Armchair Peregrinations


September 11, 1999

Folly Beach, 4:30 p.m. -- The last real summer weekend at the beach. I can tell. There's a stiff wind blowing, and it has a bit of a cool edge to it. The sun on my face, arms and legs feels hot, like it's the middle of summer, but the wind is an early autumn harbinger of the season to come.

People are out in the water, windsurfing, swimming, walking, couples, kids, families, me.

It's low tide. The surf is white-capped and rough. There's another hurricane north of the Leeward Islands, heading north-northwest. They say it's supposed to take a more westerly turn in 48-72 hours. I'm sitting here just this moment thinking about what it might do. Two weeks ago repeated. The same situation.

I took some black and white photos of sea oat shadows on white, hot sand, blowing in the wind on the sloping dunes.

I think I'll take a walk soon, but I'm too comfortable now. I don't want to get up.

I see another windsurfer, shooting across the water like a toy sailboat driven along in a tiny tempest. The surface of the ocean is choppy, and it reminds me of the wild and windy Columbia River Gorge at The Dalles, Ore., a windsurfing paradise. The wind blows steady there at around 35 knots. It's actually kind of a wind tunnel. Quite a sight to see all those windsurfers. I can only see one out on the ocean in front of me now.

An older man and his wife just walked by with their dog. I looked up as they passed in front of me, and he said, "That's what you call 'the life of Riley,'" I repled, trying to come up with an appropriate response, "Couldn't be any better." He answered back, "That's right."

Well, I guess that's true in a way. I'm pretty content right now. Normally this solitude that I'm experiencing is what I want. I enjoy it. But today I feel rather alone, wishing there was someone beside me on the beach, this briliantly sunny Saturday in mid-September, to talk to. I could talk a lot this afternoon. But instead, I'm making these ink marks in my notebook, writing this journal entry, and feeling my accustomed "aloneness" turn into loneliness. I'm having those interior monologs, and it's all going down on paper. This loneliness -- it's just a passing feeling, right? It'll go away. After all, don't we all need others too much to ever be alone for too long? I think I'll take a walk on the Pier soon, to be around a lot of people so that I can be alone in a crowd.

The wind seems to be stronger, nudging me to either take that walk on the beach or leave. There are now three windsurfers darting around among each other out in the water about 1,000 yards off. They're moving fast, unlike me, sitting here in the stillness of time.


September 10, 1999

September is associated in my mind with anxieties about new school years and the endings of summers joyously spent during youth reveling in extended periods of freedom. Summer was a time to be young and carefree for awhile. But September was always an in-between time of year when I had one foot in summer and the other in fall. Kind of strange.

But September is also a mellow month, a winding down period, a time of cooling off from the heat of the summer, even if that was only, at best, wishful thinking where I grew up.

I remember once in September, late in the month, I believe, being out in the country near Columbia and picking wild grapes or scupernongs, if memory serves me, and tasting that wild fruit for the first time. What a pleasurable experience.

In September, too, the first hints of autumn appear innocuously in the trees. Leaves begin to get brown and curl up and wither in places near the top, and this seems to increase as the month wears on. It's not too noticeable until early October here in South Carolina, but I'm already looking for those signs. I'm ready for cool weather, too, and the noticeable change in the skies that come with October.

I turned my wall calendar over a few days ago and saw a scene, a painting, which took me back to days of old, if there ever was one of those days exactly as I imagine it to have been. Still, it seemed to harken back to more innocent times, or at least to capture some of that mood and feeling of the countryside. I think that must have been the sole aim of the artist.

The painting portrays a group of boys playing football on a patch of ground near a barn and shed. One of the boy's sisters and their dog are watching from the sidelines. To the left in the scene is a tire hanging from a tree, still and empty, waiting for someone to fit inside and get a push and a start and then start swinging high up toward the branches of the tree. The sun is setting on this peaceful tableaux, and a farmhouse is lit up with warmth and an invitation to come in for dinner.

It's a type of representation that to me is realistic, not overly sentimentalized. I remember the football games we had in the empty lot in back of our house in the suburbs of New Orleans. And those games took place, as surely as not, on late September afternoons once we had come home from school, had our snacks, and dashed outside to breathe the clean air of release from textbooks, lectures, and crowded, noisy hallways.

The difference is the setting. The calendar scene is far out in the country, and my imagination roams freely when I look at it. Why can't life be simpler now? I imagine that the activity in that scene, and the memory of the artist upon which it was based, was from his own youth many years ago. Does it matter that it was the country? Would those same kids, if they lived in the city today, be glued to a computer screen playing video games instead of running around outside expending pent-up energy and having fun the old-fashioned way?

