Over the last few months, I’ve tried a few more jaunts in the Eugene and Springfield Townscape Walks guide by Tyler Burgess. The challenge for many of them: a major construction project along the Willamette River blocks parts of the river path and other byways featured in the trips at the start of the book. In several instances, my walking companion (usually Jon) and I have made detours to avoid the dirt piles, temporary fencing and large machinery; at other times, we’ve just skipped the walk for now.
Here are a few highlights of the Butte to Bakery stroll.
Jon and I tried this walk one rainy Saturday morning earlier this year. To avoid the construction zone, we decided to park across the street from Eugene’s downtown REI and start from there after a quick stop at the store to pick up a rain jacket for me. We hoofed it a few blocks to Skinner Butte, the tree and path-covered hill that sits at the base of downtown between the river and the train tracks. On our way, we passed a rafter of turkeys (yes, that’s the technical term) strutting around someone’s yard, completely unimpressed with the clutch of official looking signs prohibiting this and that.
Following a dirt path that meandered up the slope, Jon and I came across the Shelton-McMurphey Johnson House, a seafoam green, Queen Anne Revival style Victorian tucked into some trees. Nicknamed “the Castle on the Hill,” the house was completed in 1887, only to be burned down by a disgruntled construction worker. Builders successfully erected a second house the following year – and there it’s sat on the edge of downtown ever since, serving as a home to several wealthy families, as well as one professional woman, Dr. Eva Johnson, and her counseling practice. Apparently, Dr. Johnson’s husband Curtis was a moody man, who regularly hid from the world in the turret off the attic. Once, he inadvertently locked himself in.
We climbed the hillside to the top of the butte and took in the damp-day views. Signs of spring speckled the landscape – daffodils, crocuses, and bud-filled cherry trees.
We found a trail that wound down the river-side of the butte, walking through a small wood of leggy spruce, moss-covered logs, damp ferns and squelchy loam. It was peaceful and quiet, even as we caught views through the trees to industrial parks, bridges and busy roads. Once down to the road we ditched the map and picked our way toward the federal courthouse area noted on the map, aiming to rejoin the walk on the east side of downtown.
As we passed through a wide-open space of parking lots, old utilities buildings and empty streets we spotted a sign announcing some kind of landmark. “What’s this?” I asked, stopping and reaching for my phone to snap a picture. The text and grainy, black-and-white photo introduced us to Wiley Griffon, a “notable African-American pioneer,” who arrived in Eugene from Texas in 1891, finding a house for himself not far from where we and the sign stood. Mr. Griffon worked as a driver for the city’s streetcar system, and later as a janitor, restaurant worker and waiter in a train’s dining car … all at a time when Oregon’s racist, hateful constitution barred Black Americans from living in the state.
“That’s remarkable,” I said, squinting in the bright grey and picturing a house before us. “It must have been exhausting, being the only – or one of the only – Black men around.” Jon nodded and we walked in silence for a while, as my thoughts whirled. What’s the rest of his story? Why Eugene? Did he have family? Why such a short life (he died at 44)? There’s such an airbrushed quality to being a pioneer that dilutes the draining day-to-day work of being first, being only, being lonely, and surviving terrible treatment. I promised myself to learn more about Mr. Griffon once the Lane County Museum of History reopens.
Turning from the landmark, we continued our jagged path through the weekend quiet of this end of downtown. It was grey and drizzly … and with my new rain jacket hood pulled up, I couldn’t see beyond the view straight ahead. Even so, it was hard to miss the glowing, bubblegum-pink blooms of an azalea bush across the street and we jogged over to it to absorb its exuberant radiance. “All this color,” I breathed. “Right here next to a parking lot.”
We spent the rest of the walk more or less following the downtown section of the map, but never finding the bakery of our walk’s title. “Which one do you think it’s supposed to be?” I said as we marched down Pearl, turned on to 11th and then made a left on Hilyard. “Sweetlife? Noisette? Something that’s closed since the book was published?” Jon had no idea either.
What we did find as we continued down Hilyard to make our way back to the car – yet another fun mural. Downtown Eugene is full of them; Roxy even follows one of the artists on Instagram. This one explodes with a sporty car, all angles, and energy and waves of color.
“Wow, that’s cool,” said Jon as I took a picture. “You never know what you’re going to see from one street to the next.”
About a month ago Jon and I decided to embark on a morning walk while Roxy did Ballet Saturday. This is her weekly run of three-to-four, mostly back-to-back classes over Zoom that I call Ballet in the Time of Cholera, I mean COVID.
We chose Walk #7: Historic Homes in Eugene and Springfield Townscape Walks. A potentially 4.7-mile jaunt carving a rectangle of sorts around downtown Eugene and adjacent neighborhoods, the trip didn’t look like it would be terribly challenging, labeled as it is with the single, bald descriptor: FLAT.
Flat walks have taken some getting used to. We moved to Eugene from a hilly part of Los Angeles that required an immediate climb or descent every time we stepped outside the house. Good for heart-pumping cardio and the satisfaction of views well-earned, walks in the hills deliver quick rewards. Flat walks, on the other hand, creep up on you. Would you look at that: I’ve been walking kind of fast! Wow, I’ve covered some miles!
Each of us wearing our own version of coldish-weather layers (Jon in a long-sleeved shirt and a windbreaker, me in two scarves, mittens and a puffer over a sweater), we waved silent goodbyes to Roxy as she rose and lowered, rose and lowered, in her battle-scarred dance shoes before her open laptop, music tinnily marking the time.
Because of a big riverfront construction project along the Willamette, the start of the walk as described in the book wasn’t going to work. Instead, we drove across the water and parked on a side-street near Skinner Butte so that we could hop onto the mapped route.
Once out of the car, I zipped up my jacket and tightened the fluffier of my two scarves. It had rained overnight and the damp chill still clung to the morning. We headed downhill (yes, an actual “not flat” part that we inadvertently inserted by parking where we did), cutting over to the 5th Street Market shopping and eating complex, with its cheerful yellow pickup-truck-and-rooster combo welcoming visitors from the corner.
We did a small loop around the market and then ambled down 5th Street by the train station. We passed the brick backside of the great local vintage store and Farmer’s Union coffee roasters, followed by a handful of random businesses before they petered out, giving way to single family homes. “Oh we’re doing this backwards, aren’t we,” I said, staring at the photo of the book’s map on my phone. Jon nodded, reminding me of the large construction project behind us. It didn’t really matter, except that landmarks noted by our guidebook weren’t appearing when they should. I quickly clicked off the phone and slid it into my back pocket, content to just walk and “feel our way.”
A few blocks after crossing the awkwardly named Charnelton Street, we hit the presidents. Well, of course we didn’t clobber any former leaders; rather, this was the part of town where all north/south streets are named for a series of way-back-when American presidents: Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams, etc. There’s a Lawrence thrown in there as well, sparking both of us to ponder whether or not there was a lesser-known, one-term Whig party person we’d missed in history class (I checked later and the answer is no).
We turned left on Monroe, crossed busy 6th Street with the light, and began our stroll through one of Eugene’s older neighborhoods. Clapboard homes, some from the late 1800s or early 1900s, dotted the blocks, with newer wood structures interspersed beneath the thick tree canopy. A brightly colored Black Lives Matter sign adorned a fence; porches with welcoming chairs and plants made me eager for spring and warm weather sitting outside.
