Wednesday, May 4, 2011

An Afternoon Wander

Spring time in Austin can be a revelation- a life changing experience that rejuvenates the soul after an often surprisingly severe winter and an embracing solace from the searing heat that one knows will be encroaching with the inescapable onset of summer. Leaving the house that early spring day, with running shoes on, setting down my normal jogging route, and restricting my pace to a brisk walk initially felt foreign. The urge to pick up the pace bubbled up but for a nameless reason I denied the feeling. That day, for one reason or another, was different. Despite the compulsion to start up a run, something inside told me to just walk without considering where the route might take me. Soon, I fell into a comfortable stride as the familiar scenery of the neighborhood I had come to love allowed me to vacate the questions of where and why I was walking; even if it was just a momentary departure. Convinced that this had to be the most beautiful day of the year in Austin, to date, the lush color and intoxicating smells of late-spring reminded me how alive and vital the landscape I was living in was. Although it was too late for the familiarly cloying scent of mountain laurel- like a suffocating grasp of grape, the airy essences of jasmine and sweet honey suckle invaded my lungs with a force that propelled me forward as if in a glucose high. In this neighborhood, with the wild yards and bright gardens, brimming forth with sprawling “landscaping” that more closely resembled slightly maintained jungles rather than most manicured and subdued lawns, I thought of how much life wants to not only endure but to spread and creep forth- as far as to be allowed if not restricted. Taking a left onto 40th Street from Sinclair, turning away from the Rosedale Neighborhood, and towards Shoal Creek, I merged with the hike and bike trail head that would, if one was so inclined, allow a near uninterrupted path, and ultimately connectivity, to Town Lake and its myriad of trails and tireless exercising peoples. While the green areas flanking Town Lake are the major artery of activity for most outdoor enthusiasts, Shoal Creek Trail is a smaller capillary within the same system, as well as the running route I seek when I want to escape the bustle and distractions of so many people. And on that particular day, it brought the respite from others I was seeking, albeit not the relief from my own thoughts and questions that so often occurred on a hard run and was one of my major reasons for running- to escape everything, even my inner voice.

Heading south on the trail, I blinked rapidly in the enveloping darkness as I walked under the 35th Street overpass and entered the first section of the trail that provided a substantial, but not quite complete, escape from the city. Almost immediately, Austin and its tell-tale signs of urban life were lost as a rock face emerged, partially blocking views of traffic to the left; to my right, Shoal Creek itself widened, becoming more of a true water course rather than just the trickle of urban runoff those who did not appreciate its hidden quite places touted it to be.

Emerging once again into full sunlight from beneath the shade of the over pass and stopping for just a moment at Seiders Springs, where the small springs bubbled out from the rock face which I postulated must be some limestone formation, pooled at the bottom and spilled across the trail, I admired the small St. Francis de Assisi statue someone had placed sometime back. With a brief thought of how peaceful the spot was, I immediately recalled with a small shudder once reading about a settler, Gideon White, who built a house near the springs in 1839, with the intent to develop the area, only to be massacred by Native Americans in 1842. The story went that White, who saw a fortune to be made from the cool water that naturally collected in the area, built a small resort near the springs and constructed pools to collect the forthcoming water. Remnants of those pools still exist along Shoal Creek Trail and are especially forthcoming during the wet season. Recalling White and such a violent and sudden end to a life with potential for much more brought a sense of foreboding that left my skin piqued with goose flesh, even on this warming day.

Walking on, the undulating elevation and terrain along my path increasingly continued to change. A predominately blacktop trail, punctuated with spans of cement, transitioned into softer crumbling rock and dirt floor underfoot. The trail itself temporarily moved away from the creek, in order to accommodate several houses perilously hugging its banks and towards an almost forgotten civilization, as in between breaks in natural rock and built brick I caught several glimpses of the street; flirted with city scenes. Eventually I reached my favorite span along the trail, just south of 31st Street and a quick immersion with city life and houses, I once again connected with the water way. At this point, one feels completely withdrawn and hidden from the version of Austin that most know. This hidden passage forms a small canyon as a major cliff runs parallel, yet below, Lamar Street. Traveling under the rocky overhangs and hearing the unaware cars pass above, I wondered how many people must drive parallel to this small geological wonder everyday, utterly unknowing of its existence.

