A Walk in the Park: Nothing is as it Once Was

Auburn Hills River Woods Park

I cannot sleep this morning. I have been up twice only to realize it is 2 a.m. or 4 a.m. Although I don’t know why I bothered to get up to check the time, I can always tell when it is morning. I live in the house that John Mellencamp sang about, “He’s got an interstate runnin’ through his front yard, you know, he thinks that he’s got it so good,” Except the interstate runs through my side yard. To answer the next question, yes, it is loud. I can tell time by the noise level the interstate makes. It is only quiet between 2-4 a.m. After that the trucks come first, then the factory workers (yes, the Detroit Three still employ people in Southeast Michigan, and each of them drives by my house at 80 mph on the way to work.) In the winter, friends will call or message me to find out if it is backed up or not.

I can hear traffic picking up, so on a Sunday that means it’s at least 7 a.m. For the work week, the traffic picks up at 5 a.m. I get up and eat because I am eager to get out and walk around.

My hip feels better after the injection, but now it still feels disturbingly weak. The first thing I need to acknowledge is that there are still no painful muscle spasms, so that is a huge improvement. That is so awesome, I could cry. I didn’t realize how bad the muscle spasms hurt. Until they were gone you would think I would have slept better with a ‘comfy’ hip, but honestly, I kept thinking about heading out to the park for a walk. I kept rolling ideas over and over in my head about which park to visit. I visited a park I have visited often, but not for a long time. River Woods in Auburn Hills is close to where my grandmother lived. It was completely woods-almost forest when she lived there. It used to be a tiny dirt road you hoped no one was coming from the other direction in when you turned on to it. Now the area sports luxury apartments, and Fortune 100 companies within walking distance of the park.

Chrysler moved in up the street, and now that teeny dirt road is a fully ‘lawnscaped’ four lane highway. I say this because it is fancy. The ironwork and perfectly trimmed medians with their impeccable landscaping are so impressive that one could use them as an extension of the park. There are even well-kept park benches in the median – not that many people would venture to sit in the median of a four-lane road. I see no one sitting on the median benches unless there is a parade. If driving through here were a scene in a movie you would expect to hear ‘happy suburbia’ music. Nothing about the drive there prepared me for what I was about to find at the park. What a stark and shocking contrast to the rest of the city.

[But that is exactly what my hip is. No one can see how bad it is, especially if I am having a good day with the pain. I ‘driver’ through the town of my ‘hip’ you expect to hear the happy, tranquil music of a peaceful morning.]

The Clinton River curves through the back of River Woods Park like a horseshoe. It is shallow, but fast moving at this place in the river. Tall Cottonwoods dot the park. They are ‘blooming’ releasing their ‘cotton’. It’s so heavy in places that it looks like snow is falling. A path surrounds the park. It is perfect for an exerciser like me who doesn’t want to wonder too far from help should ‘a wheel fall off’ my plans. As a side note, part of the path connects with the Clinton River Trail. The trail eventually connects with its more famous big brother, The Paint Creek Trail, and Rochester Municipal Park. If you are a trail walker-you should put both on your list.

Upon my arrival at River Woods, I notice the park benches at the entrance face the main road and the interstate ramp, and not the park. [This would be a good place to sit and spot Chrysler’s new cars; you can spot them because they have ‘zebra’ coverings on them, and sport a ‘manufacturer’ license plate.] From the entrance it looks peaceful and inviting with its cobblestone circle. Then I notice how quiet it is! There are no birds singing. I can hear them off in the distance, but not in the park. For now, I ignore it and walk on the little sidewalk that lines the park (which I will readdress in a minute). I stop and have a seat on a bench that overlooks the river. I look at the bank. One side is the park, the other is a heavily wooded area that is thick. It has a definite forest feel to it. I can only hear birds across the river.

I look over my shoulder and up into the trees and see no birds flying around. But, I can understand why they would not want to be here. It’s a horrifying mess. There were once rocks on the park-side of the river bank. They are gone, only weeds and overgrown grass grows here. Someone later told me that the rocks were removed by the city because kids were throwing them in the river.

