In Highland Park, where I live, the Green Bay Trail for much of its route parallels the old Chicago and Northwestern railroad line. Though the line has changed its name, the route hasn’t. The train still runs north from Chicago to Kenosha, Wisconsin. In Highland Park the main stop on the line is a quaint station just off the center of town. Except for its clock tower it is not much more of an affair than the station at the south end of town.
I have walked the trail north to town and south into the village of Glencoe hundreds of times, in all seasons, every hour of the day. In the late spring, during summer, and in early fall the trees on either side of the path arch over it for long stretches and form a natural tunnel, blocking out the city streets on one side and the railroad and its embankment on the other. They hide the telephone wires and power lines that follow the tracks. Except for the gray gravel path underfoot, most of the year I could for all the world be hiking through a forest rather than be where I am–in the middle of a suburban Illinois town.
Bicyclers, joggers, walkers use the path. Some pass me with a nod or a smile or a “Hello” or a “Good morning” or a friendly wave of the hand. Some just look straight ahead, earphones glued to their ears, grimly determined to ignore my existence. Disguised behind dark glasses, oblivious to trees, bushes, wild flowers, the red flash of a cardinal, they could just as well be cycling on Mars or jogging on the moon.
Sometimes I meet a neighbor or a friend, and we stop to chat awhile. But I like the path best when I can feel the pure, clean pleasure of walking it alone, without a soul in sight, when the hard ground under my every step assures me I am still alive and haven’t fallen through yet.
Sometimes, without thinking, I strike a perfect, effortless rhythm–and it’s as though I can go on to forever. Then, maybe after a mile, from nowhere some fragment of the past will come streaking across my mind. And in that same split second I will know I have just been at one with myself, that I have just experienced happiness–and already left it behind. And I become conscious that I am no longer happy in the mindless way I was happy when I did not know I was being happy.
It’s then–while I’m just walking the path and hearing the measured crunch of the gravel underfoot, or seeing the sudden arc of the squirrel I have startled, or listening to the flutter of invisible wings in the underbrush–that I find old entries in the diary I carry in my mind or jot down new ones. These remains of the past, these remnants, these memories that lie strewn through my mind are all I have left of life lived. In my more optimistic moments I look forward to some Unified Field Theory to gather them up and make some grand sense out of them. Otherwise I think to myself that there’s no point in trying to make sense out of them. Or maybe that there’s no other point than the effort of trying to make some sense out of them.
I am sure of one thing, though. If meaning lies anywhere at all, it must be in what I remember, not in what I’ve forgotten. You don’t remember an experience unless it had–and still holds–some sort of significance for you. Trouble is, there are so many of these memories and they come in such odd sizes and shapes that it’s hard to sort them out and slow them down and give them their due. They don’t live in isolation either. You have to make the connections that give them their meaning. Sometimes the connections point one way, sometimes they point another. But one thing I know: everything lies in the connections. Everything.
When the horn blasts of the sleek northbound for Kenosha split the air, I know it will be only seconds before its onrush will leave me far behind, still listening in my memory for the chug-chugging steam engine of my youth and its long, lingering “youwhoooowoooo” that will not let me go.
At such moments–as I reach my turning point and begin to retrace my steps–I sometimes tell myself that my familiar path could well have been another, that it could as easily have led to the Ninth Fort as to my home.