the meaning of life
Do you remember being in grade school in late September -- I know, that was a LONG time ago for most of us, but then again you might remember it as if it were the day before yesterday -- and having the bell ring shortly after 3, and that feeling of walking home with a couple hours of afternoon freedom to enjoy as the sun slants through the trees, the air warm and fragrant with just a hint of autumn.
My friends and I would play under deep blue skies, riding bikes, or throwing a ball, or playing tag, or climbing trees with a canopy of leaves above us turning golden yellow, with some of the leaves having already fallen to the ground. Sometimes we would just lie in the tall dry grass, looking up at that sky, smelling the richness of the earth, dreaming of the days and years ahead.
Conversation was light and full of laughter; our only work was making up games to play or finding places to explore while we had the time.
This week, summer was lingering, holding its own against the fall season trying to take its place. Blue skies beckoned, warmth welcomed, and after a busy day completing chores, we now had time to find a trail and explore while we could. It was three in the afternoon. We had a couple hours before a five o’clock appointment. Let’s hike to Sharpe Park, we agreed.
Now we had somewhere to go and no hurry to get there. The air was still, quiet, in no hurry to go anywhere either. The trail, as you know, starts out among trees large and small, young and old. It skirts the shore of Fox Pond, a menagerie of wildlife at times, but today just a field of green cattails and wetland plants, mostly mud where there used to be water.
We took the direct route to Sares Head, on the trail with that name. You know the route; wandering through woodlands, dropping a little then climbing quickly as the waters of two straits silhouette a picket fence of firs. Then you get to the top, step through the gateway of the last trees, and … and the land just drops away, along with your breath, as you gaze at a dome of blue, blue sky above, blue water below, blue-green islands beyond, and nothing but silence, and peace, and astonishment.
Sunshine sparkled on the flat calm waters, golden diamonds dancing along. A couple cabin cruisers motored quietly across, scattering the diamonds briefly as they passed. A young couple picnicked on the very edge of an overlook. Two ravens rose on the updraft, in no hurry, seemingly just enjoying the view too. Whidbey, the Olympics, the San Juans, all lay miles away and yet seemingly right at our fingertips.
It never gets old.
And like children of old, we scrambled over rocks, climbed trees, and just lay in the tall dry grass remembering the days and years behind us, and dreaming of the days and years ahead.
But we had an appointment to keep. The tyranny of time brought our visit to an end. We headed back down, past trees living here for centuries, their offspring becoming the younger forest all around them. Back we walked, enjoying the ferns, spider webs, condos of woodpecker trees, the silent forest. This summer day was still warm though the sun was now lower, the light more subdued. It was time to go.
The meaning of life is that it ends.
Of course, we know that the day, the season, time itself, ends for each of us, as the flowers fade, the leaves turn brown, the sun lowers in the sky. But while we are alive, we live, and we revel in the joy and beauty of life while we can.
That’s so easy to do at Sharpe Park.
Directions: From Whidbey go north on the Deception Pass Bridge, turn left on Rosario Road, and follow it to the parking area for Sharpe Park, on your left in just over a mile and a half. From Anacortes go south from 12th Street on D Avenue, and follow its winding way 5.5 miles to the park on your right.
By Bus: there is no bus service along this road.
By Bike: Rosario Road is hilly and windy with narrow shoulders but not heavy traffic.
Mobility: The trail is wide, graveled and mostly level for the first quarter mile, then becomes hilly, narrow, and rougher. The last quarter mile is a little bit steep.
sunrise, Sunset, Walking Ebey
There’s a buzz around the new Walking Ebey Trail that connects Rhododendron County Park and Admiralty Inlet Preserve. The trail zig-zags between farms and fields, following hedgerows and fence lines, ducking in and out of woods and willow thickets for 3.5 miles across Ebey’s Prairie. This is phase one of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust’s plan to connect trails and parks throughout Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. The sign at the trailhead says it’s like a “European Walking Experience” but I’ve had similar experiences in the British Isles and in Asia. I would guess walking is pretty common in most places… except in America. Don’t get me started.
My niece was visiting. She picked me up after work and we parked at Rhododendron Park. Then we walked the bike path 1.7 miles to Main Street in Coupeville to catch the Route 6 bus to Admiralty Inlet Preserve. I told the driver to let us off at the bright blue house. We crossed Engle Road to the newly expanded parking area and started Walking Ebey.
I was aware that at the fall equinox, our opportunities for a walk after work would quickly diminish, but the day was warm and sunny. I’d studied the map provided online but due to some technical glitch, it seemed unreadable. Still I’d been assured by Taylor at the Land Trust office that the trail was well marked.
We started at the kiosk and followed the trail through a knot of trees that soon opened up to a mowed path by a field. We followed a fence line by bird boxes and brambles, passed a couple of nice houses admiring their backyard gardens, turning at the corners of each field for wide open views first one way and then another. The Olympics shored up the west side. Mount Baker peered over the trees. A few people passed us coming from the opposite direction as we walked. Cows and horses grazed nearby. We ducked through a tunnel of trees between fields passing through a Fat Man’s Squeeze. (I love that term!) Chickadees called from the shrubbery. Sparrows flitted through fences. A hawk circled above. We talked easily as the trail became a farm road wide enough to walk side by side.
