When the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the mass shutdown of businesses, services and travel, our world grew infinitely smaller. Like many, Whitney Donielson pivoted to work from home full-time and severely limited her outings.
While scrolling through Instagram in May 2020, she saw a post from a friend tagged at Golden Gardens Park. Born and raised in Eugene, Whitney was surprised she had never heard of this park. It piqued her interest so much she and her husband set out to find it.
“Golden Gardens was just really beautiful and unexpected. I went there in the spring so there were a lot of turtles,” Whitney says.
Inspired by the thrill of exploring a new place after several months of lockdown, Whitney decided that same day she was going to visit each of Eugene’s 110 parks and natural areas.
Whitney made a spreadsheet with all the parks and listed the area of town, address, size, date of visit and space for notes from her visit.
“This project was a huge anchor for me this year. I often felt hopeless, and scared, and restless, and anxious, and depressed, and working through my parks list safely got me out of the house, gave me something to work towards, and got me into nature.”
The hottest destination of 2020 turned out to be Eugene and as the project progressed, Whitney discovered a new appreciation for her hometown, its parks and its people.
“I've been thinking a lot over the past few years around the equity issues surrounding nature and getting outside, and I've realized that getting into nature doesn't have to be going to a National Park or on a backpacking trip or driving somewhere far away. If you go to your local park, your local patch of trees with grass, you're getting into nature. You are enjoying nature. And you are getting the benefits of it. I saw people in almost every park I went to, even the really small, unassuming ones, and it really drove home the importance of parks to me.”
Whitney’s first visit to Golden Gardens was on May 23, 2020 and her final park visit for the project was Spencer Butte April 24, 2021. Her adventures were captured and documented only on her spreadsheet and personal Instagram account.
“I'm a big believer in doing things just for yourself, in doing things that you enjoy, and not having to make everything into a side hustle or have a larger meaning,” Whitney says. “I do want to find a way to share it with a wider audience, maybe on my podcast, People of the Valley
, but at the time I started it, I didn’t have any bigger purpose in mind.”
Among her favorite parks were Golden Gardens, the park that launched the project, Suzanne Arlie Park and Santa Clara Community Park. “Even though Santa Clara park is undeveloped, it’s really pretty. There are a lot of old orchards there and I randomly met a woman who started telling me stories about the old schoolhouse there.”
When Whitney looked at Eugene with a new perspective, her world started to grow again. “I really encourage people to explore parks in their neighborhood and explore parks that aren’t in their neighborhood,” Whitney says emphatically. “There are real gems everywhere you go. We are super lucky to have such an amazing park system. It was clear to me that the parks are incredibly well maintained, and I can’t imagine the amount of work that goes into that.”