Category Archives: A Mix of Urban and Natural

“Racing Time” by Alaa Abdelfattah

         It was 6:05 at Middlebury College, Vermont when I stepped out of Ross dining hall, having filled my water bottle and decided to postpone dinner. I was eager to meet the sun as it set over the Adirondack Mountains and not even dinner would delay me. Besides, the walk was estimated to take approximately one hour and cover three miles so I reckoned I would be back for dinner with an hour to spare. I would march down College Street, and take the section of O’Neil Class of ‘97 Trail (part of the Trail Around Middlebury) that would lead me to Main Street, then turn left into College St at its intersection with Main Street and walk towards the sun as it set over the horizon.
         It wasn’t my first walk to see the sunset nor was it my first sunset, but it was my first walk towards the sun as it set. All through my childhood, whenever I hauled from Cairo to visit my grandparents in Alexandria, Egypt, I would saunter to the beach to watch the sun as it dipped into the Mediterranean Sea. It took no longer than five minutes to fully sink into the distant blue water. I would stand longingly at the edge of the water and admire the play of colors in the sky as the waves gently covered my feet then retreated. I loved it. It wasn’t something I could experience in Cairo where I have lived all my life.
         Ironic how three hundred kilometers could make all the difference. And now that I was nine thousands kilometers away from Egypt, I could finally reach for the sun in Vermont’s clear light blue sky unpatched by any wandering cloud or star. As I strolled down College Street, the sun was nearing the horizon and at that moment a child could be excused for drawing a full circle to represent it. Every tree crown around me was jeweled with red leaves at the top followed by a mix of amber orange and sunglow yellow contrasting the vibrant dark green leaves glowing at the lower branches. A few fallen maple leaves decorated the sidewalk, yellow lines penetrating their reddish color like veins.
         LaForce Hall on my right marked the end of familiar territory as the landscape opened up and vast greenery came into sight. A two lane concrete road stretched to the horizon disappearing down the hill then reappearing far away near the sun. Several thin cracks in the concrete looked as if an earthquake had forced it open. My eyes shifted to my feet begging them to keep within the safe white line separating me from the racing cars as I passed the first speed sign reading “Speed limit 50.” It seemed to me a rather slow speed for a deserted road; something wasn’t quite right about the sign, though I couldn’t say what.
         The gravel vibrated below my feet in response to a passing car, pushing any thoughts of the sign to the back of my mind. I lifted my eyes to look ahead catching the sun ray’s reflection on rows and rows of solar panels with chrome framing. They created an eye-catching sight while promising a greener future. Two hundred meters to my left stood a wind turbine rotating at a constant speed counter-clockwise, producing no noise that would alert passersby to its existence. Beyond it by another two hundred meters the left turn I had prearranged to take as part of my loop back to campus. However, as my eyes roamed over the landscape on my right further taking in my surroundings, a building located beyond the vast green land captured my attention.
         A farm. But not any farm. It closely resembled a Hollywood countryside montage that I have seen so many times in movies: a gambrel roof, roaming cattle, rolls of hay, and two glittering steel towers with round rooftops, the silos. The exactness of it shocked me, igniting in me a sudden insatiable desire to examine it closely, a desire that quickly replaced my longing to meet the sun. And at that instant of indecision, my feet ventured into the upcoming right turn in the road on a will of their own, the prospect of abandoning the plan exhilarating.
         On my trip up the slightly steep road, every step became a struggle, my mind still lingering over the wisdom of my decision to abandon the plan. Suddenly, purple flowers blossomed by the side of the road, transporting me to a blissful summer day in my childhood when I wandered to a bunch of colorful flowers to feel their texture while my mother read the announcement posted on a white board outside the building where we were heading. A few moments later, she had looked over at where I was standing and explained that sunflowers always tilt towards the sun, hence the name. Following this memory, happiness enveloped me and I smiled at the flowers, deliberately blocking any further thoughts that would obstruct the freedom of my feet to wander towards their desired destination, the Hollywood farm.
