Sunday, November 07, 2010

Kalamazoo River Valley Trail: The Old Chow Pup and I Hit the Trail

by Zinta Aistars

You know the song lyrics ... "if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with ..." Well, for me, the lyrics on this cool November weekend, autumn in mid-song, go more like this: "if you can't be in the place you love, love the place you're at."

Or something like that. Prepositions dangling at the end of sentences send this editor into twitches and spasms, but that's another tangent and we won't go there. It's a silly song. I don't even believe in those lyrics, certainly not when it comes to loving human beings. Beyond wrong.

Places, however, are a little different. We can't always be where we wish to be, and there are so very many beautiful places to be and enjoy on this rather worn but still breathtakingly gorgeous globe. It's been a couple weeks (more? really?) since I've returned from my journey to Latvia, and it took me ... honestly? it's still taking me, still holding me on some level, still haunting me a bit, still feeling the old cobblestone beneath my feet, still leaning on centuries-old wall even while I'm bumping into modern American brick and aluminum siding .. .where was I?

Ah yes. I am here. Not there. Here. In the United States, in the state of Michigan, and a very long way south from my other most favorite place, the Keweenaw, land arrow pointing into Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Take away the centuries old buildings, and there you are: the Keweenaw. Northern wilderness, bordered by wild water, and I haven't been back yet two weeks? is it three? and already I have a confirmed reservation for a week in the Keweenaw for spring. Blue cottage with white shutters on the very brink of the Superior.

Oh let's admit it. I am totally a two-timer.

Keweenaw, Latvia ... Latvia, Keweenaw ... I long for one when I am in the other, and when I am in the other, I picture that place left behind. I have a cheating heart. When it comes to place.

And here I am, in neither. I am in southwest Michigan, and am solidly planted for the next some years, until I am all grown up and financially independent and free to go where my cheating heart calls me.

I wake up on a November Saturday morning in Kalamazoo, and the autumn sun is bright and the skies are azure and the day stretches ahead with a few demands, but none that can't be put off for a while longer. At least my old chow pup, Guinnez, is sure of it. Curled up on my bed beside me, he grins a big toothy dog grin at me the moment I lift my head from the pillow.

Wanna? wanna? wanna? wanna? He grins. Can we? can we? can we?

Oh all right. I tousle his cinnamon head, and bounce from bed ready for some outdoor adventure. I have just the place in mind. I've been thinking about it for some time now, and I'm pretty sure old Guinnie can smell the very thought of trail on me. We've walked the Portage Bicentennial Trail, and I've biked the KalHaven Trail, but there is a new trail that's been snaking its way through the city, sliding alongside the Kalamazoo River, and is branching out here and there, connecting to other trails. I would like to check it out, and this day is perfect for it. And Guinnie agrees. He's all over it. Yeah yeah yeah, wanna wanna wanna.

We share breakfast, the cereal for me and the milk at the bottom of the bowl for Guinnez. I shower, Guinnez sits on my towel. I dress and Guinnez dances around me. I put on my old sneakers, nicely worn in, and Guinnez bows his handsome head for me to slip his harness over him and fasten it under his soft belly. We are ready.

There are many places where we could connect with the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail (KRV Trail). We drop in on one section, just behind the Homer Stryker Baseball Field, where I've watched a handful of Kalamazoo Kings games. The baseball field is empty and silent. The season is over. The trail behind it is empty, too. We take a quick loop around, take a look at each other and say, in human-doggie language: nah. Not what we had in mind. Woods, lots of trees, that is what we had in mind. Guinnez grins at me, lolling his black and pink tongue (chow pups have black tongues, and the pink in his bears witness to his otherness) at me, and hops back into the car so we can find another section of trail to try.

We follow the curve of the river, cross it one way then the other, always keeping it in sight. And there, a good place to jump on again. We park the car and head in, pup trotting ahead. Initially, we see the back and alley-sides of buildings, we hear the hum of traffic in the distance, we see the smoke from industrial chimneys, a water tower, but then we cross train tracks and head into woods.

