Walking with the PNW Ferries

 

Sometimes there is just too much magic in this world. How do people build the things they do? How do people think up what should be in any given place, and how do they convince other people to buy into their idea of magic?

That has always been my reaction to the ferries that people in the Pacific Northwest take as ordinary parts of daily living. I have known about these contraptions for a very, very long time. Maybe I even took one as a young child on a family vacation. But the fact that some people use this system of hollowed-out ships to go back and forth to work makes my mind go blank. Is this a good idea – strapping yourself and your vehicle onto a boat and floating out across unsteady water every morning and then turning around to do it all again before dinner in the late afternoon?

It makes me wonder about how we all arrange our everyday lives and how differently we adapt to our surroundings. The ferries in and around Seattle and the beautiful island groups of the Puget Sound area are an adventurous example of people adapting to the place they live. Today, my walk will be around the corridors of a boat designed for this special region.

We are taking our first ferry together, my husband and I, during the summer months, when tourists – like us – invade the PNW ferries to experience the beauty and the style of this unique place. We line up with a group of vehicles at 7 am for the 8 am ferry from Port Townsend to Coupeville. We are early because of our fear of missing the ferry, or of getting lost on the way from Port Angeles, or of getting bumped off our reservation by a multitude of other tourists who are earlier and more anxious to get on the ferry than we are. The online site for the ferry system has extremely severe warnings about getting to the ferry early – at leat 30 minutes ahead of time – and always reserving your spot.

Our drive from Port Angeles is beautiful – gracious views into the sound, faint sightings of Victoria, BC in the distance, and rich forests with generous grasslands. We are entertained by the sights and reach Port Townsend with plenty of time. We wonder how to do this ferry-thing. An hour of lag-time doesn’t seem like too much to figure things out. But there are road signs that we follow, and it all becomes a simple process. We spend a small moment wondering why we had made ourselves get up at the crack of dawn to get here. Still, we aren’t the first people in line.

More and more cars and vans and recreational vehicles arrive. An enormous 16-wheeler pulls in, then another. A fellow in a toll booth guides each driver to one or another of the eight – or is it nine?-  lanes. There must be an ordering or a logic to the system, but I am glad I don’t have to know it myself. We park where we are told to park, then wait with everyone else. People get out of their vehicles and chat, or sit in their cars, getting that bit of sleep that the earliness of the ferry had denied them. It is all very orderly and confident and seemingly time-worn. This may be my first adventure on this ferry, but other frequent ferry-goers give it all a feeling of calm and regularity.

A couple traveling on their motorcycles from Bremerton, WA tell us what to expect on our way to Friday Harbor today. We had begun to wonder if we hadn’t planned too much for this day, if we would really be able to go all that distance, getting off this ferry in Coupeville and driving all the distance of Whidbey Island, then through Fidalgo Island to the town of Anacortes where the San Juan Islands ferry departs, getting into another line like the one we were already in, and finally cruising all the way to the last stop on the ferry line. Would it all play out as we planned? The couple assured us that people do it all the time, even by bicycle. In fact, there are several people who walk onto the ferry by foot, obviously with a plan as to what to do when they disembark. It is all so new to us, and it is nice to have some of the Bremerton couple’s calm ease our nervousness.

It all goes according to plan. The sun shines the entire way. We have views of mountains and views over waters, and views to towns along the way. Our usual sense of travel confidence returns as the day goes on. By the time we reach the Anacortes Ferry and take our place in line, we feel like we know what to expect and expect it will all go smoothly. It does, and we spend a calm and pleasant night in Friday Harbor, before returning on the ferry the next day, like pros who know much more today than yesterday.

Mostly, we now understand the logic behind this magical system of delivery. It would make no sense in most places in the world, but somebody with an incredible sense of planning and insight figured out the perfect way to get from one place to another in this area of spectacular sights and unique inventions.

