Secret Corners of Strange Places


This is where you bring your victim when you want to make it look like an accident.

I’m standing at the marshy edge of Seattle’s Washington Park Arboretum. It’s a maze out here, of dried-out, head-high cattails with squelchy paths between, leading with murder-mystery inexorability to a curious set of floating platforms in Lake Union. Over some several hundred yards, these slippery wood-and-metal constructions – nailed and chained into the vaguest sort of unity – zig and twist across open water to a small island. They’re nothing like flat or easy: ramps rise up and skid down at random; edges dip precariously waterward with your weight; handrails disappear on the steepest sections. When a small boat motors by, its wake rocks the whole structure, squirting tiny geysers up between the platforms’ creaky joints.

If I was a mystery writer, this is where I’d kill off the arrogant, cheating brogrammer character, when his fed-up girlfriend arranges a midnight tryst on the island – and of course, never shows up herself. Did she mean for him to slip, strike his head, and drown among the reeds, or was she just trying to scare him into better behavior? The world may never know; I’m not writing that.

My husband spots the blue barrels floating up one section of the tortuous walkway. “I feel like we’re in Half Life 2,” he says. “This is sketchy.”


It is (here’s the video, see for yourself), so of course we step out anyway, walking right through a congregation of gray and black coots. They ignore us utterly; one group is busy scrapping over a piece of waterweed. When the conflict resolves, the dripping string of glistening green dangles inelegantly from the winner’s beak.

Tiny black and white ducks rear back and dive vehemently underwater, again and again. I’ve never thought of ducks as fierce before. I feel a little sorry for their invertebrate prey. These have a distinctive patchy pattern and bulbous head I’ve noticed elsewhere; I tentatively identify them as possessing the wonderful name ‘Bufflehead.’

We make it most of the way to the island before we notice someone sleeping in a canoe beneath a ramp, directly under a sign warning “Danger: Canoes Boats Stay Away.” It seems polite to leave them alone. That island is probably just more mud and cattails, anyway. Or the lair of the lake monster; who knows?


Seattle’s deservedly famous Arboretum is better known for its collections of gorgeous spring and summer blooms. My favorite is the long, wide avenue of weeping pink cherries. None of those are out in January, but, an avid wanderer of gardens in all seasons, I’m sure there will be winter highlights.

There’s one, at least: mud. We start on the outskirts of the park and work our way around it, sliding all the way. I duck into a grove of cedars separating trail and neighborhood, just to feel that perfect hush a circle of full-grown cedar trees creates. And to catch a break from the slop: cedars lay down a comfortable coniferous carpet.

Around a corner, there’s an island in the way, fenced off and full of earthmoving equipment and stacks of supplies. Just next to it, a freeway crosses the water, its harsh wall tattooed in orange and blue. We swerve right on a path that barely merits the title, and a few steps later literally stumble on a tiny beach. It’s made of pebbles, dark on this rain-washed day, and fronts a dumpy lagoon the map identifies as ‘Duck Bay.’


It’s nothing flashy; in brown winter, it’s not even pretty. But crouching at water’s edge, I’m half hidden by a leafless, moss-grown shrub and a large log that’s chained in place. I feel like a spy, observing and reporting on this post-industrial wetland. A pair of mallards cruises up obliviously, then shies away in seamless unison when I shift my weight. I watch their v-shaped wakes until the ripples disappear.


In the Arboretum’s hilly center – on our way back from Murderville – my nose finds what it’s been missing. Two sweet scents vie for attention: one white and piercing, just this side of cloying; the other earthier, with a slight astringent edge. I start taking paths randomly (they’re all over, bewildering), following that scent map – an elusive way for a human to travel. Jeremiah follows without comment or apparent confusion. He’s been down this road before.

I come on the source of the sweet white fragrance suddenly: a skinny, sentinel winter daphne, taller than I am and completely covered in delicate, purple-tinted blossoms. Just behind, its rival: hazel. Among my favorite flowers, hazels bloom in soft yellow and burnt orange profusion, each clutch of spindly petals unfolding haphazardly from a deep red center.