The slightly uneven, mossy path required a fair amount of careful consideration, so my eyes were already pointed down when we came upon a magical oak tree. “Look at this!” I yelped through my mask, pointing at a hollow at the base of the tree. Inside the sloping, dim space sat a tiny house, complete with white picket fence, welcome mat and a mailbox. “This is the cutest thing ever. I have to send a photo to Roxy,” I said, kneeling down and angling my phone just so.
I’ve recently realized that Eugene reminds me a lot of Austin, TX, but with rain and fewer musicians. Or at least, it reminds me of Austin as it was back in the mid-80s when we’d visit our former neighbors who moved there for an IBM job. Proudly funky, both cities have their unicyclists and hippies, their local breweries and frisbee-golf sections of the local park. In Eugene, folks just wear rain jackets over those year-round tie-dye t-shirts and Guatemalan blouses.
We made a left at 13th where Monroe dead-ends into the county fairgrounds entrance, and then a quick left-right to zigzag over to 12th. According to the book, there’s an “oldest house” at 170 E. 12th; but other than a cute sketch of the place, not a detail is provided, leading me to wonder whether it’s the most ancient house in the city, or on the block, or perhaps in author Tyler E. Burgess’ imagination. Regardless, Jon and I completely missed it. Caught in the gentle swirl of aimless, convivial conversation, we neglected to monitor the route and only casually noted a few older looking houses as block after block unfurled behind us.
So much for historic homes.
We zigzagged again to reach Hilyard and then left the map entirely in order to navigate the eastern edges of downtown back to the car. As we hoofed it up the one hill, a runner in shorts and a t-shirt loped by in the opposite direction. His form was a bit all-over-the-place — elbows jutting sideways, legs lifting high with exaggerated, extra-large steps.
“You never know what you’re gonna see around here,” yelled an older man seated in a front yard across the street.
“You sure don’t!” I returned with a wave.
The man grinned, as Jon and I rounded the corner and swished through a drift of wet leaves to the car.
A few nights before Christmas my hardy family decided to do the Christmas Lights stroll in Eugene and Springfield Townscape Walks. The evenings had been chilly – low 30s, dipping down into the high 20s – but we bundled up and swung by Starbucks on our way to the neighborhood to get festive hot drinks that we could clutch while wandering the streets.
Every December in Los Angeles, we’d spend at least a night or two getting out to view seasonal decorations of all shapes, sizes, and persuasions, from the ridiculously overblown to the minimal, the religious and the trendy to the self-consciously tasteful. Sometimes we’d venture into the neighborhood hills on foot. Other times we’d pile in the car and drive to nearby communities known for lighting up the streets. For a few years in the Aughts, our favorite event was the old Griffith Park holiday display with racks of lights from the Eisenhower Administration arranged along the edge of the golf course. Economic woes shut it down in 2009; a modified version came back as the Zoo Lights in 2014.
Roxy loved these outings from an early age, and Jon and I certainly haven’t outgrown them. The expeditions offer a chance to slow down and look at scenes we’d normally be dashing by, at a time of the year famous for its dashing from this to that. Gazing at lights, baubles and scenes rendered in plastic or nylon also sets the table for a meandering, slow-roll of conversation. Here’s what I like. What about you?
The Eugene scene, which looked to be in full swing in spite of the pandemic, felt both familiar and distinctly Eugene. We sat in actual traffic approaching the neighborhood on Lakeview Drive and quickly parked once we came to the beginning of the walk, on Northridge Way, per the guide’s hand-drawn map.
As we got out of the car, zipped up our coats, pulled hats over ears and adjusted fingerless gloves, a bumper-to-bumper parade of cars, gi-normous pickups, SUVs, and vans from local senior centers crept by. Many of the vehicles had their windows down revealing a row of spectators in the backseat. Others had windows up with eager faces smushed against the glass.
We spent the next hour strolling down sidewalks, criss-crossing narrow, busy streets and trying to physically distance from other families out enjoying the display. A few folks were as bundled up as we were; others wore blankets as capes, and still others had on pompom hats but otherwise seemed immune to the cold.
The lights, in a word, glittered! They sparkled, they pulsed, they dripped like icicles. Several houses blared music from speakers tucked in windows, the tunes blinking in time with the lights hanging from the eaves. Other houses were all about the blow-ups, especially the air-puffed Santas: Santas in station wagons, Santas in sleighs, Santas in Hawaiian gear lounging beneath turgid palm trees. There were Spongebobs, Doras, Olafs and Jack Skellington … a pop culture mishmash from the last 25 years tacked down on still-green lawns and affixed to rooftops.
“Oooo, can we stop?” Roxy yelled every few minutes, planting herself in the middle of the sidewalk to take photos as we waited by the curb. “Would you take a picture of me here?” One of us would gamely say yes, even though our photo-taking efforts are typically not up to a 2021 teenager’s standards. “Could you do that again, but better?”
Rounding a curve about midway through the walk, I pulled Jon’s sleeve and pointed. “Wait, is that a Black Santa?” We approached the cheerily lit house and yes, sure enough, there was a Santa of color waving from the driveway, while orange Happy Kwanzaa banners framed the front door. We clapped and waved, the way we’d do in the Before Times, at movie theaters, as if the actors and makeup artists themselves were in our midst.
Our hot drinks were long since drunk and the cold was starting to seep into our layers. “Where are we?” Roxy said, as we strolled down a mostly dark street. I showed her our approximate spot on the map. She nodded, smiled and announced, “My feet hurt.”
“Well, let’s speed up and get back to the car,” I urged, grabbing Jon’s hand. “Fine by me,” he said amiably, leading me into the street where it was easier to walk after the uneven sidewalk. Each time we spoke, we could see our breath.
Decorations got bigger and bigger as we made our way up and along the final streets: Cheryl, Park Grove, Parkview. At one magnificent house – a veritable estate I remembered from our walks before Halloween – a glowing, 10-foot-tall something hovered near the edge of the lawn.
“What is that?” I asked, pointing. Roxy sped by us, took one look and then yelled over her shoulder, “Rudolph, of course!”
I surveyed the dapper, ribbon-bedecked creature with its satisfied grin and fabulous eyeliner. And black nose?
“He’s quite fabulous,” I said, thinking maybe Rudolph had moved on from the loud lightbulb snout in favor of something a bit more modern and ready for the club.
Roxy continued to take photo after photo as we walked the final few blocks of Lakeview back to the car. We passed a young man in front of a house selling popcorn from a vintage looking metal cart. People ahead of us on the sidewalk stopped to buy a bag; then a car pulled up and two girls jumped out waving a bill and yelling “Yay!”
I shivered in my coat, but took a deep breath and happily scrunched deeper into my wooly scarf. The scene around us felt festive, joyful and, maybe best of all, beautifully normal. Sure, we were wearing masks and there was still the odd car that would creep by with a noxious bumper sticker, but still, this was progress … and community … and Christmas … and Kwanzaa … and healing. Right there under the stars in Eugene.
In the taxonomy of walks, there is a branch composed of the fun and the leisurely, the social stroll. Yet another type bristles with purpose, speed and calorie-burning intent. A third category is a bleaker affair — walks of increasing desperation and despair. What have I gotten myself into?
As winter started to take hold here in Eugene, I decided one Sunday afternoon to finish what I’d started weeks before — the Pretty Ponds tour in my Eugene and Springfield Townscape Walks guide. Little did I know what I was in for.
