Second Best

I’ve never seriously considered the question of love at first sight. Is it real; isn’t it? I don’t know. The closest definitive I can offer is that connection at first sight is alive and well.

I’ve known it with people; today I’m clicking immediately with a place. More, though: my heart – my wondering, soaring heart – says this is a favorite place. Which can’t be, of course: I’ve never been here before. You have to know a place, to love it the most.

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Maybe you’re streets ahead of me on this one, but this is just like the time I realized my favorite book and my favorite writer are not the same.

***

The Klamath Knot is in its seventh or tenth year of favoriteness by now. (Although some challengers have lately arrived.) But when a friend asks for my favorite author, I don’t hesitate: Guy Kay. Who definitely did not write The Klamath Knot.

I have more trouble with the out-of-doors analogy. I’m very familiar with my best-loved locations; I have a list ready at my fingertips. It doesn’t much change:

  1. Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
  2. Wildwood
  3. The Mendocino coast

Not a one of these deeply loved places in any way correlates with favorite trails.

What is a trail but a path through a place? What is a book but a piece by a writer? How does an entity come loose of its moorings and take on a separate significance?

***

This place, Whidbey Island, is a special one, and I can see it ranking in the Top Ten. I need more time to make that commitment. But it’s an hour after sunrise on a gray day lifting into endless blue, and I need just this moment to understand that this trail – the Bluff Trail at Ebey’s Landing State Park – is one of my favorites, ever.

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Why? Easy: It’s the way I am here. Emotional state notwithstanding, when I climb this path between sea and sky, I am filling in the lines that sketch my soul’s shape with vivid color. I don’t believe in fate, or destiny, (or souls), or any kind of “meant to be,” but here I am again, clicking into place with every step, like somehow I “belong” here. I don’t have to believe this, I’m experiencing it.

Okay, but why? You’re right, it’s not that easy. What features of place create that click? I can’t settle on an answer, so I’ll theorize. It’s the sea, maybe, and the mountains across the water, grand as their name: the Olympic Range. Or the easy-access blufftop setting, walking along for a couple of miles far above beach and strait, with the kind of views spread all around that usually get parcelled out to challenging summits only the super-fit can reach.

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I love theory, but soon enough, my brain is demanding quantification: just how favorite is this trail? Top Ten? I’ve been talking to my hiking partner, but now I go silent, ranking.

Internally this feels like being absorbed into my surroundings, blurred so that the I shimmers out of focus. Usually, my thoughts are that family of quail in the underbrush. Scurrying shadow to light, whittering softly to each other from under cover, changing direction with bewildering lack of focus. Today they are pelicans: cruising along, no particular hurry, but they know their mission. Top Five, I decide, and a little later: second best. 

***

My delight in lists and ranking goes way back. It’s a bit of a tangent to tell it, but my relationship with those is pretty deep too, so.

In my early teens, I lived briefly with my aunt and uncle in Tuscany. My aunt is a Marriage & Family Therapist, and perennially fascinated by the human brain. I’m attracted to bookshelves in general; my aunt’s in particular have been a reliable gold mine all my reading life. My love of lists comes down to a volume I found there, quite by accident.

Or – how do I know? – maybe my aunt left it out for me. Maybe she pointed to it on the shelf. Memory shifts like sand in a receding tide. So to picture this scene, I have to make up the details. My journals from the time might illuminate the facts, but they’re unbearable. I prefer the privilege of artistic license.

*

I’ve woken with the sun. My cousin’s room is still cool and dark at this hour, but the wiry gray cat that lives in the downstairs apartment has strolled through our 3rd-story window again to say buongiorno. He seems fragile from down here on the floor, but look close: those scars and that attitude proclaim him champion of the local arena. Or just listen: he’ll tell you all about it. At dawn.

My cousin can sleep til noon through just about anything, including voluble tomcats. I rise and approximate a cat-like greeting to Michelino, then steal downstairs. There are fresh melons on the kitchen counter, but I fuss with last night’s bread and the finicky toaster. (There’s no excuse for being sixteen.)