         Unsurprisingly, Bicentennial Hall, the furthest building northwest of campus, emerged on my right as the paved road ended in a partially full parking lot. On the left, a mini forest occupied the territory with an unpaved human path sneaking through the trees. The trail had a foreboding quality with no indication of where it led or to whom the land belonged. Yet one thing was certain, it travelled in the direction of the compelling farm. Fighting the urge to retreat into the safety of the known, I entered the trail.
         Walking slowly, I reached for my room keys in my sweatpants pocket; a gesture of a lifelong unnecessary worry inherited from my mother who had me running back countless times over the years to check if she had indeed locked the car! In my head, I could hear my mother reprimanding my decision to walk down this path alone, but I delved further into the forest anyway. At irregular time intervals, startling animal noises echoed from the bushes, causing me to pause and examine my surroundings, my body tensing involuntarily into a defensive posture.
         In contrast, the wind movement through the canopy produced a soft melody, and from the trees I could hear the birds flying away at the sound of my approach. Just the notion that nobody knew of my whereabouts triggered my anxiety once more; for I hadn’t even taken the simple precaution of telling my next-door neighbor where I was going. At every foreign sound, I feared the worst, a telling reaction of my detachment from nature like most city residents nowadays. Even worse, when the green trees gave way to leafless gray deciduous ones, my anxiety amplified. I mean the assemblage of leafless trees created a haze that had me blinking rapidly then rubbing my eyes uncertain if it was fatigue or a trick of nature.
         Soon my spirit lifted significantly at the sound of nearby rushing cars announcing a neighboring road. A few minutes later, the trail rose rather steeply opening onto another two lane concrete road, a more intact one, I noted, before my tense features relaxed into a huge smile and my heart raced at the sight of the farm now within a hundred meters. I hastened towards it then slowed down to examine the Dutch Belt cows wandering around the field now on my left. They had white and black belts rather than spots, hence the breed’s name.
         As I passed by, a few cows turned their heads to scrutinize me, and fewer mooed in acknowledgment of my presence. The air was now heavy with cow manure smell, a rude reminder that cattle are minor contributors to global warming in the form of methane release. Right in front of the farm, a rundown mailbox hung open with a 4-digit number printed on it which for some unfathomable reason I assumed was the number of the phone extension as well. To my disappointment, the farm had no exotic name carved at its entrance, only a small sign announcing the possibility of buying fresh eggs and cheese. Having satisfied my curiosity, I decided to continue down this road; reasoning that any left turn would lead me back to where I had begun this journey. Though when this ‘next turn’ would be, I didn’t know. Therefore, I willed my feet to move faster as the sky dimmed gradually forewarning of the looming night.
         The absence of a sidewalk proved fairly frightening in semi-darkness, especially with cars clearly exceeding the specified ‘Speed Limit 40.’ As a precaution, I crossed the road to move in the same direction as cars and mercifully a left turn appeared soon. It was in the form of a roughly paved road, covered with gravel and hardly wide enough to accommodate two cars, but it was a path nonetheless. The oak trees on both sides were well established with different shades of yellow and green that my fingers itched to capture on a canvas, but didn’t know how.
         Taking this turn, I marched uneasily down the street, doubts clouding my mind; should I retrace my steps or see this adventure through? Time became the deciding factor, with my watch reading 7:15; I decided to give it ten more minutes before retracing my steps to what had become a familiar route. Then a man in the passenger seat of a passing GMC waved at me and I cringed beneath my clothes fully, grasping the extent of my vulnerability, and instantly deciding to retreat the same way I came. I didn’t know if he was being friendly or creepy because I rarely walked and when I did, it was certainly not along an abandoned countryside road.
         As soon as I returned to the main road, I noticed for the first time the absence of street lamps, which empowered every passing car in the opposite direction to blind me. Racing darkness, I quickened my pace. On my right, another speed sign read “Speed Limit 35” which didn’t match the speed at which cars were breezing by. Then suddenly it hit me, I was in one of the three countries in the world that didn’t use the metric system which meant that ‘35’ implied 35mph not 35 kilometers! No wonder the speed limit appeared unreasonably low.