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Walking a rainforest trail in Olympic National Park

 

A rain forest in the Pacific Northwest of the USA? Washington State is far from the tropics, and I have always associated rain forests with equators, hot weather and steam. I plan a visit – laced with a good deal of skeptism – after our romp around Hurricane Ridge.

Twenty minutes down the mountain we drive from the snow-crusted high-altitude of Hurricane Ridge. The Olympic National Park guide promises a rain forest walk close by. What do they mean, I wonder? Are they just tickling my fancy? Why am I wearing a jacket to a rain forest? There is still a layer of snow on the underside of my tennies. I think a public affairs person has gotten a bit over-enthusiastic with the details of this brochure. Rain forest? We’ll see.

I have to settle for the small rain forest walk near the Hurricane Ridge Visitor’s Center just outside Port Angeles, because the roads to the park’s Hoh Rainforest are still closed because of snow. Snow. I am still suspicious that winter weather and ferns can co-exist. We’ll just see.

We park at the visitor’s center lot and follow a racing group of twenty-somethings who are chattering with excitement. Where are they going in such a hurry? Why the rush? They are pursuing the call of warmth and hanging vines with greater confidence – and enthusiasm – than I. They must be rain forest believers, and I decide I want to believe, too. They scoot up and over fallen logs and along a creek in their race to touch this natural dream. Perhaps they are hurrying to follow another hiker’s spotting of a drip off a fern in a gully of steam. There might be one, just one, in this lip of a forest off a road to ever-lasting snow.

The young people scurry on, taking a fork in the pathway toward a work camp. I decide they already know much about this area, and take on their confidence for myself. If they have found a rain forest here, then I might also. I stay on the path that promises ferns and mist and hanging moss.

Up and down into the ravine, the old growth begins to show itself. Slips of sun bring warmth and shy rays of brightness. The green of the plantlife and the cozy red-brown of the mulched ground lay around me with the comfort of cool mists and soft light. It isn’t a hot rain forest, but here it is, with its light-hearted coolness splattered about with fresh but humid air. I seem to walk through one after another – first cool mist, then sun-warmed air. No wonder growing things do their very best work here. It’s soothing and quiet and just exactly right in its temperate comfort.

I am happy enough to slow down and take in what nature is providing right up close: ferns, lichen, moss hanging from trees, cooling steam rising from a downed lodgepole pine as the sun warms the bark. Proof of rain forest.

I am convinced. Maybe it’s not exactly the biome I used to teach my third-grade students. But it is magical and it is here, unbelievably close to snow in the early summer of the Pacific Northwest.

 

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Walking Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park

Snow in June. The possibility hasn’t crossed my mind. At my comfortable Central California home, snow never falls, even in January. As we drive from Port Angeles to Hurricane Ridge in Washington State’s Olympic National Park, there it appears atop the higher mountains that begin to come into view. Then, as the car climbs, more snow appears in patches near the road. And finally, snow makes changes to my plans, as I compare my mesh-topped tennies to a foot-high mound of glistening cold white along a marked trail.

We park at the Visitor’s Center, and wonder at the snow abundance. It stands in three-foot high arches over the trail we want to walk, sits on the meadow in large football-field-sized spreads, and has not yet dropped off some branches of the tallest lodgepole pines. Snow does not fall during our walk – but the white coating is all around, because it had obviously fallen all winter long, then stayed.

Mine may be a small walk, but the views are large. Snaggle-toothed mountains rim the horizon to the south and east. North and west celebrate the vista toward the Pacific Ocean and the expanse of water between Port Angeles and Victoria, BC. What a treat it all is, and I am once again amazed at the sights we can see if we just get up and go.

I cross over one of the snow spills that covers the trail. Close up, the icy mound is crystaled and gives way easily. It’s not yet warm enough to coax the snow into melting just because it’s June, but even though it holds together in a cold hillock, and even though it covers the trail, there are signs it won’t last forever. For one hint of warmth, the sun bounces off the clouds and the surroundings, a promise of warmer weather. At least I hope it to be.

