It may be the last normal thing we did, in the final few days before the world changed. We drove out along the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska, to witness the migration of the Sand Hill cranes from south to north – something they have been doing for about 8 million years. It was still normal to drive somewhere in a car; to be face to face with friends; to pack a picnic meal, to stay in a hotel, to have breakfast in a restaurant, to stake out a bench in a state park at sunset, and again at sunrise, to see and hear these magnificent birds. We were already hearing that bars and restaurants might be closing for a while; that schools and businesses would start to shut down; that we would shelter in place for a few weeks while the curve of infections flattened out. It was on our drive home that we heard that the mayor was going to shut down the bars ON ST. PATRICK’S DAY. Serious.
Shut down, stay home, shelter in place. Schools closed, nonessential businesses closed, elective medical appointments were cancelled. I negotiated my calendar. I had work events and trainings later in April, and I thought that by then, surely, all will be well. A month elapsed, then two. Those events on the calendar were renegotiated, again, pushed forward to fall, or revised to occur on line. The course I teach at UNO was grounded, and we finished the semester through remote learning — and stayed that way into summer and fall. We learned to order groceries on line; to make cautious trips for takeout once in a while; risked going into the garden center to get plants and seeds for spring; grew a wardrobe of masks. We kept thinking that surely we’d be able to keep our plans to visit New York at the end of March, and Maryland at the end of April. How stubbornly we held on, till clearly we had to let go.
Since I retired, I’d been going to the Engage Wellness Center almost every weekday for cardio and strength training, but it closed at the end of March, and I had to figure out how to transition my exercise regimen to something outdoors. In the late days of March, I began walking at Elmwood Park in Central Omaha, a beautiful old city park.
In the late Nineteenth Century, a well-known landscape architect, Horace HWS Cleveland, was hired by Omaha’s newly formed Board of Park Commissioners to design a public green space system for the new city. Before it grew, there would be a plan for a connected system of parks and boulevards, shared open space, twined into the young bones of the city. Elmwood is one of those parks, and a few miles to the north, the street we live on – Fontenelle Boulevard – is part of the same system. My route to the park every day follows Cleveland’s master plan.
I mapped out a walk that started in the old grotto, where a natural spring arises, and in the original park design, became a place where people came to collect water for home. A trail curves along the creek bed, then bends to the west on a bike and walking trail shaded by huge old maples, oaks, and cottonwoods. It passes near the playground, winds around and bisects a golf course, where the creek gathers into a small pond. Here I turn east for a brisk uphill walk, sharing this part of the path with golfers and carts. Just a few in April; by May, there are more and more plaid pants up there.
In those first few weeks, it was mostly gray and muddy. Each day I would see the park change just a little. A film of green light through the earliest leaves; the creek swelling up as spring rains came through. Gradually, a canopy of green shaded most of the walk. As the weather warmed, the children’s playground – sand, swings, climbing structures, slides – began to fill with young parents and children. There’s a huge pile of shared sand toys – trucks and buckets and riding toys and balls. I’ve seen mothers sweeping sand off the walks, and a friend told me that they shared the duty of cleaning the toys. In full summer heat, the shade became denser, and it was still tolerable to walk.
Later in the month the City closed the park for a while because people were having too much reckless fun, like my friend Tom Burton, who was busted for eating a pulled pork sandwich at a picnic table — his modern day Alice’s Restaurant moment. Not wanting to have even a minor crime on my permanent record, I altered my walk northward toward the UNO Campus and through the outdoor sculpture installation called “Sounding Stones”, by the artist Leslie Iwai. They were moved from another park some years ago and there was some controversy about the new location. From a distance, they look like they might be sewer pipes – huge hulks of cement with an open center. Closer though, they are rounded and smoother. They invite touch, a palm laid against cool concrete. Each is marked with a single word to think about: humility, brokenness, submission, simplicity, community. Each sparks a meditation as I walk. Each hollow center frames a small vista of the park. I see students curled into them, intent on phones, and kids getting their pictures taken
The life of the park emerged. I shared the wide path with other walkers, bikers, and runners. After a few weeks some began to look familiar. Most would return a look or a slight wave of the hand. For several weeks I noticed a converted school bus that looked like a family might be living in it, spilled out in lawn chairs under the trees. A young woman regularly hung a hammock in the deep shade between two trees. I would see circles of lawn chairs – six feet apart – where friends gathered, as we did occasionally with small groups of friends. When my niece Crystal, on a cross country drive, stopped in Omaha, this is the park where we met her lovely young family.
Of course there are the artists – dark and light. Graffiti was seldom left more than a day or two before the park squad cleaned it up, so I learned never to let a moment pass without a photo. People come here to have their portraits taken. More than once, I paused while a shot was being taken in my path, and congratulated a young couple on their engagement. I saw a graduate toss his mortarboard into the air. May his hat fly as high as his dreams. I’ve seen families posing their small children, colorfully dressed for the occasion, my favorite being a tiny crabby girl in a ladybug outfit who wasn’t having it. For a few weeks, there were two children’s stories, displayed on a series of signs, page by page, along the path; and one’s walk just had to slow down for the pleasure
The grotto is popular for weddings. As I approached it one day, I saw a dapper looking groom popping out of a portable toilet, ready for the ceremony. A vase, once full of wedding flowers, was left under a shrub; and weeks later, had drifted full of leaves. I do pick up litter occasionally, but this seemed more like art than litter. Just a few weeks ago, on a fall walk, I saw a huge bouquet of pink and blue balloons and a circle of celebrants. A Gender Reveal Party – I don’t know who revealed what though. And recently I watched as a party bus waited, emitting a faint cloud of exhaust, for whatever party it had let out, to return and reboard.
My Fitbit device creates a record for me of every walk — active minutes, heart rate, how many steps, how many flights, how many miles — this is the science of walking, but even better is the art of it. I wear headphones and listen to podcasts and audiobooks and poetry and music. On difficult days I consciously walk with someone or something in mind – a friend lost at a time we can’t mourn as usual; a knot of feelings that gets stuck, worked out like a muscle; deep sadness for this strange world, the tensions of political unrest, the need to reflect on privilege in hard times. But for the most part these walks seem like a distant reflection on that world. The beauty in the current moment balances the burden.
At the end of September, I realized that I’d started to pick up small twigs with acorns, falling from the oak trees along the path. I suppose I had the idea of making a wreath; they were so compelling. Then it struck me: I’m acting like a squirrel. It’s fall. Winter is coming. The wind blew down branches, some of which were portable enough to come home with me as fuel for the firepit. The creek, full of leaves, became dark as tea. On a slope of the golf course one morning, I noticed hundreds of small glittering things. My first thought: litter. What shiny things could have blown away here? But as I got closer I saw that they were cottonwood leaves, almost metallic in color, reflecting the early sun.
It’s December now. I have walked from the green edge of spring to the icy beginning of winter. How long can I continue as the cold blows in? I’ve walked in rain, and once on ice, and on days where the temperature hovered in the 30’s. I’ve made this walk 4 or 5 times a week since late March, certainly over an hundred times. Sometimes I tell myself I’ve made the same walk every day, but in truth, it’s been a different walk every day. It fits the simple routine of days we have now, the same things, day after day, the essential things. And the next edge of spring is just a few months away.