Featuring walks and thoughts as I explore my new home

Category: Exploring Eugene

Eugene by foot: Walk #3

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.   

Enormous Halloween decorations dwarfed by trees
A close-up of the cat (nice claws!)

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.”

Webs, webs, webs — and a nod to COVIDween

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.

One cool car

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.

Cherries from outer space?

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.

Eugene by foot: Walk #2

To umbrella or not to umbrella?

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.

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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.

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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.

Beneath the rainbow umbrella

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.

Fall color in the grey and wet

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.

A lake through the mist

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 la parapluie.

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?

Yet another SLOW sign

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.

A flower stand closed for the season

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.

A chalk painting in the drizzle

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.”

Eugene by foot: Walk #1

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.

Pausing for a selfie at the start of the walk

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.

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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.

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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.

The bark path between two ponds

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.

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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?

Perhaps both.

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.

Signs of fall along the route

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?

Important words for us all

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.

My feline encounter

“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.