But not yet will anyone see that change, and certainly not me today. The sun is muted by a cloud as I reach the next snow-covered portion of the trail. It is too deep and too wide to cross. My walk reaches the turn-around point. Going back, I take time to watch creatures on the ground, in the trees and overhead.

I especially like the Olympic Marmot. At first sight, from very far away, I think the creatures are foxes because of the red flash of their tail as they run. I pull out my binoculars and compare them to the diagrams at the visitors’ center. Definitely marmots. Deer are everywhere, and I have to remember that I should not approach them. They, of course, have not read that park regulation, and approach me regardless. Along a paved road heading back to the visitors’ center, I have to race-walk away to keep the deer from getting closer than the Park Service thinks is safe.

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Wiser people than I would have studied-up ahead of time, been more travel-savvy or known to pack snow shoes. But somewhere along the way from wanting to control everything in life and now – older and more understanding of life’s serendipity – I have tamed my need to know everything. Plan better? Why? When even the mule deer cheer my arrival, unannounced, unstudied, willing to take whatever comes. My mesh-covered tennies will survive.

 

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Walking Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

 

Up, up, up and over Presidio’s hills and through the Richmond District from our hotel, Golden Gate Park calls to me. Aside from the De Young Museum, Japanese Tea Garden and Conservatory of Flowers, it can be a wild place, and a bit disreputable for walking. Even so, I have this weird idea that I shouldn’t come to this city without visiting its Park. But I had decided our trip to San Francisco should be car-free. The walk there and back is easily 10 miles and includes some impressive hills. Navigating the transit system from our Cow Hollow neighborhood hotel is complicated. After several days of long walks, resting our feet is the wiser choice. Instead, we accept the challenge and walk.

Passing lavish mansions and neighborhoods dotted with square-block mini-parks, we use the city streets as cut-back trails to ease our climb. Even so, I notice horizontal scoring on sidewalks with steep inclines and a time or two I walk up sidewalk steps. It’s impossible to ignore the climb, and even more impossible not to wonder about our return trip after visiting the park. Many people think downhill walking is more challenging than the uphill. I’m not sure I want to develop an opinion on the subject. There’s always taxis, I assure myself.

Instead of counting the steps I am taking, I try counting the number of older luxury homes currently getting facelifts. There are many. I peek into the interior of one and realize that it is a shell-home. The inside is entirely gutted, waiting – no doubt – for a total modern refit. I am perplexed at the notion of paying five million US dollars for a home you are planning to gut and re-do. As I walk through the lovely neighborhood, I’m glad that amount of financial encumberment is someone else’s concern. My concern is whether or not my feet will last this lavish walk I am intent on completing.

Happily, I enter the Richmond District and discover a new Chinatown. For several blocks down Clement Street I walk along a tempting row of Asian restaurants and markets. The old Chinatown is world-famous and miles east across the city. This new one is vibrant, unassuming, with an aroma like a whole neighborhood where I should come for lunch. Or breakfast, if I had planned better.

This part of the walk goes along fast, and before I can say Haight-Ashbury, I stand at the head of Golden Gate Park. Its many entrances are busy welcoming all types of vehicles. Tour buses, taxis, private cars and a few people on foot follow each other into a different world in the midst of this city life. All of a sudden, grassy pathways and forested walkways present themselves in place of busy streets. Three-story high buildings seem to disolve into centuries-old trees that envelope paths leading into 1,017 acres of wilderness. I know better than to get lost in that tangle, and head to the Academy of Sciences along an asphalt path.

But three busloads of school children are let off to enjoy a day of hands-on learning, and I wonder if the Botanical Garden might be a better idea.

It is a great idea.

From the first step to the last, I am charmed by this exquisite rest stop. The gift shop, then the meadow, then the scent garden and the several meditating visitors display this as a place of respite inside a nature reserve tucked into a large and otherwise busy city. I want to stay longer than I should, and decide I need to learn as much about the occupants of the Butterfly Garden as I can.

