Last weekend we went walking in the fan of the valley, where the big river spills down out of the crux of the mountains and continues north, hills and rolling churns of earth and big basalt hillocks the cause for the water's meander. Some of the fir and cedar and maple trees are big, and along the trail they feel strangely domestic, like horses stabled and cared for, well-loved, appreciated. We walked over a bridge and the swallows and swifts darted and surged on the wild air, and a big breath from behind us took the hat from S's head and down it spiraled, where long bare tree branches on the opposite bank caught it.
He scrambled down into brambles and we could hear him cracking the dormant branches and reeds and willows down below the steep embankment of the river's cut that most other years would be underwater in winter. Victorious in his retrieval of the hat, we continued our stroll through the riverside woods, now sheltered from the wind. We could hear the whooshing creak and crack, the groan and sibilant heft of branches sighing under the motion and weight of air. The air was wet, and rain spattered lightly, a random drop on a cheek like rough playful kisses.
We followed the mill race away from the river's wide and rocky course, and we stopped to watch big black-sided fish dart through the current. Clouds scudded and soared and were torn asunder by the wind, but turned the water into a reflection of the luminous grey. We took a detour along the shallow stream, wending our own trails through grass and sedge, new sprouts of blackberries mowed in the fall, thistles and mustard and someone had planted tulips in the mole hills.
We crossed another wooden bridge over the dark stream and detoured again into an old filbert orchard, the draping branches with their pale green flowers, not yet sending forth green foliage. Pollen colored the damp earth and the dead leaves on the ground a light dusty yellow like sunshine. The remains of stumps, saplings and some larger trees, gnawed at the base, indicated a beaver's habitat. Wood chips the size of my hand littered the ground around one cottonwood tree that had recently been felled and stripped clean of bark and branches. My what big teeth they must have.
We sat beside the beaver's tree as it pointed into the grey eddying water, on the grassy skirts of the filbert orchard, on the gentle green bank of the mill race, where the mill's shallow water had cut the bank at its constant level throughout the years and seasons. No mill now, the old ways are replaced with dreams of profit, but the mill race and pond still host beavers and ducks and geese and fish. There was no avoiding it, it came slow with a low roar and then rushing, and we three sat silent and listened to the wind in the trees and the quaking hard flutter of the silver-sided cottonwood leaves on the opposite bank.
We shared water and an orange and an afternoon constitutional, and continued our exploration of the trails. We walked to the dirt bike track, where usually there are numerous children on squat but agile fat tired bikes. We were completely alone, and maybe that's why I felt compelled to do something I always thought would be fun. I'd ridden the course before on my mountain bike, but I always wanted to walk it, to feel the pull of gravity and the strength of my legs and the hard breath in my lungs climbing up those steep big bumps in the road.
I started down the steep runway onto the course, up and over the first hummock, running down the steep, up the steep, down the steep, around the curving sweep, and JJ and S started after me. I was not racing, I was having fun in that windy day exertion kind of way, but they picked up their pace and started running after me, heaving up and down the dirt hillls of the course, and I was struck by the silliness of it all and doubled up laughing hard, so they passed me. JJ cut the corners laughing as she ran, but S got to the finish line first, although he didn't cross it out of recognition for the absurd. JJ stomped and whooped and laughed, and then as we walked away from the dirt bike course and the building with the James Dean noseless alien painted on the side, she saw a circle cut in the gravel by bike tires and showed us how it looked like a drawing of a girl's face.
We walked back across the river over a different bridge, a wider span, craggy rocks covered with moss and sprays of river grass, and the swift current was fractured churning emerald green. Up the river we could see the heavy pregnant storm clouds darkening the land, and sheets of rain falling from the black underbellies of the clouds into the river's narrowing valley at the edge of the mountains.
The path brought us to the art and fabrication departments of the university, and we explored the old ceramics kiln and the metal shop's courtyard, and walked through the bedraggled and weedy community garden. It is time to plant fava beans, with their lush green thick foliage and their striking black and white flowers. We continued onto campus to look at the deciduous magnolias that line the walkways, candelabras of huge pale fawn pink tulip-shaped flowers. Back on the streets we recognized how quiet the wooded river trail had been, away from the bustle of down town, car alarms, phones, traffic. It was a small dampening of our exploration, it changed us back to some other sense of consciousness, and we said quick goodbyes in the blustering chilly air.