Once discovered, winter’s scent and color are everywhere. A pine’s bark smells like vanilla and butterscotch. Sweet box are just beginning: vivaciously scented white flowers pop between orderly spirals of glossy evergreen foliage. Cyclamen – mere inches off the ground and the size of my pinkie fingernail – shout up at us in triumphant magenta. Hellebores nod gracefully, white and cream and dusty pink princesses of earth. I’m beginning to suspect an intentional ‘winter garden,’ and later I learn this is true.

I love the assertiveness of winter flowers. It’s not like they have a lot of competition; the showy blooms of spring (magnolias, cherries) and summer (rhododendrons, lilies) are still asleep. But the hazels’ long fingers beckon with all the considerable charm they can conjure, daphne and box send siren scents through the frozen air. They’re unmissable, secure in their power, and still they’re pulling out all the stops. They very nearly seem to enjoy it. I hope they do.


We are marveling at flowers when Jeremiah spots the hummingbird. It’s an Anna’s, a lady, and she’s darting and hovering not over blossoms, but above the trail itself. We freeze, as surely as if she’s cast a spell, and she dips and hovers, delicately drinking from the interstices of the graveled path. She’s in no hurry, and so we are content – compelled? – to stand unmoving, allowing her first access to the trail not five feet in front of us. She never seems to see us; her business is all-consuming. Only when she flashes out of sight among the tangled camellias do we breathe again, exchanging glances: Did you see that?

It’s perfectly natural behavior, of course; only the novelty of observing it at close range created the enchantment. But this day, in this place, is heavy with a feeling of mystery, and I’m happy to indulge such a benign apparition.



I came to the Arboretum for a pleasant walk in a pretty place I’d met before. I found sticking mud, reverent trees, industrial ugliness, humanity’s margins, unsettling wetlands, and a winter garden like something from a fairy tale, complete with enchanted bird. Each one felt like a secret we were privileged to behold.

Every natural place has secret corners, especially the ones we humans have built or preserved. You probably won’t be looking when you find them. A more mystical person would say that they find you.



Seattle’s Washington Park Arboretum covers 230 acres, with several miles of mostly easy trails. It’s adjacent to the Madison Valley neighborhood. There’s no fee for the larger gardens, and parking is free within the Arboretum. (The Japanese garden, open spring through fall, does have an entrance fee.) You can also park in nearby neighborhoods and walk in. Several restaurants on bordering Madison St. offer post-walk refreshment.


Walking to Warrior Rock

Last October, I found my perfect walk. Scribbling in my guidebook after, I noted it was “Everything you want in a hike!,” scattering more specific enthusiasms over the rest of the text. I made plans to return immediately: with friends, parents, by myself. Life gets in the way, though, and it shouldn’t surprise me that I’ve only just made it back today. On the plus side, the intervening months have made today’s walk a rediscovery, and not merely a visit.


The first thing I’d forgotten was the drive. You think when you cross the bridge from Highway 30 that you’ve arrived on Sauvie Island, the trailhead can’t be far. But the trail to Warrior Rock is at the northern tip of this marshy piece of land between two river channels; the bridge is in the south. Sauvie Island is approximately Manhattan-sized. Even lacking a significant human population, it’s a long way on country roads.

It’s also utterly lovely, which makes for a curious double reaction. Come early, and you have 12-plus miles of soothing rural driving all to yourself. In October, fog lay in smooth ribbons over the cornfields, piled itself fluffy and white above farms golden with the stubble of spent crops. This midwinter morning, it squats low above the Columbia. Mounts Hood and Saint Helens rise disembodied behind it, freshly snow-topped against a brilliant sky. It is impossible not to enjoy these lonely miles. And yet. The greater the unfolding beauty, the more impatient my legs grow with gas pedals and brakes. I feel something like anxiety by the time I reach the end of the road.

Fall-Winter 2015 1057

If I met no one on the drive, that’s because they’ve all beaten me to the trailhead. The unpaved lot that caps Reeder Road serves both hikers and, in season, hunters. Judging by the ratio of pickup trucks to Subarus, it’s the latter population that rose with the sun this January day. As I  shoulder my pack, crackling reports roll across the broad fields to my left. They repeat at intervals for the next three hours, yet I see no waterfowl rising from the trees. Perhaps they are used to the noise, and have learned to remain hidden. October’s hunting season was a quieter sort: dozens of boats moored in the Columbia, waiting in pre-dawn silence for the fall Chinook.