         Eventually I saw the trail from which I had emerged, unwalkable in the darkness as expected. “What now?” I asked my impulsive self, as I gloomily resumed down the road in search of a right turn this time. The answer came in the form of a familiar face that I recognized but couldn’t name since it was still the first month of college. He was jogging on the opposite side of the path sweating like it was 40 degrees Celsius rather than 14. With headphones on and a white shirt that was visibly drenched in sweat, he didn’t even glance in my direction. But I didn’t relent; I kept jumping on the other side of the screaming and waving to get his attention, which I finally did.
          “How can I help you?”
          “I am not sure which way would lead me to Middlebury College,” I confessed.
          “Any place specific?”
          “Ross Commons.”
          “Keep going along this road until you see the church at the furthest end of campus on your right, then walk up College Street to Ross Commons.”
          “Thank you,” I said to his retreating figure.
         Following his directions by 7:45, I was at Ross Dining Hall sighing with relief. I had made it on time for dinner! Shaking my head, I paused to reflect on my journey. Despite my divergence, I had travelled west, not only from campus to the farm, but from Cairo to the States. West, a word that didn’t only indicate a direction, but also a world of development and progress, a world that Egypt has yet to join just as I have yet to assimilate to my new intriguing surroundings, but first, dinner.

“Up the West High Hill” by Mandy Kimm

         As I stood on the trail behind my house, facing east, the snowy path extended in front of me for a few dozen meters before a low-set long wooden sign stood in a fork of the path with carved black letters marking the “Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.” The sign was illuminated at that early morning hour by the incandescent glow of the lampposts lining the trail, and I could just barely make out the letters of the sign through the thick, silent snowfall. The Chugach Mountains bordering Anchorage on the east weren’t visible yet that morning through the falling snow, but knowing they were there comforted me nonetheless on my walk to school.
         The new snow that had fallen during the night formed a light layer of about four inches, still accumulating slowly as the large flakes continued to make their leisurely way down to the ground. My booted feet made a muted creaking sound on the powdery surface not packed down enough to make the typical crunch of snow, and I was glad that the municipal trail workers hadn’t yet come through with their snow machines to groom and flatten the path and carve out parallel grooves on either side of the trail for classic Nordic skiers. I had the delightful feeling that my footsteps would likely be filled in with new snow by the time the next person passed by.
         Years later when I started college in Vermont, the images of that morning were often in my mind—of over a decade of daily walks to and from school, that walk deep in the winter of my last year in Alaska was the one that came to represent familiarity and comfort.
         As I began walking at a pace quick enough to keep me warm but not so fast that I couldn’t enjoy the stillness of the morning, to my right the frozen surface of Westchester Lagoon spread out in an oval shape, lined by a tree-covered slope up on the far side. Following the trail along the edge of the lagoon I thought of how today would be a good day to go out skating on the snow-plowed and hot-mopped loops maintained by the city—but it looked like no early morning skaters had made it out just yet.
         Through my hat and hood I heard skis gliding over snow, poles punctuating the smooth movement and the ground; a Nordic skier approached from the left side of the fork in the trail ahead of me. At first just a shadow obscured by the thick snow in the air, as she neared her form became clearer, and she moved to the side of the trail to make room for me to pass comfortably. We exchanged a nod to acknowledge our shared experience of the untouched morning trail, before she resumed her wide skate-skiing strides once behind me.
         It didn’t occur to me at the time, when still living at home with my loving mother and sister, but once I left Alaska and my family I realized the importance of small heartening encounters like this one to my contentment with life. Sharing pleasant moments with others as with the skier that morning brought meaning and joy into my life when I felt isolated, as I did during the first weeks of college.
         Approaching the bottom of the hill that bounded the eastern edge of the lagoon, my eyes moved out of habit to a dark patch of pine trees where moose sometimes lurked. It was a fairly usual occurrence to meet moose on this trail, but it was always best not to surprise or be surprised by one of the bulky and easily startled herbivores. So I peered carefully at the shadows of the pine branches before passing by the clump of trees once I determined no large furry forms.
         I turned right to follow the trail up the hill, and the lagoon began to fall away to my right, blocked from my view by more pine trees as the path rose. The relaxed traffic of seven AM on a weekday glowed with sleepy red eyes along the four-lane Minnesota Highway connecting downtown to midtown Anchorage. The few cars that took the exit toward West Anchorage High School that paralleled my trail up the hill didn’t bother the still morning, as the snow in the air and on the ground insulated most sound.
