“Hey there, Rip Van Winkle,” said Dennis Rea, my guitarist friend, by way of greeting as I stepped out onto my front porch. He was standing outside the gate, wearing a mask and holding up a small brown paper bag.
In the bag was a mushroom log, maybe eighteen inches high and coated on the top with spores of shitake mushrooms that apparently will grow if the log is kept in shade. Dennis’s wife Anne is lately on a kick of acquiring house plants. For years, he tells me, they had but a single plant in their small condo, and now they have something like eighteen. He’s supporting her newfound enthusiasm, but “It’s time to put the brakes on now, because it can get a little claustrophobic.” The mushroom log was part of Anne’s project, until she learned that it couldn’t be kept indoors. And since their eighth-floor unit doesn’t have an outdoors, Jenny and I are being asked to be its stewards. We’re welcome to eat the mushrooms, Dennis assures me.
“It was the most enjoyable drive up to your part of town that I’ve ever done,” he remarked. “I don’t think I hit a single light, much less any traffic.”
“I realized the other day that I haven’t been on an airplane in over a year,” I told him. My related epiphany has been to find that I don’t miss or crave it. Right here is a fine as well as – it turns out – a reasonably safe place to be. Plus, why would anyone move to somewhere as beautiful as the Pacific Northwest unless they wanted to actually be here?
I set the log on the ground beneath the cherry tree and invited Dennis into the yard for a quick tour of our garden, which he duly admired. I made a point of showing off the thriving transplanted offshoot flowering currant beside the fence and the fig tree, still just a stick maybe two feet tall but already leafing out promisingly. Both will be taller than the fence within a few years, I told him, and the overall aspect of the entire garden will be rather different.
Then we set off on our hike. It wasn’t quite as simple as that, since the logistics of such an outing now require two cars and a bit of thinking-through. We drove separately to our destination – the small gravel parking lot near the entrance to Llandover Woods, off 3rd Avenue NW just below the city line at NW 145th Street – then rode together in my car (wearing masks) to our starting point at Matthews Beach Park on Lake Washington at 93rd Street NE.
At Matthews Beach we parked and walked across the grass to symbolically dip our hands in the water. In the shallows were several golf balls from the course nearby, and one on the grass. “You know, I’ve got my pot smoker’s cough, and old person’s allergies,” Dennis told me, “but I have to say honestly I’ve never felt better. I’ve been cooped up. I’ve been pretty well pickled in beer. That’s the one thing that gets me out of the house.”
For my part I have a nice garden to enjoy, and Jenny and I go for a daily walk without fail, but this day, Saturday, May 23, was two months and one day since I had actually seen any of my friends in person.
Walking from the lakeshore back through the parking lot to Sand Point Way, Dennis reminisced. “Used to be you’d just come here, park, and these high school hippies would just melt out of the woods and sell you weed,” he said. “Another reason this area has nostalgic value for me is that my oldest musical friend in Seattle, Tony Geballe, used to live in one of these cul de sacs. I’m talking ’77.” By an odd coincidence Dennis’s other friend Bill Rieflin, the widely respected Seattle-based drummer who died March 24 (of cancer, not coronavirus), had also lived right here. “They used to be next-door neighbors growing up. And then both of them ended up becoming very closely involved with Robert Fripp of King Crimson.”
Dennis grew up in Utica, New York, but came out to Seattle early in adult life and made a firm commitment to the Northwest that he’s never rescinded. He’s been the source of much of my own knowledge, such as it is, of this region. So I listen closely when he’s in lore-imparting mode, as he tends to be on hikes. Thornton Creek, which flows into Lake Washington and which we crossed leaving the park, “has a kind of convoluted watershed, but it dominates the topography of north Seattle,” he informed me. Our route today would largely follow the creek.
We headed north, under the Burke-Gilman Trail that runs above Sand Point Way on a pedestrian bridge, then turned left on 95th Street. “We want to go up here to 44th,” said Dennis, meaning 44th Avenue NE – avenues run north-south; streets run east-west; both are mostly numbered, in a grid that’s interrupted and complicated in many places by Seattle’s unique geography. At 40th & 105th there was a ball field – empty, of course. We turned west on 105th.