There are two paths to Warrior Rock: beach and trail. The trail is wide and flat, and I remember it as having good tread. I walked with my face upturned to the rainfall patter of cottonwood leaves, to the forest-filling rasp of a flock of sandhill cranes on the move. I spotted kingfishers calling at wood’s edge, overflying Canada geese, a couple of downy woodpeckers hard at work. Today the trail is a churned up channel of mud, threaded by slightly sturdier foot tracks wide enough for one. My eyes spend most of their time on the ground, searching out the driest tread.

Frost rims fallen leaves and bowed grasses, hardens the edges of the trail. Not, regrettably, the center.

Fall-Winter 2015 1059

I’ve read that you can walk the entire way along the beach. Important qualifiers to that statement should read “at low tide,” “in late summer,” and possibly “if you’re lucky.” Both of my visits have required me to locate a path back through the woods when the beach ran out. This time, it’s barely worth a walk on the diminishing sand, but October’s wide and friendly shoreline led me a merry chase for some time, before vanishing into boggy reeds.

Very early, the only other footprints are heron and otter and raccoon — so many of the latter that it’s clear the beach is their nocturnal highway. An entire raccoongregation lives in those cottonwoods.

The geology is interesting, too: slicks of sticky clay bleed down the mostly sandy surface from woods to water. I can imagine a very dirty science class field trip out here. There’s little visible rock: mainly the Warrior itself, topped with a squat white lighthouse that claims the title of Oregon’s smallest.

Fall-Winter 2015 1061

I was sick in October, recovering from/denying the existence of a chest cold. Sand, I remembered then, is hard work. Patience, especially with one’s own limitations, is harder.

Today’s limitation is external: this mud is a chore. It smells, too, like damp and decaying plant life, with a whiff of livestock manure. It’s a scent I encountered last while walking in sheep country: rancid mud, I called it then, and the thought wrinkles my nose. If it sounds unpleasant — it is. But it’s the sort of unpleasantness that highlights the clean gray river and the cry of the kingfisher, calls attention to the bright sunshine. I could live without it, certainly. But that’s not a choice I get to make.

It’s true enough – misquoting Emerson – that a trail is about the journey, not the destination. If there happens to be a fine destination on offer, though, I won’t complain, and I’ll bet Ralph Waldo didn’t either. Warrior Rock more than qualifies. The rock and its lighthouse (still working) are large enough to poke about. In the process, I get into an argument with my husband about which way is north. When we call on my compass as tiebreaker, it’s swinging wildly, less certain than either of us. We sit down above the river to theorize about the mineral content of the rock, dangling our legs over the side and peeling our oranges. Anyone so inclined would find this a friendly spot for a real picnic, basket and cloth and all.

The wide Columbia rolls quietly on a few feet below. A fantastically massive barge pushes smoothly upstream, silent but for its humming engine. The wake reaches our perch long moments later, a miniature tsunami that breaks violently against the rock, splashing my feet. (My husband, not about to get wet if he can help it, has cleared out.) I stay put, watching the river slosh about drunkenly in the drowned reedbeds. It subsides gradually, lolling back toward the opposite shore. A single fish leaps, and I try, lazily, and fail to identify it. My thoughts are surfacing the same way: infrequently, too quick to catch, gone without regret. For once, I don’t mind.


My brain is a restless one, and even on the trail (or the beautiful drive toward it), I’m often thinking of today’s later tasks, worrying a problem, or planning my next trip. It’s rare enough to find a moment of mental quiet, when there’s nowhere else my mind wants to be. My instinct is of course to strive for them, but I’m learning that concerted effort toward an intangible end is in fact part of the problem. Instead, I cultivate interest in the immediate, and try to let everything else roll with the river’s current. Sometimes it works. Today, seated on the edge of Warrior Rock, a gift: here I am.


Drive north from Portland on US 30 to reach Sauvie Island. You’ll need an ODFW Wildlife Area Parking Permit to park just about anywhere, which you can purchase online, or from the island’s Cracker Barrel Grocery, right there near the bridge. At the time of writing, passes have just gone up to $10 per day or $30 for the year. ‘The year’ is calendar: good through December 31st of whatever year you purchase it – so get one this month!

