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.
Still, I’d managed to cover just under 7½ miles.
That’s a lot of uitwaaien.