After goodbyes to Jon and Roxy, both of whom were enmeshed in projects and perfectly happy to stay home, I marched out the door around 3:30. This meant I’d only have a little under two hours before sunset, a fact that barely registered in the lovely, glowing light of the clear afternoon.
One thing I’ve learned since our arrival in August is that the weather in Central Oregon changes constantly throughout the day. Other places say they have such fluctuating elements, but this is a region that truly deserves Mark Twain’s adage “If you don’t like the weather … just wait five minutes!” Even so, when the air is sparkling and the sun strong, it can be hard not to cling firmly to the present, draped with a blanket of denial.
The first time I attempted the Pretty Ponds walk, I meandered south with Roxy toward our neighborhood of the future. This time I began by heading north on the River Path, the quickly flowing Willamette to my left. Leaves flecked the pavement, their fall colors muted after a series of freezing nights and gusty winds. Views to the river and into the neighboring communities had opened up, but the trees still held tight to their heartiest foliage. Moving briskly, I felt happy to be out in the fresh swirl of air. I glanced at my phone — it was 45 degrees.
The River Path has become a familiar friend in the months since we moved here. Walkers, bikers, runners, skaters and dogs zip by, interspersed with the occasional rollerblader and wandering minstrel (it’s true; one particular individual likes to sit on the Owosso foot bridge on Sundays with an accordion and decorated cart, singing about Jesus and fixing their lipstick). On both sides of the river, you can spot murals under bridges, or on a patch of old fence. And on days when the sun’s out, the regular flow of traffic quadruples. Everyone comes out to celebrate the light — a simple ritual of gratitude.
At the one-mile mark, I noticed the breeze picking up. I rewound my scarf and zipped my jacket higher, increasing my pace.
A few months into our lives as new residents of Eugene, OR, I ran across an article about the Dutch practice of uitwaaien, or “outblowing.” It turns out that what sounds like a violent bodily function after a robust meal is actually the healthy practice of getting outside in cold weather to exchange one’s old/stuffy/indoor air with fresh/exhilarating/outdoor air. I’m not sure about the science here, but I do know that, enrobed in the right layers, I am completely willing to exercise en plein air.
I’ve since come across a pile of other articles explaining and espousing Scandinavian winter ways. In Norway, there’s friluftsliv – the habit of “open-air living” that translates to all kinds of activity in, and appreciation for, the raw outdoors. The Swedes have their afternoon coffee ritual of fika, but also lagom, or “just the right amount,” a moderation-in-all-things sensibility that leaves room for simple pursuits and time spent in nature. Meanwhile, in Iceland, there’s the practice of venturing out on cabin holidays, or sumarbustaður, to take advantage of the country’s magnificent beauty, while parents believe having blanket-bundled babies nap outside in freezing temperatures is the ticket to a long and healthy life.
Essentially, the message is the same: don’t let the weather stop you. Cold (or, in the case of Oregon, wet and chilly) will happen, so rather than huddling inside until the milder months, put on the right clothes and venture forth.
By the time I got to the end of the River Path, where Green Acres Road meets Delta Highway, I was feeling the nippy air. I had a long walk ahead of me, and — while I wore a jacket, sweatshirt, mittens and a scarf — I was quickly realizing my uncovered head, ankle socks and insignificant joggers weren’t doing the trick. I decided to stop at a Starbucks across the street to grab a hot drink.
Clutching a steaming flat white, I continued up Delta Highway and made a right into the north Eugene neighborhood of Delta Pines. As the light started to turn golden and fade, I ambled by small houses with carports next door to double-wide trailers with screened-in porches and late season gardens. I noticed a “Choose kindness” sign propped in a window, and then a “We believe: Black lives matter, love is love, …” declaration posted near a mailbox.
Crossing to the other side of the street, I noticed a Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB) person-hole cover in the sidewalk. I liked how the spoke-and-hub design echoed a crisp, neat spider web and wondered if it was intentional. (Later, I checked out their website. Their logo, sadly, isn’t a web but three illustrated mountain peaks. I also learned that EWEB is Oregon’s largest customer-owned utility and has been operating for 110 years.)
Rounding a bend, I approached two magnificent trees that had yet to shed their bright fall leaves. Against a sky that was starting to fill with grey clouds, the orangey-red and dusky yellow foliage seemed electrified.
Winding up and around the street, I missed a few turns in the guidebook (I’m not sure the hand-drawn map is completely accurate), but still made it up to Ayers Road and then over to Gilham, two main routes I’d traipsed on previous walks. This was the northeastern-most point of the walk, and my farthest point from home.
It was 41 degrees.
“Time to speed up,” I muttered to myself, memorizing the next few turns before tucking the book under my arm and burrowing my face in my scarf.
I hoofed along, grateful my family hadn’t come (the complaints that the walk was too long and too cold would’ve undoubtedly started) but also suddenly missing their company. I was on my third or fourth podcast by then (my usual solo walk form of entertainment), having learned that I really need to watch The Queen’s Gambit, but could skip the series of cult-related documentaries that had recently been released.
After a C-shaped, side-street detour that brought me back to Gilham, I turned right at the light on to Holly and then left on Norakenzie. This took me up and over Beltline Highway, before sloping down to Linda and a residential neighborhood. The houses here seemed older and more architecturally interesting; one sported some early holiday lights that warmed up the street and made me want to knock on the door and say thank you.
Even in the cooling air, there were still a few folks out and about — a pair talking in a driveway, someone walking a dog, and one crazy dude in shorts and a long-sleeved shirt out for a run.
Finally, with the sun mostly set and a deep, rich-blue sky visible behind the massing clouds, I reached an intersection with Goodpasture Island Road. The guidebook said to keep going straight — the route would take me south for a few miles, eventually hitting the section that Roxy and I did weeks before. Were I to turn right, I could simply follow Goodpasture west for 1-2 miles, back over Delta Highway and, ultimately, home.
I peered at my phone. It was 5:45 and 38 degrees.
I turned right.
Run-walking now to keep warm and just get done, I zipped by streets and signs I actually knew from my trips about town in the car. As I headed up a short incline, the houses came to a stop and a patch of woods began. I dashed across the barely lit street before the sidewalk on my side ended and looked up to see a man and two young girls approaching. All three of them wore masks (as did I). As we drew closer, I heard him identifying a plant. “Daddy, wait!” squeaked the younger girl, as they fell in to single file to give me room to pass.
“Thank you,” I said, waving. “Have a great evening!”
“You, too!” they chimed in unison.
As their chatter quieted behind me, I thought about how few interactions we have these days with people we don’t know. COVID has pulled our worlds in close, adding “danger” to the idea of “stranger” in new and heartbreaking ways. It makes me feel that each crossing of paths, however brief and banal, is an opportunity for significance. I crested the hill and looked down just in time to notice “LOVE” spray-painted in bold yellow letters on the sidewalk. What a warm reminder … right there on the dark road in the cold.
I crossed over Delta Highway and realized I was a block from the Chevron where I get gas and drop off mail; it’s an official USPS counter inside the mini-mart that Jon and I have affectionately dubbed the “gas-t office.” I felt a quick thrill of energy. The thought of another hot drink, no matter what it was, propelled me down the hill, through the pokey hedge, across the parking lot and around the fuel pumps, into the store.
Inside the overly bright space, I wandered the aisles, attempting to warm up while I made my snack decision. I opted for a small hot chocolate and watched as the brown-crayon-colored liquid frothed from the weird, whirring machine into my clutched paper cup.
