Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Park

The Long Meadow

One of the many writing projects currently cluttering my mind, and my apartment, is the rewrite of my first novel, about my journey from Louisville to San Francisco and back again during a semester off from college. The other day I was looking at Chapter 4, in which I focus on Lake Merritt. I lived in a tiny apartment in Oakland, less than a block from Lake Merritt, and spent much of my free time there, roaming the shores, or simply staring at the water. It provided respite from the closed-in city, escape from worries and woes, a haven of peace in a world of chaos.

All my life I have taken refuge in parks -- from small city parks jammed between bustling boulevards to vast tracts of wilderness miles from civilization. Wherever I've lived, I have always sought out such places for inspiration and regeneration. I've come to rely on them, but in a way also to take them for granted. What would a world be like without parks? I couldn't imagine it.

When I was growing up, we had a neighborhood park at the end of our street that featured a rustic wooden bridge, tennis courts, a swimming pool and horse stables. For half the year, after school, my friends and I would disappear into the woods behind the park, having adventures and making discoveries. We wandered the bridle trails like exploring pioneers, clambered around Little Goose Creek searching for crawdads and newts, climbed trees and built forts. In the summer we spent hours and hours at the pool, splashing, racing, diving, jumping -- having a blast. It was always just "The Park" to us, but it was just about the best place on earth.

When I began running cross-country, however, I discovered another favorite park. Well, two parks actually, Seneca Park and Cherokee Park. We held our cross-country meets in Seneca Park, with its wide, flat, landscaped expanses of softball fields and tennis courts. But for workouts, we favored the more rugged and rolling bridle trails of the adjacent Cherokee Park. Running swiftly through the trees like ancient warriors on the trail of a mighty buck. Once I discovered trail running, I never wanted to run on streets again.

On a trip to Connecticut my junior year of high school, my Dad and I visited two college campuses. The first one was Yale, in the center of downtown New Haven. Although I had always fantasized about going to Yale, the gritty, urban campus really turned me off. Sure there were plenty of quads & courtyards offering shelter from the city streets, but the overall feel of the place left me cold. Then we went up to Middletown. Right in the middle of the Wesleyan campus is an open greenspace with a big grassy hill, a running track and playing fields: a park. I thought, 'yep, I could live here.' And that pretty much made the decision.

During my hiatus from Wesleyan, living in Oakland, I needed the proximity of Lake Merritt to feel at home in the big, scary city. And when I wasn't hanging out at the lake, I was running the trails of Strawberry Canyon winding through the hills above Berkeley. And then there was Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, a great place to just get lost for hours at time.

After college, I drove out to San Diego and found an apartment just a few blocks from the ocean, in Pacific Beach. There is almost no place like the beach for restoring one's soul. Walking along the water's edge, swimming in the surf or simply contemplating the immensity of the Pacific. No matter what was bugging you, the beach would always be there to remind you that the tide comes in and the tide goes out. Sometimes there are a lot of waves, sometimes there are none. Every night the sun goes down like a glorious god relinquishing his throne. And every day is new.

Back in Connecticut, I worked for a while at Hammonasset Beach State Park, building picnic tables, lifeguard stands and lengths of boardwalk, and occasionally shoring up the fenceline that ran along the dunes. When I wasn't working at the beach, I hung out at my parents' house, situated on the banks of a small tidal river directly across from the Guilford Salt Meadow Sanctuary -- so basically their backyard was an incredibly cool Audubon bird sanctuary.

Eventually, I drifted down to Washington DC where I lived in a row house right on the edge of beautiful Rock Creek Park. We actually lived just opposite the monkey house in the National Zoo, and in the early morning I could hear the macaques crooning and wailing to one another. Sometimes I would respond, blowing long sad notes on my harmonica. I think the macaques assumed I was just another monkey.

Rock Creek Park is a true national treasure, comprising some 2000 acres, including miles and miles of trails. I would sometimes cut through the zoo on my way to the subway in the morning or find any excuse to use Rock Creek Parkway if I needed to drive somewhere. But I spent most of my time on the trails. There are trails everywhere in Rock Creek Park. I would pride myself on being able to get way across town, from Cleveland Park to Georgetown, without once setting foot on pavement.

When I moved to Brooklyn, I felt like I was really in deep. Yeah, I'd lived in big cities before. Oakland is a big city, but we lived on the edge of a lake, and I spent most of my time working at a burger joint in Berkeley. As for DC, it's pretty tame as big cities go -- lots of trees and wide avenues and low buildings. Kind of like a super-sized college campus. Brooklyn, however, is almost unrelentingly urban. Block after block of nothing but concrete, asphalt and brownstone. Cars, buses and taxis moving nonstop. People everywhere. And the noise! Never a moment's peace. It was almost too much for a Louisville boy to bear.

Fortunately, I lived on the ground floor of a brownstone that had its own private backyard garden. Well, not so much a garden as a patch of ground filled with weeds and junk. I set about restoring my garden to a more pastoral state. I hacked down the weeds, planted grass, cultivated wildflowers. I put up a hammock and even had a kiddie-sized wading pool in the summer. It was pretty nice. A great place to get away from the intensity of the street. But it had its limitations. It was, after all surrounded by other buildings and other backyard gardens filled with many, many other people.

So, I discovered Prospect Park. Designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted who designed Central Park (as well as Cherokee and Seneca Parks), Prospect Park is perhaps the ultimate example of creating a pastoral environment in the midst of an urban one. The 90-acre Long Meadow is an oasis of grass in a concrete jungle, surrounded by berms and trees that serve to block out the sights and sounds of the city. Standing in the center of Long Meadow, you really can forget you are in the middle of one of the most densely populated places in the country.

I spent long days in Prospect Park exploring its nearly 600 acres, including a 60-acre lake, finding something new and interesting on almost every occasion. In the fall, Prospect Park's maple trees had some of the most vibrant orange, red and yellow leaves I'd ever seen. Who needs Vermont? In the winter, the park became a wonderland with skaters and sledders and cross-country skiers. One spring I sat every weekend under a favorite shade tree writing my second screenplay. And in the summer Long Meadow became a grassy beach filled with sun-bathers.

These days, I divide my time between three or four different parks, depending on the purpose. When I just need to sit under shady tree, I have Kings Road Park, just a few blocks away. For short hikes, I can go to the popular Runyon Canyon Park -- the 'in' place for Hollywood hikers. If I want more privacy, I head over to a rustic little gem called Franklin Canyon Park, nestled right in the heart of Beverly Hills. For swimming I have the West Hollywood Park, which is like my second home. As far as longer hikes, there are numerous places to choose from in LA County alone, including the amazing Topanga State Park, which at 11,000 acres is the largest state park within city limits.

I guess to me, parks represent the best intentions of a society -- the desire to preserve that which is truly valuable and the recognition that we all need to share this world somehow. It's nice to have your own little slice of heaven, shielded from the teeming masses and whatnot. I hope to have my own someday. But it's also good to know that there are still some places that everyone can enjoy. Places where kids can play and explore, where athletes can compete, where struggling writers can daydream. Who knows, maybe someday one of those kids will discover a new form of energy, or one of those athletes will inspire a whole generation, or that writer will write a book that changes the world?

And then he will have a park named after him.

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