“Right before this thing started,” said Dennis, “they opened up one of these Amazon Go marts right down the street from us. And we never thought that was the kind of thing for us. But it’s been a godsend.” Reflecting on his lockdown habits, he added: “I’ve been doing these brutal purges.” For example, he had long taken pride in his extensive collection of trail guides from around the West, but now he figured that if he ever wanted to hike one of those trails again, he could buy a new guide. “The other thing is that I discovered that I’ve got a couple hundred cassettes.” Many of these were of past gigs, and it had occurred to him that these had some personal value to him and other musicians, so he had embarked on a project to convert the cassettes to MP3 files, but that had stalled because of technical problems with the inexpensive Walkman-sized device he had bought for the purpose, and because digitizing a cassette tape has to be done in real time, not instantly like burning a CD. So, having opened that can of worms, he found himself with cassettes strewn around his small living room until further notice. Meanwhile he had been engrossed in the epic Mars trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson’s magnum opus. “As you know, I’ve been pretty much buried in Mars. There couldn’t have been a better choice.”
At Meadowbrook Pond, which is connected to Thornton Creek, we saw ducks and ducklings and a rabbit. There are lots of rabbits around Seattle this spring, including one in our own garden. Dennis reminded me that our friend Pete Comley once led our gang on a north-end hike that included Meadowbrook Pond, and indeed I remembered it. After a decade (or more?) of urban hikes with my friends, whenever I walk almost anywhere in Seattle, I encounter a mix of known and unknown streets and landscapes and vistas. The blend of familiarity and still-new discovery feels about right, which is to say that I feel at home.
We emerged from the pond back into the city at NE 110th & 35th Ave NE, where there was a football field and a bus stop, and wended north and west to the commercial strip along Lake City Way at 125th. There’s a VA office on the ground floor of a nondescript office building there, along with a cheap-and-cheerful Italian restaurant called Villa Verdi. “It’s funny,” Dennis said. “Anne and I ate there the first weekend of this whole thing. We came up here I don’t know why – oh yeah, to go to a pot store that she likes.” We crossed the arterial and traversed the residential interior of Lake City, a working-class enclave that sort of blends into or emerges out of the woods and hillsides, like some of the areas around Rainier Avenue S.
A thought occurred to me. “Do you feel like it’s been a bit demystified?” I asked, meaning the pandemic.
“I mean, it’s like living in Beirut, right?” he replied. “At some point you have to make an accommodation with it. My building’s kinda split between people that act responsibly and people that don’t.” There was, for example, the “troublesome neighbor down the hall” that he had mentioned to me before. “And there’s another guy. He’s a nice enough guy, but he comes and goes fifteen or twenty times a day because he’s a heavy smoker, and his wife doesn’t want him to smoke in their unit.”
At NE 125th & 16th Ave NE we stopped so Dennis could look at the map on his phone (which always feels to me a little like cheating). “There’s a place called the Thornton Creek Natural Area,” he announced, “that we’ve never been to. And it’s adjacent to the golf course.” On that previous hike led by Pete we had walked around the golf course, through the woods, outside the chain link fence. Dennis’s hope today was that because it was a public course, we might be able to get inside and walk across it.
On 130th, walking west towards a wooded dead end, I called ahead to Dennis to point out a striking long row of wild rosebushes in bloom. “Go quiet, man,” he called back in a low voice. “There’s a tiny rabbit you could hold in your hand.” I walked up and there it was, sitting in the middle of a dirt trail heading into the woods. Then it hopped away. “This is us,” said Dennis. “And it’s a good thing, because that says ‘Private Road’ over there.” There was a sign with a map labelled “Licorice Fern Natural Area on Thornton Creek.” We were hopeful that the trail might lead to somewhere we could sneak onto the golf course, but it went around in a loop. It was dark and dank in this wooded gully, in places wet and traversable only via rickety boardwalk. Birds chirped, cottonwoods were shedding what looked like light snow, I was surprised to see raspberries already coming ripe. Back up at the street Dennis thought we would have to backtrack, but I found another path that led, down and back up but more or less straight, through the woods to 10thAvenue NE. “Well, this has ended up a pretty wild walk,” he said. “I’m glad you persevered.”
“I’m apt to trend west,” Dennis was saying. We had found the trail along the south side of the golf course, but we weren’t finding any way in. He pointed through the fence: “If it isn’t our old friend, Thornton Creek. It’s pretty extensive.”
As we trended west, then north, along the fence, Dennis reflected on his past peregrinations, on historic events he had happened to be present for. He and Anne were living in Chengdu in southern China in 1989, and his book Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China and Taiwan includes the first and, possibly, still the only eyewitness account in English of the massacre there that coincided with the much more famous events in Tiananmen Square. And they were living in Seattle in December 1999, when the World Trade Organization convened here.