The living room is two walls of windows and one of books. First thing, I’m after both. The windows I ease wide to the morning, which is, this far in the country, everything I’d hoped. Hills roll away to the horizon, hardwood forest unbroken, with the sun rising peachy-gold to wake the treetops. We’re near the top of a slope, so there’s a valley in between here and there: more homes, hidden in many more trees. I can’t see a road.

I finished yesterday’s book late last night. Making free with the shelves this morning, I seize without hesitation on How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: 7 Steps to Genius Every Day

*

Fully-adult me is slightly sheepish about this: Good lord, what a self-helpy 90s-sounding book. But I’ve got news for me: it was the 90s. And that book did better than help sixteen-year-old me, it fired me up.

There’s a whole story there, probably, but my point today is simpler. That book is responsible for one of my favorite mental games: the Top Ten List.

If I remember correctly, the author argues that making Top X Lists (the specific number is not important, though ten was in vogue at the time) trains your brain to sift between fine gradations of good, and articulate why you like something. Having to rank one good thing above another forces you to more granular reasoning and teaches you how to weigh subjective value.

There are dozens of exercises in that book, and I think I tried them all, but they didn’t all stick to the intervening sixteen years. Exactly three of them did, and yes, I can rank them: this is number one.

A few years ago, I took a job as a search editor for a Big Name Internet Company. My mentor in that position was (is) a professional taxonomist, which is a thing I didn’t know you could be, outside the hard sciences. The ‘taxis’ part of the word refers to ordering and arranging – it doesn’t specify a subject. I’ve spent plenty of time trying to identify my goals in life (Think Like Leonardo encouraged that as well), but I don’t get on well. This one found me: of course I wanted to be a taxonomist. I’d been training for it all my life.

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***

And now you know why I spent the rest of that Ebey’s Landing hike, and then the rest of the day, trying to pin down my Top Five Trails. I failed. There are only three in my personal canon. I could change the rules and make it a Top Three List, but I keep returning to it like it’s a tricky puzzle: only two more! Almost there!

(This is the part where Think Like Leonardo would advise me to let it go. A true genius is meant to cultivate comfort with the ambiguities of existence. I am not a genius: I suck at uncertainty.)

One of my trails I have walked only once, and it’s so far from home I’ll be lucky ever to return. This one I’ve traced twice so far. The last I’ve hiked a dozen times, but so many years ago, in childhood – another world – that I’m not even sure it’s one path. Maybe what I remember is as much the work of my imagination, a stitching together of feeling and impression, as a recording of facts at the time. Today, the place it holds in my heart goes far deeper than literal truth. We construct our memories as much as they do us.

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Which seems a strange way to explain trail-love at first sight, but here’s the thing: a favorite track is one that attains this kind of mythic presence. It doesn’t have to be familiar: new myths are created all the time, bursting onto the scene with every bit as much power as the venerated ancients. We live them. We reinvent them all the time. We need them. They’re hard to see, but we know them. They’re indelible, indescribable scents – or invisible burrs in your socks. You might literally stop in your tracks to examine the moment you meet one, but eventually you have to keep moving, one foot in front of the other. It’s a marvelous way to get somewhere, not just physically.

Since Ebey’s Landing, I’ve been scouring my hiking guides, searching numbers four and five. But I know it’s useless. I’ll know them when I feel them. And then I’ll re-evalutate the whole collection, and rank them like a boss.

***

Ebey’s Landing State Park is on central Whidbey Island, Washington, on the opposite side of Highway 20 from Coupeville. Follow the signs to the beach and pick up the Bluff Trail from the north side of the parking lot. You’ll need a Discover Pass for Washington State Parks, which is currently $10 daily, or $30 for the year. The full loop, about 3.5 miles, involves one short but steep climb on good footing, and about a mile’s slippy walking on the beach. You can also access the bluff from other trails within Ebey’s Reserve, with little athleticism required. If you don’t want to hike, don’t skip Ebey’s Landing: come here an hour ahead of sunset and sit on the beach. Bring your jacket and hat, and your sense of wonder.

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