In the previous post, we traveled north along the Oregon coast and ended up at Charleston Harbor. Next, we came to Coos Bay, pulled into the parking lot at the Coos Bay Visitor’s Center on the edge of downtown and set out to explore on foot. Going on foot is essential to getting to know a place. You see details you’ll never get from the car, bus or train; you’ll poke into shops that may or may not prove interesting; and you’ll meet people. It’s a compromise, because you miss some things you’d reach on wheels. We failed to see something in Coos Bay I try to see wherever I go: the local Carnegie Library. By exploring the downtown, we also missed the hillier and meandering portion of Coos Bay that rises inland, with winding ways shaded by trees. Another of life’s choices.
We strolled to the Coos Art Museum, which occupies a building that’ll look familiar to travelers who’ve seen their share of American towns.
The art deco structure was built in 1936 as a U.S. Post Office. Post Offices from that era are big, imposing buildings with grandiose exteriors and tall ceilings inside. You encounter them in all sorts of condition from derelict to original, sometimes beautifully restored. The Coos Bay building is one of the latter. The interior has been opened up to provide spacious gallery areas, with a floor plan that accommodates a good-sized crowd of visitors (absent the day of our visit). We toured the exhibit of an annual seascape competition in a wide range of media. Subjects ranged from dramatic scenes of the rugged shores, harbors, boats, sculptures and even some impressively detailed scale models of sailing craft. Fun.
The second floor has more gallery space and the museum offices. At one end of the floor is a quiet, attractive conference room. It’s not just a meeting room, though: It’s a memorial, with display cases full of trophies and medals, the walls hung with photographs and certificates of accomplishment.
Runners everywhere, from rank amateurs to elite pros, know the man celebrated in that room — Steve Roland Prefontaine — as simply “Pre.” Growing up in Coos Bay, he ran on the high school cross country team. After his first two years he proved an adequate runner, then hit his stride. He won championships, set a national record and was recruited by 40 college programs. Choosing the University of Oregon, he established himself as one of the foremost runners of his era, at multiple distances. As runners, The Counselor and I have a shared admiration for what he achieved in a meteoric rise to greatness.
Pre had a gift and he was fiercely competitive. At some distances during his college career he was literally unbeatable. He never lost a 3 mile/5,000 meter or 6 mile/10,000 meter collegiate race. He did meet his match at the Olympics in 1972, failing to win a medal in the 5,000. He kept competing after graduation and by 1975 he held the American record at every outdoor distance between 2,000 and 10,000 meters, simultaneously.
1975 was also the last year of his life. He died in a solo car accident, 24 years old.
Did Pre have more records, more strings of undeafeated races ahead of him? Would he have brought home an Olympic medal from Montreal in ’76? It’s common to speculate about what further greatness may have been waiting for those who died young. What else could Mozart have composed? What more might Shelley or Keats have written? Their untimely deaths suffuse our regard of them with an aura of tragic myth. Steve Prefontaine is an inspiration for countless runners, but he’s also become a legend, untarnished by age or failure.
He was but one of several outstanding runners of his era — Virén, Shorter, Liquori and others — with impressive accomplishments, especially Lasse Virén, the Flying Finn, whose four gold Olympic medals include one for that 1972 5,000 meter race. Elite athletes have only a short time on the pinnacle, at best. In Pre, we’re left with a supernova frozen at maximum brightness and no glimpse of what might have been. Have no doubt: He was a truly great athlete, and one we can rightfully admire. We do, though, have to temper our tendency to romanticize the unknown. We have only what he did, and can’t know what else might have been.
But in Coos Bay, let’s join them in celebrating their favorite son. Stand in that Prefontaine Memorial Gallery and look at the medals, ribbons, lists of records and photos of a young man in full stride on a turn, long hair streaming behind him. It’s a quiet and solemn space, and there are no cheers, no pounding footsteps, and the thousands of miles of long, hard training are forgotten; there are only those perfect moments of grace and triumph. Walk back to the Coos Bay visitor’s center and regard the memorial plaque installed on a stone plinth outside. Pick up the leaflet available at the Center and follow the course of one of Pre’s training routes over the hills of Coos Bay. Or, in September, go there to run in the annual 10K Prefontaine Memorial Run.
Or, wherever you are, lace up your shoes, go out and run like hell.
Forty years gone. Run, boy. The time is short.
© Brad Nixon 2015, 2016
This post is part of a series about traveling in Oregon. For the first, CLICK HERE. Use the navigation below to see earlier or later posts.