Reach the Warrior Rock trailhead by driving along Reeder Road all the way to its end. There’s a good amount of a parking along the beaches here, and also immediately next to the trailhead.

The trail is easy (except in muddy conditions). The effective elevation gain is 0, unless you count the modest (and optional) scramble from beach to woods. Total hiking distance: about 6 miles. To extend, you can continue beach-walking from Warrior Rock toward the town of St. Helens.



Unlearning the Map

If December was the time to walk my home territory, it’s also the month those of us living outside our childhood geographies often head “home” for the holidays. Which of these “homes” belongs in quotes depends on you – and possibly your level of stress reading that first sentence.

I am one of the lucky ones, in that this annual pilgrimage is a choice freely made and immensely enjoyed. I look forward every year to boarding that tiny Horizon Air plane for the short hop to coastal Southern California and my parents’ unassuming hospitality. Traditional Christmas gifts make me uneasy; my presents are the presence of my family, the benevolent winter sun, and the comforting refuge of a quiet, familiar world.

Bouganvillea and fence

I’m fortunate also in my hometown. I’m from a military background, so there’s some competition for this title, but I went to highschool in a medium-sized town called Camarillo, and my parents live there still, so. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that I couldn’t get out fast enough at age 18, but today I regard “my” corner of Ventura County with affection, even longing. Sure, some of it’s nostalgia: I had a happy childhood. But a decade plus of Christmas visits “back home” has also begun to reveal some of the area’s natural secrets.

I have a favorite, much loved and much more obviously the sort of thing you expect from me by now. I’ll show you some other time. Today I want to tell you a story about strolling in the suburbs. I want to work through this marvelous new knowledge of my hometown as a place I can’t wait to explore.

Camarillo Eucs

Camarillo has been a pleasant walking town as long as I remember. Wide streets, palm trees and ficus and eucalypts, deserty hills strewn with cactus and erratically terraced with an assortment of odd houses, old and new. Climb Mission Drive or East Loop on a crystal early morning, and actually gasp when you turn around: the view of the Oxnard plain and the ocean beyond, the Channel Islands close enough to touch, and the blocky purple Santa Monica Mountains is that good.

But it’s not a town built for walking. In spite of several nice parks, and a series of well-maintained rainfall channels and their service roads in pleasant neighborhood locations, there are few pedestrian paths worth seeking out. Regular walkers learn constant vigilance. ‘Share the Road’ is not a thing in suburban SoCal, planned and tarmacked in the undisputed Age of the Automobile.

I never noticed the City’s concerted efforts, between my high school years and now, to address the need for car-free recreational space. So for me, the Calleguas Creek Bike Path sprang into being, Athena-like, a few days after Christmas in 2015.

Calleguas Creek Path in Winter

My mother and I have a tradition of long morning walks together, dating back to my seventh or eighth year, when I would tag determinedly along on her pre-workday power walks. These days, we mostly stroll, and talk. Exercise both is and is not the point. Usually we walk out the front door and choose a direction, leisurely looping through neighborhoods for a couple of hours, stopping to sip green tea lattes at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf before the final mile home. But this time she brought the car keys, and off we drove to a place bearing a name entirely familiar, possessing a geography utterly unknown.


It was cold the day we walked the Calleguas Creek Bike Path from start to finish and back: cold and brilliantly sunny, with Santa Ana winds alternating between sly tweaks at our headwear and all-out anti-hat offensives. I walked with one hand on the crown of my head; the wind snatched our laughter and flung it to the west. Eucalyptus, usually a pleasantly rustling tree, clattered and slapped in its wake.

Sun through the Eucs, Calleguas Creek Path

The City has proposed to cut many of its eucs, shallow-rooted as they are, and prone to tipping over in these fierce winter winds. I see their point, but I will miss the trees when they go. Non-native and a bit of a water-hog, the eucalyptus has yet spent the past 100-plus years as a loved symbol of home in coastal California. Here on the Oxnard plain, tall, scented rows of eucalypts line farm roads and enclose city parks. There are fewer now than when I lived here, and someday soon I suppose they will exist only in photos, and that ‘old California’ style of oil painting I fall for every time.

A few native sycamores survive along Calleguas Creek, clinging to their last yellow leaves. Even joining forces with the remaining eucs, they aren’t enough to shade the path, wide and nearly flat, entirely paved, that curves gently with the river’s course.