Back outside, I stripped off my mask and sipped my steaming drink, gazing at the quiet street. It’s never loud in Eugene, especially compared with my old neighborhood in Los Angeles (where cars whizzed down the hill by our house and helicopters often whirred overhead), but on a cold Sunday evening in the midst of a global pandemic, it was particularly still. Folks were home, hunkered down, hopefully surrounded by someone or ones whom they love.
Which is where I was ready to be! I gulped down the flavorless brew, reaffixed my mask and scarf, and loped across the street. From there it was a quick march home along the shadowed sidewalk, by the fire station, and down the final stretch of road alongside Delta Ponds. The sign for our complex gleamed, beacon-like, in the damp and fog. I practically ran the last quarter mile, my eyelashes heavy with freezing mist and my nose dripping.
“I’m home!” I yelled, muffled, into my mask as I kicked off my shoes inside the front door. “That took a lot longer than I thought it would.”
“I was wondering what happened,” said Jon from his desk around the corner. “It’s late!”
That evening, as the temperature continued to drop to the low 30s, I took a long bubble bath, luxuriating in the enveloping heat, while our kitten padded along the rim of the clawfoot tub. “Next time, I’ll finish,” I swore to myself, imagining that final section of the walk that remained unexplored.
Last month, I attempted to knock out the next trip in my Eugene and Springfield Townscape Walks manual, Pretty Ponds. It has about five different versions, starting with a fairly simple three-mile “box loop” that kicks off to the north at Delta Highway and Green Acres Road. Instead, I opted to do a portion of the southern part of the trail because it 1) begins near my current home, so no driving required and 2) proceeds to the neighborhood where we’re building a house, enabling me to stitch together how these two different parts of the city connect.
I convinced my daughter to join me for the walk; it was her day off from ballet and she had the afternoon free once virtual school wrapped up. With book in hand and jackets loosely zipped in honor of the partly sunny afternoon, we took off from our house on foot, heading to the River Path.
Officially called the Ruth Bascom Riverbank Trail System, the River Path is a popular, nearly 20-mile paved trail that threads along both sides of the lovely Willamette and is one of my favorite parts of Eugene so far. On the weekends, it’s acrawl with runners, bikers, skateboarders, dogwalkers, strollers, bird watchers and wanderers all out in mini crowds or onesies and twosies. During the week, it’s still quite active, depending on the weather. The path shares its name with the first woman to serve as mayor of the city, Iowa-born Ruth Ellen Bascom, whose mid-90s term involved efforts to revitalize downtown with bike and pedestrian paths.
Roxy and I turned south on the path, careful to stay to the right as cyclists and runners sped by. We stopped a fair amount, particularly in the Delta Ponds section of the trail, which passes over several of the river’s overflow wetlands beloved by all kinds of cool birds — heron, egret, osprey and ducks, plus squawking clusters of Canadian geese interlopers. Not only does Rox love taking photos of anything bright and fun we pass on walks (flowers, interesting signs, random objects), but as apparently many dancers do in the world, she requests frequent pauses to demonstrate interesting dance moves; in this case, jutting a leg sky-high. “It’s called a needle,” she’s let Jon and me know on many occasions. And this needle is — stretched? performed? threaded? — by this flexible teenager next to monuments, atop hills, in front of murals, you name it.
We finally reached our first junction and made a left toward Delta Bridge. This striking, red-cabled structure extends up and over more of Delta Ponds from Goodpasture Island Road (a name that strikes me as one part dairy farm, one part golf resort) to a cluster of homes tucked alongside Willagillespie Road (not to be confused with nearby Willakenzie Road or Norkenzie Road or, I’m sure somewhere out there, a Willawilla Road).
This was new territory for us, the interstitial zone between our current home and our future home. After exiting the bridge, we wandered by older, single-story structures on one side of the street that face a new development of closely packed, two-story houses with cute little porches. After crossing Willagillespie, we made a right down that busier street, hoofing it to the next light. The city felt less built up along this flat stretch of road, with empty fenced fields and a few scattered businesses under the enormous, cloud-filled sky.
We made a left on to Clinton — many of Eugene’s streets are named after U.S. presidents — and walked along its bumpy sidewalk. We passed a Little Free Library with its two support posts ending in sneakers; it was filled with children’s books and toys, and I hoped it was bringing some joy to local kids stuck at home.
At Debrick Road, we left the outlined map behind in order to slip by the grassy plot that will someday host our house. It was still grassy and still otherwise empty. “Give it a year,” I said to Roxy, feeling grateful that our rental is comfortable and well-shaped for each week’s boatload of virtual tasks. She shrugged and laughed.
Rox is an easy walking companion. She’s got a long, quick stride and, other than pausing for photos, quietly chugs along with few comments or complaints. She participates in my random conversation starters and appreciates the ways people decorate their homes. I say all this with gratitude. More than a few friends have children who act like family walks are a form of slow torture. “They can barely make it to the stop sign without whining,” lamented one girlfriend in the second month of the pandemic. “You’d think they’d be happy to go outside.”
We looped back to Debrick and then, stepping off route once again, veered on to Crenshaw Road so that I could introduce Roxy to the neighborhood’s eponymous Gillespie Butte. Crenshaw has a satisfying, steep rise to it, reminding me of our former perch in Los Angeles in the Mt. Washington hills northeast of downtown. My legs were happy to dig in to the climb.
Midway up the hill, we spotted a rusty old electric meter box, minus the meter, beneath its own mossy wooden roof.
“This feels very Oregon,” I said to Roxy. She grinned and stopped, steadying her phone to take a few photos.
“Maybe it’s from Gravity Falls” she joked, referring to one of her favorite shows, a smart, funny and totally engrossing animated series (set in a mysterious Oregon town) that I dubbed “The X-Files for kids” after about the third episode.
Near the crest of the hill, we hopped on to the dirt trail that leads to the wild top of the butte. The sun was bright and the wide views across the valley, with higher buttes and hills off in the distance, soul-soothing and fresh.
Alongside the trail stood a cluster of gnarled, impressive oaks. Roxy made a beeline to one of the largest while yelling over her shoulder, “Can you take a picture?” As I snapped quick photos of her stretching and pulling and working her way into a rod-straight “needle,” a mask-free couple hiking down the trail looked over and gawked. We waved and I shrugged. Why not stretch your leg straight up past your ear while standing under a magnificent ancient tree?
Our photo session done, I pointed out a few landmarks, including Autzen Stadium where the University of Oregon Ducks play their football games, normally to a roaring pack of thousands, and the silent bulk of the Hult Performance Hall downtown.
“We can continue back to the route and do a few more miles on this side of town,” I offered, poring over the book’s map. “Or we can retrace our steps and head home.”
“Retrace our steps and head home,” said Roxy. “I’m hungry.”
And that we did: descending from that little top of the world in Eugene, down and around the roads that will someday be as familiar and well-trod as those in Mt. Washington, across the bridge and up the path beside the beautiful river toward home.
Walking with people is different from solitary strolling.
There’s the moderation of one’s pace — quicker, marching steps with some, a slower gait with others, the ridiculously languid Test of Patience and Friendship with those who shall not be named. There’s the positioning: Do we walk side-by-side (thus jutting into the shared walk/bike path or dominating a narrow trail), or does one person take the definitive lead, stopping now and then so everyone can catch up? And then there’s the satisfying soul of the walk — the stuff that your head and heart are up to, while legs, feet, arms do all that moving. With companions, conversation wanders and observations are noted aloud. On my own, I think and muse, my focus dragging up close and then pulling far out, like a kid with a viewfinder.