         As the hill rose higher and I began to peel off some of my layers as my body warmed, to the west the shadowed form of Mt. Susitna rose from across the Cook Inlet, the water body that surrounded Anchorage on all but its eastern side. The mountain’s gently sloping outline was just barely visible through the white flakes that had begun to thin.
         The thought rarely entered my head on those winter mornings that these images of Anchorage would come to define home once I left Alaska. The assumption underlying my education was that if I wanted to do something useful in life, I would leave Alaska for college. This I simply accepted, and never once considered attending the University of Alaska in Anchorage—UAA was for the underachievers in the culture of West High School.
         It didn’t occur to me until later how unusual it was to non-Alaskans that I encountered moose and Nordic skiers on my walk to school, or that I went skating on the lagoon behind my house for exercise. The short winter days with many feet of snow were never extraordinary until I moved away from Alaska and realized what the rest of the world considered normal winter. The mountains surrounding Anchorage on all sides never seemed to me anything other than beautiful but formidable boundaries that I would have to climb out of to access the rest of the world.
         At the top of the hill I could see my goal—the pale face of West Anchorage High School, lit by the dulled yellow of streetlights, a huge mural of an eagle painted with outstretched wings grasping an anchor in its claws on the wall next to the front doors. What lay beyond high school was just as clear in my eyes as the mural—but was intangible until the day I walked on to a college campus as a freshman at Middlebury College.
         I paused at the bench on the top of the hill to put my scarf and hat into my schoolbag, as I had taken them off as I got warmer climbing the hill. West High cast fluorescent light from the windows and doors onto the street in front of me, and my breath clouded the air as I exhaled slowly before crossing the street to walk towards the front doors. For the moment, it was just another day—but looking back, it was one of the precious last days of my childhood in Alaska.

“Burlington, You’ll Have to Wait” by Kirk Horton

         My father Mark spent his 12th grade year living in Burlington, Vermont, attending Burlington High School. That may not seem significant, but for my father it was. His father, my Grandpa Max, was an army officer, so his family never lived in the same place for long. At age ten, my father moved to Heilbronn in southern Germany from Fort Sill, Oklahoma. His father had worked on developing, testing and firing the Pershing Missile in Oklahoma, and moved to Germany to command a Pershing Missile battalion. Pershing Missiles were medium-range missiles designed to become the United States’ primary nuclear-capable weapon at the time. Pershing Missiles lasted in the United States’ arsenal for over 30 years, before President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, effectively eliminating them.1
         From Heilbronn, the Horton family moved to Heidelberg, then Munich, and finally Frankfurt, where Max worked at the headquarters for the Army in Europe, specifically in the Pershing Missile department. After eight years in Germany, the well-travelled Hortons returned to the United States and to Burlington, where Grandpa Max took charge of the Vermont National Guard. My father became an American teenager, attending Burlington High School.
         It was in Burlington that my father assimilated into American culture for the second time and developed his love of nature. Spending most of his childhood in post-World War II Germany meant growing up on Army bases in urban environments.
         In Germany, my father learned strict discipline and how to follow directions. Surrounded by military officials and stern rules, there was no room for error in what he did, unless he wanted to be punished. He learned how to navigate the Army regimen and the German subway systems. With his father occupied with Pershing Missiles and military duties, and his mother taking care of four children, my father went through a lot of his childhood tied to the restrictions of Army life. Much would change when he moved back to the United States. So it was his year in Burlington, where he could visit a public library with books in English and where he lived in a house backing up against Ethan Allen Park (a local forest), that stands out for him as formative.
         The city of Burlington wasn’t always as warm and welcoming as it is now. Bernie Sanders ran for Mayor of the city in 1981, defeating six-term incumbent Gordon Paquette. With Sanders as Mayor, Burlington became the first city in the United States of America to fund community-trust housing. The socialist governor turned the city from a rundown mill town into the young, lively city it is today. He kept the surrounding wilderness intact, while developing the center of the city into an energetic nucleus of Vermont.2 With the thrilling city-center and endless wilderness adjacent to his home, my father had room to explore.