A truck sped by reminding us to be careful crossing Fort Casey Road, but there was no other traffic and this was the only road crossing. Stopping to pick blackberries I looked around and thought of the hundreds of times I’d driven these roads but had never seen these houses or barns from the back before. It’s like walking through town through the alleys. You see everyone’s backyard chicken coop, garden or clothesline. It’s a more intimate way to walk the neighborhood.
As the sun slanted westward the colors of the distant water and mountains deepened. We spied apples ripening a few yards away. Red rosehips and white snowberries shone in the setting sun. Entering Rhododendron County Park we followed the Grandpa's Legacy Trail. I thought of a friend who had walked there with me and his grandson months ago. He lives on the prairie and recently gave me some corn.
By the time we got back to the truck it was dinner time. Darkness fell as we ate at a restaurant nearby. My niece caught the ferry with a jug of fresh pressed cider, rhubarb and zucchini bread to take home.
A few days later I had the chance to go Walking Ebey again, this time at sunrise. I started with a loop at Admiralty Inlet Preserve before crossing the road. Walking alone at first light, I noticed more birds, woodpeckers, wrens, warblers, sparrows, chickadees, bushtits, quail, hawks and raven. I saw two tiny green frogs on a bird box, and glimpsed a coyote making a quiet exit from a farm. The morning warmed into another beautiful day as I went Walking Ebey.
Please respect private property, keep dogs on a leash and leave livestock alone. There’s a good map of this trail on the kiosk across from Admiralty Inlet Preserve, and the trail is well marked.
There is another section of trail that links this one to the Prairie Wayside Overlook on Engle Road. You can add miles by hiking the trails at the parks at either end. Or shorten your walk by catching the Route 6 bus on Fort Casey Road.
Directions: From Highway 20 in Coupeville, turn south on Main Street (which turns into Engle Road) and drive 2.5 miles. Park at the gravel lot across from the Admiralty Inlet Preserve. Or take Highway 20 south of Coupeville 1.8 miles to Park Road. Park at Rhododendron County Park and take the Grandpa’s Legacy Trail. Or take Highway 20 south 3.5 miles and turn right on Patmore Road to access Rhododendron County Park on the south side. The Walking Ebey Trail starts at the southwest corner of the park on the Grandpa’s Legacy Trail.
By Bike or Bus: There's a wide shoulder and almost level bike ride from Coupeville south on Main Street (which becomes Engle Road) to the trailhead. Please wear bright clothes and use your bike lights. Or take the Rhododendron bike path from Coupeville east (next to Highway 20) to Rhododendron County Park. Bikes are not allowed on the trail itself. There are bike racks with room for 2 bikes on Island Transit buses. On weekdays the fare free Route 6 bus follows Engle Road south on the way to the Coupeville ferry and takes Fort Casey Road north on the way back to Coupeville. The weekday Route 1 bus takes Highway 20 passing Rhododendron County Park with bus stops at nearby Jacobs Road for the southbound bus and Quail Trail Road for the northbound. Please be very careful crossing the highway. On Saturdays the Route 1 bus goes by the Coupeville ferry using Fort Casey Road both north and southbound but does not go by Rhododendron County Park. See schedule at www.islandtransit.org or call 360-678-7771.
Mobility: This is a mostly level trail that varies from narrow with rocks and roots, to wide farm roads.
The silences of the heart
When I am among the trees,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It's simple,” they say,
“You too have come into the world to do this,
to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine."
-- Mary Oliver
The past couple weeks have been a whirlwind of planning and preparing, arranging and scheduling, hosting and serving, and finishing details with family and friends and flowers and food and feasts and fun and frivolity and finally the whirlwind of marriage. We were drained. What better time than this to head to the woods and just be quiet, humbled and recharged.
Poets talk about being alone in the woods; ascetics escape to mountain peaks; religions talk of the wilderness experience. This Monday we went to Heart Lake on Fidalgo, looking for peace and quiet, simplicity and silence.
Summer loses its vigor this time of year; it is tired, it is dry, it too is drained. We thought we could hike lonely trails, listen to gentle breezes, the distant melodies of chickadees perhaps, ripples on the water, the sound of leaves turning, and the softness of autumn tiptoeing in through the backwoods.
It started out well, the sun a spotty presence amid billowy clouds, wavelets tickling the lily pads along the shoreline. Salal berries hung wrinkled, quite overripe; a few leaves fluttered down to the trail. My heart grew restful in the peace of the place. The woods were doing their precious refreshing.
Then a distant navy jet engine came to life, drowning out all other noises, even the pleasant thoughts in my head. It grew and shouted and roared and screamed and bellowed for an eternity, or at least a minute or two.
We walked around the lakeshore into the spacious maple and alder forest, which is when a nearby gravel pit started loading dump trucks with rocks, banging and clanging around. When all was quiet again, a motorcycle raced by on Heart Lake Road, crescendo-ing, then fading slowly, eventually, into the distance.
