My first vantage point of the day is from the end of our front walkway. The neighborhood is still. Looking up, I observe a complete overcast. There is only a mere breath of south wind. 62 degrees, 75% humidity, 30.13 inches of mercury and steady.
Perfect. An irresistible morning.
I turn and reenter the house. Walking clothes and shoes come forth. In a few minutes, I’m out the door again, heading up the sidewalk.
The forecast is for rain but, at this early hour, it doesn’t amount to much, not even to qualify as drizzle. My hooded windbreaker is rolled up in my hand, my ratty old t-shirt is enough. I don’t need to barricade myself against this mild morning mist.
With earbuds inserted, I’m listening to a podcast as I cover the distance through the neighborhood. The speaker is a familiar fellow, the subject of his talk is welcome. We cover a familiar route, he and I, both through the streets and through his topic. Walking is happening. Speaking is happening. Listening is happening.
At the three-way stop across from the coffee shop, the neighborhood ends. Where the street would continue toward the west, if there were any “there” there, is a staircase, descending the steep bluff, the beginning of the route two-hundred-plus feet down to my favorite salt water beach. Standing at the top of this first flight of stairs hugging the face of the bluff, I’m suddenly aware of a change, not seen and barely heard over the podcast. It takes a moment to register. Earbuds are removed, the iPod pocketed. Now I can hear it clearly.
Along the streets and sidewalks to this point in the walk, the mist had gathered and strengthened, ever so slightly. Anyone in any of the homes along my way would have looked out their windows and seen nothing, taken no notice. Out here, the difference is subtle but perceptible. A few droplets have formed on the lens of my eyeglasses.
But standing here at the top of the bluff, my ears report it differently.
The steepness of the bluff is abrupt in its appearance. The crosswalk leads to a short sidewalk, much like the rest in the neighborhood, but this one gives way almost immediately to a level gravel path between two lots, homes on either side. It can’t be more than fifty feet to where the gravel ends and concrete stairs begin.
Standing at the top stair, the view is into a canopy of green. The hillside is lush. After the neighborhood, with its straight lines and 90 degree angles, the hillside is soft, irregular, in shades of green and brown. The effect of leaving the pathway and starting down is that of stepping through a curtain. The world of man is behind. The entry into the green world is sudden, enveloping, complete.
The audible change, the one I noticed at the top, is the sound of rain drops falling on leaves. This hillside is home to huge maples, trunks ten to twenty yards apart, thirty feet and more in height, wide-spread branches, thousands of leaves, each twice as big as my hand. The sound of each leaf, impacted by each tiny droplet, issues a report. Together, multiplied many times over, they combine and overlap. The sound ceases to be individual. They all combine to form a blanket of sound under the canopy of leaves.
To my ears, it is music. A percussion section, to be sure, but music just the same.
As I descend the bluff, I am enveloped by it. I am reminded of times, in heavier rainfall, when the crescendo of drops on leaves surpassed all other sound, making even human speech inaudible. This morning the music is soft, pianissimo. The hillside forest is quiet; there is no other sound save for this.
They are two interlocking elements, these droplets of rain and the broad leaves that receive them. Only when they come together is the music is made. It is an old sound, and a familiar one, a signature part of life in the upper left corner, one known, recognized and cherished from a lifetime lived in the Pacific Northwest. It is a definable element of place, an old friend.
It recalls me to other times, other forests. Camping with my family as a boy. Walking trails in the Cascade mountain foothills with pack on back. Scrunched up in sleeping bags under roofs made of canvas.
I descend, stair-by-stair, enveloped by the green hillside, and the moist cool air. But no droplets reach me. They are so fine as to be restrained by the thousands of leaves from reaching the earth. The canopy of maples is my umbrella.
The first staircase gives way to a trail. It switch-backs further down the hillside. The music and the magic of this world continues, only a score of yards from the city neighborhood. The illusion is of being far away, up in the foothills of the mountains, or along the slope of a steep river valley, cold, cascading water rushing toward the vast inland sea. Once through the curtain at the edge of these two worlds, the transformation is complete. Even though I could be home in twenty minutes, I am far away.
My t-shirt still dry, I continue down the trail.
Two more staircases, each with its own character, connected by sections of trail and pathway, I emerge at the edge of the beach. The soundtrack of the hillside has been left behind. The gentle morning drizzle falls silently on the sand. With so little air movement, the wavelets at the shoreline produce precious little sound of their own.
The gentleness, the subtlety of this morning is in every feature of it. The sky, the grey blanket above me, the surface of the vast inland sea, the air; all are at peace. Save for the few others out this morning, walking, exercising dogs, the occasional car passing by, the space I occupy in this morning is tranquil, unhurried, uniform.
On some other day, bright sunlight might utterly transform this place, beckoning activity. Shorebirds would be more in evidence. People from the neighborhoods would come out in greater numbers. Wind might produce waves, tides and currents might bring forth swells. The green blanket of trees on the hillside, viewed from the beach below, might dance in the wind. The sound of sailcloth and halyards slapping against aluminum masts might be heard from the yachts moored behind the breakwater. Light and shadow might transform this hillside, as well as revealing the mountain range, some fifty miles west.
But this is not that sort of morning. This is a restful start to the day. Quiet. Reflective.
The character of this place, a place known from my earliest memories as a boy, a place I return to often, changes with every variation of every day, every moment. It has never appeared, to me, to be exactly the same twice. Each nuance of light, each shade of color, each shift in the direction of the wind, each change of tide, each season, brings forth an experience not reproducible. Similar, perhaps, but each unique in some way.
Being here is a thread in the fabric of my life, continuous, unbroken. As a boy, I picnicked at this beach with my mother, father and sisters. As an adolescent, I parked whichever car I owned at the time in the lot, hoping, but never succeeding, to meet a girl, someone to be with, maybe to love. I came here with friends. I’ve launched the kayak from this beach, experiencing it from the water side. I’ve walked here with Jeni, who I introduced to this place some years ago.
At times, years have passed between visits, while living and working elsewhere. Being near, once again, only a short walk away, is a gift.
I stand on the pathway at the edge of the beach, the line of demarcation between the park and the shoreline.
And as I have done hundreds of times, I take it all in; this place, and my place within it.