Inside the park, I add miles onto my day, walking past Stow Lake and around the outside of the south end of the park just to see what is there. It probably isn’t wise, all this walking, but tomorrow I leave San Francisco. I feel I should see as much as I can.

I’d intended just to put my walking feet on a couple of the thousand acres of Golden Gate Park, to touch my memories. I recall a photograph of me as a toddler sitting on a daisy-sprinkled meadow there. As a college student, I had attended several New Games events there.

But largely, I’d avoided this park, another of San Francisco’s iconic places. Wild, unruly, disreputable, even dangerous at times during my life, this had seemed a place I should avoid. But, today, the park updates my stereotypes and leaves me impressed at what it offers a city and its countless tourists.

I have some time to contemplate all this. There is a long walk back that awaits me.

 

 

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Walking Lombard Street in San Francisco

 

 

 

 

Known as the most crooked street in the city of San Francisco, most people only hear about the zig-zag portion of the famous roadway. Lombard Street itself, though, stretches several miles from our hotel in the Cow Hollow neighborhood east to Coit Tower. I decide it can and should be walked, crooked part and straight.

Of course, this walk begins and ends in San Francisco, where even the straight streets climb up and down hills. I plan out the walk on a two-dimensional map, measure the distance, and wonder how much up-and-down there will be that isn’t seen on the map. I’ve been to both Coit Tower and Lombard Street before, but not from this westerly direction, not both at one time, and not walking the distance on my own two feet.

I start out venturing east from our hotel, after a very nice breakfast at Home Plate Restaurant. Fortified with coffee, scones and eggs-over-medium, the walk looks like an easy, flat one for as far as I can see along Lombard. The rumble of cars and trucks, the stop-and-start of traffic lights, the view to the bay at each intersection and the freshness of lace-like fog all join me as I begin. Only once, I cross the street to avoid an early-morning drunk fellow who is having trouble sharing the sidewalk.

Soon Van Ness Avenue blocks my progress, with a snarl of construction along with it. Signs warn cars to detour around the street. But, what about me in my walking shoes? In this high-density city, streets hoping for an up-date have to accommodate everything: large equipment, cement mixers, roped-off areas jumbled with the refuse of renewal. Somehow, traffic moves around and I find my way past the site, in this area planned for last century’s necessities.

I leave much of the bustle behind as I enter the more residential area of Russian Hill. But, this is San Francisco. There are print shops, hairdressers, and one after another after another of every variety of laundries – dry and wet –  that make each block or two feel like a self-contained small town. I’ve walked a mile or two, and feel like I’ve passed through three complete villages, each with a personality and population of its own.

Then I hit the hill. Of course, there have been some steady climbs, and some slight downturns. But here, impressively, begins the type of hill for which SF is famous. My husband and I are conversing as the incline presents itself beneath our feet and I am half-way up before I notice the change in the sidewalk. Here, it is scored horizontally across the path, making it easier for shoes to cling, easier for steps to grab a purchase, and more difficult to ignore the fact that my breath is being challenged. I take a short break and turn to look back. Only then, with the third-floor windows of buildings I just walked past now beneath my line of sight, do I realize the meaning of how steep is this steep.

Exhilaratingly steep. I walk backward for several steps, giving my toes a rest and letting me enjoy the view west for a few more footsteps. Then, I am at the famous section of Lombard Street. Me, and a few dozen other travelers.

If I didn’t know where I was, just the sudden accumulation of people with cameras would make me know this is a place worth noticing. People pose, step up onto brickwork, look incautiously around – all the things tourists always do. And this is a place to do all that. The street becomes one-way, paved with a slippery brick, rimmed with beautiful landscaping, sidewalk steps and pretty houses. It’s not at all like any other part of San Francisco. But, here I am, walking a path I said I would walk. It’s fun and celebratory, and the crowds aren’t elbow-to-elbow this early in the day.

