The trail lies sandwiched between a real estate office and a police station. The hurry of the day departs as I step out of my shoes onto pavement radiating with heat. Barefooted, I can feel the contours of the earth and the connection between us. Each footstep is placed with intention, each movement releasing a crusted layer of daily-grind resistance. Moments before there was only exhaustion, now eager anticipation resides.
This is where I breathe.
Just past the rush of an air conditioner unit, I turn a corner and leave the bustle of the shopping center behind. Shade cools the ground under my feet. The loudest sounds are the wind rustling through the cascara leaves and the petulant caw of a young crow. The air is thick and damp with the sun-warmed sweetness of blackberry and alder. My lungs fill for the first time in what feels like days. I feel my shoulders drop, and I’m surprised to find how tightly I’ve been holding them.
This is where I slow down.
There is a blue mark on the pavement under an ancient tree, its original meaning long forgotten. Now it marks the gateway, hidden unless you know where to look. No one witnesses me stepping lightly from the man-made trail into the wild. I pretend the narrow path disguised by nettle and fern is my secret place, though the occasional heavy footprints left by man and dog prove me wrong. I step lightly from a rotting log to the soft stream bank and enter the flow. The balls of my feet tingle in the cool water. A deep sigh escapes my lips.
This is where I am made aware.
Patches of sand weave between the speckled stones of the stream bed. Each step in the clear water is a meditation in presence and attention. If I hurry, the smooth tumbled rocks push painfully against my tender arches. If a misplaced footfall stirs the silty bottom, I must wait for it to settle before continuing. Patience is rewarded. Damselflies skip along the water’s surface. Salmon fry dart around my toes. Sunlight illuminates the copper-colored back of a lamprey, long and slender as a pencil. It slithers away from my shadow, mouth groping for its next stone anchor. A crawdad, as big as my hand, moves ponderously through the shadows. The journey to my pebbled beach is much longer than the ten footsteps the stream measures across.
This is where I am still.
The minutes stretch into hours that seem like seconds. The days pass, the calendar marked by new blossoms and ripening berries. It is only here in the dappled sunlight that I am fully at peace, the grating urgency of my city life soothed. A yellow warbler and his mate glow brightly against tree-bark-brown before disappearing into the green. A mallard rounds a bend in the stream, watching me for long moments before continuing on her way. Her encouraging quack! reveals four ducklings trailing behind her. The sun flashes against her indigo wing patches as she leads them bouncing downstream over tiny riffles. The salmon fry have grown strong enough to leap out of the water, and I applaud their efforts wildly. A dragonfly perches on my toe. A beetle helps itself to my fruit salad.
This is where I am alive.
I leave and return and leave again. Summer passes, fall settles in. The sun dips below the tree-line leaving my beach shadowed. I bundle against the chill and wade across a stream transformed. The normally cheery water now runs high, its mirrored surface an inky reflection of the surrounding late-autumn gloom. Most of the birds are gone. The salmon fry are gone too, having floated away to new homes near the river. I dreamt of seeing the glossy backs of grown salmon lifting above the waterline, pushing towards spawning grounds upstream. But I have missed them. I give in to the current of the season and drift off too.
This is where I find peace.
With the shift in weather, I retreat to the mountains, miles from roads now instead of footsteps beyond the door of my workplace. Dreary lowland rain transforms into a thick blanket of snow that drapes the landscape, smoothing the jagged edges of granite and those of my soul. Cascara grows abundant here too, its twigs snapping whip-like as I push past them. But at this altitude, Cottonwood and Alder have given way to Doug Fir and Hemlock, their branches bowing under the weight of snow. I fill my pockets with their perfect tiny pinecones, inhaling the warm smell of pitch and clean chill of ice. Material worries lift from my thoughts in a cloud of warm breath. Snowflakes gather on my eyelashes, their touch gentle on my cheeks grown rosy with cold. The gravely cry of a grey jay breaks the silence, and suddenly I’m aware of the faint sound of a stream, hidden and waiting for spring.
This is where I am home.