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.