         In Vermont, my father discovered his enthusiasm for backpacking. With more freedom to explore his interests, my father spent hours planning trips into the wilderness. He explored the Adirondack Mountains and the surrounding wilderness, spending days at a time hiking through various trails. This love of the outdoors still guides him today, and is the primary reason why the current crop of Hortons (his kids, myself included), spends so much time in the nearest national park to our home, Yosemite.
         As a native of San Francisco, California, I had never been to Burlington. My first trip to Vermont came my junior year of high school on a college visiting tour, but on that trip, the city eluded me. However, because my father spent a defining year in the town, a year that convinced him to stay in New England for college, where he would eventually meet my mother, I had to go there. Given that Burlington was where my father found his love for the outdoors, it seemed fitting to enter the city via a hiking trail.
         On this trip to Burlington, I envisioned spending most of my time in the city on Church Street, exploring the shops, and talking to the vendors. Most of the current urban fabric appeared after my father left. He told us about the modern city and what he had seen in recent visits, so I heard about the dock area down at the shore of Lake Champlain, the jumping cliffs on the shore north of downtown, and the city center, including Church Street and Main Street. Church Street, the pedestrian shopping mall and marketplace, was where I planned on spending the majority of my day in town. As my father told me, over one hundred clothing stores, restaurants, and other shops line the street. One of my father’s greatest skills is his ability to strike up a conversation with anyone. Considering my circumstances and location, I decided to prove I had the same capability. However, I had to get to the city first.
         North of Burlington lies the beginning of the Island Line Trail, the 12.5-mile trail connecting the southern tip of Grand Isle, in South Hero, Vermont and Burlington. So, my plan was to walk the Island Line Trail, ending up in the city where I would begin an exploration of downtown Burlington. A friend of mine, who was heading into Burlington on Sunday, October 22nd to run some errands, heard about my plans and volunteered to take me to my starting point. With no other plans of how to reach the trailhead, I accepted.
         The Island Line Trail crosses Lake Champlain from Grand Isle to the mainland, and weaves through the northern sections of the city before entering the urban center. It almost immediately transitions into a long, narrow path known as the causeway. Elevated a few feet above the water of Lake Champlain, the causeway is about 10 feet wide; just wide enough to fit a bike lane in each direction, and nothing more. The causeway is mainly gravel and sand, lined with small evergreen plants, and bordered with large rocks on each side. Waves batter the rocks, but the trail’s elevation keeps travelers dry. Once a walker reaches the city of Burlington the trail becomes smoothly paved asphalt. The small, dark green bushes and trees on both sides of the trail had yet to change into their bright reds and yellows of fall, but the cold, whipping wind reminded me of the time of year. Mist from Lake Champlain frequently chilled my cheeks, and the low sun did little to keep me warm.
         About a half-mile into my walk, I came to where a significant chunk of the causeway was missing. In the spring of 2011, Lake Champlain suffered extreme floods, destroying sections of the causeway, including the section in front of me.3 After the storms, in order for the trail to remain effectively intact, a small bike ferry connecting the two segments was put into service. The ferry, a small metal boat that seats a maximum of 20 travelers, has a small plastic blue top and one propeller. The boat navigates easily; a necessity considering the countless trips it makes across the causeway every day. According to Mike, the young operator of the ferry, a turnstile bridge formerly united these fragments. The bridge connected both sides of the causeway, and could turn, or “open up”, allowing bigger boats to pass through. The bridge was used frequently, but the 2011 storms and high water levels destroyed it.
         Mike, a 20-something local, divulged as much information about Burlington and the trail as possible during our short ferry ride across the gap. In his perky, high-pitched voice, he told me about the floods two years ago, and the reconstruction that had taken place to preserve the causeway.
         “Yeah, just a couple of years ago, this was all washed out. Absolutely no chance anyone could get anywhere near this place. Now, it’s almost all back to normal.” he said. Apparently, countless visitors visit the trail each year on bicycles. He told me that, strictly speaking, the causeway was open only to bikers, and was not meant for pedestrians. However, given it was a Sunday, and because of my limited options at that juncture, he felt sympathetic and gave me the essential lift across the gap. When we reached the other side, he wished me luck on my excursion, and recommended a visit to a taqueria by the name of Boloco. Making a mental note of the location, I stepped off the ferry and onto the second section of the causeway.