It was on this stretch of trail, in the cool shade of the cliff and over-arching trees, where shafts of sunlight continually broke through their branches and cast sharp rays at odd angles against my squinting eyelids, that it came to me. In an instant I realized without even a second thought, as if it was destined to occur on this day without my knowing, where I was headed- and for what reason. Today I would not be making the usual right turn onto Gaston in order to enclose the loop and start back on my normal route home. Today I would head further south on Lamar; where the street hazardously curves, following the abrupt contour of the creek to the spot. I was going back. After all, he had asked me to. He wanted me to find out.

He first appeared to me a few days after the accident. The first time it happened, I had been in my peculiarly small bathroom with the blue flowered bamboo wallpaper that didn’t at all match the surrounding black and white tile when he revealed himself. As I finished my shower, turned off the water in the cubby hole that I bath in and drew back the curtain to reach for my towel that I had earlier thrown on the floor so that it could be easily reached, I saw him. He caught me off guard. Without time for a proper response- a casting back of the curtain to hide his unwelcome figure from sight, the surprise and freight of his image constricted my breathing so that my scream rang hollow and incomplete in my throat. He stood facing me, a young man less than thirty years old and approaching a heavier frame than someone his age should carry; wearing the same blue jeans, nondescript t-shirt and black leather jacket that I had first seen upon him that day. With that strawberry blond hair and unseeing hazy gray-blue eyes that stood at half mast, he still did not see me despite a seeming momentary resurrection. His right arm was outstretched toward my direction and from his hand I could see the disfigured and dismantled fingers in the same oddly grotesque placement as was that of the vision that had stood out to me more than anything else the day of the accident. My stomach instantly dropped to the lowest point of my bowls with a nauseating quiver while my heart quickened and adrenaline filled my veins with an ice-cold power I've come to be too familiar with. Perhaps one second passed. I blinked, and he had vanished.

It was always the same. He came to me there, in that small space that I couldn't escape but also couldn't avoid because of necessity. Knowing what it might bring, I started to take deep breaths before drawing back the shower curtain at the conclusion of my daily routine in the event that he would once again be there in front of me, a spectre silently pleading with me; for what I did not yet know. During moments of more rational thought I wondered if I was in fact conjuring his image in some subconscious manner, or was he truly appearing to me because he wanted something?

Naturally, and at least for my own sense of well being, I wanted to dismiss his appearances with a self-diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder or some other psychological fodder I wasn't completely sure I even believed in but needed a convenient explanation for. Potentially I could ignore him away if I didn't really believe he should be there. After time, however, and a losing battle with my resolve, I began to waffle over what I firmly believed in and what could be possible. That spring day brought every thought and experience to a head.

On that expanse of peaceful solace I often saught out, when I realized exactly what it was that he wanted me to find out, I thought that I must be caught in a space of macbre curiosity. How would anyone outside of myself undestand what he was requesting of me? Could I potentially ever share with anyone else without them thinking I had suffered an inconsolable trauma the notion that he wanted me to revisit that site to determine if his blood still stained the concrete? After all, that was all he requested. I knew with certain clarity that he just wanted to know if his blood remained behind- an effigy of sorts that couldn't be washed away. Deep within I thought I knew the answer. Of course, there were caustic and abrasive cleaners that would be employed afterwards to clean up the ugly scene. But still, I had to see the space- that spot where asphault and concrete claimed something precious to people I did not know- in order to answer his final question. I would do it for him. I still didn't even know his name. Well I didn't remeber it. The paper had ran a brief mention of the accident- his name and age. He was only 22. His name I couldn't remember.

