So we drove out the same back roads eschewing the website directions again. It just doesn't make sense to do the dart and dodge of I-95. Once more I googled Google Maps to get some idea of where I went wrong before and was certain I understood this time. Turn where I turned before. See the lot I parked before. Turn down a road past the lot I parked before. Followed the macadam coated road on the way to the Emerald City.
And so I did, zipped past that parking lot that fooled me last time and followed the road and made a turn and came to a circle (or round-about for you Anglophiles). It is a blankety-blank traffic circle to us who once dwelt long in the shire of New Joisey. "By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea!" But we didn't live down by the seashore, but further inland near Clementon. By the roller coater, by the roller coaster, by the beautiful amusement park...ah it just doesn't fit the tune at all.
At the approach to this circle was a sign showing a circle with an arrow jutting up toward the right. It was similar to the symbol for male. Underneath it said Blue Ball Barn.
Alapocas Run State Park and Blue Ball Barn is that way. No, I'm not kidding. I know what you are thinking, a male symbol sign post, Blue Ball Barn, but come on, get your mind out of the lowest common denominator of thinking. After all, it isn't the only place called Blue Ball. It's a perfectly normal name. There is a Blue Ball Inn, the namesake for a town up in Pennsylvania named Blue Ball. It is located not far from Bird-in-Hand, Intercourse and Paradise, Pa. Look on a map.
So I ended up parked up near a little building. I don't know. It didn't look like much of a barn and certainly nothing to get all excited about seeing, but I felt I had followed the signs correctly, so I got an envelope from the post, stuck three dollars inside and headed down the path that ran along side the building.
There is that golf course off on my right again. There are far more golfers out this morning getting all the workout one can get swinging a little stick and then jumping in an electronic cart to chase a ball. Many moons ago I use to go and ruin a nice walk playing golf. I always walked the course tugging my bag of clubs behind on a little contraption with wheels. I had better eyes then and could see where the ball landed so I could find it...usually.
Could this be right?
I got down past that--uh--barn and there was something familiar beside that gold course. There was a big flat old playing field and a soccer net.
Holy boring sport, Batman, I'm right back where I started that other time and if I keep going I'll be walking out of the park, not in. So I turned around and headed back to my car. I would just drive around and see if I could find another lot.
I must have missed something somewhere, but this entry lane complete with a little blue sign with the letter P for park was the only entry I had come to. It most assuredly claimed to be Alapocas Run State Park. It had all the earmarks and the parking fee. But then so had that other lot the last time.
As I stomped back and by the lot I noticed the trail swung down behind that golf course along the drive I had drove up to enter.
I followed the path down the entry drive.
At the bottom of the drive was one of those trial markers pointing to my right toward an underpass. That was the Concord Pike running atop it. I went through the tunnel.
Below I could see a trail where a road crossed.
As I neared the crosswalk I saw more trails and beyond a field was forest.
Off to my right was a large sign next to a driveway running up a manicured hill.
The sign said:
"BLUE BALL BARN".
That was the elusive and mysterious parking lot I had been questing for all this time. I had found my Holy Grail. I simply hadn't come down the road far enough, but no matter. I wasn't going back and move the car. I would just march ahead into the field, into the wind, into my victory, into the woods.
Alapocas Run State Park was mine.
I paused and looked back at the hill.
Interesting, the Blue Ball Barn was yellow.
Once across the road, I came to a choice of direction. Some bicyclists came behind me and turned left, so I went to the right.
This took we on a macadam trail running across a field. The Blue Ball Barn began to disappear behind high golden grass.
Looking back along the way at the field toward the sun, I saw structure. There were large rocks jutting upward within the brush. These stones didn't lay randomly according to the whims of nature, but were in a line. It was something like a manly effort to create something, a miniature Stonehenge perhaps.
Shooting it into the sun hides it in a cloak of mystery.
The trail straightened some and it led toward a lot of trees, I suspect, I hope the woods I had long sought.
It is getting late in the season, but the palette of autumn colors still stretches across the canvas of the day, all reds and yellows, auburns and russets, with still some dabs of lingering, stubborn green.
It seems a painting, dabs and dots from some impressionist's brush, a mad master painting all the world.
On the left appeared some very large houses. This is certainly an upscale area. The president of the bank where I once worked lives hereabouts. I imagine his days are not as bright as this Sunday morning these days.
The bank was recently acquired by another institution at a bargain rate, brought down by toxic real estate loans. Even suckling at the teat of TARP failed to save it. After decades of glory and profit, it hit the skids. There are a couple stockholder suits just initiated and my old associate is named along with other officers in the suit.