Onward to Coit Tower is a simple San Francisco block or two, passing the North Beach Pool and Joe DiMaggio Playground. The hike up to the Tower itself winds through a small forest – wild enough that I pass a warning about coyotes, and then two men asleep on benches. The top of Telegraph Hill is home to Coit Tower, with views in every direction. I spend a while enjoying the sights, then remember that I have a long walk back.

And not all of that walk is downhill.

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Looking back toward the crooked section of Lombard – as one guide book said, it’s not scallywag crooked, it just zigs and zags.

San Francisco: world renown for more than one reason. Today, I am lucky to be walking along one of those famous streets. My feet can rest tomorrow.

 

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Walking the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

 

It has been suspended over the San Francisco Bay my entire life, a familiar sight from earliest childhood until now, in my 64th year. I remember visiting Great Aunt Bess in The City. Me, small and young, dressed out-of-character in a cream-colored coat with pearl-buttoned white gloves holding on to my mother’s hand, a toddler walking within view of the icon. I am not so young now, but still small compared to this structure that has spanned the bay and posed for viewing by millions of visitors. I’m no stranger to the Bridge, but today, I will walk the Golden Gate for the first time in my life.

I arrive on the 81st birthday of the several-week period from when the Bridge was completed until when it opened. If I had been here two days before, I would not have been able to walk, because others were running across in a footrace. If I had come next weekend, I would have walked among a crowd of Girl Scouts in one of their planned events crossing the Bridge. It is a busy place; I am glad for this calmer Tuesday morning visit, because heights scare the be-jesus out of me and crowds make my elbows defensive.

The approach to the Bridge from the Marina neighborhood of the city gives a familiar view. Today, the classic postcard photo travels alongside me, step-by-step closer to one of the world’s treasures. Slips and cut-off portions of the old Army Presidio lay to my left and its  WW2 air strip, Crissy Field, stretches to my right. The San Francisco Bay is beyond that, lapping against a shore of beaches interrupted by two or three public wharves. A brown sign directs me up a hill between old military buildings that appear to be rented out to private businesses – a bike rental company, a car repair garage, a yoga studio.

Up the hillside, I disappear into temperate forest. Ferns and nasturtium tangle with gnarled pine trees dripping with moss. I am presented a choice: an easy path or a low tunnel with a steep incline. I choose the tunnel, and am surprised when the incline is so steep I get a bit dizzy. This is a feeling I am trying to put-off. I didn’t expect to face dizziness until I put my foot on the Bridge. I look up.

The Golden Gate Bridge seems to be sitting on my nose, straight ahead. So big and so high off the water, my toes already tingle and want to curl away from the task I am electing to accomplish. I walk on.

An unceremonious step onto a broad sidewalk sets walkers along that famous path. No welcome sign, no archway, no photo stop. One moment, I am off the Bridge, the next I am heading toward an iconic moment. Views all around, the bustle of work-day traffic, the sturdiness of the structure, one step, then another, then another. It doesn’t seem like such a big deal, and I am glad to feel a relaxed sense of enjoyment take over.

Half-way across, I notice the cloud cover, which brings milder temperatures and means there is little wind. For the 1.701 miles of its length, I never once fear heights. The path is wide, and I share it with few other walkers this early in the morning. My real danger is the occasional fast bike that whips by, its approach drowned-out by the traffic noise. Even with the misty clouds, I can see the cityscape in the distance, the Island of Alcatraz straight ahead to the east, the sister Bay Bridge and the Oakland-Berkeley cities in a morning haze. I see the Sausalito area to the north, looking rural in contrast to the maze of architecture in San Francisco itself.

The walk is over sooner than seems possible. I know going back will be as long, and am glad to have a second chance to relish the experience, to feel the transit, to test my fears.

Before now, I had flown over the Golden Gate, sailed under the Bridge, and crossed the expanse in a car. Today, I put my simple feet onto a dream, and turn it into reality.

