Yesterday, due to a series of decisions I made myself, I ended up taking a very long walk back to my little room in the little house that is nestled among the hills of Oakland. It was a halfway accidental walk, although if I’m honest with myself (and I tend to be), I mostly saw it coming.
This walk, though, was not so much about how I got from A to B or what I saw along the way. Sure, I’m going to tell you about those things, too, but the important thing about this walk was what didn’t happen: for some reason, and I’m not even sure myself why it is, I did not switch on my music for the first time in several weeks. The post that will follow this one is going to talk about music and how it has affected me for the last couple of months, so stay tuned for that, but yesterday my ears were free and my mind was open to the world around me and the world within me, with no artificial input from the songs that have occupied my attention for so long. The result was that, for the first time in a long time, I felt what I was truly feeling as I made my way home. My thoughts came on their own, inspired only by other thoughts or the random sensory encounters I was having. I was experiencing each moment and each feeling that that moment brought. And this is what I wish to write about today.
I left Richmond with a camping backpack and a broken shoe. The shoe was a casualty of the previous night’s tree-climbing. Somewhere on the way up or on the way down, the rubber heel-part-of-the-shoe separated from the leather…shoe-part-of-the-shoe, and I noticed it flapping as I walked away. The shoe was of a pair, as shoes often are, and this pair I had purchased at an antique shop in Memphis over the summer for a grand total of $6.50. They were worth every penny and still are. Some glue will do nicely to set things right.
But I also had a backpack, as I noted above, and in that backpack were pajamas, a leather jacket that was far too hot to wear in the afternoon, a phone charger, and my beloathed raincoat. I have written about this raincoat briefly before, so the curious may consult my previous post: Under My Umbrella. And so outfitted, I made my way to the BART station for a ride as close to my house as I could manage.
I should mention something here. I live, as I said, in the Oakland hills. Far up in the hills. My bike has become a second set of legs, and I rarely go anywhere without it. This is because I can’t. Not that I don’t like my bike. I do. I like you, bike. But I also can’t get from where I live to anywhere I’d like to be without a very long walk, or a walk and a long series of bus rides, or a bike. So my bike and I have grown necessarily closer. On Saturday evening, however, I had gotten a ride to a birthday party and left my bike behind. The late hour of our return from said party meant that I had spent the night in Richmond, which itself meant that I had to make my way home bike-less. If my Richmond friends are reading this, rest assured that I chose to walk, knowing that you would have given me a ride had I asked. It was two parts not wanting to bother you, but at least one part looking forward to a little adventure. So fret not (if fret you did).
And so I journeyed, and Flop, as I have dubbed my left shoe, journeyed with me. Step, flop. Step, flop. Step, flop. All the way to the BART station. I called my parents and chatted with them for a bit. I made a couple of other calls but had no luck there, so I traveled on in silence. And still the music stayed off. Curious.
How to get home? I had no idea how far I could go on public transportation. But I knew that one station was closer than the others, and if a bus to take me farther was not in the cards, at least I wouldn’t be more than a half hour bike-ride’s distance from my place. No sweat–or, considering the weather, an acceptable amount of it. Plus, the station in question is right near Zachary’s Pizza, perhaps the best pizza there is or could ever be. I could stop and have some delicious food, carry the leftovers with me, and eat like a king for days. Precisely two days. So, yes, I would go to Zachary’s. That was my goal.
But, wait! An examination of the BART transit map showed me that I would have to transfer, and transfers on Sundays can take half an hour. No, I was in no hurry, but I knew I had quite a bit of time ahead of me as it was, and the prospect of waiting in a BART station for half an hour was unappealing. I supposed I could at least listen to music. Why wasn’t I doing that already, though? Ah, but then another thought struck me: if I got off one station earlier, I could go to Berkeley Bowl and buy a few boxes of concentrated chai mix. My decision was made.
So I exited Ashby BART station and suddenly realized I was near a friend. Perhaps she would be interested in going to Zachary’s as well. But, no, she was headed out for a bike ride with another friend. Would I like to join them? The funny thing is, had I had my bike, I never would have been there to call her in the first place. No, I would be walking and eating alone. But as I was soon to discover, this was for the best, for it is now that our story truly begins!
Step, flop. Step, flop. Out I went into the bright, sunny day. Again I thought of music and asked myself where it was. If my bike is a second pair of legs, the 23 songs that I have on my phone have become a second brain. I seemed to have abandoned both. And yet somehow I decided, then and there, that I would let the music go for the afternoon. I would just walk and think. So off my first legs carried me, and off my first brain whirred. The birds were chirping (they really were), and the breeze was blowing nicely (it truly was), and my shoes were stepping and flopping along and showing me the way east–hill-ward and homeward.
