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.”