I decided to skip over Route #3 in my book, Eugene and Springfield Townscape Walks; it’s called Christmas Lights, so that’ll feel more timely in a few weeks. Instead, I jumped to #4: Honeywood Hop, a course I’d be loathe to search online, but was perfectly happy to embark upon one late-October Tuesday with my husband. Our daughter was at back-to-back ballet lessons in the studio (yes, masked, physically distanced and expressly prohibited from using the bathroom), so we had a few hours to spend outside in the fresh air.
Jon and I drove north from the studio downtown to start our jaunt at Gilham Elementary School. It was a beautiful, Oregon-mild afternoon and still quite light; the deflating Fall Back ritual wouldn’t be happening for another week or two.
We walked down Honeywood, following its curve around and about to Wester. Familiar sights from my prior walks — yellow-bright leaves, pumpkins and gourds, lawn after lawn — rolled by.
Seeing so much grass, most of it green, is still quite novel to my Southern California eyes more accustomed to drought-tolerant succulents, straw-colored grasses, and rocks of all shapes and sizes. As the climate continues to change, will lawns in this lusher, drizzled upon landscape make sense? And if the lawns weren’t there, what local plants would fill their place? The native plant nursery Willamette Wildlings lists a veritable word salad of available local shrubs, trees and perennials, including Sidalcea virgata (rosy checkermallow), Fragaria chiloensis (sand strawberry), Rubus parviflorus (thimbleberry) and Mahonia repens (creeping Oregon grape). When it’s time for my extended family to landscape around the homes we’re building, I’ll remember this.
Side-by-side, we walked and talked and wove down streets. The neighborhood transitioned from compact, single-story homes to increasingly elaborate structures perched in bountiful greenery. At the same time, the Halloween decorations went from mighty in number to mighty in size. One house, its entrance dwarfed by a magnificent grove of cedar trees, boasted a blow-up black cat and dragon on the edges of the yard. Surrounded by all that nature the fantastic, 20-foot-tall beasts were oddly effective; rather than having been planted there by humans they seemed like surprised visitors, ready to pounce and burn.
I started snapping photos of the most magnificent decorations to share with Roxy: a skiff tilting in the grass with a skeleton pirate at the helm, a Harry Potter-themed getup complete with boxy blue car lodged in a Whomping Willow-wannabe tree, towering skeletons walking skeleton dogs. Later, on Halloween afternoon itself, the two of us would drive through the neighborhood with hot drinks in hand and a spooky Spotify soundtrack on deck, so she could experience the scene firsthand. I loved the fact that my sweet 14-year-old still oohed and aahed at the efforts people had made, honestly enjoying it all with nary an eyeroll or “whatever.”
At one point, Jon and I came across a house covered in Nightmare Before Christmas paraphernalia. In the driveway sat a restored Dodge boasting a flashy flame-job on the hood and old Oregon plates. “Great car,” we said simultaneously. I wondered how often the owners took it for a spin and if I’d see it around.
We crossed busier Gilham to do a squared off loop in one corner of the neighborhood — and then crossed back again to do another. Compared with my previous walks, there was a more active hum at this later time of day. We saw dogwalkers, a mail carrier, a few kids on bikes … and skirted one very determined homeowner with a leaf blower, hell-bent on blasting every visible particle from his yard to, and then across, the street.
Our conversation ambled and skittered as we marched along. We riled ourselves up thinking about Journalism’s misses when too many eyes focus on too few stories. We evaluated design choices as we wandered by home after home (why does everyone like columns so much?). We laughed at the house with the neatly hung NFL banners — one for the Green Bay Packers and one for the Philadelphia Eagles.
“Now that’s a mixed marriage,” declared Jon.
We also pointed out little things, from a cat watching the world from under a bush, to the thorn-laced berry vines creeping close to the sidewalk, to strangely studded red fruit filling a tree. Curious what the “cherries from outer space” really were, Jon used a plant detector app on his phone. It turns out they’re Strawberry Tree Fruit, and Atlas Obscura has even written about them.
With the day’s light fading, we rounded the final turn at the edge of the elementary school’s adjacent park and approached the car. I glanced at the exercise app on my watch; we’d gone 4.74 miles in 90 minutes, with the thrilling elevation gain of seven feet.
“That was satisfying,” I said, climbing in after a quick curbside stretch. A brisk pace, no awkward jockeying for position — and plenty of good soul.
That is the question for a recent arrival to these lush Oregon shores.
A former Californian, I don’t want to stick out too much as a newcomer. But I also don’t want to get drenched just to make a point.
Such were my thoughts as I drove northeast toward Route #2 in my book, Eugene and Springfield Townscape Walks. From the looks of it, the trek, dubbed Ashley Estates, would involve an oblong loop around and about a single neighborhood, with the option to do a shorter route if preferred.
The rain had started about 10 minutes earlier, but I set off undeterred. “When in Rome!” I kept declaring. “Look at me Oregon!” I beamed, verbing a noun. I wore workout leggings, a long-sleeved shirt, my Pirate Supply Store sweatshirt, a snap-up lightweight jacket, a scarf and the day’s mask.
This felt sufficient.
The walk’s starting point was a mere seven minutes away by car up the Delta Highway (this has become a family joke, since everything in Eugene seems to be a mere seven minutes away, by car, a far cry from our past life down south). I turned on to Meadow View Lane, a sign announcing Ashley Estates at the intersection. The broad, tree-lined street was empty save for a delivery van and one parked car. Large two-story houses sat back. Ample lawns edged with pruned landscaping and intentional trees provided plush padding between home and sidewalk.
Buttoning up, I jumped out and hustled through the steady drops to the trunk to fetch an umbrella. “Yep, don’t want to stick out too much,” I mumbled, choosing the family-of-five-sized rainbow option and opening it wide.
+ + + + + +
My family of three decided to move to Oregon way back in the spring of 2019, a time when “corona” was simply a poetic name for that gleaming, fuzzy band around the sun and stars.
Or, sure, a beer. Or a city in Southern California.
Anything, really, but the menace of 2020.
It was a phone call from my aunt that did it. She and my uncle, after poking here, there and almost everywhere along the West Coast, had fallen in love with a place called Eugene. This Central Oregon burg, the second largest in the state, is where their metaphorical wagon — and literal Airstream — was now pointed. The city would be their Next Chapter, following a lifetime in L.A. Even more exciting: they’d purchased some land in the city with a mutual friend and would anyone be interested in joining them on this escapade? We could all build a compound of some sort, minus the charismatic crazy person. A mini neighborhood, amongst the cedars and puddles and bike paths.
Yes, we said. We would be interested.
My husband had been job hunting for more than a year. Most possibilities were in cities or regions that felt like a big fat NO — Silicon Valley, Silicon Beach, San Diego. Other opportunities — in Atlanta, in Deerborn, in Santa Barbara — didn’t pan out. So, we wondered, after receiving the Eugene invitation, what would happen if we put community first? Why not head somewhere because of the people, and let the job thing follow?
The decision felt right. And it’s proven to be right. My husband found work with a local company in two shakes of a beaver’s tail. I started to dream of new career ideas. An international high school program accepted our daughter. And, as 2020 started to unfold, unfurl and then flap about like a flag left out in a hurricane, we realized it all just made sense.