I was once an officer in that bank. It was supposed to be quite the honor. You get a little write up and your picture in several newspapers and industry newsletters. And what are the other benefits such position bestowed upon me?
It allowed me to sign a lot of papers I really didn't care to sign and I could eat in the Executive Dining Room and pay higher fees for lunch, but the Dining Room was in town and I wasn't, so it was hardly practical to drive into town to eat.
I preferred to spend my lunch hour walking anyway.
Then, of course, if the bank ever did anything illegal there was the chance I could go to jail as an officer.
Woo-eee, the rarified atmosphere of being a bank officer!
Much better to be free of all that, eat simple, have most modest house and be walking into a woods on a pretty Sunday morn.
Okay, finally I have reached the leafy heart of Alacopas. I stood staring at woods, you know like I've never seen a woods before. Yes, a woods is what you sees where there's a gathering of trees.
And every woods has a personality and every trail has its own little twists and turns that give it a life. There are always little subtleties and surprises. When you are a hiker, you never really have seen it all until you have walked it all.
And then it changes year to year and season to season.
The shoes I wore this day are guaranteed, quinine, 100% walking shoes, with a nice sole and water-proof tips, but I still feel the individual edges of the stones under each step. Crunch, crunch, crunch, like traipsing barefoot across a bowl of stale cereal, one of these new clusters stuff, fiber or honey or cinder-toastees.
There are no more fancy house windows peeking through or any persistent golf course on the right. This is forest dark and rough around me now.
It is quiet except for the chatter of falling leaves as I kick them aside with each stride. There is no possibility I will sneak up on the forest creatures.
A squirrel scampers away, leaps up a trunk and peeks around from a height out of reach.
Ahead is one of those girded bridges.
It is relatively free of any debris of fallen leaves. I stop in the middle and absolute silence surrounds me. There isn't even a bird tweet here. For a while I seem to be utterly alone, the last man in the world or an ancient explorer stepping into this land for the first time, his eyes virgin to this scenery before him.
The character of this park is making itself known.
The bridge, sturdy and strong, straddles the bed of a small stream.
The creek does not rush on its way over and around the rocks strewn from bank to bank. It is content to slither silently and smoothly, almost still, except if you stared you could begin to see the tiny current slipping into the distance dragging a new current behind.
I look from side to side. I can see well back into the wilderness along this stream. It is open to my gaze, proud in its naked banks and its slow way of life. It begs the question why hurry, why hasten? All life flows somewhere eventually.
Enjoy the journey.
On the other side of the bridge we come to those plank railings so popular in our Delaware parks. I wonder at their purpose? Surely they aren't keeping me out. I could walk around or even climb over, although at my age with my arthritic everything, better to walk around.
Are they handles for us to hold? Do they hold back some ravaging of nature? Water flow, snowfall, general erosion or do they just add a nice scenic touch or prove men have been here, own here, control here?
Then man deludes himself.
God and Mother Nature are the owners here and could snap these fences like so many toothpicks if they so desired. We have been loaned these places.
We have been allowed to share in these golden moments of fall and see but a glimmer of the splendor of the Creator.
I pause to look back on how far I have come so far.
They are all individuals, you know, each has its soul and its character.
The Northern Greenway is a chameleon, a shape shifter, a schizophrenic soul changing constantly along its length. When I am wandering from Rockwood to Bellevue through Bringhurst Woods there is a closeness. The trees, even now in the thinning of fall, the trees press up against the path in those parks.
I am pulled out of my inner thoughts by a yellow sign, Steep Slopes Ahead. This will be the first of such warnings and as I descend I think it isn't too bad, conscious that every hill I go down I will have to go up coming back.
Something strikes me as ironic about the nature of these parks.
That is true for much of the state as you travel south, but up here on the circle at the top, we are quite hilly.
If I had snapped photos down the Struble Trail yesterday you would not have seen just empty macadam and woods. I doubt I could have taken a picture without a person in it. It was a loosely joined parade along the Brandywine.
Here on the Alapocas trail I met people few and far between, but like on every trail I have wandered in this state, when we passed, we nodded and said hello or good morning and always got a response in return. Not so across the stateline on that Struble. Although we tended to speak to each soul who went by, very few acknowledged our greeting, even less initiated such a greeting. People in groups might chatter among themselves and so be distracted from these strangers bidding them good day, but the loners walked in silence, staring ahead, in some invisible hazmat suit to protect them from the aura given off by weirdos like me and the Little Woman who spoke to strangers.
Yes, indeed it was a wall. Why is there a wall here in the middle of the woods? What does it hide? How far does it run?
