As recently as 2015, it was easy to be alone on the paths down by the river, especially in the winter. I started early-ish and took my dog and it was rare that I would run into another person, or, more concerningly, a dog off-leash but “under voice control,” a phrase that means “not under voice control.” I hate winter but love the river and love the sensation of being alone in a city. It’s not the same as other types of solitude. There’s an extra delight, like being in on a joke combined with the slight but definite detachment from reality that accompanies certain parts of the migraine prodrome. Obviously the river doesn’t belong to me. But also obviously to everyone who uses that part of the James River Park System, you’re never alone down there anymore.
For all the time I spend wracked by pointless anxiety, I think maybe the counterbalance is how easily I can be smacked in the face by beauty, even in winter, an awful season. The stripped trees staggered against the cloud-clotted sky, the brown river churning with froth and mud or sterling and still except for a speckling of snowflakes, the clean cuts of the dams, and everywhere, even in the dead center of the season, abundance. Even in January, tangles of branches and vines are so thick in the canopy and on the ground they trap matter like spiderwebs above and among the peerless sound of the rush of water over rocks. My dog snuffles for animal smells in the rotting rug of leaves, and we can take any of the hopscotch rock-paths out to the center of the river I’ve seen almost every single day of my life.
It was just us in the damp palm of the city’s hand. No one was vigorously being in nature anywhere near us. No one in our vicinity was starting their morning off right. It was just me and my dog and the weather. Under no other conditions does my mind move more naturally or do I feel that I have access to both new thought and everything I’ve ever known. “[Consciousness] is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described,” William James wrote in Psychology. As sleep cleans your brain, these jaunts in my natural habitat cleaned my thoughts. There are several spots where you can look one way and see the Richmond skyline and turn your head the other way and see no evidence of mankind ever having existed. As long as there is no one in your proximity reminding you and reminding you and reminding you that mankind extremely exists.
Richmond’s emptiness is vanishing. The population is growing, both in size and in affluence. White flight, spurred by racist reaction to school integration and aided by highway construction through majority-black neighborhoods, at the very least looks different now and isn’t defined strictly by city-county lines. On top of this is the change in social mores among certain tranches of the well-enough-off, who now value “the city” in a way that would have been inconceivable to their equivalents two decades ago. And so now the park system is on the minds of the free-time-havers. They are determined to enjoy it, on bike, on foot, with their dogs, who are under voice control. It’s easy for me to be pissy about this as that is my natural register. It’s impossible for me to justify wanting an entire public good to myself. Even though I used to have it sometimes.
Change! Things change. There are surely empty parts now that I don’t know about, and probably it wasn’t my brightest idea to prioritize being where no one else was. There are almost 3 billion more people on the planet than there were when I was born. They have to go somewhere! They have to do their outdoor leisure somewhere. My dog is scared of and mean to other dogs. And what about me, a non-runner, non-biker skulking around in my dirty coat, wishing for a vacant, half-dead city while shooting lasers that scream “WHAT????” out of my eyes at passersby in breathable synthetics? Not very nice, is it? Richmond was hollowed out by the worst in people and the worst in this country. How could I or anyone like it that way for any reason? It’s a semi-mystical experience, I snarl. Of complete understanding of a place through the eons all legible in one soul-moment. Okay?? Probably not.
It must be hard for people who moved to Richmond after the 90s to understand how much it felt then like the entire thing had been left to rot. If this is it finding some kind of health, what kind of Munchausen by proxy would I have to have to wish against that? My greatest fear is that my distaste for everyone else at and around the Reedy Creek parking lot entrance is essentially suburban in flavor—the world as my lawn. But I’ve never felt like it was mine, only that I was its. I belong to Richmond. Can that change? My childhood neighbor at almost 100 told me that she didn’t like to be driven through the city anymore. It all went by too quickly and was so different it meant nothing to her. She didn’t care to see it again. In an empty city, you can see history. In a full one, I wonder who cares to see anything at all.