 

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Walking the “Sea Glass Festival”

Pitted, frosted, opaque and weathered. Bottles clash with the ocean – the waves always win. But I also take a prize today – a walk that isn’t what I expect or plan, but what life brings as a gift of happenstance.

The Sea Glass Festival is a spectacular weekend of sea glass-inspired art, music, food and fun that appears like the magical mermaids it celebrates every March in Cayucos, Ca. Just 4 miles north from my house along Highway 1 in Central California, it’s a perfect way to spend a sunny afternoon. But there won’t be much walking, and since a welcome storm is coming tomorrow, I should combine my usual daily walk with the festival visit, because I may be house-bound for several days of rain-rain-rain. Visit Estero Bluffs State Park on the way? Yes, please.

It’s a beautiful and short drive. The bluffs of Estero Bay are familiar places, where shipwrecks, walks and wildlife entertain us creatures fortunate enough to visit. I choose to begin at the northern-most point of the State Park, a place I have never walked before. The park follows the coast for over 7 miles, with a tangle of pathways, and my walks have always covered the trails closest to home.

With hillsides lagging behind in the usual intense green of March, I am glad for rain, but glad also for today’s sun. I can get out, stretch my legs, and enjoy the spectacular weather before tomorrow’s storm. I park the car and walk west.

Stubby green spikes peek out from the winter cover of dried grass on each side of the path. A break in the fence allows me onto the trails that zig and zag toward the edge of the bluffs. I look ahead to the ocean, a ribbon of tourquoise, then dark and brilliant green and finally a dull silver, the depth of the water and the rows of seaweed making water-colored changes in what I see.

I see also a black something, in the far distance from my first steps onto the path. It rises up from the water and slides back down. Fin? Tail? I decide the dolphins are swimming en masse today, and follow the quickest path to the land’s edge. I want to see the dolphin spectacle – a stunning dance of togetherness and talent. I quicken my pace.

But the dolphins – or whatever else might be in the ocean, black formed and reaching up from the water – disappear, heading north. I follow.

A fence keeps me from walking down to the beach. This is Snowy Plover territory and it is their breeding season. Tiny birds that live and reproduce at the water’s edge, California protects them from the likes of me while they go about increasing their numbers. Since I enjoy seeing their popcorn puffs on the beach and their thousand flashes of white into the sky, I am happy to give them space now, as they will give me a show come autumn.

I walk past the Snowy Plover homesite and arrive at the walking beach. This long, curving stretch reaches toward a rocky cliff that ends Estero Bluffs State Beach. A slow-moving seal rolls in the waves two lines of surf from me. Toward the rocks at the end of the beach, I spot three sea otters, laying on their backs to eat their meals off their stomachs. Cormorants dive into the waters and plop back out with their catch. Idyllic? Yes.

My eye is drawn out farther into the water. The black fin or tail or something rises out momentarily, between the dark green, the sea weed and the silver. Too quick to distinguish, some other sea creature teases me.

I turn my view to the beach itself. A flash of color pulls my attention to the sand. Then another. And again. Since all my home decorating involves such finds, I am engaged for hours, walking a peaceful beach and collecting the leftover of man-made glass fragments, sanded against the grindstone of the ocean and replaced on this beach, blinking against today’s sun and beckoning me to reach. Into my hand, time and again, come rounded, pitted, faintly-colored bits of yesterday’s bottles. I have found my Sea Glass Festival.

It’s not the one I intended, but as the afternoon passes and I am not ready to leave the beach, I realize next year will be soon enough to attend the people festival. Today is for me, the beach and the ocean.

I walk back to the car, marveling at the catch in my hand. I start the engine, look up and see the spouts of two whales, finally admitting to me that it was them, all afternoon long, teasing me from behind that line of tourquiose water.