+ + + + + +
The beginning of the walk took me and my umbrella up and around the street by increasingly fancy houses — although no one describes their own stuff that way in these 1% times. Realtors would say “stately” and “gracious” perhaps; residents might say “comfortable.” And much of it looked all that and more: porches with lounge-ready chairs, solid front doors with brass knockers, three-car garages, decorative wrought-iron fencing reminiscent of horse properties in Connecticut.
I glanced down a side street and noticed a man moving pots of mums around a path, his open rain jacket flapping. From the other direction came the insect whine of a power tool; someone was fixing up a brick building in a small cluster of other brick buildings. It had a B&Bish feel, but I couldn’t find a sign anywhere and figured it was simply … stately and gracious.
Every few minutes, I’d walk beneath a tree bursting out with color, leaves the red of pomegranates or the yellow cheer of bananas. I started to notice ever-more-elaborate Halloween decorations — blowup dragons fastened to lawns, fuzzy spiders snagged on bushes, klatches of skeletons strapped to trees. Rounding a corner in front of a tidy perfect lawn, I looked down to see the head of a rat oozing on the sidewalk. Steps away lay the body.
“Well that’s one way to decorate,” I declared to nobody as I jumped to the grass to skirt the remains, instantly sogging my toes.
A sign blaring SLOW DOWN poked from a nearby lawn. A black, late-model Porsche motored by. It was, once again, a very quiet time to be walking the streets of Eugene.
After a mistaken turn onto Quail Meadow Way (the option for the shorter loop), I ended up on Ayers Road and what felt like the edge of the neighborhood. Across the street I could see a lake with houses clustering the shoreline. I walked along the sidewalk for a few extra-wet blocks before making a right onto the street where I’d parked. Feeling like I’d barely begun, I decided to do the larger of the walk’s two loops as well and passed my car with a wave.
The continual pat-pat-pat of the rain on my umbrella was soothing, a steady, gentle presence that made me feel both energized and oddly comforted. So what if I looked like a big ol’ tourist out for a stroll in a random part of town. I was glad I’d chosen laparapluie.
After retracing my footsteps — missing the rat this time — I turned right onto Mirror Pond and headed east to Gilham Road. More signs urging everyone to slow down and watch out spoke to busier, rushier times. When were such moments … the evening? weekends? 2019?
Maybe Halloween was one of those jam-packed, traffic-addled times. The decorations on porches, bushes, lawns and paths certainly weren’t letting up. On the right: animatronic spiders with webs the size of a Fiat. Over to the left: bright-orange nylon pumpkins turgid with fan-filled air. I was definitely getting a Trick or Treating Destination vibe. Would the costumed crowds appear this COVID-crazy year?
As I rounded the northeast curve of the walk, a magnificent house came into view, although really it was more of an estate. Was this the Ashley Estate of Ashley Estates? Or maybe Eugene’s answer to Downton Abbey? In a cluster of trees nearby, a Tiffany blue flower stand waited for warmer days.
This part of the neighborhood felt older, and a bit more lived in. Stretches of woods separated houses, and I had to walk along the road’s tight shoulder since the sidewalks had disappeared.
“Hey, look at that!” A Black Lives Matter sign rooted beside a mailbox; a few houses away, another perched in a window. As they always do, these declarations — whether formally printed, scrawled in chalk or stuck on a telephone pole — made me smile, point and cheer. And, frankly, feel more at home.
I needed to veer into the wet grass a few times as cars swished by, further soaking my shoes. But it was still a pleasant street to walk down — and interesting in the way edges are interesting, a transition from one thing or state to another. In this case, a place that felt highly planned, tended to and tidied up slipping into something a little less mowed and a bit more wild.
After a mile I made a right back into the heart of the neighborhood. Interrupting the stillness, a man stood in a front yard shaking a wet tarp and then folding it with big, exaggerated movements. He looked up as I got closer, so I waved and smiled.
“Beautiful day!” he bellowed.
“Absolutely!” I yelled back.
“… if you’re a duck,” he added after a beat and then laughed before stashing the loaf of neat plastic into the back of his pickup.
My sneakers slapped the wet sidewalk as I continued down the street. “I’m going to need something sturdier than these mesh-top Nikes,” I thought, looking down at my soaked toes. As if summoned by the sheer force of coincidence, I heard an even louder slap-slap-slap suddenly approaching from behind. A young man, in shorts and a t-shirt, ran by in the street, a golden retriever jingling alongside.
“What does he do?” I wondered, pondering the seriousness of the motivated, four-season Oregon runner. Does he have multiple pairs of shoes? One always-damp pair?
Passing well-labelled Creekside Park, its pipes-and-platforms play structure shining and abandoned in the rain, I thought about kids growing up in rainy climates. “We’d essentially play mud ball,” my husband Jon says, describing fall soccer in his home state of Washington. The fields, from the sound of it, were a mess of rocks and sludge.
Rounding the few final turns, I noticed a colorful chalk painting filling a driveway, pinks and yellows smearing sideways. The effect was beautiful — a wash of unexpected movement from once crisp lines and shapes. I even picked out a stingray in blue.
Back at the car, I shook out the umbrella and chucked it into the back of the trunk. My leggings were damp, shoes soaked through, but everything else felt warm and mostly snug.
Later, at home, curious to know Eugene’s average annual rainfall (47 inches), I started searching online and stumbled across the Oregon state motto, Alis volat propriis — “She flies with her own wings.” According to Wikipedia, the Latin phrase references early settlers’ vote in 1843, a good 16 years before official statehood, to create their own government minus intrusion from the U.S. and Great Britain. The motto was jettisoned during the Civil War for the morally solid, but completely unpoetic “The Union” and then readopted in 1987. However, fun fact: “The Union” still appears on the state seal.
To umbrella or not to umbrella?
To fly with one’s own wings — or align with a cause?
I think the answer for now is to skip “or” for “and.”
Late this morning, I parked on a quiet residential road in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and grabbed my Camelback. The sun was warm, even if my watch alleged a coolish 57 degrees, so I stuffed my jacket into the pack, gulped some water, and walked to the entrance of Golden Gardens Park.
It was Week Six of living in Eugene — and Walk 1 of the quirky guide I’d purchased over the weekend: Eugene and Springfield Townscape Walks by Tyler E. Burgess.
Under a periwinkle sweep of sky, I turned onto a path bordering a wide, flat field. Oregon Blue Bonnets and tiny yellow poppies poked from tufts of grass, along with Queen Anne’s Lace (stick dry, as well as blooming) and late-season berry bushes. Shortly, a pond appeared through a clutch of trees to my left. This was the first of three ponds I’d be circling; a sign by the edge declared a maximum depth of 12 feet. The water was teal green, the surface busy with ducks, geese and, closer to shore, the random exposed log with a sunning turtle.
This is one of many, many things that feel novel in my new part of the world — random bodies of water, complete with bird and animal life, sitting pleasantly in the landscape. Arid Southern California, my home for more than 18 years, doesn’t do ponds. Waterways are planned and carved, like the Los Angeles River, or, in the case of the desiccated, boulder-strewn catch basins of the San Gabriel hills, the equivalent of buckets set under leaks before a storm.
Guidebook author Tyler Burgess is a self-described fitness walking instructor who has decades of experience leading walks, training the mileage-eager to hoof marathons, and publishing walking manuals for areas from Siena, Italy to Quito, Ecuador. When I called a local bookstore asking about maps to Eugene, the guy who answered suggested I stop by to see the walking book, which, he admitted, wasn’t exactly what I was looking for but could be fun all the same.
