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.”