         As I stepped off the ferry, the bikers that accompanied me on the commute over sped away, and I began to walk. My thick brown boots, loosely tied but sturdy, crunched the gravel underneath me and pushed the small stones behind me. I shaded my face from the sun with my hand. Three miles of causeway lay ahead, so squinting and shivering in my thick black fleece, I started walking. Locals, including Mike, told me that this fall had been uncharacteristically warm for Vermont, and that today’s weather was more realistic of what I should expect.
         As I met families of bikers passing me in both directions on the narrow path, a sense of loneliness and boredom gradually overtook me. The bikers all seemed to be laughing and smiling, and enjoying their Sunday morning together. I lengthened my strides, and increased my pace, trying to shorten the seemingly interminable three miles of causeway. I craved human interaction, and a family to laugh with, like the ones who were flying by me.
         Alone on the causeway, in the middle of a lake, without any obvious answer to the lack of conversation, I began to sing. At first I sang small, unrecognizable melodies in a quiet voice, but soon I bellowed full-blown songs. A short tune we would sing at family reunions escaped my mouth: “Father’s photograph is hanging in the hall, right beside the picture of the monkey on the wall. They make a lonely couple, but the worst of it all is you can’t tell which is faaaather.” Next came the Christmas Carol, “’Tis the Season.” Before long, I found myself at the end of the causeway, and I was back on the mainland.
         From the causeway, the Island Line Trail runs through several parks outside the city. It stays close to the water, but rises in elevation, giving a walker several lookout points. The first park I came to, Airport Park, was not particularly memorable. The park was empty, barring a sleeping homeless man, and littered with trash. The windy day blew the garbage in and around the swing set and slides, leaving the eerie impression of a playground for ghosts.
         Leaving Airport Park, the trail transitioned from rough gravel to smooth, paved road. Burlington was close. Anxiously, I passed through Delta Park, a dog park, and Leddy Park; I stopped only once. At the beginning of North Beach Park, I saw a large white sign pointing to my left. In large, plain black letters, it read “Burlington High School”. Although it was Sunday and there wouldn’t be any students, it required a change in course; I turned toward the school.
         I walked past the athletic fields and the track, where my father once ran. Grandpa Max had played baseball throughout his life, and missed playing for the San Francisco Seals only because he was drafted for World War II. He tried to convince my father that aggressive, body-contact sports were more worthwhile, but my father wouldn’t listen. My Grandmother, Yvonne, convinced Max to accept my Dad’s love of running, and to support my father in his sport of choice. My father pursued his running, and ultimately ran in college. Ironically, it was my grandpa Max who became my father’s biggest fan; my grandma never bothered to watch him run, even when he ran in the Vermont State Finals on this track, only a ten minute walk from their home.
         I walked on the synthetic track material that compressed under my shoes, and across the thick grass that tickled my ankles. The big brick classrooms lay beyond these facilities, and I reached them with a few steps. Locked. I peered through the windows, but the dark hallways and empty classrooms revealed nothing. Discouraged, I turned back toward the trail, imagining how the school might have looked 40 years ago.
         A little farther down the trail, the outskirts of the city appeared. Buildings started to pop up on the left side, the east side, of the trail. My goal was to reach Battery Park, then turn toward downtown. Battery Park, a small recreational park, was dedicated to William Wells in 1972. A statue at the end of the park depicted Mr. Wells with his right foot in front of his left, and a determined look on his face. His tall boots, long sword, and large brimmed hat suggested that he was defending Burlington, which seemed appropriate: according to plaque next to the statue, the Brevet Major General fought in the Civil War, and defended this very spot, formerly a fort, during the War of 1812. In August of 1813, the American gunmen defended the fort against an attack by a British navy regiment. Lake Champlain was a centerpiece in the War of 1812, as both sides fought for control of a body of water so far inland.4
         About 100 feet ahead of me, a large brown sign indicated the first part of my plan concluded. I entered the park, and stopped at the first lookout point. A metal bench faced Lake Champlain, and a brick wall stood in between the piece of furniture and a steep hill. I leaned on the sturdy brick wall, and looked out over Lake Champlain. Behind me, a grassy area looked like the perfect place for a summer picnic, and trees lined the path running through the park. Sitting here for a few minutes, I readied myself for the second portion of my walk. Channeling my father’s social ability, I targeted anyone who would accept a conversation.