I sigh. My step quickens. Guinnez looks back at me over his red-ruffled shoulder, flirt that he is, and grins his approval. I wink at him. We are hiking into the perfect November Saturday afternoon. I can love the place I am in, today, now, and set aside my wandering heart for other shores east and north. I am loving the place we are now, and my heart opens to the perfection of the day. The trees are bare. The colorful leaves of early fall are gone. They are now dry, brown ground cover.

For a moment I stop on the trail to look around me, to look up at tree tops and sky, to watch the gentle slip of water moving along between its banks. Not waves, not even ripples, but like a dark silken cloth slipping along. This may not be the most beautiful time of year, not by gaudier standards. The green of spring and summer are gone. The vivid blaze of early autumn colors are gone. The pure and brilliant white of winter has not yet arrived. This is the soft gray of in between, the soft gray of rest, and the earth needs it, too.

There is beauty in these hundred shades of gray. There is beauty in the stark nakedness of the trees, their limbs rising, reaching up toward the sky, scratching at cloud bellies, their roots knuckling under and tangling in dark earth. There is beauty in rest. The autumn blaze is now a soft, pale glimmer of ash. The forest to either side of the trail has exposed itself, offered up its truth, its vulnerability, its open self, unadorned. And Guinnez and I, we are each grateful for the silent wood, each in our own way, but perhaps quite the same.

We have the trail to ourselves for the first three miles of our walk. We can imagine the world as ours alone. Now and then, we veer off the path and walk up to the river to watch her flow. Dry leaves crunch beneath our feet and paws. A woodpecker flies into the tree branches overhead, takes a few hops up the trunk, off on a limb, then pecks for insects, rat-a-tats and finds one.

We stop to look at clusters of berries on a gangly weed. My eye catches on a single branch that still has a row of stubborn red leaves clinging to it, curled like tiny scrolls containing burning secrets. Cat tails stand straight and proud among tall grass, deep velvety brown. Guinnez catches scent and sends a flurry of quail up and away. I toss a smooth pebble into the smooth dark mirror of the river, just to break its surface.

After a long stretch of straight-as-an-arrow trail, we take a sharp bend left, and the trail begins to curve, this way and then the other way. We spot a pattern of white half shells of fungus growing diagonally across a black tree trunk. A patch of bright green, velvety moss stuns the eye. Branches fall and curl in withered vines like knots.

The air is cool and fresh. I breath. I breath deep, and release a week-load of work thoughts and work-worries and other obligations. If I sometimes forget just how much I need this, to be out in the woods, to walk along a river, to see trees, birds, weeds, berries, moss, insects, rocks and pebbles, sticks and tangled vines, and the back end of my happy old chow pup, tail wagging, just ahead, then I full-force remember when I am back in it. This I cannot live without. Wherever I am, on whatever shore, whatever sea or lake, this I need.

Dog and I, we need this. Somewhere along mile five, we are skipping a bit, adrenalized and feeling brightly alive. The seasons change, but all seasons have their beauty, even the inbetween half-seasons, those quiet times that  are not quite this and not yet that, when the earth draws in her breath, too, and ponders where she has been and where she wants to go next.

Love the place where you are now, I hum. And I do. Present in the moment. This subtle place of gentle grayness, between decisions, not ready yet for choices, and not wanting to be anywhere but here, now. Guinnez stops to lift a leg. Yeah, the every day, with time to rejuvenate and take care of one's needs before climbing mountains and crossing oceans again, I can love this, too. I can love routine, and every day chores that keep us on track, and straight path as well as the bend in the path.

I am grateful for this trail, mile six as we near its end, to remind my old chow pup and me that we don't have to be at the world's eighth wonder to see a beautiful earth, and to feel pleasantly tired and rejuvenated in spirit all at once. Sometimes it takes a denuded, skeleton forest to be ready to appreciate it in full regalia again. Two men in a canoe slowly paddle past and wave. I smile and wave back. Guinnez wags a tail.

Trail end: it's been a good day. A day between, a place between, a season between, a moment to hold one's breath and feel the cool air filling lungs, just before bursting into song again.

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