“You hear that?” I asked Jorrit as we basked at our Beals Point campsite after breakfast. “That’s the sound of industry and birdsong.” Somewhere a utility vehicle’s back-up beeper was sounding off. The traffic on Auburn-Folsom thrummed, the mean hum lumped only by the whine of speeders and the volcanic farts of beaters and motorcycles. And the birds spoke above us. Jorrit added, “The birds are industrious.” I didn’t agree, but wasn’t moved to say anything and didn’t know how to voice why I disagreed anyway.
I did feel, though, it had something to do with the question that’d burrowed in me from where I was and begun gestating: what kind of imagination conceives of a suburb in conjunction with a dam in conjunction with a state prison in conjunction with a state recreational area? Not quite that of any bird.
On the way to Folsom SRA the day before, at the edge of town, we passed a new housing development enclosed by a wall about the height of three men. “It looks medieval, doesn’t it?” Jorrit said, then suggested all they needed was a moat and a sentry on horseback. “I think they’re working on the moat,” I replied and pedaled, eyeing the ditch and landscaping cloth at the foot of the wall.
A few hundred feet further along, just after a signpost urging bikes and motorized vehicles to “SHARE THE ROAD,” a woman yelled “No!” at us from for her car, speeding in the opposite direction. I understood her fear: the road was bad and had no shoulder. She was afraid she and her car would become agents of manslaughter, and then her life, as she knew it, would be over. Our vulnerability could turn her or another driver into a killer.
Praise be, that segment of road was short, and our next turn took us into a brief, quiet semirural no-man’s-land before leading us north under the 50, which marked an abrupt shift in the built environment. Just out of the shadow of the highway, the city was strenuously planned: a bike lane, a hotel, signage pointing out city destinations in a modern old-timey font, a sprawling power-washed earth-toned shopping development, and another one, and another one. What was the plan? (“Where are the architects in California nowadays?” Jorrit near-pleaded on the train home from Sacramento the next day.)
We got lost, or rather followed our turn-by-turn to a part of the park that wasn’t where we’d intended to end up, then a park ranger put us on track to Beals Point and we made our way to the crossing. On the south side of the crossing, sat the prison up on a hill—barbed-wire fencing, high-powered lights—on the north side, the dam—barbed-wire fencing, high-powered lights. I had fantasized that we might go straight over the dam, but fences and gates diverted travelers downstream, probably to keep the riskier types far afield—those who might fall or fling themselves off, those who’d hatched a plan to set off a satchel full of explosives or take dam workers hostage. I recalled my run-in with the Coast Guard the year after 9/11, when my boyfriend at the time and I had walked from Baker Beach to the foot of the Golden Gate’s southern end and scrambled on the rocks beneath the bridge to get east of it. As soon as we found our footing on the other side, we heard a guardsman cry out at us, “Halt!” If I remember right, he held us at gunpoint for a while before checking our IDs and realizing we were just dumb lovers.
“Why do you think they built the prison by the dam?” I asked Jorrit as we rode between the two. “Can you imagine living by a dam day and night? The noise when the floodgates are open? And the chance of dam failure? The land is undesirable. No one would want to buy it.”
Less than a mile after the crossing, we caught sight of the campground, down from the bike path, through a break in the trees. We weren’t sure how to get in, so Jorrit asked the man who was camping with his family near the path if we could walk through his site. Without seeing him, I heard the man bark jealously, “This is our campsite.” Jorrit, in response, affected his best conciliatory attitude—an attitude that, after years of being with him, I know is meant to clarify for its audience their own assholiness. “We’ll never do it again,” Jorrit said. “I’m sorry,” I piped in from behind the trees, “We mapped our route out wrong.” And the man seemed to soften when he saw Jorrit was with a woman, such as I am. The man tried hard to reverse course: “How far did you come?” “About fifty miles from here,” I said, rolling through without looking him in the face. “Well, you made it.” “Sorry to interrupt. And thanks for letting us pass,” I said and made a beeline for the campground road, where we were able to spot our reservation hanging on a site’s post. As soon as we were out of hearing of the family, we started scheming up plans for walking through their site again and the excuses we’d give. Each time, we decided, we’d end by promising, “We’ll never do it again.”
Jorrit set up camp and the stove while I washed a grease imprint of sprockets off my leg and sock, and then we settled down to dinner. Getting a nice buzz from a screw-top zin, we spectated the other campers. A young boy wheeled by aimlessly on his likely camp-only bike, and Jorrit pondered, “What’s he looking for?” “Meaning,” I came back, my lips thinning into a smirk. But I meant it.
