There’s a man who lives in Seward Park. I’ve seen him for years. He’s very quiet. He walks very slowly and he always carries two duffel bags. He wears a dark parka all year long that looks navy but is shiny with grime and age so it’s hard to tell the actual color. I often see him walking the south end of Lake Washington. I’ve seen him as far as Leschi but mostly I see him around Seward Park and inside the park. I often run the inner trails with my friend Kate and her dog Tucker and we’ve crossed this mans path multiple times.
This morning as I was walking around the Seward Park outer loop, I saw him walking in front of me. He was about 100 yards ahead and I could tell it was him from his distinctive gate and the two duffels. I’ve always assumed that this man lives in the inner sanctum of the park. There are arterials all around the loop that feed into the park. It’s easy to get lost among the arterial paths. The inner sanctum is a wonderful, peaceful sanctuary from the chaos of the city. The old growth forest is magical and lush with centuries-old Douglas Firs, nurse logs and ferns. I never go on the inner trails on my own because I worry about getting lost. I also fear the mystery of the vast, beautiful, unknown park.
This morning, the man with duffels turned off to go up one of the trails. I was still about 50 yards behind and as I approached the trailhead I could no longer see him, but I heard screaming inside of the forest. It was angry, aggressive. The voice was swearing. I stopped. I took out my earbuds so I could hear more clearly. It was early, not even 7am and there was no one else around. I walked to the other side of the path, away from the lake so I could hear better. I heard the voice again, “Fuck you!” and then something unintelligible. There was only one voice. No one was responding to the angry outbursts. I felt stuck, unwilling to go into the park to investigate and no one around to help me discern the origin or meaning of the yelling.
Finally, I yelled into the tree line of the inner sanctum, “Are you okay in there?” I waited. I heard nothing. I waited a few more minutes and a woman on bike came by. “Did you hear yelling?” I asked. “Yes” she said, “I think he was yelling for his dog. There’s a lot of bunnies in there and it’s easy to lose your dog to the chase.”
I knew there was no dog. I had seen the man turn in and I was pretty sure it was this quiet man’s voice I’d heard. But I didn’t say anything to the woman. I just nodded and she continued riding. After the woman rode on I waited a few minutes more and when I heard nothing else from the woods, I continued on my own loop. I kept my earbuds out so I could hear if there were any more voices.
What was this man’s story? Maybe he was a person with demons who found solace in the woods. Did I interrupt his private experience by yelling into the trees. Maybe the woods is his home, his sanctuary and I witnessed a private moment that was supposed to be his alone.
We never really know a person’s story, their emotional experiences, their inner demons. I wonder what kind of home the man with the duffels has made inside the park. Has he found a way to create a place where he can be who he truly is, sometimes quiet, and sometimes angry and loud.
As I walked on, I thought about my decision to not follow those yells this morning, to stay on my safe, paved path on the outskirts of the forest. I’m a city kid. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. My mom warned us about which train stations were safe. I knew what bus stop I should get off to avoid danger. When my little sister was held up at gun point while sitting in a car a block from our house, I waited with my parents and sisters for the all-night locksmith to come change our locks. Sometimes when I’m walking and I’m alone on the path and I feel unsafe for some reason, I know it’s my city dweller voice resurfacing. When I’m walking around the park and there’s no one around or I get a weird vibe off of someone I pass, I think to myself, “I can always run into the water. I’m a great swimmer. Most people wouldn’t follow me into the water. That will be my escape.”
But I don’t feel that way in the forest. For me going into the woods is not an escape. I’m scared of it. It’s dark and closed. There are secret hiding places for the boogie man all over the forest. But maybe for the man with the duffels, the forest is a safe place. The darkness, the canopy cover, the mystery and the hiding places are his comfort. I’ll never know what made the man with the duffels angry or if his yelling was even out of anger. I hope I didn’t interrupt something that made him feel less safe in his home. I feel a little bit like I invaded his privacy, his safety zone.
When I think of the man with the duffels, I feel a sense of reverence for him, for his life in the forest. I love the beauty of the woods, the smells, the sounds of the birds, the variant greens, but he is a part of the forest. When I heard him yelling, I knew somehow that he had entered his home. In his yelling, he was letting something out that he doesn’t when he’s outside of the woods. We all need a place where we can feel safe and at peace. I often find that place near the water, on the periphery of the trees. I hope the man with the duffels finds his peace in the forest.