The autumn leaves that litter the trail crunch beneath my feet, and dozens of flying insects — grasshoppers I think — flee the oncoming giant tromping through their domain. The late morning sky is a lovely cerulean broken only by lonely scattered cloud wisps. The October air is crisp — like a chilled white wine — dry, bracing, invigorating. I am given a perfect fall day to accomplish my task.
The trees that surround me, mostly oak and linden, a few scattered elms, give way to pines. Now the trail is covered in long pine needles and pine cones. Large birds — falcons perhaps — watch my passing with avian alarm. A brave one flies directly overhead to get a closer look at the encroaching human.
I’m seeking the “Cathedral of Pines,” the place I’ve chosen for Sam’s final rest.
It’s been more than ten years since I walked these woods. It’s the first time I’ve walked them alone. This wild park, this forest preserve, this all but unknown paradise, was a favorite spot for us. The many miles of dirt and grass trail through untamed woods offered a silent and solitary peace difficult for city dwellers to find.
Few seemed to know the park even exists. The tiny parking lot never had more than a few cars. Today, more than a decade later, that much seems unchanged; only a handful of cars occupy spaces.
Among those who did know, who do visit, many keep to the central area, the well-spaced fire pits that dot a lawn filled with large oaks.
Sometimes a large party, a family reunion, a company picnic, surrounds the pavilion; usually it’s just the occasional family picnic at one of the tables.
But few seem to explore the miles of forest trails, one interconnected loop to the south, another to the north. The view from the central park is spectacular enough. Hundreds of feet below the park’s bluff is Spring Lake, a slow, shallow eddy of the Mississippi.
Sam and I always walked both the south and north sets, and always to their longest extent. Today, uncertain of my aging stamina, I plan only the north trail. My pocket bulges with a package heavy in weight and meaning. Sam’s ashes. The task: my final duty to the best dog I ever owned — the only living creature to share my adult life more than a few paltry years. We were together just over ten — even my marriage turned to ashes in half that time.
The Cathedral of Pines isn’t labeled on any map; it exists only in the chart of my mind. A place far along the trail, inhabited mainly by pine trees growing shoulder to towering shoulder. The forest floor covered in pine needles — a trick pines use to ward other plants from sharing their land.
The living needles of the trees create a hushed sound when wind blows through them. The soft carpet of dead needles on the ground absorb sound, enhancing the hush. Even the birds seem to respect the silence. Nothing sounds quite like a pine forest; few things in life are as peaceful or wonderfully fragrant. This is the spot I’ve chosen for Sam’s ashes.
For all the times Sam and I walked these trails, we rarely met another soul. It was like having our own private woods, our place to forget city life for a few hours. Today I meet what I imagine to be a college photography class on assignment. Two groups of young people, engaged and busy with cameras and light reflectors, an older man who seems to be observing — I imagine him to be their teacher.
“Nice day for it!” I say as I pass them. They smile widely and agree. It is a perfect day.
I have trouble finding the Cathedral. It’s been so long and things have changed. The pines have finally been invaded by others. Wild sumac provides heavy ground cover now, and I can’t find the park bench where I sat while Sam explored. I reach the far north end of the loop thinking maybe it’s just ahead.
I turn back south, following the southern trail, glad that my wind and legs have proven up to the task. The trails are rugged, ankle-turning and with many changes of elevation.
I decide on Plan B. Rather than some secret spot off the trail among the pines, I will scatter her ashes as I walk back. A little here, a little there.
White dust begins to dot my path. Ashes are what remains of bones. Calcium. Sam will nourish the ground. The wind and rain washing away visible trace. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. We return from whence we came.
I like to imagine Sam’s spirit will romp these woods, greeting the occasional hiker (and perhaps their dog). The best place to bury a dog is in your heart — for they are ever with you. The second place, surely, is a place you both cherished and loved.
As I return, my task finished, I met a woman walking her Irish Setter. I tell her about the bald eagle I just saw fly closely by and recommend she keep her eyes open. Woods are life filled with life. Sit silently for a while, in any wood; you will be amazed at what — or who — passes by.
Sam died ten years ago today, but she was very much in my mind (and literally in my pocket) as I walked. I could almost feel her leash in my hand again. It’s taken me long to decide how to repose her ashes. They’ve sat, along with some pictures, favorite toys and other mementos, on a short bookshelf near my bed in a small shrine all this time.
But I am not really the shrine type. A few years ago I realized I never really looked at them or touched them anymore. It was time to take the next step. The problem was picking a place. The home we made at first I sold when I got married. This is the third place I’ve owned since.
But Sam died less than two years after I moved in here (ironically having picked a single-level dwelling to accommodate her repaired ACL). Even I don’t really consider this “home” but rather where I ended up after the fallout of a busted marriage; it’s just where I hang my hat.
There are some local wooded parks with trails we walked almost daily. We both seemed to like variety and tried to never walk the same path until we’d explored all other combinations. We knew every street, every path, every trail in walking distance. We curious explorers always did, everywhere we lived.
Those neighborhood trails were my backup plan, but our secret woods was the place that called to me. When it first occurred there was an, Of course! moment. It’s a permanent thing scattering ashes. No changing your mind later. I spent months pondering this choice, and each time the final decision was the same.
I decided to do it on the tenth anniversary of her death. Or rather, very close to it. Thursday was a perfect fall day in a season that’s waning. I didn’t know what Saturday would bring. And I wanted the loneliness of a weekday; I didn’t want to risk a Saturday crowd. It also gives me a chance to spend a couple of days on this post in hopes of making it, too, as perfect as possible.
And how fitting the day is so perfect.
The weather, the quiet woods and empty trails, the bald eagle in a memorial fly-over. Even meeting another solitary person walking their dog seemed fitting, a continuation of sorts.
Sam is a central player in one of my most perfect memories, a well-remembered perfect winter day. Our final walk together was perfectly on par with that memory.
It was everything I could have hoped for, a perfect coda , the final notes to a very much-beloved symphony.
Requiescat in pace, Samantha.
[It shouldn’t be necessary in this dayandage to mention you can click on the park photos to see a biggerized version, but you can and I am.
Also, you can see the entire photo catalog on my Google+ page.]