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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Waite

Ria the Explorer

Updated: May 20, 2020

Ria is an explorer. Every morning, she and I take Manny on adventures, and I let the 2.5- year-old lead the way. I figure, why not? We’ve got the time. Sure, I’m slightly happier when she points downhill. But even when she jabs her little finger toward a steep grade (we live on a hill), I take a breath and start climbing.

It’s amazing how much you can discover when following a toddler’s lead. Take the other morning, for example. Instead of turning for home at the usual crosswalk, Ria insisted we follow a path to an elementary school. The route was downhill, so I was pretty willing to accommodate. When I worked remotely, I volunteered in an afterschool circus program at Dearborn Park International Elementary, so I’ve been there many times, arriving via the same path I strolled with Ria and Manny. But I used to walk in the front door, and never go beyond that. Ria wanted to round the path to the back of the school and walk down a set of stairs. Why not?

That’s when we found it: a green oasis. A meadow as deep and wide as two football fields encircled by rows of trees so thick that we could have been wandering in the woods. Sunlight glinted through branches, and birds chirped their springtime songs. We were in Dearborn Park itself. Who knew that was a thing? Despite the fact that I’d often been to the school named for this park, despite the fact that this was only a few blocks from home, I never knew Dearborn Park was there. Ria the Navigator, on a mission.

These discoveries have been some of the most pleasing moments of the quarantine. Whether it’s turning down a new block and seeing colorful gardens or a different framing of Mount Rainier, bits of beauty abound. It just takes traveling at a 2-year-old’s pace to find it.

When I was working, I was locked into a routine. I took the same bus every morning, traveled the same roads. At lunch I walked the same route, which, yes, offered a stunning look across Puget Sound to the Olympic Mountains, but I would always turn around at exactly same spot, feeling like a Westworld robot completing my loop. After all, I didn’t feel comfortable being away from the office for too long.

Ria doesn’t concern herself with schedules or set routes. If she feels like going left instead of right, the only one who can stop her is me. To her, the world is new and exciting. Mail trucks are a wonder, and mail carriers—well, they are practically celebrities. The light rail, which chugs past our window every few minutes, is absolutely awe-inspiring when seen up close.

We can all benefit from absorbing the world the way Ria does. There’s value in slowing down, in noticing. There’s happiness there. There’s meaning. In a This American Life episode, Ira Glass spoke to a marriage counselor who said these past few months have actually been a boom time for therapy, with people—especially the typically closed-off men—more willing to open up because they aren’t so burdened by all of the same daily pressures. I also wonder if it’s partly because the men have been around the kids more, and whether consciously or not, this has made them feel freer, more fun-loving.

As we age and responsibilities mount, we lose sight of our youthful spirit. We get stuck in our ruts, fixed along the same tracks. This occurred to me as I was biking the other afternoon. Up the hill is a paved trail that runs about 10 miles. It’s a greenway necessitated by electrical towers, and several years ago, some forward thinkers had the idea to turn it into a recreational space. I’ll admit, it’s a little unnerving to hear electricity crackling overhead, but still, it beats not having the trail.

Running parallel to the paved trail are hard-dirt paths up and down grassy slopes. Now that the greenway is getting more use with everyone at home, the dirt paths have become more popular, especially, I noticed, with the kids. So, the other day I opted for the dirt. I churned my legs to pedal up the slope and couldn’t believe the view. Lake Washington and the Cascades. I ignored the black wires cutting across the landscape, and instead focused on Mount Rainier’s snowy peak, which looked even bigger than it does from the trail below.

The grass beside me was tall, and loose rocks crunched underneath my tires. I could have been mountain biking, zooming through alpine single-track. Dropping down a slope, feeling the rush of speed as I stood tall on my pedals, it was pretty easy to pretend. —Andrew Waite


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