It was somewhere along here that I had to laugh, that the everyday noises of our society, serving us with safe skies, building materials and transportation needs, come with us even into the otherwise quiet woods of our protected lands.
And as I laughed, the noises receded, a crossbill sang in distant old-growth, a frog hiccuped in the marsh not far away, and the mystery of the silence of the place filled our hearts. We whispered if we talked at all as we entered the forest cathedral at the south end.
The noises outside gave way to the noises inside my head. The worries, the plans, the dreams, the everyday needs … I listened to them briefly, realized they were not necessary right now, and let them flow on. Meanwhile, we sat on moss-covered logs and saw the passage of hundreds of years in the trunk of a tree.
There were still occasional outside noises. We heard them, accepted them, and they faded away. We saw a wood duck watching over its mate swimming in the marsh area. A leaf fell from a maple as summer welcomes the fall. Dragonflies hovered over the lily pads; a raven called out, its voice echoing in the now-silent spaces.
With acceptance of our place, we transcend with unshakeable strength and peace.
A heart-shaped rock in the trail caught my eye as we walked back. I offered a thank you for the reminder to let my heart – even amid clanging noises – always be at peace, like Heart Lake.
Directions: From H Avenue in Anacortes, take the Heart Lake Road south to the parking area at Heart Lake. From Whidbey Island, follow Highway 20 north from the Deception Pass Bridge, drive about four miles and turn left on Campbell Lake Road. Turn right on Heart Lake Road.
By Bus: there is no bus service close to this area.
By Bike: follow the directions as above for vehicles. Highway 20 is busy with narrow shoulders.
Mobility: the trail is mostly narrow, and has many roots, rocks, and other uneven tread.
Summer's Parting Gifts
We had just come from Lee’s old orchard where apples were dripping off the trees into the overgrown grass. A nearby fig tree oozed with luscious fruit. We filled a bag and brought out our buckets to pick blackberries. On the way around the bushes, we found purple bird droppings and coyote scat. We all enjoy this seasonal feast!
While we were in the neighborhood, we went for a walk at the Possession Sound Preserve near Clinton. Passing the trailhead kiosk, we strolled down the gravel path with the rustic rail fence on one side. Fir, cedar and alder towered overhead. As the trail turned a corner and began to descend, we spied a tall, young man with a basket. He was busy filling it with blackberries from bushes nearby. He smiled as we passed as if hiding a guilty pleasure.
Blackberry bushes rose up on one side and then the other. The sweet smell of ripe berries was intoxicating. Have you noticed? This time of year, as you walk down the driveway, or on trails, or along roadsides, the sweet, syrupy scent? We pause, look around, find the source, and sample the fattest fruits, the ones at the very end of each branch. We savor the sweet juice and pulp on the tongue. Such a delight! A few today. Perhaps more tomorrow. Sometimes I go back with a plastic tub on a string hanging around my neck to collect more for the freezer. Bring a little summer home and tuck it away for later.
It’s the season of abundance. As seasons change, days grow cooler, nights longer. It is time to stock up for winter while we enjoy the ripe fruits of these last summer days. Continuing slowly around the bend, a father and son reached carefully between the long, protective vines, toward the berries clustered deep within. Purple lips and fingertips show the results of their labors.
At an opening between the trees, a bench faces the water for a sneak preview of what is to come. Volunteers work hard to fight back the blackberries and keep this old roadbed open. They’ve planted native vegetation in places. Himalayan Blackberries are non-native, but we like having such easy access to this tasty treat.
At the base of the hill, is a long, flat field of grass backed by tall poplars shimmering in a brisk breeze. Dark clouds remind us that it sometimes rains here, though it has been a long, summer drought. Possession Sound was choppy. Still, crabbers and fishermen were out on the water collecting their catch. More abundance! Lee’s dog ran straight for the water and swam in and around as if starved for the thrill.
Beach bums collected treasures from the sand, bright red crab shells and blue mussels. We walked south until the incoming tide began herding us toward the shore. We noticed the burrows of pigeon guillemots in the sandy bluff. Empty nesters. The chicks have grown and flown the coop. The dog smelled tracks where fresh water seeped from a nearly dry stream bed frequented by deer, raccoon and otter.
It was Labor Day weekend and after a summer exploring the islands, boats were returning to their harbors. A train stretched out along the far shore. The ferry left the Mukilteo dock and cruised toward Clinton with a backdrop of Everett at the foot of the North Cascades. We climbed over driftwood logs back to the field, turned and took a long, last look around at the water, the boats, the beach. Summer is coming to an end, leaving us with delectable parting gifts from the land and sea.
For more information visit the Whidbey Camano Land Trust site here.
Directions: From Highway 525 in Clinton, turn south on Humphrey Road (by Simmon's Garage) Drive 2 miles south and the parking lot will be on your left.
Bus and Bike: The closest bus stop is at the Clinton Park and Ride 2 miles away. You may put a bike on the bus bike rack and then ride to the trailhead on Humphrey Road. Wear bright clothes and activate lights for visibility.
Mobility: The upper trail is wide and well groomed, but the grade down to the beach gets steep. The field just above the beach driftwood is wide and level.