The ground beneath my feet at the bench is caked with cigarette butts. I hear a quack, and think, there are ducks here. However, it is a lone Mallard floating directly down the center of the river, bobbing with the current. He enters the park through one tunnel of tree branches and exits out the other without giving the park a second thought. It is the polar opposite of the other park, whose ducks swam out of the river to meet the duck-goodie man. That is when I really feel a sense of foreboding. There are no animals. Someone or something has driven the wildlife off here. I walk around, this time taking photos. There are the remains of latex balloons everywhere. I pick up as many as I can because I know they will hurt any wildlife that is brave enough to come here. I would throw them away but I can’t, the baskets are not only overflowing, but trash is piled high next to them. Maybe I am just here at a bad time? I don’t remember this park being a squalid mess…on any occasion…ever. However, it has been a long time since I have been here.

There is a lonely picnic table at the north end of the park, it is also littered with trash. The playground; pause; you may remember that commercial that talks about people using enough plastic water bottles to circle the earth? Well, I think 1/8 are on the playground and basketball court of this park. It’s overwhelming here, and not in a good way. A few pieces of litter I can happily pick up, but this place needs a crew; and the smell! Holy Lord, what is that smell?

Normally I take a great of pleasure in the solace of a park in the early morning, but it’s so lonely here that the solace has been chased away. I decide to leave. The quiet here isn’t peaceful; it’s disturbing. As I am walking back to my car a creepy dude pulls up and parks. I say that because he stared at me not blinking, or smiling, or anything. I smiled and nodded. He just stares at me, still unblinking, unsmiling, un-return-nodding. It was as if he was looking at no one. ‘What a psycho,’ runs through my mind. The rain finally starts to fall, and for many reasons it is time not just time to leave – but to get out of here.

When I get home, I am disappointed and my experience is hanging over my entire morning and early afternoon. So far my walks in the parks have been uplifting, this one was just plain disgusting, and then the creepy staring dude! Whoa, the intensity because guy’s eyes screamed: “I am a nutter from a Stephen King novel.” Later in the afternoon, I head back over with my daughter. The mood seems much lighter at the park. School’s out. It was the last day before summer break, and it is crammed with little ones, teens, and young adults. My daughter pauses…

“What?” I asked.

“Mom, there is no birds,” she said, looking around.

“They’re over there,” I pointed to the wooded area along the Clinton River Trail.

We walk over there. The park is still filthy, and people are ignoring it. The conversations we are overhearing involves language that would embarrass a sailor.

“Faster,” I say, pulling my daughter toward the trail. I don’t find offense in foul language, but that! Holy cow! I am not sure some of those conversations were legal.

We cross the bridge to the Clinton River Trail and the official walk. I immediately feel unsafe. The smell of feces is overwhelming.

“Mom, forget it, this is nasty, let’s just leave. We can go to the other park.”

I agree and we leave. A sadness fills me as I realize that the park of my young adulthood doesn’t exist anymore. I come back a few days later, determined to write something nice and beautiful about this park of my yesteryear. What a difference! It was clean, really clean! I could hear birds, in the park, not ‘hiding’ in the wooded area. Not even the Cottonwood seeds that were ‘snowing’ down are allowed to litter the park.

I enjoy my lunch for a few minutes when three new Dodge Challengers pull up. “Cool”, coveting one of them (the black one!). Two identical brand new Dodge Darts pull up, followed by a convoy of new Jeeps and Minivans some with ‘manufacturer’ licenses plates on them.

Chrysler is here and they brought cars with them. {And that is what I get for not bringing my camera!} Within minutes the park is full with well dressed, well behaved Chrysler employees enjoying a picnic as they discuss a new advertising campaign. I can’t hear everything, but I heard ‘upcoming campaign’. Yup, the park is clean today. Too bad today wasn’t the first visit. That would have made the park amazing. Who came out and cleaned it up – more to the point why does Chrysler get a clean park but the other residents of Auburn Hills do not?

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