He was right.
I jumped from the wider dirt path to a narrower foot trail covered in bark bits. Following its curve, I passed a woman with two walking sticks who, in spite of my scuffing of feet and loud masked breathing, jumped at my “Good morning!” as I approached from behind. She was the third person I’d seen, near or far, since starting; otherwise, I moved in a quiet, unhurried expanse of sky and loam.
+ + + + + +
A month-and-a-half earlier, my family of three humans and three cats — stuffed into two cars packed with animal carriers, hot-weather clothes, an air mattress, bedding, cleaning supplies and some random plants — pulled into the driveway of our newly rented townhouse in the city of Eugene.
It was early evening and we’d been on the road since 1 a.m., opting to drive the first chunk of the 900-mile route from Southern California in the cooler night hours as fires raged across the state and summer heat blazed. Other than an hour nap in Buttonwillow at dawn blanketed by ashy skies, we’d been speeding north without pause. All of us were bleary-eyed, rumpled, over-caffeinated and trip-worn. And it wasn’t just us; Betty, one of the two cats in my vehicular keeping, had long since abandoned her carrier in favor of riding in my lap as we barreled along I-5. (Was that even legal? Did the dude filling up my car in Roseburg notice when he took my credit card?)
Stretching outside the parked car, I looked around the neighborhood of condos to our left and townhouses to our right, the buildings bordered by a small cedar grove, scattered white oak, evergreen hedges and stretches of grass. We’d actually made it to Oregon — global pandemic, climate crisis and hapless movers be damned.
+ + + + + +
I finished the first loop, stopping to admire a small bridge connecting the path to a ridge of earth dividing the two biggest ponds. I later learned that the ponds started life as divots left in the ground following gravel excavation for the Beltline, a major road nearby, in the late 1970s. Enterprising city and community members decided to treat them as official wildlife and recreation areas and by 2009 had finished improvements to the area to bolster both wildlife and visitors.
From gravel to marvel, in other words. What magic humans are capable of creating.
I walked back to the road as instructed by my guidebook and turned right. The hand-drawn map, along with simple illustrated steps, led me down the street past neat houses facing the field. Halloween decorations — skeletons, hanging ghosts and plastic pumpkin banners — covered porches and front lawns. A young woman worked a hoe in a garden plot while she laughed with a man in the driveway next door. Dwarfing him was a pickup truck with two enormous, slack flags mounted in the bed; “TRUMP” in all caps was visible in the folds. I looked away quickly and picked up my pace, afraid that even simple curiosity would be interpreted as a provocation in our hyper-polarized times.
In spite of the book’s instructions and my little map, I managed to go off-trail pretty quickly. Crossing a small park I took the wrong path into a cluster of trees. On the pavement someone had written in two-color chalk with a careful flourish, “Loyalty over everything.” I found the next street just fine but sped right by the subsequent turn. It wasn’t until I’d gone a half-mile and reached a major street with a traffic light did I realize my mistake; back I turned into the quieter neighborhood streets to pick up the route once again.
+ + + + + +
It’s a meditative, watchful experience walking through a completely unknown cluster of homes, particularly at noon, on an October weekday in the midst of a global pandemic. I spotted other people — tree trimmers, a few park employees, a knot of 20-somethings gathering on a patch of grass to exercise. But, overall, the neighborhood was quiet … almost hushed. In pre-pandemic times, kids would be away at school and many adults at work. But here, and now, that’s been turned on its head. Students attend classes virtually from home; many adults have lost jobs. Was this the productive, satisfied, peaceful calm of a neighborhood about its many kinds of day — or a waiting hunkering, a cautious quiet born of fear or need?
As I passed the strings of modest, one-story houses, I wondered how I, the watcher and walker, looked to locals driving by? Was my interloper status obvious? Unruly COVID curls, mostly grey; workout clothes; a scarf and mask … all signaling life choices and preferences and probably politics. I hoped my face was open, interested, ready for a story.
I followed Trevon Street, then Terry, then Dakota and Cody. Fall leaves in yellows and reds patterned the sidewalk. A spray-painted “Be kind” with a lopsided heart filled one section of a wooden fence. A cluster of colorful bird houses hung in the top of a fruit tree, just visible from my side of a gate. Chickens clucked from their coop on a corner property near a parked school bus with curtains. A free library in bright blue and green beckoned. Should I grab the Thurgood Marshall children’s biography for my daughter?
With my right turns and wrong, steady pace and flat route, I reached the final stretch of the walk: a paved, multi-use path that would wind back leisurely to Golden Gardens Park and my car. My watch’s exercise app registered four miles. The smooth concrete path seemed almost new; the nearby properties a mix of neat-as-a-pin and overgrown. Rounding the first curve, I spotted two girls – one on a scooter, the other on a skateboard — talking to a man in a driveway. With a shout, they sped down the street, feet kicking high.
I ambled along, grateful for the warm sun. Suddenly, a lean, small, beautifully patterned brown cat jumped from the grass onto the trail ahead. In Southern California a quick calculation would follow: Was the beast wild or domestic? Here, now, hundreds of miles north in this green, fresh world, I wasn’t quite sure. The cat padded briskly before me, perfectly aware of just how far I trailed behind. Suddenly, it turned onto a side path and plunked down, stretching its legs long and turning its head toward me with a clicking meow.
“Hello, sweet cat,” I murmured as I knelt down, admiring the oblong spots on her side and striping bands around her legs. A silver bell clinked on her collar.
She let me scratch her head, purring and flexing her large paws, completely in the moment, unbothered by this stranger with whom she’d crossed paths.
One of the best things I’ve learned in the last two days is that “mums” means “yummy” in Swedish.
“Mum’s the word” takes on a whole new meaning.
I share this because my next Fika recipe is kärleksmums, or “love yummy”—a name that sounds pulled from the pages of a particularly jubilant Chinese restaurant menu. According to the authors of Fika, this is but one way to refer to this particular, very popular baked good. Others include fiffirutor, mockarutor and, most elegantly, snoddas.
Regardless of which name is used in Malmö and Stockholm, in English the dish is essentially Chocolate Coffee Squares.
On Sunday, I felt inspired to fika, so I pulled out my squishy little cookbook and paged through it until I landed on something I had ingredients for (NOT elderflower cordial) and the inclination to eat (NOT caraway crisps). Chocolate Coffee Squares would work perfectly.
“These cakes are the perfect blend of dark chocolate and strong coffee,” assure the writers. While usually topped with powdered sugar, here kärleksmums get a ganache topping—thereby making them “the perfect thing to enjoy on a cold autumn day.” I nodded, knowingly, as the 81-degree weather outside sparkled un-El Nino-like.
To make these tempting squares, I preheated the oven to 375 degrees and then greased and floured a square baking pan. (Note: I’d decided to half the recipe because I couldn’t imagine having 24 of these bad boys hanging around the house.)
I melted 5 tablespoons of butter in a small saucepan and set it aside. In my favorite green melamine mixing bowl, I mixed together 1 cup of flour, 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, 1 teaspoon baking powder and ¼ teaspoon salt. Simple enough.
