Sunday, March 29, 2015

Wild Spokane


    I had a bad case of cabin fever. For days Spokane had been cloaked in a dense and heavy winter fog and I’d been buried in the details of a frustrating project that at times seemed as though it would never be wrapped up. I’d been stuck in the house for too long, with only short walks to break the monotony and I needed some kind of distraction. 

    Finally, fed up, I closed my computer, put on my raincoat and boots and clipped the leash to my puppy’s soft harness. We walked out of the front door and by habit turned at the corner in the direction of the park. Mantito Park, this 100-year-old place of gardens and meadows and meandering paths, is where I go when I need respite.  

    The fog had deepened with the twilight, turning into a soft rain that fell on my umbrella and settled onto the puppy’s thick curly coat like a jeweled net of glittering raindrops.    

    The windows of the houses we passed on our way glowed and I could see people moving in rooms as they settled in for the evening. They looked like characters in a silent play.

    The dense shrubbery around the pathway of the entrance to the formal garden was blurred by the mist, giving the place a mysterious feel. At that moment I happened to glance up into the low branches of one of the tall trees that line the property and looked right into the wide unblinking eyes of a barred owl as he sat watching me. I stopped in my tracks and for a moment we stared at one another. Then, as if to dismiss me and my silly dog, he turned away and gazed off into the distance.

    He was there watching for a meal and I was just ambling with no particular purpose. His mind was on mouse or rabbit for dinner, prey I’d probably sent scurrying away as I approached. Mine was on work deadlines and family matters and a million other things. And yet, for a moment, our worlds had intersected. 

    Manito Park, for all its groomed and carefully tended elegance, is still— at heart—a wild place. I often see owls and hawks and eagles sweeping over and around the park, their raptor eyes trained on the grassy meadows, scanning for prey. Sometimes I stumble onto a pile of torn feathers and stained snow giving evidence of a meal. I see the tracks of raccoons and the lingering scent of foraging skunks and a large flock of wild turkeys roams the place, parading across neighborhood streets and drawing onlookers as they stroll. 

    In the past there have been wilder visitors, like bears or mountain lions, and as if to prove the point, as I followed the path I noticed what I assumed was an off-leash dog—a particular pet peeve—standing beside one of the shadowy trees at the edge of the meadow. The man and woman on the path ahead of me walked right past the large leggy creature without seeing it but I pulled up, not wanting to encounter a strange animal, especially with a young puppy just learning to navigate the world on a leash. 

    I turned to take another route home and was almost there before it dawned on me that what I’d seen wasn’t a dog at all. Something that big, with legs like that, had to have been a moose. They still wander the park from time to time and sightings are not all that unusual.

    Still thinking about the owl and the moose, noticing the gauzy moon just rising in the east, I walked back to my own house--its windows bright and warm in the chilly gloom--and the puppy and I stepped in out of the cold and damp. We’d had our walk, our exercise, and our brief taste of the wild, and it was enough. The puppy went back to his basket and I went back to my work. And the moon continued its slow climb behind the curtain of the thick wet sky.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Mysterious World of Old Maps

    An old map of Paris hangs on the wall near my bed and it’s often the first thing I see in the morning. I can lie in bed in Washington State and navigate the narrow winding streets of the left bank or the Seine as it curves around the City of Light.
    In the hallway upstairs, a large 1981 map of a section of Lower Manhattan takes up most of the wall between doors and I often stop to study it as I pass, tracing my finger along avenues and cross streets, picking out familiar buildings and landmarks. I look at it and remember my first visit to the Big Apple that very same year.

    A vintage map of Italy hangs just inside my back door and on it is the port out of which my daughter sails on her marine geology assignments. Every time I go out I think of her and through the map I connect with my child who is so far away.

     I have many other old maps around the house. They are pinned to my bulletin board, tucked into drawers or slipped between the pages of my favorite books. I love to stumble onto one and stop to study it for a moment.

    In this age of GPS and voice-activated navigation, when my phone or my car can get me wherever I want to go, one clearly enunciated command at a time, I am still drawn to these printed relics and I keep bringing them home.
    Some I pick up because they are beautiful, illustrated with elaborate care and tinted by age.  Others because they remind me of places I’ve seen or they inspire me to go where I’ve never been.
    But some of the maps in my possession were chosen as much for their mystery as their beauty. Like the WWI era map of Paris and its environs with the name of a British officer of The Queen’s Regiment and the dates 1914-1920 handwritten in ink on the front.

    I found it and bought it online and when it arrived I unwrapped the package and carefully unfolded the 100-year-old paper-on-linen map. Intrigued about the man who’d owned it, I managed to find what appear to be a partial military record for the Captain Francis. The single index card states his medals—the war medals mailed to every veteran— were returned, the package marked with the words “Gone away.”

        Holding the fragile linen and paper remainder of a life I can only imagine, I’m left to wonder what became of the man who must have studied it often as he drove on roads around the city, in a country torn by such a brutal war. Where did he go after the fragile peace was restored?   

    Gone away. Such power in two words. I wonder about Captain Francis’s life after the war. Why did he label his map 1914-1920 when the war ended in 1918? Did he remain in France instead of returning to his life in England? Was he one of those who lost themselves somewhere in the shattered landscape?

    So many questions and so few answers.

    I’ll probably never the mystery of N.B. Francis. I keep looking but so many records of the First World War were destroyed by the second and there is precious little to go on. 
    A man who was a stranger to me lived and died decades ago, but I can still follow his shadow back through time and into a period of history that changed the world. He left a map.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s writes the Home Planet column for The Spokesman-Review. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at