 

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The Most Important Walk

I am just back from several months of traveling around, busy-ness and not-writing about the wonderful walks in my life. I will be catching up with all the adventures you all have written on your blogs; but today, I am thinking about one particular walk – the most important one, in fact.

There are so many reasons to walk around, wherever you find yourself:

  • The (fresh) air: humid, cold, dry or hot, perhaps clean and dirty at the same time, smelling of the local mix of spice.
  • The feel of your feet against the ground: uneven surfaces, soft or hard, with painted lines to guide you or with pulverized dust unsettled at each step.
  • The sounds: machine or creature sounds, music from a change in weather or from a radio, sounds that tell you how many people are near by and what type of things accompany them as they live their lives.
  • The sights: giving you memories to call back sometime much later, views from every day or from a once-in-a-lifetime walk.
  • The sense of renewal: a time to put away your thoughts and just experience what you see, feel, smell and hear.

I am grateful to be able to walk in many places around the world. But I am most grateful to put my feet to the ground and walk out my front door. It’s a habit that helps me live a better life. Because that most important walk is the one we take every day, wherever we are.

Walking with the Skyview

What price do you pay for a memorable walk? Most times, when I walk, my eyes are aimed safely downward. But I pay a price for that view: I lose that fabulous, here-in-this-moment-lost-in-the-next chance to see the spectacular view above. My reward is safety; my feet don’t trip and I maintain balance. I see most of those stubby clefts that might cause a fall. And since I fall often in life, it’s a good view for my well-being.

On my usual safe walks, looking down past my toes, I see the shore birds. They stroll along our plentiful tide line, arguing over food, but without a heartfelt clamor. Though the wind ruffs their feathers, their manners remain mostly in place as they pursue their natural tendencies. They may squabble, but in the end, they share the bounty.

I also see the glorious transition of rock to pebble to sand. On packed wetness near the rolling waves, with my eyes aimed downward, I take a geological journey through time – sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic laying themselves at my feet. It is nature’s best classroom as I walk along this learning curve of salty water licking the roughness from stone.

Strolling with my safe step, I see what I’ve seen before. Maybe the walk has become habit, but it still contains some little magic. Mist lifts from the incoming tides and floats past my feet. I step around the shore birds’ droppings, having been warned by past experience and present sight. Tangled ropes of Giant Kelp, Dead Man’s Bootlaces, Bull Whip Kelp, and Turkish Towel wrap themselves around the tide, which comes and goes everyday, just like me.

Because I walk this shore daily, a routine litany of views repeat themselves along my path. Stones, sand, seaweed, shore birds. As my eyes aim downward, keeping me safe, I see usual life-assuring sights.

Then the unusual call of a sea hawk interrupts me. I haven’t heard it before, and the sound itself pulls my eyes to the sky. There it is: a seasonal newcomer to the neighborhood.

I stop and watch as the young Osprey dives toward the water, at the same time flapping wings and stretching claws. This new king of the tide comes away with a shining, struggling fish, then flies away to the tall eucalyptus. As I continue to lift my eyes, I see the fish tail protest its tragedy, and the Osprey settle onto the tallest limb of the tree.

I change my trail and follow. ‘Lift up,’ I tell my feet, unused to this path. Since my sight is engaged in the sky escapade, I can’t guarantee my own safety. Am I willing to pay this price?

When I get nearer the eucalyptus, I see that the Osprey has begun its meal. Its head bends for a bite, pulls away with a satisfied tug. I see the fish’s silver flash and its tail still protesting. Then, against the skyview, I see another signal that our seasons are beginning to change.

Stepping into the cluster of trees, I am greeted by the first sighting of Monarch Butterflies. Into the tall branches they flit, in and out of the sunlight, delightful and light-hearted against the feast that is occurring three floors up in this small forest. I count 25 butterflies, and know this is just the beginning.

I have been aiming my sight skyward for quite awhile now, and haven’t yet fallen. At times, I feel dizzy from looking up and wonder if my neck will feel the strain. But nature’s action is happening against the sky today, so that is where I must look, regardless the price.