         At the end of Battery Park, a painter worked on his easel, looking out of the lake toward the Adirondacks. Equipped with a worn out paintbrush, and tubes of blue, red and yellow paint, he captured the fall colors of the trees below and the lake beyond on his canvas. His painting looked fresh, but the sleeping pit bull at his feet suggested the duo had been here a while. I walked closer. His pants were torn, and there were holes in his boots. His shirt, which at first appeared beige, revealed itself as an old dirty white shirt. He failed to notice my presence until I stood three feet away, when his dog woke up and greeted me. The puppy looked tired, and wagged its tail as I scratched his ears. A muffled noise came from behind the thick beard of the painter. He kept adding layers of paint to his piece, although it appeared finished. The painter placed his paintbrush on the ground.
         “What do you want?” His question was more of a low-toned growl, and as soon as he spoke his dog lost any interest in being polite.
         “That painting is really good, man. How long are you going to keep working on it?” I said.
         “It won’t be done until I say it is. Okay?” Clearly talking with a stranger didn’t top his list of priorities. This didn’t deter me. I focused on my father’s ability to pick up a conversation with anyone, and continued talking.
         “Where are you from?” I said.
         “Here.” Still nothing.
         “Where around here? I’m not from Vermont so I don’t really know…”
         “Around. I don’t usually sleep in the same spot for long.” He cut me off. For some reason this question caused him to open up. He looked me in the eye, sat down, and asked if I wanted to join him on the ground. His puppy also perked up, and nuzzled into my foot, begging for a scratch. I sat next to him, and, surprised by his sudden interest, continued our talk.
         His name was Jonaton (pronounced as if it began with a Y), and he was born in Burlington. He, like my father, attended Burlington High School, before dropping out in 10th grade. He then looked for a job in the city, while simultaneously pursuing his art of painting. Over the years (he was 21), he committed more time to painting, and less to finding a job. Eventually, he gave up on his search, and started painting stills of the city. He entered his work in local competitions, and evidently his artwork was popular, because he earned prize money from a few small contests. However, rather than spend the money on finding a stable place to stay and a job, he bought his puppy, Ralph. In Jonaton’s words, Ralph was there “to keep me company, and also to sniff out some good spots to paint. He’s got a nose for it”. From there, Jonaton committed himself to painting full time. Taking to the streets, he painted whatever came to mind, forgetting about finding a house or a job. His art and his puppy were all that mattered to him, so he gave up everything else.
         Jonaton reminded me of Aunt Susie, Mark’s sister, who also moved to Burlington with my family to attend the University of Vermont. She, like Jonaton, dropped out within a year of starting college. What Aunt Susie did between then and now eludes me. My father declines to talk about it much, and whether he simply does not know or refuses to tell us is up for debate. She may have painted on the streets with a dog, or spent her time travelling across country on her own. All I know is that after a while of living on the streets, she made her way to Healdsburg, California, where she met up with her mother. She now has a house, a job, and many stories of her travels, and we see her every Thanksgiving and Christmas. Jonaton, like Aunt Susie, seemed like an entirely normal, enjoyable person who had made the decision not to live a structured, standard life. Fed up with how they were ‘supposed’ to live, they left on their own trail, without hesitation. Although I have no desire or intention to become homeless, I think there is a lot to learn from my Aunt and my new friend.

End Notes

1“Pershing Missile.” Pershing Missile. 3 Apr. 2009. Web. 29 Oct. 2013

2“The Wall Street Journal.” Bernie Sanders: U.S. Senate – VT. Web. Nov 30, 2013.

3“Friends of the Island Line Trail.” The Storms. 4 Jan. 2012. Web. 29 Oct. 2013

4“History: War of 1812.” War of 1812 (1812-1815). Web. 30 Nov 2013.

