direction, bubbling with energy as she listed off a variety of facts about the shops and buildings we were passing as we walked through Eugene. When we stopped to let a freight train rumble past, I noticed that the diesel fumes had begun to fade, and that on the other side of the tracks, the ground was beginning to slope upwards. We were still in a neighborhood, but there were more trees than ever. Suddenly houses turned to forest and sidewalk to trail as we transitioned into the park area that contains Skinner butte within Eugene.

Having been on dozens of backpacking and hiking trips before the new scenery felt familiar, but it was definitely still rather surprising. I had been walking through a city for fifteen minutes with no hint of the wilderness, and then within the space of a few seconds Eugene had completely disappeared. This was particularly shocking to a classmate named Phoebe, who casually mentioned “Guys I’ve never been on a hike before!” This hike was during October, the heart of fall. My eyes were assailed with a vivid assortment of reds, yellows, oranges, and greens as the leaves realized what time of year it was. Being a southern Californian, I had only ever this collection of hues on postcards. Something missing from those pictures, however, are the myriad of other sensations experienced upon setting foot in what can only be described as a small forest. This being Oregon, it had rained recently, and I could feel the moisture not only on my skin but as I breathed in deep lungfuls of the fresh air. The air had an earthy aroma to it and yet every piece of vegetation was vying for my noses’ undivided attention. It was chilly, but the sun filtered through the overhanging branches  in enough places to keep us from shivering.

At this point we were actually hiking, and I was beginning to regret wearing vans instead of the “shoes good for walking” my professor recommended. Luckily the trek was short, so even the annoying switchbacks couldn’t get my spirits down. It helped that every other step brought another beautiful view, especially once we reached the top. One more unmentioned characteristic of buttes is that they are similar to plateaus in that they are generally flat on top with no real peaks. Skinner butte is no exception, topped with a grass field ringed with trees that seemed appropriate (if not a bit inconvenient) for a game of ultimate frisbee.

Also at the top is (as mentioned before) a huge yellow “O” in reference to the nearby University of Oregon. Every year it gets a fresh coat of paint which lends to it being slick. A popular thing to do is to slide down one side of it, but as I soon learned there are near-invisible ridges along the inner edge that hurt. A lot.

Painful aside, the summit was an interesting destination, with plenty of photo-ops and picnic spots.

I was surprised by Skinner Butte. I went in with low expectations, but once we arrived I was blown away. Oregon has beauty everywhere, even in the middle of one of its best-know cities. I highly encourage everyone in the area to make a point of walking up the butte sometime, but if that’s not an immediate possibility here are some ways to gain some experience from where you’re currently sitting.