Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A Labor Day excursion in the urban jungle

I have to admit that unlike for some people, long distance walking has become my preferred mode of transportation, rather than a paralyzing prospect. Although I have a driver’s license, for one reason or another I’ve decided that the cost/benefit equation of just owning a car is not practical. I’ve found that it is much cheaper to depend upon my own two legs than to drive or even take a bus if it all possible to go to where I need. Some people find the option of walking even one block too onerous an exertion, but for me a one or even two-hour walk passes without comment as long as the point of it is accomplished. I’ve acclimated my mind to accept the physical (even in the event of cold or rain), and to a certain extent I’ve remained more or less outwardly healthy because of these marathon exertions. 

However, there are times when I walk long distances for “pleasure.” Take for instance on a particular Labor Day that I didn’t have anything to do, and I decided to take a long stroll somewhere where I could “relax” and  think about the world and my place in. There must be some suitably accessible trail around here; there is the Interurban Trail, with its scenic drainage ditches, picturesque industrial parks traverse by Lance Armstrong phonies adorned in those ridiculous skin-tight bicycle outfits, with only the occasional rabbit to share my bemusement. There was, however, an alternative that I had for years promised myself that I would avail myself to, but failed to do alternatively out of sloth or poor timing. Now I had the time, and the weather had just returned to its summer state after a weekend of rain.  

At 6:30 AM I entered at a point in Kent. According to a posting on the trail, “The Green River Trail follows the Green River through industrial lands at the Duwamish Waterways in Tukwila to the broad Green River Valley. The trail provides excellent views and access to the Green River and the surrounding river valley. To the north, the GRT passes industrial areas and manicured office parks, which gives way to open fields and hedgerows.” To be frank, the Green River is called “green” for a reason, and hardly a pleasing shade to look at. If my sarcasm was not evident in my previous note of the fact, “industrial” views in the area are not ancient curiosities of the past, but dull warehouses that feature all the architectural imagination of a cardboard box.

Thus the initial portion of the trail failed to entertain me, which didn’t matter since it had nothing to do with the motivation for the trip, although I sensed by an inspection of the map of the course that this wouldn’t be a short one. To pass the time more quickly, I listened to a sports station on a Walkman radio. Two hosts of a national sports network were going off topic after one mentioned that he was an addict of the soap opera “General Hospital.” It’s odd, but back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, that soap actually did have a following that went beyond the housewife set; there were murder mysteries and a James Bond-type  story line leading to a desert island where two characters tried to stop some mad scientist from destroying the world, or something. One of the studio crew dug-up and began playing the old “Hospital” theme music; the host who claimed to have been a “fan” of the show expressed annoyance at the music, admitting to having no idea what it was or where it came from. His partner chided him for not knowing the theme music for a show he claimed to know better than the actors themselves, advising that he should stick to his day job.

One thing about the Sony Walkman’s is that you never know if the battery is going dead on it; the radio sounded strong and then just died. Apparently, once its internal power settings sense that there is not enough battery life for maximum efficiency, it automatically cuts off, rather allowing a slow drain where the device continues to function at diminishing efficiency, like most electronic devices. Thus my contact with the outside world was at an end. It was also at this point that huge sandbags, that were supposed to block the advance of flooding that had been predicted for the past two years but did not materializing despite heavier than normal rainfall the previous years, instead merely partially or completely blocked the trail. These were indeed large sand bags underneath the tarp, about 5 feet tall; the amount of sand needed to fill them, stretching over several miles and more, was surely enormous by any standard. This part of the trail left no room for annoying bike riders, and some sections could only be traversed by pedestrians through thick brush.

At a certain point things started to become interesting.  For about a hundred yards lining the route there were huge tree trunks, some of them at least 12 feet in circumference; I would later attempt to ascertain the species of trees they might have been. These trees must have lined this route for hundreds or thousands of years before they were cut down; it would interest me to learn why they were cut, or to find some old photographs to see how majestic they must have appeared at one time.  A search on the internet revealed no answers, and to solve this conundrum I later made an inquiry on the King County parks website. Someone named Robert was kind enough to supply this information:

King County doesn’t maintain the Green River Trail in Kent, so you could try checking with the City for a more definitive answer. We are willing to make some educated guesses, though.

I had some of our staff take a best-guess on the species,  and we came up with cottonwood or poplar as the two most likely suspects since these types of trees are present along the river north of Tukwila where we take care of the trail. 12’ circumference is pretty big, but a multi-trunk cottonwood tree would be plausible. Maple trees can have big trunks at ground level but we don’t see that many by the river. If the trees look like they were planted in a row, then some variety of poplar sounds more likely.

