The Slug Queens sum up the spirit of Eugene. Every year the Oregon town hosts an alternative beauty pageant – coinciding with, but independent of, the annual Eugene Celebration – in which outrageously costumed contestants vie for the coveted title. The winners are marked out by a combination of anarchic creativity, wry humour and passionate commitment to their environment: the same qualities that makes this place so unique.
Two hours south of Portland, Eugene isn’t as urbane as that famously hipster city. This is a town of parks, trees and waterways, a hiking mecca that melds swiftly into the nearby mountains. It also feels slightly scruffy: a former hotbed of hippies and anarchists whose radical edge lives on in its environmental agenda. The single most important climate change case in the US law courts originates here, and the University of Oregon attracts social activists from across the country.
A short walk from campus is a revitalised downtown, with a 2,500-seat performing arts venue – the Hult Center – a modern theatre and three independent cinemas. “A few years ago, not many people came and hung out downtown,” says Gino Franco, production manager at the Oregon Contemporary Theatre, which expanded into its current space in 2012. “But thanks to the growing arts scene, and some new restaurants, it’s become a lot more friendly.”