Beneath Echo Bridge

Yesterday was a brisk and brilliant October day, so J and I walked from our house to Hemlock Gorge and back.  Nestled along the Charles River near the junction of Routes 9 and 128, Hemlock Gorge is a hidden jewel that offers a pocket of wildness is an otherwise suburban setting.  I drive past Hemlock Gorge five days a week on my way to teach, so it’s a delight to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon walking there, soaking in the golden light of autumn.

Leaf-strewn stairs

Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” is a Japanese term for the restorative practice of spending time in nature.  We’ve reached the point of the semester where my students are submitting essay drafts faster than I can grade them, so I welcome any excuse to step away from my paper-piles and into the woods, even for a short time.  An afternoon walk along a river fringed with trees is therapeutic, the natural world going about its business in blithe disregard of human tasks and to-do lists.  For the brief time you’re outside, walking, the obligations awaiting you at home don’t exist, and all that matters is the whisper of wind through the trees and the dapple of sunlight on water.

Autumn reflections

Echo Bridge, not far from Echo Bridge

Recently the city of Newton has decorated selected utility boxes with historic images of area neighborhoods, giving bored pedestrians and motorists stuck in traffic something to look at while they wait for their light to change. The utility box at the corner of Chestnut and Elliot Streets in Newton Upper Falls, for instance, features a vintage postcard of Echo Bridge, which is right nearby, and a utility box at a busy corner in West Newton shows a nineteenth century street scene.

West Newton then and now

Utility boxes are, of course, utilitarian, filled with wires and switches and other necessary electrical gadgetry: most of the time, I walk right past utility boxes without even noticing them, much less considering what is either inside or on them. But these days, I find myself searching for electrical boxes as I drive around doing errands, trying to spot and collect the decorated ones like so many Easter eggs.

Great blue heron on electrical box

I suppose if you have to have utility boxes, you might as well make them interesting to look at, a bit of artfulness to complement their utility. Even an unsightly box becomes interesting when you stick vintage photos on it: an invitation to imagine what might have happened at this very intersection a century or so ago.

A village of traditions

Steps to Echo Bridge

When Leslee, a mutual friend, and I decided to explore Hemlock Gorge on Sunday, I initially thought I’d ask if they’d mind my bringing Reggie, but I quickly reconsidered. Even if we’d figured out a way to carpool three women and a squirmy dog to the Gorge, there’d be the Echo Bridge steps to navigate.

Silk mill as viewed from Echo Bridge

Reggie has never been fond of steps: even when I adopted him in 1998, he was reluctant to climb stairs. When my then-husband and I owned a two-story house in Hillsboro, NH, Reggie could climb the carpeted steps, but he did so only reluctantly. At my parents’ house, it’s something of a production to get Reggie to climb the slick linoleum stairs to the basement apartment that serves as their guest room, and on the handful of times over the years I’ve tried to lure Reggie up open stairs–the kind with horizontal steps but no vertical step-backs, a style common at motels with outdoor stairways leading from one level to the next–he’s balked and downright refused. At dog-eye level, open steps look like no steps at all, and who but the most enthusiastic dog would actually believe you could climb from one level to another on thin air?

Charles River as viewed from Echo Bridge

In the past few years, now that Reggie has resolutely aged into the double-digits, stairs have become even more of a problem. Although glucosamine and chondroitin supplements have minimized his overall creakiness, it still takes a while to coax him up the slippery hardwood steps in J’s house, where a dog’s attention is as likely to be distracted by passing cats as it is to be focused on the scary steps at hand. Slowly, slowly, slowly Reggie and I climb the steps after every walk and bathroom outing–and now that Reggie is older, the frequency (and, sometimes, urgency) of bathroom outings has increased. But learning to respond gracefully to an inevitably aging dog offers many lessons in how to respond gracefully to an inevitably aging self, with neither one of us getting any younger. If climbing from one floor to another takes longer than it used to, well then, what really is the rush?

Literal and metaphoric passings

J and I have an ongoing tongue-in-cheek joke about the “Rainbow Bridge,” the otherworldly place where dearly departed pets presumably go to wait for their eventually mortal owners. Although Reggie is my first dog, J’s already weathered the passings of a dog and several cats, so he knows from experience it takes more than a warm and fuzzy poem about heavenly reunions to quiet the sting of pet loss. Reggie’s not ready to cross the Rainbow Bridge, but I have no illusions about his lifespan, either. Already, we’ve crossed the dietary Rubicon toward “Active Maturity” dog food, and once those glucosamine and chondroitin supplements aren’t enough for increasingly creaky joints, I’ll learn how to administer stronger medications: it seems the least I can do. But in the meantime while Reggie and I both have our wits and relative health about us, we’d both prefer to explore actual rather than rainbow bridges, our time together being precious exactly because it is (eventually) finite.

One recent reminder of Reggie’s eventual mortality involved an incontinence scare where several housebreaking accidents had me convinced that Reggie was suffering from diabetes, kidney failure, or worse. A vet visit and subsequent blood-work proved my imagination is more active than Reggie’s bladder. According to test results, Reggie’s kidneys, liver, and other necessary internals are normal and healthy, which means a handful of inside leg-lifts really were the result of an Old Dog being confused by the New Trick of J’s house with its feline distractions (and an Old Owner’s slow realization that a senior dog’s request to go “out” really means “now,” not later).

Echo Bridge

I know death is a passing we all make eventually, and lifespans suggest Reggie will cross that bridge before I do. But really, what’s the rush? During that vet visit where I described Reggie’s recent housebreaking accidents, the vet’s subsequent questions pointed to how youthful and (relatively) healthy Reggie still is. “Does he still remember where the front door is,” the vet asked, “or does he try to out ‘outside’ through the closet?” Yes, Reggie still has his wits about him; he still knows the sound of my laptop powering down means “Walk!” “Can he see well enough to recognize you across the room,” the vet continued, “and can he hear well enough to respond to his name?” Again, I answered yes, twice: the way I find my car in a crowded parking lot is to look for the bushy tail that starts wagging in the backseat as soon as Reggie spots me across multiple car-lengths, and although he’s in the habit of ignoring my calls when he wants to, Reggie’s sense of hearing is still acute enough to recognize the sound of a treat-bag being opened.

Echo Bridge

So Reggie, it seems, is as ready to cross the Rainbow Bridge as he is eager to climb a whole story’s steps to get to the top of Echo Bridge, and that’s just fine. Now that Leslee, our mutual friend, and I have done our advance scouting at Hemlock Gorge, I now know the precise parking lot I should head to the next time I want to walk Reggie on that side of the Charles River rather than this: no bridge-crossing or step-climbing necessary. Saving my best four-legged friend from the indignity of having to struggle up steps a boisterous puppy would take in leaps and bounds is a small price to pay for companionship. It seems the least I can do.

Click here for Leslee’s account of our dog-free outing at Hemlock Gorge, or click here for my complete photo-set of images. Enjoy!