Poplar and cottonwood roots give us headaches along our trail corridors because their roots buckle the asphalt trail. Poplars are hard to remove, the roots send out suckers if the trunk is cut so we try to remove the roots and stump or chemically treat them so that doesn’t happen. Cottonwoods don’t age that well, they decay from the inside out and start dropping branches without warning. They are probably the most common tree we have along the riverbanks.

But in the meantime I decided to tackle this mystery for another day, and continued forth. I encountered a Native American in an isolated picnic area. He was trying to keep himself elevated off the ground with a long pole; he took no notice of me, and I wasn’t in the mood to inquire about his condition anyways. From that point the trail remained accessible without any off-road diversions. I encountered a small water treatment plant, inspected it, saw nothing particularly fascinating about it, and continued on. 

Up ahead were people using weed cutters to clear out some brush on the other side of the sandbag barrier; they had to use a ladder to climb themselves and their equipment over it. There was no apparent reason why this spot required care over any other. I suspected that what they were doing wasn’t precisely legal; perhaps they were just clearing a spot so they could camp out and do some fishing. Further down was an ancient bridge over which was a stretch of railroad track. I suspected that when this bridge was functional, the type of rail cars in operation were considerable less substantial than the current variety; as I carefully tread the rickety wooden planks that allowed a clear view of the river directly below, it seemed unlikely that this bridge could even have sustained a subcompact car in its prime. I kept an eye on two slim cables on one side of the bridge, reaching no higher than my belt buckle to keep me from plunging into the river below with a false step. It was no better on the other side, where there was no obstacle from falling whatever. After traversing the bridge to its halfway point, my curiosity was sufficiently sated, and I turned about and returned to dry land. 

From there, I had to go off-trail for a brief spell, where I noticed a sign warning of a petroleum pipe line, adjacent to the river. I supposed I can’t be blamed for observing that this was not perhaps the most propitious location to put an oil pipeline, next to a river; but that must have been during a more “innocent” time. After that, the trees grew thick and I lost all sense of where I was at; I briefly speculated that Gary Ridgeway must have deposited some of his victims here, but these speculations trailed off when I observed an old white man gazing intently at something up ahead. That something was a group of Asian folks fishing on the other side of the river. One of them noticed the old man; perhaps to ascertain his intentions, he asked him if he saw any fish. The old man seemed to awaken from a trance, and says oh yeah there over there. I look and saw nothing in the polluted river; nevertheless, the fisherpeople took his word and moved a few yards up-river.  Further along was an overpass, where another man was fishing. Supposedly the Green River contains Steelhead Trout, but even under the bridge out of the sunlight where the water was low to see to the bottom, there nothing to behold. 

At I-5 and Christensen Road the barrier of sand bags ended. There were a couple of kids fishing under another overpass; I still didn’t see any fish, and nobody else seemed to be catching any either.  I continued on, and presently I encountered a fork in the path; I took the one nearest the river. I then encountered a dozen young men, white and a couple of guys from India; they were all wearing the same uniform of red T-shirts and white shorts. I figured they must be students from some exclusive prep school.  I recall reading something about a Supreme Court decision that ruled that a Sikh—who claimed that because he was Caucasian, that whites-only covenants didn’t apply to him—was in fact not white, because while the Caucasian classification included people of similar features, it didn’t necessarily include people of dissimilar skin color. 

I decided to divert to the other side of the river, where the trail reopened, accessible from a bridge. I soon regretted this decision, as the trail turned sharply, and was clearly meant to be an entrance or exit point. I retraced my movements, past “Kid’s Town.” Hugh Masekela’s Sixties instrumental hit “Grazing in the Grass” was playing on a loudspeaker; I guess it sounds like a kid’s song. It’s odd, but I haven’t heard an original pop instrumental hit since the mid-1980s. It just goes to show you that the music part of music-making seems to have been lost. Instead of melody, it is just a droning “beat” shoe-horned behind bizarre “singing” styles. 

The trail was shaded on the other side, which was good because I was starting to sweat from the humidity. It was 10:30 AM. Along the trail I saw someone slicing-up a large fish. Maybe it was a Steelhead. They figured they wanted people to observe their good fortune, although I noted that fish looked a bit too frostbitten.  Up ahead there was a wide clearing with several benches astride the trail. A woman was sitting on a bench reading a book. She was wearing short shorts, and showed a bit too much of her rather plumb thighs; maybe that was the point.  I tried to decipher the meaning of her overly friendly expression when she looked up each time someone passed. Was she letting people know she was open to conversation? Was she was providing a subliminal message that she was “fishing” too, perhaps for some nice man with an interest in books? 