So often in life, the spectacular is mine for the moment, and gone too quickly. I won’t experience it if I always choose the safe route, eyes aimed cautiously downward, saving myself from the harm I think is there, but forever closing my view to happenings I may not even imagine. Fabulous happenings like Ospreys and Monarch Butterflies.

 

Walking the Plank

 

Shipwreck! Like a bold-font heading from the more excitable history books, full of swashbuckle, flashing swords, hook hands and bandanas, my friend Brian spoke the words. “A shipwreck in our own neighborhood, did you know?” His voice – adventurous, mischievous, pirate-like – made me reconsider the location for my usual afternoon walk. Instead of heading out to our nearby beach, I’d start-up the car and drive four miles north to the Estero Bluffs. Along the cliffside, I might walk into a fantastical relic of history. For it was there, several days past that a fishing boat went astray.

The long trail from the parking lot off Highway 1 to the bluffs has changed since my last visit. I remember sunshine, tall sparkling yarrow, cow’s parsnip and stout reeds of grass. Today’s view takes in a flattened and stick-filled landscape, surprisingly dry with the ocean so close.

Thin, empty reeds stretch up from the grasses, now brown and appearing as if Mother Nature has brought out a brush and combed the strands of pale ash blonde against the earth. The ocean hides. Even the sound of the waves lurks behind the stingy landscape. Today’s sun casts its warmth onto the unseen tops of the cloud cover. Gray sludge fills the sky. I strain toward the promise of warmth through the clouds, but there is little feeling at all. I walk in the absence of heat and of coolness. It’s almost a sense of suspended weather: not hot, not cold, not breezy, not still.

I walk the dry path, avoiding the long and deep crack of moisture-deprived soil and dodging the millions of snake holes. Where are the snakes? With so many holes, there has to be a population of snakes that this flattened grass and thin tall reeds cannot hide. In the earlier lush of spring, when creatures that wanted to hide were given their heart’s desire, I had stopped to watch a long, fat, dappled snake worm into its hole. But today, with an unaccommodating landscape, I see nothing that moves. Neither snakes, nor the friendlier ground squirrels, nor even any insects.

And then, suddenly, there is a boom from incoming ocean fronting an off-shore rock, the crash and crash again riff of the tide, and I step to the edge of the bluffs. The drop-off to the water is immediate, thirty feet or more. The earth gives way here and there, and I step back, remembering that me and quick drop-offs do not peacefully co-exist. There is a trail close to the edge and another a safe ten feet away. I choose the safer route, even with the possible companionship of snakes.

To the south, over the crest of a bluff, I see the very top of a fishing boat mast rocking in the tide. I have seen fishing boats before from this path, but to the west, plying their trade in the deep water, miniatures along the horizon. But this one leans against the cliff, bumping into land with each incoming wave. Too close. It shouldn’t be here and doesn’t belong. But there it is – the wrecked ship.

For twenty minutes I walk toward the site. I am losing Brian’s cheerfulness, and wish he was here to remind me why this was a good idea. Along the way, I pass a small feeding frenzy. Pelicans and cormorants and sea gulls lunch on the usual menu. A seal raises its head from a nap, looking sweet and innocent. And well-fed.

There are two people standing near the shipwreck, looking, but not approaching. For the entire time I walk toward the tragedy, they stand paying their respects. For, suddenly, that is how I see the whole situation. Not an event from long ago, nor a paragraph in a history text. But a tragedy in a neighbor’s life. I remember a simple texted comment made by someone after the newspaper article: How did this boat get where it is? And another comment in response: Poor Piloting. As sudden as the boom of wave against rock, I remember that life isn’t about simple answers. Too often even the best pilots are lost.

Against a backdrop of unruly fun and whimsy, I am brought back to life’s unrelenting rules. We all walk the plank of life. I feel I should erase the exclamation point I put on the end of someone else’s tragedy. Shipwreck.