In a couple of weeks I'll be turning the calendar over to October and scenes of autumn trees with orange-yellow leaves ready to fall, but lingering for awhile yet. In one October calendar scene I saved from last year, a man is raking leaves in a pile for burning. Who among us who grew up in the 50s and 60s doesn't remember the pre burn-ban days when that smoky-leaf smell filled the air in fall and was as much associated with the season as pumpkins, football, and the first cool snap of the season that brought us outdoors on a Saturday afternoon to rustle and crunch the fallen leaves with every step we took? Wonderful time of year, early fall.


September 8, 1999

Finally, with this entry, I close my trilogy on three parks/sanctuaries in the Seattle area, special places known to me briefly on various trips to that area and during the short time in which I actually lived there, ages ago as it seems to me now.

This last sanctuary was also a small park set in an urban area, but it was different from the others because it was located in a much more rugged and wild setting, although this description is relative to what some others would consider rugged. By that I mean it involed a hike down about 400 feet to the bottom of Lund's Gulch where an absolutely beautiful stream flowed into Puget Sound. The main trail in the park was along this stream, and the walk down the gentle and lengthy grade to the creek level was pleasant and easy. For someone not in the best shape physically, the walk back up and out of the park was another matter. Benches placed at strategic locations were not put there just for ornamentation. The hike up could seem laborious, and was more on the side of strenuous than moderate, in hiking terminology. But that is the way it is almost everywhere in that mountainous and hilly region -- to reach a beautiful waterfall or creek, one often has to contend with a return trip involving a considerable elevation gain, and this is the price to be paid for the glorious gift of beholding Nature's treasures. At Lund's Gulch, I remember I always knew I was half-way to the top when I saw a huge cottonwood towering up over the trail.

This park was located about four miles north of where I lived in Edmonds in 1992 and 1993, and was on the way to the ferry landing at Mukilteo. Every now and then when I wanted to to feel like I was taking a trip to the Great Outdoors, but didn't feel like driving for two hours on clogged highways to escape the city, I would go to Lund's Gulch Park on a nice Sunday afternoon. I made the trek there any number of times, in all seasons, while I lived there. One of the most memorable visits was on one of those occasions I was off work and it had snowed enough to put about an inch on the ground and dust all the fir trees in white. That day I just marvelled at the streamside landscape transformed by this snow, although much of it was melted away by the time I got there.

The end of the trail carried the hiker into a clearing and under a railroad trestle and then out onto the beach at Puget Sound. Immediately the scent of the spruce and fir forest was replaced by bracing salt air. I was always fascinated to follow the course of the stream as its channel carved a path in the beach and seamlessly merged into the Sound. You couldn't even tell where the waters met, but in an instant, the stream was no more, dissolved in the larger body of water. Still, the waters kept flowing into the Sound -- home at last.

Here is an entry from my journal describing another visit to Lund's Gulch, also on a day off from work:


From my journal, Edmonds, Washington, March 9, 1993:

A day off from work today to enjoy a beautifully sunny and cool spring morning. Walked along Lund's Gulch Creek to listen to the pleasant murmur of the stream with its numerous small springs feeding into it. Golden sunlight on green mosses. Red-breasted robins searching for food along the creekbed. Trees just starting to bud and leaf. It felt so good to be there instead of at the law firm. I rejoiced in a day of freedom and the hope of spring bringing the knowledge that I'd soon be leaving to head back to my roots -- Sumter and Charleston.


September 6, 1999

Last entry I wrote about a special sanctuary near where I lived in Edmonds, Washington called Pine Ridge Park. This time, I am recording some thoughts about another place where I sought refuge when I was visiting Seattle briefly, it turns out, in the fall of 1987.

It is called Ravenna Park, and it is a narrow band of green extending on either side of the major north-south freeway through the area, I-5. The interstate here is elevated above the park so that within its confines, one curiously enough doesn't hear the traffic roaring by overhead. Or, at least, it's more of a background noise than the disturbing sound it could have been if it were level with the park.

Now I had driven to Seattle from New Orleans on Oct. 9 of that year, after months of wandering and traveling here and there on the East Coast, turning down the editorship of a tiny newspaper in northeastern North Carolina, at loose ends, the works. I arrived back in New Orleans in late September, I believe, and decided to head west as I was wont to do when everything else had failed. It turns out that the 10-day trip across Texas and into New Mexico and Utah and Nevada, over to California and up north to Seattle, was another of those remarkable, but time-compressed odysseys that carried me across wide-open plains and deserts, up into mountains, and along river valleys, all the while allowing me to briefly soak up the sublime scenery such traveling affords.