It was not long before the sidewalk did a funny thing and split around a very interesting little grove of redwood trees. They huddled there, in no way bothered by the concrete that surrounded them. In fact, they almost seemed to laugh at it all. Towering above me and the asphalt road beside us, they had sprinkled their patch of earth with brown leaf branches, lending the entire scene a magical feel. It was as if there were a wedge of forest right there in the street, and it beckoned to me. I happily wandered toward this little grove, for I never miss the chance to spend time with trees, but as I reached the edge, a sudden realization overtook me, and I stopped. Rather than a tree here or there, or even a park where there are lots of trees about, this truly did seem to be the entrance to a forest, and I had not been in a forest since I lost my love. I stood, looking at this little forest, contemplating its existence, and considered my next move.
I have always loved forests. The woods are such an important part of my life as to be inseparable from my identity. Nothing could keep me from them, and nothing will, and yet I found myself stymied by the notion of entering even this small wooded area without her. Nature was such an important part of our relationship, of who we were as a couple, and this had its roots (no pun intended) in the fact that nature is such an important part of who each of us are as individuals. It has been difficult to witness natural beauty without becoming wistful, even sad, since our paths diverged in a wood of their own. I did not surrender my passion for nature and the outdoors when I lost my love, but it has been difficult to enjoy them in quite the same way as before, now that she is no longer in my life. The world is muted, and with it nature itself. It simply is so, and it will take some time for nature to return to me in all of its glory, or for me to return.
So I stood there at the entrance to this forest, and I told myself to go in. It was only a few steps from start to finish. A few flops. Surely she has walked through forests herself, and surely she will soon walk through more–alone, or with another. Has she hesitated to set foot on forest floor? Has she let my memory hold her back? Why, then, should I demure? What was I waiting for? And so I went through, and amidst the trees I shuddered. I had not been ready after all. I nearly wept–to be there not only alone, but disconnected. Cut off. The trees pitied me, though. They did not chastise me for my uncertainty or shoot Neverending Story-style laser bolts when I lost my resolve. They bent lower and urged me on. They knew that I would be back, and I know that they will be waiting.
I turned north toward Berkeley Bowl, and there I selected three boxes of chai-flavoured addiction and put them into my backpack. Readjusting the straps to compensate for the weight, I was soon back outside and headed east once more. I placed a final phone call, this time to Zachary’s. Yes, their number is in my phone. Under ‘Z’. For ‘Zachary’s’. Many is the time I have placed a call to them en route, for it takes at least half an hour for these pizzas to cook. Deep dish, you see. Nothin better. Jon Stewart can rant all he wants–there is nothing like the sweet sweet sublimity of taking a bite of a well-prepared deep dish pizza. My stomach is growling as we speak, and my mind is wandering to the fridge…
Somewhere along the pilgrimage to The Great and Powerful Z, I noticed a blister developing on my right big toe. These shoes, bless them, are not meant for wandering. Bereft of band-aids, and most pharmacies being closed on Sundays, I felt that I would soon be faced with another decision: to go barefoot through the streets of Oakland or wear the blister deeper and deeper into my toe. I resolved for the former, recognizing as I did so the potentiality for far greater harm than a mere blister. As luck would have it, however, there was an open pharmacy across from Zachary’s, and next to that: a Trader Joe’s. Band-aids purchased, I moved on to Trader Joe’s for some of their signature Pomegranate Limeade. Delicious stuff. My backpack grew heavier still. Soon I had the pizza in hand as well and was ready to start the final journey, but not before taking care of that blister.
This is when I broke my other shoe. Standing toe to heel to remove it, as one does, I heard a rip that spelled doom for Flop’s companion, thereafter to be christened Flip. I bandaged my toe, slid Flip back into place, and flipped and flopped out of Zachary’s and eastward once more. Flip, flop. Flip, flop. Flip, flop. Onto the sidewalk–flip, flop; flip, flop. Under the sun–flip, flop; flip, flop. Up into the hills–flip, flop; flip, flop; flip, flop.