The trail runs aside it and around some curve. Off in the woods to the other side I can also see some high wire fencing. Am I venturing into a trap, a prison of some kind?
Will this be as far as I am allowed to go?
Big impressive gates in the middle of the woods. Is this a portal to the netherworld; are these the gates of hell? Do they swing these closed at sunset and lock up the park? There were no gates on the other end where I entered. I picture some poor shlub walking in and coming to these gates and they are closed and locked. And he's pounding on them yelling, "Let me out! Let me out!".
Well, nothing to do but go through the gates and see what is beyond the wall. Perhaps Pink Floyd is playing on the other side singing, "Remembering games and daisy chains and laughs/Got to keep the loonies on the path."
There is a road and the path goes on, and life goes on. At least for now, There is sanity in the woods, of course, which is why I like it. Not like the real world where scientists say we can hasten space flight to Mars by making one-way trips. They suggest we start with people 60 years old or older. I ain't kidding, read the paper. Ah ha, how President Zero, the "One We Are Waiting For", the Great and Wonderful Wizard whose curtain has been ripped down around his oversized ears and oversized ego has found the solution to the Social Security crunch -- send us old geezers to Mars.
Now if you wonder about this picture on the left of leaf-strewn ground, look closer.
Look at the center and you see the trail I am on snaking around below.
This is a steeper embankment than the photo shows.
We are heading down, my friends.
Well, I gotta think on this.
Should I continue? Look how it curves down and around like some mountain road.
One must keep in mind that every time you go down walking out is a place you must walk up coming back.
After walking down and around we come to an overhang, a lookout, a vista with a bench. Beyond is the front of some building.
Beyond the bench the trail again follows a fence curving even further downward.
I have come too far to desert the mission and I walk down to that bench to see what it overlooks.
I don't sit.
I stand on the lip of the outcropping gazing at the flowing water below and the long line of buildings.
These are the famous Bancroft Mills. Oh, you never heard of them. Well, why haven't you?
Bancroft Mills, was opened in 1831 and had an 1895 expansion. In 1930 Bancroft Mills was the single largest cotton finishing works in the world.
The complex was recently owned by Wilmington Piece Dye company which went bankrupt in May 2003.
The rushing water in front of the buildings is the ever present Brandywine River.
The mills on this site were the longest operating mills in our country's history.
Now they are finished milling.
Things come and go. Many things in my short lifetime have disappeared. It is just the way of things. Man builds and then it eventually crumbles under the weight of changing technologies and economics and when it has finally become only a skeleton of its once great body, the forest takes over again.
You think we have paved so much of paradise, but go out and walk and discover how the forest persevere. Take note if you turn your back on the plow, the vegetation will grow up and claim the idle plow and reclaim the ground.
Follow me and I will show you the earth's foundations. We have almost reached the bottom of this cliff we have encircled.
Around this bend is the next level and another decision point, but also here is an icon of our state.
And our Minor League Baseball Team is the Blue Rocks.
Okay, what you are looking at down the face of this cliff is the Delaware Blue Rock.
Kinda purty, ain't it.
But I am now at a decision point. I have basically walked Alapocas. If I go one way here I will journey into Brandywine Park and if I go the other I will be heading toward Rockford park.
I have come a ways and I have been in those parks.
I don't think I will go further today.
I have to go back and that means up that cliff, doesn't it?
It looks inviting to stay here. It is flat and the trail is macadam again.
But there is no way around it, I must leave and make the climb if I am to get home.
I say hello to a couple who stroll by and watch them follow this walk off into the distance.
I go over and read a bulletin board.
I have stalled long enough.
I take no more pictures as I go. The photos finishing out this piece were taken on the flat below the cliff.
No, my energy (puff) is now concentrated to getting back up the path (pant).
I am not as young as I used to be (wheeze) and going up these steep slopes (gasp) is a strain on my old body.
All I see ahead is up.
Wait, I did pause (groan) and snap a last shot of the never ending upward path afterall.
Let me explain how I was feeling at this point.
Have you ever taken a stress test? I did a decade ago. I was sixty. The doctor said my results were good even for a man of forty. But they strap you into things and plop you on a tread mill and they tell you to keep going, keep going, and soon your lungs begin to bleed air like worn out bellows stoking a fire, and the fire is inside your chest where you heart is thudding like a caged prisoner slapping a tin cup on the bars.
That was how my walk up felt and the path seemed a mile long until I passed through those gates again. There I leaned against a fence. Two women came down the path and asked if I was all right.
"Just catching my breath," I wheezed, "from coming up that."
And they smiled because they understood.