“I remember posting on Facebook,” he said, “when it was dawning on me that Seattle was going to be an epicenter: ‘Present during the Tiananmen massacre in Chengdu, check. Present at the WTO debacle, check. Present at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, check.’ But then I realized how inadvertently hubristic that was. And once it’s universal, who gets to write about it? And why bother?”
I told him that reinforced my own inclination to train my attention locally from this point forward.
“There’s way too many people spouting off about the big picture,” he agreed.
We came out of the woods on the eastern side of Interstate 5, where machinery is laying track for the northward expansion of the light rail line. The original plan was for stations between Northgate and Lynnwood to open in 2024, except for the “infill” station at 130th Street, which for some reason would open seven years later, but as of late last year local residents were agitating for 130th Street also to open in 2024. There were related plans for zoning changes and possibly even lidding the freeway. Now, who knows? In any case, it was just above 130th Street that we hit the freeway.
We both seemed to remember that there were bridges at 125th and at 145th. “The argument for going down to 125th and across and then up to 130th is Bitter Lake,” said Dennis. “Which includes a little park where maybe we could crack a beer.” We passed the sign and parking lot for the North Seattle Church of the Nazarene. “Too many damn churches in north Seattle,” he grumbled. Then he looked ahead. “Oh, lookee there – 130th!” This was where the bridge was after all. “It’s shocking that they’ve already got light rail supports going in!”
So we crossed the freeway on the 130th Street bridge and wended our way to the grassy area on the south shore of Bitter Lake, tucked away between Aurora and Greenwood avenues, where we sat beneath some tall conifers and discreetly cracked our beers.
“Yeah, I’ll admit it, I was a sucker,” Dennis avowed. Optimism followed by disillusion is a pattern for both of us. In past years the pattern played out annually between February and May or at best June, when the Mariners inevitably let us down. “At the beginning of this I thought this might be one of those things that bring out the best in people, like 9/11 or whatever. A lot of people have seen this as an opportunity to withdraw, and not engage. I mean, I’m quite enjoying it in some ways.”
Quite early on after the coronavirus hit Seattle, Dennis and his collaborators made the difficult decision to cancel the 2020 edition of Seaprog, the festival of progressive music held annually in early June, which they had been nurturing since 2013, and which the last few years was going from strength to strength. The website says that it’s been indefinitely postponed, but Dennis now thinks it’s conceivable that Seaprog might never come back at all, especially since its venue, the Columbia City Theater, was closed by the pandemic, likely for good.
It occurred to me to ask about Moraine, the electric instrumental quintet he leads. Moraine has morphed in style and personnel several times over the decade-plus I’ve been attending its gigs and buying its CDs. A couple years ago Moraine acquired a new drummer – its third – then last year the longtime bass player moved to Tucson, and Dennis was anxious but then enthusiastic about his replacement. Whether as a bandleader or as an impresario, Dennis always runs a tight ship. Pre-pandemic I knew never to invite him out for beers or a ballgame on a Tuesday, because that was Moraine’s standing practice night. His reputation is such that first-rate musicians will always be glad to play with him, but from following Moraine I’ve learned how hard it is to keep any band going, especially when there’s not really any money to be made.
And that’s in the absence of a pandemic. I asked him now if Moraine had been getting together lately, if only virtually. “I put that out there to my bandmates,” he answered, “and I didn’t get one word in response.”
The band isn’t the only thing in Dennis’s life that remains in abeyance. He and Anne own a very small cabin near the town of Mazama in the North Cascades.
“We’re dying to get up to our place,” he told me. “But you’re not supposed to use the North Cascades Highway. For the first time ever they opened it completely quietly, and you’re not supposed to use it except for essential purposes. We’re responsibly staying away, but we’re dying to get there. For good reasons, like cutting back the flammable vegetation. So sometime next month, we’re just going to go.”
We finished our beers, then walked over to the main drag, up Greenwood Avenue a ways, then a few more blocks west to 3rd Avenue NW, then up to 145th. We walked through the gravel lot, past his parked Subaru, and onto the path that goes steeply downhill through Llandover Woods toward Puget Sound.
We couldn’t get all the way to the water at this end, but we went as far as we could. I took a picture of the Sound in the distance and the roof of an expensive house and a tastefully presented but clearly worded PRIVATE PROPERTY sign in the foreground.
On the hike back up to the car, Dennis complained: “I feel like I’ve been being interviewed.” I reflected ruefully that making people, including friends, feel that way is a writer’s occupational hazard. I hope he didn’t mind too much. Later that evening we exchanged emails. “I felt fresh-scrubbed after today’s outing and at least partway back in a world worth engaging with,” he told me. So did I.