William EvansComment

Sign on a Trail

William EvansComment
Heron on the Kamo River

Heron on the Kamo River

“Be alert and predictable.”  That’s what the sign says.  No punctuation.  Seems like a good piece of advice, on or off the trail.  I’ve thought about appropriating the sign for my home office and I may yet.  In the 70s we’d say we were ‘liberating’ it. 

The sign is close to the turnaround in the hike we take (dog and human) several times a week, following a meandering creek.  Takes us about an hour all told, sniffing, peeing, crapping, etc.  I don’t participate in much of that, except to watch Layla the Husky go about doing her thing and clean up after her. 

Where this hike begins, the trail parallels the Washington Beltway with its discomforting roar.  No matter the time of day, the Beltway is this untamable beast of a highway.  Inside the Beltway is a pundits’ expression implying you’re in the know.  So for everyone else being beyond the Beltway suggests what?  It’s a vacuous meme created for stroking egos.  “Be alert and predictable” would be a useful instruction for Beltway drivers and pundits alike. 

There’s a disturbing unrest to the sound of all those vehicles and drivers running full out, like chasing life before it escapes them.  And in this reach of the trail we’re hiking the creek is structured heavily both sides with boulder-sized rip-rap.  The creek has been engineered enough for ten thousand cars an hour to pass smoothly alongside even in the worst floods, leaving the creek to look like a giant drainage ditch.  A drainage ditch with a name.  What the civil engineers did to the creek may not be a tragedy the scale of the Hetch Hechy dam in Yosemite.  But it also isn’t the gentled flow of the Kamo River passing through the heart of old Kyoto. Kyoto has been touched by Buddhists and softened by centuries, so perhaps someday this part of the trail might be more kindly tamed.  When I look at photos of the terraced tea plantations of Asia, they seem like gardens.  Why then do we haul massive stones, dump them into floodways beside our highways and call it done? 

By the Beltway

By the Beltway

Hiking the Tuolumne River on the Sierra Nevada plateau before it falls into the Hetch Hechy valley is still a treat, and there’s talk about dynamiting the dam so the valley can recover what it once was.  Only San Francisco would need to find another source for their water pipes.  The Indians who called Yosemite home never did this kind of damage, all in the name of making more room for humans.  This country’s history is all about piling as many people onto the continent as possible.  Yosemite reminds us this was their land first. 

Albert Bierstadt’s portrait of the lost Hetch Hechy valley. Unknown date.

Albert Bierstadt’s portrait of the lost Hetch Hechy valley. Unknown date.

A mile or so past the Beltway, we turn a sweeping bend in the trail, cross a second bridge and flee the highway noise–not entirely but enough so it’s easier to make believe we’re approaching Walden Pond on foot.  A half mile on, I can even hear the creek gurgling where it rolls over a modest rock fall.  Water flowing over rocks is a special music in the forest; it’s been a friend all my life. 

In most of Virginia, small streams like this are making their way to the Chesapeake Bay.  Where I grew up in the Carolina low country, swamp water is black, and the rivers are light brown, and unless they’re in flood stage, the only current comes from a cottonmouth swimming side to side. 

What we’re following today was named by the Indians who dwelt here once.  Accotink Creek.  I’ve lived within hiking distance of Accotink Creek since arriving in Northern Virginia, four decades and five dogs counting.  Northern Virginia is the euphemistic part of the Commonwealth that pretends it’s not Virginia.  Since there’s money to be made here supporting the Federal government, people from the rest of the country overlook the geographic affliction, er affiliation.  Nobody reads maps anymore, so what difference does it make? 

A stretch of the trail just a mile or so south of where we’re walking is a loop around a man-made lake called–not too originally–Lake Accotink.  It was constructed in the early 1900s as a water supply for Fort Belvoir another few miles further south.  The trail circumnavigating Lake Accotink is a four mile loop of small hills threading wetlands that makes me want to cry to smell the moisture in the fall leaves.  I’ve measured the passing seasons for more years than not by traveling that loop trail.  I’ve hit, slid or struck on every single stone, root and rut on that loop. 

