After a long hiatus I have found light hiking shoes that fit. My preferred boot maker of twenty years deserted me some time ago leaving me stuck choosing between heavy boots and sneakers. After many searches and returned pairs of boots I have at last found a replacement; they even make them in steel toe for work. Today while dancing around the cube-farm in my new boots more or less oblivious to the stares of my co-workers, I realized how so much of my life had been defined by this footwear. Years of working in the woods made sneakers impractical; always waterlogged they would disintegrate in months and back then I was poor enough that owning three pairs of shoes seemed a luxury. So it was boots for the miles of deep woods trekking in search of the elusive murrelet and light hikers for everything else; they were the shoes I biked, shopped, cleaned in, covered miles of city sidewalks and climbed urban trees in the off season. Twenty years, a dozen houses, a marriage and a long-term girlfriend and two kinds of shoes.
In those days my work was to walk and meditate. And while eventually I was forced to “real” work by age, exhaustion and a general dislike of food stamps (and back then they were actual stamps) very little I have done for money since has brought me that much satisfaction. This week I was back near my old birding grounds and biking around Coos Bay; roads splitting off up into the woods each brought back memories: Allegany, Cooston, Willanch. Biking at night the smell of sea and trees, the memory of narrow turnouts and steep hikes into darkness. A hundred sunrises and as many stories; the charging elk, angry bear, stalking cougar, sliding eighty feet down a hillside in the darkness.
“The places you’ll go” Dr. Seuss said, and the places I went: to Mountains, valleys, deep rifts of creeks following pencil marks on aerial photos to giant standing trees; from the topaz Wynoochie to the sluggish and torpid Siuslaw, along with innumerable creeks with names like Starvation, Tenmile, Jack, Scatter, McCreedy threading through rocky gorges. Murrelets love large trees above the ocean. Long ago the accessible trees were cut for railroad ties and arts and crafts homes leaving the giants on high crags and deep valleys.
Pushed in from the ocean’s edge along with their nesting habit the little birds would fly miles to nest in the bowls of giant limbs. While the timber industry loved terms like “over mature” they hungered greatly for the giant logs. Having cut all the private timber and most of the public lands at least once they turned to the remotest spots, far from roads to feed their hunger. They made them into veneers for doors and beams for Shinto temples in Japan. By the time I started working in the woods old trees could often be spotted from miles away standing two or three times higher than the surrounding second-growth. And miles I would walk, alone at night. Headlight shining into the darkness.
At the end of the hike I would await each morning in the predawn darkness, listening for the distinct keer or glimpse of the little “flying spuds” between the trees. Evolved to swim, the seabirds flew slightly better than penguins, and if they came close enough their wing beats sounded like a helicopter crash-landing. An active nest could end a logging sale, cost millions and make enemies in small logging-dependent towns. It could also preserve a temple humans rarely see.
Each day in the dark I would sit and drink black coffee and reflect upon “Tabula Rasa”, the empty slate. The only way to do the job was to set aside the larger picture, be the objective eyes and record the world as observed, not as one would wish it to be. That skill has been pretty transferable, if not always popular. Now I am that guy who makes sure the rules are followed; that you’re wearing steel toes, that there that there is enough light and no one works alone, and the safety plan addresses potential hazards. My satisfaction is elsewhere but I do good work because every job is important.
For a moment though in the night gliding along rustic byways I remembered a world left behind. I can no more go back and watch birds for work than I can stay up for thirty-six hours or drive from Moberly, Missouri to Portland, Oregon without stopping. But I did, and I was that person. And while my wandering days are more or less at an end, I still do appreciate a long and lonely road at night… and a good pair of shoes. My work even bought me a steel toed pair, so that’s something.