Reaching Gaston, I continued south along Lamar and finding a decent spot to traverse the thoroughfare without a proper cross street, I approached what I knew would relinquish remeberings I wasn't sure I was prepared to face. And it came...there were the spray-painted markings left from the police as they marked the points where his motorcycle had begun its indecent decent across oncoming traffic, trailing the street and leaving gratings in the seemingly impervious blacktop. The officials had cirled the markings where the bike had abraded the concrete sidewalk, gashes made in a normally unyielding surface, until it finally came to rest, still running, in the bushes just adjacent. In a moment I was back there on that day.

We- myself, my sister and her boyfriend- had been traveling north on Lamar, leaving a lovely birthday celebration of a good friend when we happened upon the scene: a man laying face down on the northbound sidewalk of Lamar. He wasn't moving; a bike was laying just beyond and a few people mulling around. Sara and I initially made a remark as to stop and when Richard replied that there were people already pulled over I said "yes, but none of them are doing anything". Richard immediately pulled over, doors swung open as Sara and I poured out of the car, sending doors slamming behind us. Without second thought, we were pounding down the sidewalk to reach what we were both unsure of and probably ultimately feared. Fast feet crept up to a scene that made my heart fall. I thought upon initial survaillance that perhaprs I could have known he was gone before I even touched him.

Blood, much too crimson for life, as it had been exposed to oxygen for too long and no longer retained the bright glisten that fresh blood held surrounded his head. He was laying face down, helmet still on and umoving; a pool of that same blood surrounded his head for nearly two feet in each direction. Falling to the concrete, I reached for his hand. That hand I would later remember as disfigured, recounting that all fingers had been bent back at unnatural angles. Almost as if it as was normal for one to be able to extend their fingers beind their knuckels to he same extent they could in front of their knuckles, towards their palm. No pulse was to be found at that wrist. Try again...and again. Struggling with a brief second of confussion, I looked upwards to the people standing above him. "How long has he been here", I asked of the couple standing silent above. With no response from them, I thought to myself, answer the fucking question, it's not that hard! How long has he been here! Repeating aloud the question, they finally stumbled out an answer of maybe a couple of minutes. Fear beyond paralysis and breach of neck and back set in. He had to be moved. Over. We had to turn him over. We had to understand where he was. More people had arrived and were weighing in on the judgement. With shouts of "don't move him" echoing around I knew it had to be done if there was ever a chance to save him, although somewhere within I knew it was too late.

With a heave, Sara and I lifted his heavy and listless body over. As he rolled and came to rest on his back I knew the next step would be to remove his helmet. With trembling fingers I loosened the strap beneath his neck, noticing the grazing stubble on his chin and the small piercing within his left ear. That same black stud I would remember as being present on his person when he invaded my shower. Craddling his head, I slipt the helmet off to reveal the extent of his injuries. Blood had been pouring from nose, ears, and mouth. He's gone, he's gone, was all I could think. But at the same time I couldn't let that be the end. He could be saved, after all, it happened all the time. Someone behind us had a direct line to a paramedic and they were instructed us to clear the breath passages. No shit I thought. Really, I wish you were here and could see this. You would know how far we are beyond that point and there are all these people standing around looking at me as if there is something to be done. Not now. He had to have died when he landed. Good God, I mean he hit an oncoming car and eventually landed over here...there was a pool of blood...he didn't respond...he had no pulse...he was gone.

The EMS arrived after what seemed like an eternity. As heavily equipped personnel arrived to take over I stepped back, touching Sara's shoulder and shouted aloud to everyone who was bottle necking, there for the scene, to step back and go home. Suddenly, I was upset and ashamed that a man had died, and the most personal and solely experienced times in one's life was being made a scene of. It really never occurred to me until that point that most things one does in one's life can be shared with others. Death can't. It's something one must enter to and face alone. I hated all of those people standing there watching what was his death. Sara, Richard, and I were the first to leave. We got back in the car and drove home where Sara and I would wash his blood from our hands.

The day that I returned to his spot, his blood did not stain the ground. I stood over that spot for a moment, as long as I could before people on bicycles came rushing past and I had to move. I laughed, realizing we were both done and started my trip home.

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