I recall best of all the magical visit to Chaco Canyon, where there was a very large and sophisticated Anazazi Indian center of culture in a small canyon. It was inhabited for centuries until abandoned rather mysteriously by the Anazazi who lived there. Its main archaeological site, Pueblo Bonito, left me struggling for words in my journal to describe what I felt while observing and studying closely the masonry and design of that multi-unit structure. It was a sunny, windy day in the far upper northwest reaches of New Mexico under one of those characteristically cobalt-blue skies, with little puffs of white clouds sailing overhead. It was an intense experience made all the more memorable when I think of the jolting, 23-mile ride down a dirt road to get to it.

By the time I was nearing Mt. Shasta in northern California, I had mostly put aside my concerns about the wretched state of unemployment I was in, with no immediate prospects. The 80s were a tumultuous decade for me, and here I was in 1987, 36-years-old, a weary sojourner still clinging hopefully to backroads and travel to help clear his head and set his sights. For awhile there on a crystal clear day at Sunrise visitor center, high up on Washington's Mount Rainier, I could see forever, it seemed, and optimism flickered brightly for awhile.

In Seattle at last, however, the full impact of my wandering minstrel life hit me like a ton of bricks. The beautiful "Emerald City" did not seem so green and glorious as it had on previous visits. The gray skies that came with the departure of October clouded my horizons as well, and hung on for days as is typical in the leaden months of November and December in the Pacific Northwest.

I seemed to have no luck getting a temporary job, and I'd spend hours in the afternoon lying on the couch in deep, dark funks, pulling myself up and out with a struggle in the afternoons to walk to the University of Washington and read at the library, or, to get in the car and seek out that little park I had discovered, and to which I was drawn irresistibly, for some reason. I still don't really understand why.

But along the length of that tiny green space with woods of magnificent fir trees, there coursed a most diminutive and almost invisible creek, called, appropriately enough, Ravenna Creek. It was about 2 feet wide, but it had the clearest, coldest water and rushed along like some freshet out of a snowfield high in the mountains. It was obvious from its constant flow and level every time I visited that the stream was spring-fed, and this made it all the more appealing.

One afternoon, I was walking along this creek and I bent down for a closer look into the transparent water and saw some small fish darting about in the swift current. Could they have been salmon, prior to their remarkable journey to the ocean?

I watched as that stream flowed along into the near distance, on its way, I surmised, to Lake Washington. What a perfectly soothing place to be. A salve for my burdened soul. Something as seemingly unremarkable as that stream held my attention for long moments as I watched it flow along, steady, sure -- making its way to the end of its destination with no interference or delay.

When I returned to my sister's house hours after I had left, I was momentarily free of the depression that had taken hold. I had found a place to get away from the world for awhile.

Several years later, however, in 1991, when I moved to Edmonds from South Carolina, I made many trips into Seattle, but not once did I detour from I-5 at the Ravenna exit to revisit that park. The memories associated with that time and place were just too unpleasant. The sanctuary had been temporary, offering its solace for only the briefest time in that now long-ago fall of 1987.


September 4, 1999

When I moved to Washington State a few years ago, I enjoyed the novelty of the Pacific Northwest. I lived in Edmonds, a small city about 14 miles north of Seattle, and a world apart from the urban megalopolis that is King county. I liked to walk along the harborfront where the little downtown was located, with its shops, bakery, bookstore, and cafes and restaurants all within a short distance of each other . It was an otherworldly kind of place. (I seem to be attracted to such towns). I'm so glad my sister and brother-in-law decided to live there. I never felt like I was in or near a big city until I was outside of Edmonds.

But a city it was, nevertheless, and you can imagine my delight when I discovered that right down the street from the apartment where I lived was a small, urban park, situated in a low lying gully, actually, with a forest of spruce and fir and a natural pond or wetland, loved by migratory ducks which were always flying in and out of this little watery sanctuary. I guess some of them decided not to be migratory upon finding this haven.

Pine Ridge Park became my own little sanctuary, too, a shadow and light-filled enclave with trails around the perimeter leading through the woods. It connected one neighborhod with another. The wetland at the bottom of the park was called Good Hope Pond, and a beautiful, hopeful place it was, too, where I could amble along beside the bank watching the ducks and feeling a bit of peace and tranquility in the midst of this small city located on Puget Sound.

