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.