Sycamores and Creek Bed, Calleguas Creek Path

The channel is massive, and that day it was bone dry: not uncommon, though worrisome at midwinter, in a long, long drought. If I saw this as a visitor, I’d be unsettled – where’s the water? – but to residents, empty rivers are part of an old pattern.

Calleguas Creek may once have been a natural river bed, but these days, floored with concrete, its banks formed of round boulders cemented in place, the prehistoric lay of the land is difficult to imagine. Rain in our region is a shy, ephemeral creature, but every few years winter throws violent, soaking tantrums, and our creeks and canals seethe with whitewater. It’s no good wishing for the willowed seasonal wetlands of decades past; the thousands of homeowners along Calleguas Creek thank their preferred deities for the illusion of control created by our concrete channels.

Living here, I noticed none of this. I was not a peregrinating child. Until my early 20s, I walked our neighborhoods incuriously; regular walking was just a thing my family did. I crossed that creek each day to and from high school, but I never did what I would immediately do today: climbed down the bank, sought out the inevitable creekside trails. You cannot drive along this waterway, and so it’s remained, for me, a relatively unknown feature of a landscape I know only by road.

St John's spire above Calleguas Creek

And there’s the heart of my new discovery. Although I understand my Portland home, and every other place I visit, as a layered geography, sculpted and reshaped and blended to its present, temporary form by wind, water, trees, culture, time, I didn’t think this way about my own place of origin until a few weeks ago. I already knew that place, see. I memorized it long ago, with a mind that hadn’t yet learned what is obvious to my older self: any boundaries we raise between nature and the civilized world are always and effortlessly porous.

Walking the Calleguas Creek Path exposed that blind spot. I may know my hometown, but I do not know the land, and so I do not know this place at all. Just like that, there’s a new layer on my mental map, vaguely sketched in here and there with trees, mountains, the course of this single creek. Undiscovered territory awaits in a place I’d never imagined; these streets I know stand revealed, so suddenly, as only an outline. I look forward to many years of coloring it in.

Windswept Calleguas Creek in Winter


The Calleguas Creek Path begins at the intersection of Flynn and Upland Roads in Camarillo, California, and runs about 3 miles directly along the creek to Village at the Park (which is just a development, and not as interesting as it sounds.) You can park in the residential areas on either end; parking is free and so is walking, but do be respectful of residents’ space. The path is paved all the way, well-maintained, and flat. ADA access has been thoughtfully ensured from streetside parking at the Flynn/Upland end.

Happy New Year. You’re Welcome.

I wrote an essay for Christmas last week. New Years, I am taking the week off. But you don’t have to miss an essay just because I’m being lazy.

Instead, I invite you to return to a previous piece. Any will do. How about this one? But this time, let’s play the Lovecraft Adjective Game. As you read aloud, replace every adjective with “natural.” I just did this with the above-linked piece and I am laughing so hard I’ve fallen on the floor and I’m rolling around with the empty Champagne bottles. Or that might be the continued consumption of Champagne. Hey, it’s still the New Year.

This is, naturally, inspired by this brilliant piece from Better Myths.  Mr. H.P. Lovecraft loved him some adjectives, and I find it both wonderful and terrible that he and I share this foible. If you’re not into sorting through the whole (fantastic, do it) piece, here’s the relevant bit:

fun fact
the more syllables the better
sometimes it can make reading his writing very difficult
but luckily i discovered a trick
which is that you can replace almost every single one of his adjectives
with “spooky”
without any loss of meaning
let’s try it on one of the paragraphs from the sailor’s account!

“I suppose that only a single mountain-top, the spooky, spooky citadel whereon spooky Cthulu was buried, actually emerged from the waters… Johansen and his men were awed by the spooky majesty of this spooky Babylon of spooky demons, and must have guessed without guidance that it was nothing of this or any other sane planet. Awe at the spooky size of the spooky stone blocks, at the spooky height of the spooky, spooky monolith, and at the spooky identity of the spooky statues and bas-reliefs with the spooky image found in the shrine on the Alert, is spookily visible in every line of the mate’s spooky description.” “

Happy New Year, friends. Thanks for reading. Next week I will write you a real new thing.

Cheers. This is my fourth glass.