The future has to begin somewhere and this is where I’m choosing to start mine.
I get there on a bike. With people I love.
In the center of my town.
Somewhere between the town’s historic origins along the river and its present commercial profile along the highway (gas stations, groceries, big box, motel, espresso cafe, pharmacy, hardware, bank, realtor, used books, collision repair, nails & salon, veterinarian, bakery, bike shop, tobacco shop, Mexican restaurant, video, fast food – you know, you’ve driven through a hundred towns like this).
Nice, wide, well-marked bike lanes bring me here from either direction – green fields and forest one way, wetlands and basalt cliffs down toward the river the other way. Today I’m carrying a folding chair in my bike’s side-basket to set up in either sun or shade.
Why is this such a good place to start?
A public space with easy access. A central landmark for the people who live here and invisible to drivers just passing through. And maybe because I spent formative years in desert, it’s important to me that it’s by running water. Within sheltering shade. Plenty of green grass.
The library is not far away. We passed a WWI cannon and memorial, a pavilion for picnics (site of the annual cross-country meet potluck) on our way through the trees from the parking area. Picnic tables. Overnight tent spots. New swings and slides and bright-painted, rubber-tiled climbing structures are usually busy on the other side of the park.
But this is the quiet corner, down by the water. My son and I ride our bikes on the trail from the road and parking lot, then bump over the rough mown grass. The creek bends in a long slow curve and there are benches here and there beneath the high canopy of leaves. Parents bring their children here to fish for crawdads, to dabble in the shallow water, to swim-splash in the deeper pools.
Older kids come on their own, with fishing tackle, or empty-handed curiosity. We’re all drawn by the water.
Lone walkers pause here with their dogs. Sit backwards at the picnic table and engage their cell phones in conversation. A boy decked out in basic goth rides his trick bike into the creek and across into the trees on the other side. There’s a running trail that loops back there, maintained by the park, where he can ride.
On the other side of the creek, past the trail, past a fringe of trees, over a high chain-link fence is a storage unit yard. Giant hangars for hay. Stalled tractors like a huge Jurassic still life. But you wouldn’t know it. You wouldn’t know you were in the middle of a town. That not far away is the ever-more-quiet paper mill. A windowless tavern. The county jail. An abandoned fitness center. The transfer station (recycling center/ garbage collection).
Because everything here is leafy green, watery green, grassy green and the sound of the slow-flowing creek breathes peace.
My friend and I sit on the bank. Talk our way into the future. Watch our sons chase Jesus bugs; collect specimens: bugs, leaves, important twigs; enact outer space adventures up over logs and boulders, climbing up into the trees, splashing down into the water.
Other mothers sit on blankets with their babies. Because this is the town it is, these mothers are, today, younger than prudent, and not necessarily married. The smoke from their cigarettes keeps mosquitoes at bay, but their babies’ eyes squint as the smoke passes over their faces.
This is not Eden.
But it is a place I love.
This safe, green, wet place is the center of the things I wouldn’t want to lose – the green shade, the easiness beside the water, the openness to anyone who lives here, the come-and-go of the people I share this town with.
As good a place as any – a better place than many – to begin dreaming out what this town really wants to be.
what MAKES it | BREAKS it
+ free and clean running water
– secondhand smoke
+ welcoming shade
? less than salubrious neighbors
+ people come and go
+ mothers and children
+ sitting outdoors