Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Town Like Eureka

I am in mourning. After five seasons, my favorite TV show, Eureka, has called it quits. This funny, smart series about an odd little Northwest town where science-y stuff happens is heading off to Netflixland.
     But in a way, I’ll always have Eureka—and not just because I’m greedily amassing all the seasons on DVD. The connection goes deeper than that. The truth is, I sort of live in Eureka. I realized this the other day while I was driving through my own little Northwest town of Ashland, Oregon. At a stoplight, I spotted a strange sight: two teenage boys springing across the street on futuristic, curved stilts, looking like creatures from Star Wars. It was surreal, but honestly, it wasn’t all that surprising. We have a saying here: “That’s so Ashland.” This is a town where odd stuff—usually fun, often artistic, and sometimes science-y—happens. And one of the reasons why I like Eureka so much is because the fictitious town of Eureka reminds me of Ashland. I mean, a lot—so much so that I often wonder if the show’s creators, Andrew Cosby and Jaime Paglia, spent their vacations here, lazing around Lithia Park or doodling on their iPads in one of our homey cafés. The show is set in Oregon, and some footage was actually shot here in Ashland*. But there’s more to it; the two towns really are eerily alike. For instance…

Sheriff Carter arrives in Eureka after he wrecks his car while swerving to avoid a loose dog.
This happens in Eureka’s pilot, and it touches on two recurrent themes in Ashland: People who wind up here because of accidents, and loose dogs wandering the streets. I can’t tell you how people have told me that they were just driving past Ashland on their way to someplace else when something went terribly wrong with their fuel pump or transmission or whatever. They had to stay a few days…and never left. And now (10 years later, 30 years later), they’re still here and they never want to leave.
     And then there are the wandering dogs. When I first moved to Ashland, I was in a constant state of panic over the number of dogs meandering around town alone. In the Bay Area, where I’d just come from, a loose dog is an emergency, sure to get hit by a car. But I eventually found that in Ashland, where the speed limit is generally 25 mph, a lot of people walk their dogs off leash and let them wander far ahead or behind. So you often see dogs that appear to be roaming free, when in fact the owner is just around the corner. I don’t condone it, but that’s the way it is here. The phenomenon is so common that that I’ve come to call it the Daily Loose Dog.

People in Eureka have futuristic vehicles, like electric cars and Segways.
People in Ashland do too. I’ve never seen so many electric cars in my life, everything from kit-bash golf carts to SmartCars to Priuses. I’m constantly reminded of what Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear says about electric cars: that they’re a menace to pedestrians because you can’t hear them coming. It’s actually true. And Segways, those geeky two-wheely things made famous by Paul Blart: Mall Cop—we had those ambling up and down our bike lanes long before Kevin James climbed aboard one. Just the other day, I saw a cop on a Segway wheeling up a trail in Lithia Park. And an even more futuristic-looking ride, Glide Cycles, are made right here in Ashland. They’re an eerie sight—if you can’t see the rider’s feet (which are running smoothly along the ground), all you see is an arc of metal with a person dangling in the middle, whizzing down the path. I’m using Jamie Lusch’s photo from a news article here, which I hope I don’t get dinged for; you sort have to see a Glide Cycle to get it.

On the outskirts of Eureka stands a shadowy government facility.
Hey, we have one of those, too. It’s called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory. But unlike Eureka’s General Dynamics, which is shadowy and secretive because it makes weapons and strange inventions, our own Forensics Lab is shadowy because it’s in the business of fighting bad guys. In fact, according to its website, it is “the only lab in the world dedicated to crimes against wildlife.” Their noble work—examining the remains of animals and putting poachers out of business—is, like other real-life CSI jobs, more grim than glamorous. But, like General Dynamics, the Forensics Lab takes government money and puts it to astoundingly good use. (And you’ve got to admire any collection of scientists who work with Interpol.)

There’s something in the water. 
On Eureka, a lot of episodes revolve around some strange chemical getting into the air or water, turning townspeople into zombies or savages or drunken nitwits. In Ashland you hear a lot of running jokes about this, stemming from a persistent rumor that the tap water contains traces of lithium, a drug used to treat bipolar disease. There’s a grain of truth to it: A lithium spring bubbles out of the ground near Emigrant Creek, a few miles from downtown, and you can sip piped-in “lithia water” (which tastes like Alka-Seltzer and eggs) from a couple of fountains in and near Lithia Park. I don’t know if any of the lithium ever leaches into in our drinking water—and I’m sure the city would vehemently deny it—but people are weirdly happy here. It’s a bit Stepfordian at first…but after a while, you’re just as smiley as everybody else and you don’t care anymore. Which I guess should be a clue.

*Eureka used footage of Ashland’s City Hall to stand in for a street scene in the “Primal” episode. (For fans of the show, that’s the one with all the Nathan Starks). Don’t blink—the footage goes by fast. You can spot City Hall by its green awnings.