On the high side overlooking the lake, the trail runs on an old embankment constructed for a now-abandoned rail spur.  You can tell you’re on a rail embankment: the grades are four percent at most and the curves sweep wide.  The trees form a nearly continuous archway along the embankment, making it seem like a tunnel.  Although almost the entire loop trail is canopied by a mix of hardwoods, the embankment’s straightaways puts a subtle stamp of history on the trail. 

The historians say Jeb Stuart, the cavalier burnt the trestle bridge to keep the Federals from advancing along the rail line.  Jeb Stuart rode his cavalry all around Northern Virginia wearing his cockade and plume accenting his tailored butternut uniform, gold buttons and epaulets.  Jeb Stuart had a local high school named in his honor up until last year when folks who decide these things thought the name might not inspire the immigrant souls of students the way it used to–good thought, boys. 

The bridge that replaced the destroyed trestle bridge still carries infrequent trains passing high across the creek where it exits the lake.  A long, fairly low sloping dam holds the shallow lake waters back, where you can inspect the last storm’s deposit of tree pieces caught on the edge of the dam.  The large storms sweep the debris over the dam where it accumulates en masse on the low side of the dam, covering the narrow walkway, so you need to pick your way across. 

Growing up in Carolina as a boy I preferred the Confederate battle flag; it was such a bold composition, much stronger an expression than the US flag.  My Irish Granny from Pennsylvania never commented on the flags I made from old cotton linens.  My three-year old son declared in his little boy voice that he planned to vote for Ronald Reagan, but I too forgave him because I loved him. 


Layla in the snow

Layla in the snow

Layla perceives this trail we’re on very differently.  By scent and by sound, she demonstrates her technique.  Where I want to view the general shape of the hills and study the deadfalls, she wants to taste them, particularly where the detritus from the last flood piles against the trail bridges spanning the creek.  When we pass others along the trail, she walks on her rear legs, letting them know she’s willing to say hello at their same level.  Not everyone we meet understands that’s her intent, but those who do are always charmed.  And the dogs she meets, those she’s sure aren’t up to her standards, her telling them so never seems to go over too well.  When we adopted her and brought her home from the rescue show, she’d already been ‘fixed.’  Passing down her intelligence would have improved the breed.  . 

Huskies are dominating creatures, on account they know they’re the real deal and not a boutique-bred foo-foo to warm their humans’ cockles.  Human cockles aside, research scientists have determined by DNA that huskies are also one of the oldest breeds.  Which makes sense if you look them in the eye–they check you off squarely like their wolf cousins.  They don’t see themselves as lesser creatures.  How could they when they can spring at a cat at night faster than the one walking them can register sight of it?  They will accompany you enthusiastically so long as you want, but never assume that means they think of themselves as mere accompaniment. 

Accotink.  The name bears only the faintest echo of a people dwelling here before the Europeans arrived with all their crazy mix of freedom and slavery.  Accotink is said to be an Algonquin name.  History is hidden everywhere along the creek.  I read that pottery shards found by the creek are associated with the Moyumpse people from the 13th Century, who left little else of those times to be contemplated.  The Piscataway and Powhatans who came later also were here before the tide of European immigrants flooded the Americas.  It’s quiet these days, no Indians coming down the trail, only their ghosts. 

It’s a curiosity that the Englishmen in Virginia kept the native names of places but dismissed the people who named them.  Given the history, this aspect seems downright cynical.  “But we didn’t mean to!”  “Yeah, you did, and you did it so well.”  It was a simple enough strategy: overwhelm them with millions of immigrants and slaves.  It was hard work clearing away all that land, but cheap labor helped. 

About the same time the Beltway was built in the 60s, the suburban neighborhoods sitting high above the trail were developed.  Developers called one neighborhood Camelot, but it’s otherwise indistinguishable from the neighboring developments.  No knights nor castles in evidence.  One place sits on stilts like an overgrown tree house.  Looks to have one nice sized room, steep sloping roof, windows looking out on the woods.  Mostly the houses stand on the bluffs a hundred feet or more above creek level.  Earlier structures may have been built closer, but the creek is the basin of a flood plain that can be downright scary in a big storm.  Signs of previous floods are everywhere.  After all the wet weather we received this winter, the ground is sodden, and mud covers the low-lying sections of the trail.  Probably the reason Layla wants to stop and sniff every five feet–good organics here. 