In a smaller yellow bowl, I whisked one egg with ½ cup sugar until it was smooth and “frothy” according to the recipe’s guidance. Then I put on my Big Math Hat, figured out I needed to add 5 tablespoons of milk, and poured that in, along with the melted butter from the stovetop and ½ teaspoon of vanilla. Once the wet ingredients were smooth, I folded in the dry ingredients carefully until nary a lump remained. I poured the batter into the prepared pan, coaxed the surprisingly thick concoction into the corners so it was spread more or less evenly, and then popped the pan into the oven to cook for 20 minutes of baking time.
Next up: the ganache. First, I warmed ¼ cup of heavy cream with a tablespoon and a half of cold, strong coffee over medium heat until little bubbles appeared at the edges (about five to seven minutes). I lowered the heat and stirred in 2 ounces of bittersweet chocolate smashings until they were completely melted. I removed the pot from the heat and plopped in 1 tablespoon of butter, stirring non-stop, until the tiny pale square disappeared into the luscious, creamy dark liquid. It smelled heavenly—like stepping into a fine chocolate shop.
I found a spot on the cook-top for the ganache to cool for about 10 minutes, and then ushered it into the fridge to thoroughly chill for about an hour.
The cake was done when I stuck a toothpick into the center and pulled it out with nary a crumb attached (that took about 22 minutes). I put the pan on the cook-top to cool while the ganache finished firming up. To fill the 40-or-so minutes remaining on the ganache, I tackled the dish pile in the sink, worked through my LA Times pile on the table, and admired a new Lego creation of Roxy’s.
With about 5 minutes to go on the ganache, I gave up, removed the pot from the fridge and spread the chocolate goo all over the cake. I cut a tiny corner piece for myself. The cake was simple, basic, reassuring…exactly what I crave when brewing a hot beverage on a weekend afternoon.
In fact, my Chocolate Coffee Square resembled, smelled like, and fundamentally tasted like a brownie…except for one key difference: the warm, smooth note of the coffee. That powerful ingredient, with its whisper of fruit, when paired with the rich ganache blanket elevated the kärleksmum above its fairly ordinary (albeit tasty) American picnic-staple cousin. It’s a subtle difference, but definitely distinct.
As a regular supporter of our local NPR station KCRW, I receive cookbooks in the mail on a monthly basis. They’ve ranged from the obscure—an assortment of recipes and essays on the theme of “bitter”—to the comforting: collections of recipes from the Southern U.S., as well as a Jewish grandmother in New York City. The most recent, eye-catching delivery was Fika—a lovely illustrated book by Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall that celebrates “The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break.”
Published by Ten Speed Press, Fika (pronounced “fee-ka”) is a small format book—journal-sized, square—with a matte cover that’s almost squishy; it reminded me immediately of the puffy stickers I used to collect and trade in 4th grade. Flip by the bright orange flyleaf and a brief table of contents and you find an introductory chapter that provides some helpful background, including the definition of fika, which is basically “coffee plus something to eat”:
“Functioning as both a verb and a noun, the concept of fika is simple. It is the moment that you take a break, often with a cup of coffee, but alternatively with tea, and find a baked good to pair with it. You can do it alone, you can do it with friends. You can do it at home, in a park, or at work. But the essential thing is that you do it, that you make time to take a break: that’s what fika is all about.”
What’s interesting about that paragraph is that it sounds very similar to material in the meaty leadership training I’m immersed in at work—we’re discussing the importance of managing one’s energy and taking care of oneself. Fika sounds like an excellent energy management method.
Ska vi fika? is what Swedes ask one another: Should we fika? Looking through the recipes, my answer is a most definite JA. Chocolate, nuts, cinnamon and spices abound.
Similar to an IKEA catalogue, the recipes’ names provide native English speakers with page after page of linguistic amuse bouches that you can hear the Muppets’ Swedish chef sing out from miles away: vetebullar (cinnamon and cardamom buns), fikonrutor (fig squares), finska pinnar (Finish sticks), hasselnötsflarn (hazelnut crisps), rägbröd (rye bread), glögg (Swedish mulled wine, natch).
I decided to first try a Swedish specialty: kladdkaka, otherwise known as sticky chocolate cake.
The cool thing here is that I’ve got a new Swedish friend—a co-worker named Linda who joined our team in December. Near Christmas, she brought homemade kladdkaka for each of us to enjoy and it was absolutely delicious: a fudgy, dense brownie that, yes, absolutely called for a cup of coffee to go along with it. So, as I embarked on making my own kladdkaka for a friend’s visit, I had a model to which I could aspire.
Fika the book calls kladdkaka “one of the basics of Swedish home baking: the kind of recipe that you memorize and can make at the drop of a hat” (see: Americans with chocolate chip cookies). Brones and Kindvall’s version apparently departs from tradition in the use of ground almonds, rather than flour…making it perfect for the gluten-free among us.
To start, I preheated the oven to 350 and fished out my dusty spring-form pan in order to first wash and then grease it with a bit of butter using a paper towel. Next, I blanched ½ cup of almonds. As a blanching newbie, I hit the Net and found some helpful instructions: boil a small pot of water, dump the almonds in and let them hang out in their hot bath for about a minute. Then drain them with your favorite colander, rinse the pile and, once they’ve cooled a bit, squeeze them to pop the nut out of the now loosened skin.
Who knew blanching would be so easy? And so satisfying! The only downside is that the leftover skins look like a pile of cockroaches, so I quickly scraped them into the compost bin and slammed the lid.
I took my shiny, freshly blanched almonds and tossed them into the Cuisinart for a few quick bursts of pulverizing until they were just this side of finely ground. After that loud, rackety step, I quietly melted ½ cup of butter in a saucepan—a much more trusted approach then putting the half stick in the microwave and hearing it explode 25 seconds later.
Back to the kitchen island I went to whisk 2 eggs and 1 cup of “natural cane sugar” (I figure you can use whatever you have) into a grainy paste. I sifted together 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder and ¼ teaspoon salt and added that to the egg sugar, followed by the ground almonds, and then the cooled butter. All this I stirred until it was smooth and thick.
I poured the batter into the prepared spring-form pan and made sure it was evenly distributed. The recipe says you can sprinkle poppy seeds on top at this point, but I completely forgot. Into the preheated oven the cake went for about 20 minutes; it can come out when it’s set but still sticky, cuz, you know, it’s sticky cake.
The results: It was one of those super chilly weekends early in the year, and my friend Lisa and her daughter Alice were over for an afternoon of dolls, football, and catching up. In other words, a perfect opportunity for fika!
When I pulled it from the oven, my kladdkaka looked and smelled delicious—deeply chocolate-y, with a nutty rich warmth. I cut slices for Jon, Lisa and I (Roxy and Alice had zero interest), dolloped each piece with whipped cream, and made hot cups of tea. Only the presence of snow would’ve made the scene more Swedish.
And the kaka? Fantastiskt!
Sheesh, it was good. Moist, slightly chewy, and satisfyingly flavorful with a hint of fruitiness…either from the almonds or the natural cane sugar, I’m not quite sure. The almond base made for a less overwhelmingly sweet dessert—maybe by countering the sugar better than mere flour could. And the whipped cream was a perfect topper—a smooth cloud of calm against the assertive chocolate. Lisa and I talked, we chewed, we ooohed and aaahed over this simple cake; we fika-ed, for sure.
The following day, a Monday, I brought a slice of kladdkaka in a Tupperware to work for Linda. I left it on her desk with a little note, and held my breath. Later in the morning, she sent a quick email. “Your kladdkaka is amazing! I’m happy to be your Fika tester any time.”