There were days when I'd come home from my deadly dull job in downtown Seattle, having trudged wearily the three blocks back to my abode from the bus stop, and then, 20 minutes later, I would experience a noticeable lift in mood as I took a walk in Pine Ridge Park before supper. Some days, of course, not even that secret world could cheer me, but mostly it took me out of the deepest part of my funks -- just being there.

There was another urban park in Edmonds, a mile or so away toward the center of town. It had trails, and offered a nice retreat from the urban world, as well.

I wonder why all towns and cities don't have such parks where people can go to renew and refresh temselves. It is a sad commentary on the greed of developers and the utter lack of foresight by town and city planners in years past that more space within the boundaries of the municipalities was not given over to public green space. Surely, that would have been a civilized and thoughful gift to future generations.

I support the noble efforts of open land trusts which are attempting to restore some of the original green spaces in urban areas that were lost in the headlong rush to clear land and build on every available acre of land. In small victories across the land, these groups are making headway. It is possible to make a big difference in seemingly small and almost unnoticeable ways.


September 2, 1999

College of Charleston, noon, Sept. 1:

It still feels like fall. I can't believe it. I'm sitting under a pecan tree in back of the student center in a spot that's like a little garden/park combination. The grass has just been cut, so I'm noticing that sweet smell which won't be with us much longer.

Cicadas are buzzing noisily from atop a pin oak tree in front of where I'm sitting, and toward which I keep turning my gaze.

The sky is really nice. It has one of those matted, spotty cloud covers that are thin enough to let sunlight through, but not too much. Directly above the pecan tree the clouds are almost solid and unbroken except for a few little ragged patches of blue to break it up. To my right, they thin out considerably and become a textured series of blue and white bands, alternating, half sky and half clouds.

This changing sky forms a perfect backdrop to a mild and pleasant afternoon, just right for thinking end-of-summer thoughts. The cicadas are grearing up now, droning and humming in regular waves of sound that come and go, first in one place and then in another. Every now and then I'll feel a sudden, gentle gust of wind that is perfectly wonderful, and so welcome. The patchy sky is suddenly opening up above me, letting in more sunlight. It's a very intense blue where the sun is directly overhead, and a paler blue off in the distance away from where I'm sitting. I hear a few birds now. The cidadas are quieting down. Maybe this is just a brief interlude. It is...Their song is beginning again. To me it's not just the same sound, either. It has a range of tones and volumes. Right now it's somewhat hesitant, in contrast to the fully energetic, deeply rich sound I've become accustomed to as I sit in this spot and listen.

12:30 p.m.: The clouds have converged again overhead, but I turn to my right and it's "nothing but blue skies again..."

*****

Yesterday afternoon late, I drove out to Folly Beach because I just felt like taking a walk by the ocean. How amazing that I can do this on any nice day that I want to. It's only a 20-minute drive from where I live.

I grabbed my iced tea and hastened out before it got much later. I always like to see the sunset if I can.

What a magnificent day for light in all its subtle hues and gradations of color. The marsh was a pastel green. The skies clear blue. No wind to speak of, so there was a calm ocean with a moderate surf, just enough to produce a nice sound.

As I approached the island on the bridge, I glanced over and saw a lone kayaker making his way up Folly River, a solitary paddler heading for that great expanse of open marsh and tidal creeks in the distance. It was so nice to see this quiet and graceful kayak instead of some raucous jet ski plowing through the water and creating all manner of disturbance on that quiet afternoon.

It remained quiet. The kayaker's paddle dipped back and forth in the water. I watched him for a few seconds until I was on land again.

At the beach, the sun was setting, and a pale rose- colored light appeared in the few clouds that were visible. I walked up to the dunes and watched as the sun set. Flitting above the sea oats were dozens of dragonflies, hunting insects and gracefully darting about in their timeless quest for food.

Stopping at the store on the way back to pick up a number of items I needed, I returned to my car and passed another car with a well-worn aluminum canoe stretched over the roof. I tried to imagine all the rivers, and perhaps even rocky shoals that canoe had glided along and among. It really had character. It had been on many an outting, I could tell.

It made me think about how badly I want to go canoeing and how I never seem to be able to actually sign up for a trip and do it. For some people it's as commonplace as riding a bike along a dirt road.

I thought also that the people who owned that canoe were so fortunate to be able to take those trips. There is no more pleasurable way to spend an afternoon in the countryside than to canoe down a peaceful river or stream. Those canoeists, judging by the condition of their canoe, obviously knew of all those pleasures firsthand.


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