Halcyon Days by Wyatt French

         I am nine years old and I am dressed in red Spiderman boxers. With my plastic golf clubs on my back, I walk down the crumbling front steps of “Wilton,” my Bermuda house. Each limestone step like a slab of feta cheese threatens to crumble under pressure. Entering the crabgrass garden, I soak in the powerful 11 am sun. The grass is soft like a sponge. With every stride, my feet push it down and it springs back up like a temperpedic mattress. It seems as though I could jump off a tree onto this grass, and it would cushion me like a pillow.
         I set my golf clubs down and make my plan. The tee box will be where the front yard meets the house steps and the hole will be the trunk of the palm tree. It’s a slight dogleg left, with a pink hibiscus bush hazard looming on the right side of the fairway. Which club do I hit? Driver, 7 iron or putter. I choose the faded blue plastic driver—I’ve been shanking the 7-iron lately. I tee up a plastic golf ball and swing. Whack! Darn, it’s a slice, right into the hibiscus bush.
         The bush is dense. I peel back branches, trying to find my ball while making sure not the hurt the pink hibiscus flowers that each stem so beautifully erects. The beginning of each pedal is dark pink while the tips of each pedal are light pink. In the middle, the two colors meet, and together they create the purest pink I have ever seen. I try to find the point at which one color stops, and the other begins, but it is a fruitless task. Nature’s perfection cannot be measured.
         There it is! I find the white golf ball lodged between two low branches and yank it out using my seven-iron. Once I have the ball, however, I don’t want to play anymore. I would rather look at the colors around me, soak in the sun, and marvel at plants. I leave my golf clubs at the side of the hibiscus bush and start to explore my yard.
         The palm tree at the front of my yard has a curved bow trunk that juts out to the right diagonally from the ground and then curves back at the top. I walk onto the trunk, its stringy sandpaper bark brushing my feet. Then I hug the tree with my arms and legs and spin around so that I am hanging from the tree with my back hovering above the ground like a monkey. I release my feet and return to the garden.
         The little wooden gate at the front of my yard looks delicate. Its royal blue paint is chipping and its hinges are rusted. It doesn’t take much time for the humid Bermuda climate to erode what is man made. With a push, the gate squeaks open and I step onto the light grey asphalt road that runs past my house. The street holds the heat of the summer sun and burns my feet. I dance on my tiptoes and hustle onto parts of the road that are shaded by foliage. Turning left, I walk down the left side of the decaying street. Pastel colored limestone walls line the road, separating public from private. To my right, a cumquat tree droops. After looking both ways, I eagerly skip to the other side of the road.
         Little orange ovals dangle from the majestic tree. The ones that have already fallen lie cooked and deflated on the hot asphalt. I climb onto a green stonewall, reach up and pick a handful of ripe cumquats. Continuing along the road, I snack on the delectable fruit, filling my mouth with sweet summer nectar.
After a minute, I take a right on Paget road. Salty air meets my nose and sticks to my skin. Sand fills the crevasses in the crumbling tarmac road. I feel more sand crunch between my feet and the street until the street is gone and I am on the sandy beach. I look down and watch pink sand squish between my toes and then fall back down. I turn to my right and start to climb a large sand dune that looks over the bay. On the steep dune, green weeds stick through the sand and dance in the ocean breeze. From the top of the dune, I can see the bay that makes a horseshoe and faces the sea. I feel powerful looking down at the tiny people that look like figurines.
         Returning to the beach, I start walking close to the dunes where the sand is deep and dry. After a while, my legs fatigue and I decide to go closer to the water where the sand is wet. With each step, I make a footprint on the supple sand. I try to make my steps the same distance apart, then I try to step only on the balls of my feet, leaving a mysterious set of tracks behind.
         As I move closer to the water, the sand becomes harder. Incoming waves erase the faint tracks that I lay. Waves wash over the sand, so that it is perfect, so that there is no trace of me, so that there is no trace of anyone. After a while, I step shin-deep into the water and feel the refreshing water tingle my legs. As I stand there, my feet start to sink into the soft sand below and the small waves slap my legs. Overcome with serenity, I fall back into the shallow water, landing on my backside. As the refreshing seawater cools me, I lean on my elbows, close my eyes, and absorb the warmth of Bermuda’s summer sun.