The 59-mile stretch of defunct rail road tracks became an idyllic bike path about seven years ago. What had once been a corridor of high-tech travel in 1847 was now a scenic route snaking through small towns and winding alongside tripping rivers.
I pick up the trail a few miles from my family’s property. It’s a section that curls itself like the tail of a lazy cat around one of the sizable lakes in the area. I’ve run along the path at least a dozen times over the last few months, after making the critical discovery that flat surfaces are Nirvana. Hills are for suckers.
There’s a short section not far from the trail entrance that passes between great, sheer slabs of rock. Each time I pass through, the lines from the Josh Ritter song “Wings” drift through my head: we rode to Coeur d’Alene—passed Harrison and Wallace/they were blasting out the tunnels—making way for the light of learning/when Jesus comes a’calling she said he’s coming round the mountain on a train.
On this particular day I jog with my brain turned down to a dull hiss. It’s pretty early in the morning. There’s fog lifting from the lake in flimsy sheets, there’s a sheen of frost on a bog of cattails that glitters when it catches the light. I’m grateful for this brief stretch where my mind is insulated from the dull roar of a world careening off the rails— when Jesus comes a’calling she said he’s coming round the mountain on a train—buffeted from thinking about anything more complicated than the rhythm of the run.
It’s not until I’m coming back through the rocky pass on my way out of the trail that I notice a large, chalk heart drawn on one of the granite faces. The name “Victor” is scrawled inside it. A few feet over on another panel is another smaller heart with the letter “V” encircled. Near that second one is a singular blank heart. Valentine’s Day in October.
I stop and peruse the panels, trying to make sense of these hieroglyphics. I imagine a couple of teens meandering along the rail trail, holding hands, trading inside jokes and sly, side-eye. I like to think they skipped fourth period, biology with Mr. Broadhurst, eye-roll, boring, like, such a waste of time, to sneak out here to the woods, to taste a bit of freedom.
Giggling she rummages in her bag and pulls out a small piece of chalk (I also like to think of teens roaming the streets packing chalk) and starts to scrawl a big, simple heart on the side of the rock. They both laugh because this is like something that, like, their parents would do in some dorky, lame, like Romcom or something. But there is a small thrill that shimmies up her spine and makes her fingertips pulse. She’s made it obvious, her feelings for Victor, this boy with the oddly old-fashioned name (named after his uncle who lives somewhere in Montana) who inks his jeans with Sharpie in images of snakes and swords and skateboards with wheels that look like fireballs. He is, like, so cool, she thinks. He knows who he is, he’s not afraid to show it, and he doesn’t waste time trying to be popular or, like “in” with teachers or other kids. He is brave. He is hers 4EVA, which she thinks about writing in one of those hearts, but changes her mind, because one, dumb, and also, she doesn’t want to jinx it.
He walks to the edge of the path where it starts to turn. There’s a wide opening through the trees. Scrubby bushes and tangled grass cover the sloping hill to the water. He picks up a handful of gravel and flings the rocks as hard as he can, watching as they wink out of sight swallowed up by the water. He pretends not to know what she’s doing back there on the rocks. He senses that if he watches her, if he stands and looks at her everything will change because she’ll know somehow, the way that girls always seem to know, that she has him, not the other way around.
Instead he pours his focus into the mechanical movement of scooping, winding back, and whipping the small bundle of pebbles free. He leans down to make another grab and is mildly startled to feel her hand brush against his. She’s standing next to him grinning. He feels the thin film of chalk dust on her skin. She locks their fingers together and pulls him close. She tilts her face up at his and waits out those few seconds where everything is suspended. It’s like standing inside a drop of water before it slides down the lip of a glass. His mouth closes on hers clumsily, eagerly. No matter how many times they’ve kissed it still feels like wandering into new territory.
…blasting out the tunnels—making way for the light of learning…
There’s a bullet-proof quality to this kind of love, I think, as I script the play of these two fictional people—Victor, the boy with the oddly old-fashioned name and his Girl. It’s fearless in its innocence and all-consuming in its devotion. It is not unlike the elemental forces that forged this trail a century before, which are unblemished and singular in their purpose. There’s perfection in this design, holding its breath before the rocks and trees give way and the rest of the world rushed in. I suddenly feel lucky to be standing here bearing witness to the twin energies of love and creation. I wonder why we can’t seem to pause long enough to see it everywhere.
Weeks later I’ll return to the trail and the hearts will be long gone, washed away by rain, bleached clean by light. It would be ridiculous to expect the markings to be there, but I’ll turn my head and look for proof that love was here, and I’ll swear I see it in the faintest outline of a curve, etched in pink on the surface of the silent stone.