After dinner, we took a stroll north along the dikes helping hold in Folsom Lake. On the way, we came across an older couple, with one pair of binoculars between them, watching the sunset. We fell into conversation. “You’ll find us here every night at sunset,” she said. The man picked up, “You can see clear to the sierras in the East—see those snow-topped mountains over there?—and the Mayacamas Mountains in the West. Look, see that little bump there? That’s Black Butte. You’ve got over a one-hundred mile vista in either direction from here.” Our party broke up man-to-man and woman-to-woman, and we babbled in parallel for a few minutes, watching the western sky turn and turn color. We went on that way till, a good ten minutes before the pleasantries would’ve been tapped dry for me, Jorrit ended our congress suddenly: “Well, nice talking to you.” A few steps away, he explained his brusqueness in a low voice, “The guy started telling me about his motorboat. I have nothing to say to that.”
There have been moments, on all three of the short sections of the Pacific Crest Trail Jorrit and I have walked, that I’ve been profoundly relieved by the sight of human construction. Yes, the PCT itself is a development, in large part, of human labor, and it’s not pristine and unpeopled, but a hikers’ highway, especially during the trail’s six-month high season. Probably most parts of the path started as animal tracks that people followed—in waves, first the indigenous people, then the settler scouts and settlers—trod into a groove, then mapped, and, much later, linked up, got federally recognized, developed, branded and signed, and maintained. So, the trail alone is evidence of lengthy, coordinated human intervention. But—I have surprised myself—the kinds of products of human work that have given me comfort out there have been those that could in no way be a collaboration between animals and humans, as the trail might’ve begun. They are objects that would strike me as ugly practicalities in many other contexts: a rusted rod sticking out of a natural feature, an outhouse, a ski lift, power lines and towers, and even a blessed asphalt road, highway, parking lot. There, these things can push out my feeling of being lost, my loneliness, my fear.
Operating in me in opposition to this first unexpected comfort is a feeling of solace at proof of physical forces, within whose domain people must live, playing out their inevitabilities. I’ve felt a quiet inward amplification at seeing a road in Half Moon Bay that was totaled by erosion, impassable except by foot or maybe bike. I felt reassured, also, by the three rockfalls blocking the American River Bike Trail on the way from Folsom SRA to Sac Amtrak, the last leg of that short tour. Having to carry our bikes over the fallen earth seemed like a fair toll to pay to continue on the road; or maybe it wasn’t a toll, but a ritual setting us back into relation with those forces by which we were formed and which we’ve been trying very hard to corset for the narrow purposes of industry. And I’ve gotten more pleasure than seems reasonable out of the pothole in the part of Perkins Street just below our dining room window. That hole, the child of friction and erosion, has caused no small amount of grief for drivers going to or from Grand, the main road nearby. Every time Jorrit and I hear a car’s tire thunk into that dip, we crack up. One time, we heard a driver hit the hole so hard he yelled out as though his car were an extension of his body and he’d just received a mortal blow.
These diametric comforts can be seen to hold hands in my love for Lake Merritt, the body of water a couple minutes walk from our building. Lake Merritt is not really a lake, but an estuary, proven, as soon as one forgets, by the occasional jellyfish pulsing into view. After the big rains this spring, there was another reminder of the lake’s not being a lake, of its connection to the bay: dead rays started floating up along its edge. Jorrit read scientists suppose the rays died either because the rain washed extraordinary amounts of pollution into the water or because the deluge created a stratum of freshwater, above the saltwater, in which the rays couldn’t survive. On my regular morning walks around the lake, I watched the rays decompose. The smell alerted me where to look. I could see gray bundles of muscle and ceratotrichia, like poncho fringe, exposed on the ones farther along in rotting.
Now, these dead rays have washed away, but the trash along the lake’s outline, the shape of a deflating heart, seems ever present. Most of the garbage is potato chip, corn chip, or corn puff bags, half-pint and pint liquor bottles, and balls here and there—a tennis ball, a mini basketball, once a clear blow-up ball with the world map painted on it. The local schools often make a student field trip out of a lake cleanup. Warm weekends’ lakeside barbecues and picnics also leave the trash bins overflowing, and keep the kids, civic groups, and maybe a few corporate volunteers busy.
The birds lay waste to the place, too. When the geese are in full force, large sections of the path are covered in their black-green-white logs of shit and patches of grass are decimated by their nibbling. (They direct foot traffic with their shit and intimidating hisses—nasty little Dilophosaurs.) This year, the cormorants have expanded their territory from the teeny knobby islands of the sanctuary to a tree between the lake and a playground just east of the heart’s topside notch. The area around their new roost now has a smell of fish and piss. White splats have dried to the path beneath, which has been partly blocked off with caution tape and yellow sandwich boards mounted with signs asking walkers to look up and mind the wildlife. In fact, it would be hard not to mind the cormorants. Besides their smell, they make a sound out of a horror film—a cross between a creaking door and the glottal purr-roar of a big cat—an out-of-sync chorus of that. These beasts will kill the tree they’re nesting in—clear to see from the tree on the island that they’ve been living in longer, whose branches, with scribbly nests in the crook of most of their forks, are barren.
