Pull on your shoes and follow me down the hill.
It’s sunny and there’s no way you’d rather be in that stuffy yoga studio when you could feel the wind tickle your shoulders like soft, warm feathers gently dusting your skin. There’s not even the slight hesitation of chill—finally, that elusive summer wind has found us, decided and sure in its heat—a far cry from the bitter squalls that have insisted on visiting for weeks.
Couples sprawl at tiny tables in Counterbalance Park while the brunch lines grow at Peso’s and Toulouse Petit: families gathering after church, college students who have dragged themselves in for a hangover breakfast, and power-lunching 40-something women, some dishing tales of blind dates and others commiserating about finding new nannies.
The walk to the waterfront is hard, gray and chaotic—full of exhaust, gritty and smoky, that clings to the tiny hairs inside your nose. Receiving harsh direct morning sun, the western side of the street releases heat waves that warm your ankles, baking the painting crew dressed all in white as they touch up their handiwork on a tired brick building encapsulated in half an inch of latex.
Past the old work lofts, the feeling of the journey changes. Leafy branches lazily wave hello over the wire fence of Olympic Sculpture Park with the promise of refreshing green respite. As feet hit the gravel walking path, a satisfying crunch sounds—the synchronous plod of power walkers, the light staccato of runners, the uneven ambling of toddlers, and the steady scrape of strollers rolling ever-forward.
Odors of grass and salt hang in still pockets of air; sometimes, gamboling children stop dead to inhale them, distracted from their play like they have discovered a secret. Past the Eagle, a bridge spans the train tracks, allowing pedestrians to feel the rumbling might of the heavy rail beneath them—sometimes carrying refuse, goods, or fuel, and occasionally, a caravan of windowless, silver, shrink-wrapped fuselages, heading from Everett to Renton where they’ll someday become the planes that fly us across the nation and the world.
At the water’s edge, everyone plays: a harlequin pitbull swims with a large branch in its mouth, women in clamdiggers wade up to their calves in the 50-degree water, and children splash in the nearly non-existent waves, trailing soggy diapers behind them as they amble to where their fathers rest on large driftwood benches.
Walkers, runners, bicyclists, skateboarders, rollerbladers, and kids on razor scooters zip in and out at the places where the paths kiss now and again, taking the faster traffic in a more direct route, and the pedestrians in broad arcs like the oxbow twists of the Missouri River. The headwind is more insistent now, an itinerant force with occasional gusts that knock down shirtless toddlers as they attempt to cross the grass, their young bellies swollen and white.
The cruise ships have released their charges to shore, populating the path with predictable retiree stereotypes: the worldly type who wear large floppy hats, smart linen outfits, and expensive sandals and sunglasses; the Rick Steves world travelers, fit and trim, wearing khakis, fanny packs, baseball caps, and “Life is Good” brand T-shirts; and those who have peeled themselves off sagging couches in Miami, Nebraska, and Wisconsin, if their novelty shirts can be believed, to begin their retirement with a seemingly arduous stroll by the sound of their wheezes and Weeble-like gait.
Lovers gather where the path dips close to the water near Michael Heizer’s series of sculptures appropriately named, “Adjacent, Against, Upon”—they lean, they canoodle, they embrace tight up against the forms, as if magnetically drawn to meet skin and skin and stone. At the next bend, a lanky man practices tai chi in powerfully measured strokes under the shade of tall trees, a lone dancer moving energy in ways that we can imagine but not quite feel for ourselves.
As the grain silos come into view, so does the hulking monster freighter waiting to receive its load. Close by, a homeless man lazes against his duffel bag in the shade of a flower garden where people pause to pull fragrant roses to their noses. He smirks from behind his straggly beard as scantily clad women run by, their taut bellies, bare shoulders, and long smooth legs enticing him as much as their nearly immobile but well-formed breasts, covered tantalizingly by sports bra chestplates—fleet-footed and compact warriors whom he would never hope to catch nor bother to try.
At the fishing docks, groups of men gather to pull what they can from the sea, some for sport and others for sustenance. The former bring canvas hats, clean tackle boxes, and coolers of beer and snacks; the latter are equipped with bedrolls, grubby baseball caps, cigarettes, and small penetrating eyes. They laugh and tell stories to pass the time, resting in the shade before returning to their empty rods in sun, recalling an image of Mack and the boys from Cannery Row.
The path becomes more untended in the interstitial space that follows Myrtle Edwards Park: here in no-man’s land, the weed-lined road eventually splits to find Magnolia to the west, Ballard to the north, and Queen Anne to the east. Before it makes such a decision, it takes travelers close to rusty ships, cold storage buildings, and cruise terminals via an uneven asphalted path supported by a constructed rocky shore—the kind that seems likely to disintegrate and tumble into the sea in an earthquake.
On the way back, the sea sprays up against the rocks in furious spurts, suggesting almost human forms, its columns of water are so high. Walkers pause, perhaps waiting to see if Venus herself will appear from the foam. From behind, creamy yellow butterflies are buffeted in air along with a swirl of inexplicable white flower petals; they circle and fly about each other, the butterflies confused as to their companions’ intentions and trajectory.
Near the other strip of beach, an invisible artist has stacked large stones into tapering cairns, some over 15 feet high. A colony of willowy figures, they peer out at the blue ocean, the blue Olympics, the blue sky. A runner and his dog pass by, the dog glancing longingly at the water; a smile lifts onto his flapping lips as his long pink tongue lolls out the side of his mouth, dripping a trail of saliva spatters.
At the end of the loop atop the mound near the reedy beachhead, the experience comes into itself—sweaty skin and matted hair, the weak hint of brine, the gusts of wind, picnicking families on the knoll, gamine teenagers playing frisbee in the grass, children scampering at the water’s edge, a young couple reading their iPads at the Love-and-Loss sculpture, the zig-zag scar of the park’s path up above, couples curled up on blankets in the shade of the Eagle, old ladies in big hats drinking iced tea in front of the cafe, the multi-colored tapestry of 50 yoga mats spread out on the stepped amphitheater, and a procession of freckled urban warriors moving at all speeds up and down the waterfront.
Yes, this is why we stay.