Jeanne knew me as the woman who ate Pop-Tarts during class. I knew her as the one who gave me the harshest critiques on my papers. After I noticed we took the same route home from graduate school, it didn’t take long to figure out we lived a block apart.
So we began to walk. First tentatively, going home from class. Then longer weekend walks along the Capital Crescent Trail. Our friendship progressed with the seasons, and the walks became full of ritual as we paused for what we called “nature spottings”: a blue heron fishing for breakfast, a family of deer moseying across the path, a wild pointillist display of red cardinals in the trees above.
We tackled our problems—Jeanne’s on the outbound, all the way to the rough-hewn fence that served as our turnaround point. I’d listen for the emotional undertones of a predicament and help peel away the layers until we hit on the thorny nub. On the way back, we worked on my issues. A pragmatist with a bootstrap sensibility, Jeanne often counseled me to “just get in the boat and row.” She helped steer me through a painful divorce and ecstatic remarriage. When everything around me seemed clothed in unpredictability, our walks were the thread of consistency. “We always turn up,” she liked to say.
Then, after 15 years, Jeanne told me she and her husband were moving back to Canada. I was a new mother and had already been through enough life interruptions. But this one felt catastrophic, like losing the ground level of my home. The day Jeanne left, we stood on the same street corner where we’d so often parted after our walks, and I promised to look in on our heron, all the while knowing I wouldn’t be lacing up my sneakers anytime soon.
One year became three. During that stretch, I faced both the trials of raising my young son and the swift decline of my beloved mother. For wide swaths of time, I felt untethered and lost. I’m not sure why I decided it was time to make our walk again by myself. Maybe going through some emotional milestones had given me the strength and perspective to revisit physical ones. Or maybe I just missed the nature spottings.
But coming upon a pair of mallards—creatures I’d long admired for their loyal partnering—put a fine point on how much I missed my own unwavering sidekick. I have a devoted husband, but a friend like Jeanne is a rare bird.
For a while, I walked and cried, turning my face when bicyclists passed. The trail itself looked different, and I had trouble recognizing once-familiar signposts—the inlet where Jeanne and I often saw herons dozing, a section of woods that had the most deer. I even misjudged our turnaround point, panicking that the fence had been removed in my absence.
I stopped and took a photo of a plane flying over the Washington Monument to send to Jeanne. She always liked the dull nickel of the sky on hazy mornings. Since she moved, our walks had turned into phone calls, sometimes lasting hours, the same time it took us to complete our two-mile trail loop. I knew the photo would prompt another marathon call.
Suddenly I saw in quick succession a heron (blue or night, I don’t know, but ours for sure), a deer folded along the banks like a postcard, and a cardinal so red I thought it was a can of Coke. “Totems,” Jeanne would have said. Signs, scattered by her own hand like breadcrumbs, that I was right where I should be.
Contributing editor Cathy Alter can be reached at email@example.com.
This article appears in our May 2015 issue of Washingtonian.