It was growing steeper, indeed, and my weighty pack gave the final leg a hint of intimidation. I suspect that had a passing stranger offered me a lift, I would have said ‘Yes!’ and been glad of my good fortune. But this was not to be, and there were lessons yet for me to learn. Almost immediately I came upon my route to and from campus, only sans bicycle. I passed the familiar baseball field where a game was in progress, parents cheering on children and praying they would never grow up. The road deepened before preparing for a long climb underneath the highway, and for the first time I noticed a shortcut. Suited only for feet, it went down a soft shoulder, across a gravel lot, and up a dirt path to the underpass. This path called to mind a similar one I had known in Vienna, one I’d taken on two occasions, on two particularly fine afternoons, with the lady of my heart. I did not grow faint for long, though, but shouldered my burden more securely and made my way. It hurt, but not as much as the little forest had.
I wound my way around, climbing higher into the hills, gaining altitude. Soon I had reached the park through which I ride twice daily. It was filled with people, it being Sunday, and I smiled to see that the beachfront on the lake was open again. Some sort of water quality issue had plagued the beach and kept visitors away for many weeks, but yesterday the lake was swimmable and teeming with families eager to escape some of the unseasonable heat. Farther still I went, and I came upon countless gatherings of people young and old. They were grilling, playing Frisbee, having picnics and park drinks, laughing and talking and running their fingers through each others’ hair. I smiled once more. It made me happy to see them and happy to recognize that I have not grown bitter. Clouds occasionally form to see hands held and lips caressed, I won’t deny it. Lovers embraced, intertwined and entangled, at times instill bouts of sadness mixed with anger, but the anger passes quickly, even when the sadness lingers. Nevertheless, the happiness is there as well. Love is in the world, and that is a blessed thing.
‘That guy’s got his Zachary’s!’ a man nodded to his little boy, who was ambling toward me onto the path. A fellow aficionado, I surmised. The box is a tell-tale sign of quality, after all, despite its being unadorned. ‘I’m excited!’ I assured both man and child, and the father laughed. Did envy lie beneath his mirth? Without a doubt, dear friends. Without a doubt. But I flipped and flopped on by, prepared to run should prudence demand it.
And Flip and Flop bore me out of the park and farther up into the hills. As I made the last turn onto a long and climbing road, blisters sprouting elsewhere and pack digging into places where it oughtn’t, I was nearly ready to call out for mercy. I even considered hoisting a thumb in hopes that someone might take pity on me and drive me the rest of the way. Then I imagined such a scenario and felt certain that they would demand a slice of my pizza as a reward. Perhaps the aroma from that hallowed box, or perhaps the walk itself, had addled my poor brain. Either way, I resolved not to accept a ride on the off chance that this was premonition rather than paranoia.
But again, it was best that I continued on foot, for I spied the gas station not far ahead, and I knew that there I could find the perfect complement to my long-awaited feast. Nothing goes quite so well with American pizza as an ice-cold Dr Pepper, and so I made one last stop to procure just that, and my pack grew 12 ounces heavier.
Flip, flop! I made my way into the coolness of the hills, much to the chagrin of the remaining heat that had clung so long to my Zachary’s. Flop followed Flip further still all the same, until I spied something shiny on the ground ahead. I soon discovered that it was a small, flat piece of metal, sculpted and painted to look like a double-decker bus. As if there could be any doubt what this was meant to depict, a tiny Union Jack was also in attendance, next to a bold ‘LONDON’. After only a slight hesitation, I scooped this up and deposited it onto my pizza box.
As I made my steady upward progress, however, I noticed that the wind threatened to blow the miniature bus back onto the ground. It seemed likely, in fact, that this would happen at any moment. And I impressed myself then. Perhaps it wouldn’t impress you or your friends or your strangers, but it did impress me, at least a little. I decided that if it fell, I would let it lie. Someone else would find it and carry it a ways farther. Perhaps they would take it home, perhaps it would fall again, perhaps it would one day make it to the top of the hill. In the end, where it made it was back with me, and it sits on my desk as I write this post. I’m glad that it decided to join me the rest of the way.
So, there it is. Just a simple story. No mighty revelations, no answers to life’s great questions learned. Only a quiet walk and some personal growth. Those other things will have to wait till next time. For now I’m just glad that I’m still putting one foot in front of the other, following Flip with Flop, wherever the path takes me.
I did get some interesting looks from people I passed, though, as I shuffled along in my broken shoes with my big backpack and cardboard box of food. Perhaps they took me for some ill-fated vagabond. Vagabond is a badge I’d wear with pride, of course, but ill-fated? Never think it. My life has been one great adventure, with lots and lots of walks along the way, and it will only continue to get better and better. Of that I have no doubt.
The pizza, by the way, was excellent.