Some street people who make the lake their home probably know these animals more intimately than I do. One man lives at the end of the colonnade past the Ghost Ship memorial improvised and kept by the people. I say hello to him whenever he’s not asleep or shivering and rocking so hard he can’t take in who passes. When he hears and sees me, he smiles with one corner of his lips higher than the other, and mouths hello. I once saw a raccoon try to insinuate itself into this man’s dinner. I scurried a few feet behind him because I was afraid of the raccoon, and I asked whether he wasn’t scared of it, too. He didn’t reply, but he looked more startled by me, speaking from behind him, than he was by the furry bandit.
Other people live under the bridge at the outlet and inlet to and from the bay. One man I’ve only ever seen at the public toilets by the amphitheater, waiting for city workers to clean the facilities, presumably so he can use them fresh. A couple folks have pitched tents near the Camron-Stanford house, one tent in the house’s lawn rolling down to the lake and another by the lakeside, safe from the eucalyptus and among weeping, curly-leaved trees. They have a view to the water and East Bay hills and the big skies above, whether blue or hung heavy with mist. If they rolled out of bed to the benches a few paces away, they would also have a view onto the theater of the older ladies and gentlemen using the bike racks by the Lake Chalet to do their morning stretches and squats.
Another man lives part-time under the shelter of the Bellevue Avenue bus stop. He keeps his shopping cart organized and covered, and he always looks smart in a blazer or leather jacket and wool golf or baseball cap and proper trousers. I’ve seen him eating a good meal using the bus stop seat as his table and his own stool to sit on. I’ve also seen him cutting away the dead skin on his feet with a razor blade. I asked him his name once, and he gestured with his hand to his mouth to show that he couldn’t speak. I asked him another time if he could sign his name, and he shook his head no.
Then there are the many, like me, who don’t live or linger so much at the lake, but may live on or beyond one of the broad roads around it, and are usually moving along the path at its edge: The man who wears a visor and a long-sleeved hoodie, and shuffles his feet with his arms straight down at his sides—some cross between Shaggy and an Irish step dancer. The beautiful jogger with a salt-and-pepper beard and small hoop earrings. The aged Eritrean and Ethiopian women in their coverings. Greedy (Gregory), the hustler, with his gold spray-painted jacket, bike, and bike trailer, going baller slow. The young, fast runner who favors one side and looks like she’s a skinned anatomical model. The elderly woman who must live down the block from me and walks the lake twice a day; she looks to have had a stroke, because one of her arms hangs naturally and the other is more rigid, with its elbow always slightly bent and its hand fixedly cupped. The man who can call flocks of pigeons to him with his whistle. All the commuters and exercisers on their hands-free headsets, freely, even exuberantly, offering up their side of private conversations to the public. (One of my favorite samples lately: “She’s the worst kind of woke person.” I had to laugh because I wouldn’t be surprised if someone ranked me among those in this new category of the political moment.) A few schizophrenics who come to the lake also make public an interpretation of their interior experience, sometimes speaking, sometimes cursing, grunting, moaning into the air.
Then there are the handful of people who traverse the lake: the rowers, rowing coaches with megaphones on motorboats, the gondoliers, the paddleboat pedalers, canoers, sailors in the smallest of dinghies—mostly single-handers like the Sunfish—dragon boat racers once a year at the beginning of fall, and, the outliers like the Aquapy raft at the height of Occupy Oakland.
I have walked the lake so many times by now that the path, the lake’s build and what’s built by it, and the people, creatures, and floras around and in it have worn, are wearing paths to and establishing areas of excitation in my head. Seven years living by the lake, fifty-two weeks a year, about three circuits a week, not counting my rounds of the lake before we lived close to it: hundreds of passes. On the east side, the path in my head is cracked, with grass growing through, and dusty from the overhaul of Harrison and Lakeside; on the west side, the path is smooth, improved. The area of brain circled and connected by and tangential to this path has been dredged, remembers in its ebb and flow that it was a tidal lagoon in a wetland, suffocates with algal blooms. It blasts music, pants, sweats, tweets, coos, complains and commiserates, honks, barks, sniffs asses, flocks to tossed breadcrumbs, dives into the water from flight. It is twisted and leaning as tea trees. Its foliage rustles with squirrels in the day and rats after sundown. It is of a land that was taken and taken, of a city that originated as a swindle. It is a body of water that once received and decomposed raw sewage and now receives surface runoff carrying trash and all the other sediments of city life; a body, strung with lights, whose reflection of the city at night makes it look like the lakeside buildings’ makeup is running. It lies in a U of freeways; it flows out to the port—where container ships attest to the inhuman scale that supports this human life—flows to the bay (or mother estuary)—where whales have shown up when they’ve gotten lost. It is policed and is in the neighborhood of a detention facility, and mists passersby with dirty water carried on the wind from aerating fountains, and smells of egg and perfumed shampoos. These are my habits of mind, habits I need to admit are not unrelated to the ones that can imagine Folsom. Folsom is just upstream of us.