If I hadn’t taken up long distance running years ago, I wonder in my adult years that if I’d still feel the same connection to playing in the woods as a kid.  Running through forests might make a good motto.  I sympathize with people who can’t spend some part of their lives outdoors, whether they’re restricted by an infirmity or old age, or just never having known the joy of open air, like those who can’t put down their cell phones long enough to see who they’re about to slam into.  Watching Layla so actively engage the outside world, I realize it’s what I need to be about as well. 

A few weeks ago we passed a dome tent sitting halfway up a wooded hillside well off the trail.  Except for the houses above it on the bluffs, the tent could have been in a wilderness.  It was so far up the slope that come summer it would have been hidden in the foliage.  My first thought was the owner was homeless and had found the site after a good long hike.  You see tents like that in downtown Seattle under highway bridges and sidewalks.  But the tent was in good shape and neatly kept, so maybe just a Boy Scout working on a camping merit badge?  Never saw the owner.  Was he inside the tent reading a book to get away from all the forest surrounding him?  Possibly on a cell phone. 

Northern Virginia does have its homeless.  You can see panhandlers on Little River Turnpike, not far away, and it’s hard to think anyone would do that without being backed into a desperate corner.  And there’s a 7-Eleven for food and drink to spend what they collect.  “But for the grace of God” takes aback some folk, like it couldn’t happen to them because they’re inoculated from misfortune, but I know better.  I once said I felt sorry for Michael Jackson on account of what a fucked up life he was living, and folks stared at me like I was crazy.  But making his skin look white? chopping off his nose? keeping a golden monkey?  (OK, Jeff Koons did the gold thing.)  This was before the stories about his fondness for children proved to be something else  Breaks my heart to think of his children, but I still feel sorry for the waste of his life too.  Had he heard about the Indian tribes that lived along these eastern creeks before the whites dragged their slaves here, that might have given him perspective.  “But for the grace.”  “Be alert and predictable.” 

The trees in late March are still bare, though if you get right up on them, the buds are full and ready to go.  A scattering of small yellow flowers are pushing through the dead leaves on the forest floor.  Not like a field of color; mostly the color is still winter drab, but spring’s coming.  I missed winter when I lived in Miami, genuinely missed the gray.  Virginia forests rest in the winter and wait quietly on spring, the way folks should, except we rarely do.  One way to celebrate the quiet season is to take a walk in the woods, being grateful for who you are, wherever you are, or just letting the forest remind you. 

Along the Toulumne River above the Hetch Hechy dam

Along the Toulumne River above the Hetch Hechy dam


We woke up an hour late in the morning, refusing to accept the sound of rain descending from the gray, but that’s what happens to optimists who go to bed late.  Layla, as always, was ready for her morning ambulatory.  I layered myself, hat and gloves and glared at the gray.  Water was streaming down both sides of our street and across it where the slope changed.  We got to the end of the divided road and turned around; Layla didn’t object more than I did.  On return I checked the ditch running by the house and the volume of water was as high and dirty brown as I’d ever seen it.  It took two towels to get the water from her coat. 

She ate breakfast, and I had my coffee.  Dog chores done, I was happy even in the gloom to settle in to write.  By 4 pm it was walking time again, and my husky keeps a close watch on the schedule.  She has a secret iPhone for keeping time, but the downpour had reconstituted itself.  By 5 pm the husky was forlorn, and putting it off any longer was futile.  

The rain ambushed us in sheets.  Layla dropped her head to level and laid back her ears, but she was determined to start out ahead of me as always.  Rivers were coursing down the street, so we moved to the middle passing the larger flows.  I imagine yesterday’s creek was in full flood again.  Layla sniffed the usual places, but didn’t linger.  A very sad dog came back.  Another round of towels, paws to nose ensued. 

In the evening after dinner, Layla noted the rain had slacked, and she requested permission to take up her deck position.  Swear to god, huskies talk.  Deck time is important if she’s to keep an eye on the racoons.  I explained they were busy nursing kits just now and staying dry, but she wanted to be sure.  A couple hours later, no coons heard from, when it began to rain again she quit her guard duty. 

It’s been that kind of day.  I suppose tomorrow will be cold and wet again.  Where the hell is spring?