Up ahead there was a park where kids were playing soccer; they all seemed to be white, and mainly girls, except for a match being played by a white boys’ squad and a team supposedly from Mexico, or immigrants from Mexico. There didn’t seem to be many people cheering for them. At this point I probably would have preferred a more “nature” than urban trail, but then again I was learning so much here—the jungle of human existence. 

Some further distance I encountered a stone marker. It identified this spot as the “Black River Junction Landing,” where flat-bottomed boats supposedly carried passengers and goods. I looked around and decided that there was no useful reason why this particular spot was chosen over any other. I walked past a golf course. An older woman who was walking behind me with her dog passed me while I was writing down my observations concerning the marker in a notebook; as I was passing her, she told me without actually looking at me that she observed me writing, and inquired as to my purpose. I wouldn’t say it was an exactly friendly inquiry;  I had the sense that perhaps she thought I had some evil terrorist-like design. I told her that I was just taking notes of the things I saw—you’d be surprised by the things you learn about the world; she pretended to agree. 

I recalled this 2004 story about this man who was taking pictures at the Ballard Locks when some suspicious person called the police, because a black man (he was actually bi-racial) using a camera is naturally suspicious.  I have no clue why the boring Ballard Locks would be a terrorist target, but there is no accounting for taste, I suppose. A racist fear freak apparently called Seattle police when he or she spotted the improbably-named Ian Spiers taking pictures at the locks; he wasn’t doing it for fun, but for a photography course he was taking at a community college. He was then followed by police and questioned at his home. A month later, he set-up a camera tripod at the locks. Before you could say Jack Johnson he was surrounded not just by local police, but by federal agents—which goes to show how a paranoid “tip” leads to ignorant assumptions.  Spiers was questioned by Homeland Security flunkies and told it was against the law to take pictures of the locks without first notifying the government authorities.  They could have also have noted that this only applies to targeted minorities, because even while the suspect was being questioned, white people were taking pictures without being hassled. In fact, the Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains the locks, has stated that it has no “objections” to members of the public taking pictures. After this incident became public, some locals gathered for a camera-in at the locks, but apparently no one thought this “suspicious” enough to call police, or required a permit. 

The trail continued adjacent to Interurban Ave. in Tukwila’s “gambling row”—a couple of large casinos that once housed a bowling alley and a dance hall, and several smaller ones. There had been a story in the paper about a movement afoot in Tukwila to close them down, because, they don’t “fit-in” with the “family friendly” atmosphere of the city. Why don’t they shut down the Southcenter Mall while they are at it? It’s the only reason anyone gives a damn about Tukwila. Or why it exists all. From what I can tell, it doesn’t attract any better grade of citizenry. 

I also spied a 7-Eleven, and decided to pick-up some supplies: Two slices of pizza and a diet coke. I continued on. At Prosser Piano and Organ the trail moved temporarily out of the urban environment and continued adjacent to the highway. The river was still near, and I observed more people fishing, none of whom seemed to have notable success.  Frankly, I now could think of better ways of taking advantage of a day-off, like sleeping. 

Eventually the urban environment reappeared. On my side of the river were the promised manicured office parks, and on the other side were mostly ramshackle houses in need of paint jobs. One particularly drab abode had a flagpole in the back yard; waving in the wind was an American flag and a yellow flag with a curious emblem on it. On more minute inspection it was revealed to be that symbol of “revolution,” the coiled snake and “Don’t Tread On Me.” As I was making this observation, a white man with long silver hair tied in a ponytail ventured outside to take note of this person looking in his direction and taking notes. I waved at him and moved on; I didn’t need to find out what this reactionary’s response was.

I saw nothing eventful for a long while, except that a great blue heron flew ahead of me and alighted on the river bank; unlike the skittish little blue heron, the great blue will not fly off merely because its presence is discovered. I then saw a Boeing building, so I knew the end was in sight; my legs were starting to ache. It was 12:12 PM. I saw more Lance Armstrong wannabes in those stupid tights. Presently the United States Postal Service main terminal came into view; the trail continued off to the left.  For some reason I thought that the trail would eventually lead to the southern reaches of Elliot Bay. Instead, the trail ended in the middle of absolutely nowhere. An “End of Trail” sign greeted me next to some anonymous back road. It was 12:40 PM. There was nothing for me to do but turn back to Tukwila a find a bus back to where I came from. 

At 2:02 I reached the nearest stop; I had been walking over 8 hours by now. I got on a bus and sat behind two giggling Japanese girls, living in their technologically, hermetically-sealed world, a couple of preppy-looking white guys with their self-satisfied, smug expressions, and some rude people in the back playing their annoying noise without the benefit of  required headphones. In other words, back in “civilization.”

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