A Trip up Mount Auburn Hill

Wandering & Wondering

My dog Sister and I marched straight up Sycamore Hill the other day and didn't break a sweat 'til after Milton Street. I was feeling pretty proud of myself, and I thought wouldn't it be nice if Laura Pulfer just happened to drive by at that minute. I know Laura, thank you very much, and she would be so jealous that I was walking up Sycamore Hill there's no telling what she might do.

Who knows, I thought, they might find healing qualities in Mount Auburn mud and my friend, Kate Schmidt, and I could make homemade soaps and sell them on the Internet.

Those fanciful thoughts kept me going that last 200 feet of the way up the queen of hills herself. By the time I got to the bench at the bus stop I was gasping, and by the time I got to Walker Street I was in full cardiac arrest.

"Why, I walked up Sycamore Hill every day of my life," said my old friend Esther Abrahms, who used to work in Over-the-Rhine when the neighborhood was still largely Appalachian. "I managed the Bank Café, and ever' day after work I'd have to walk up Sycamore Hill, holding one baby or a sack of groceries or a load of laundry and pushin' another one in a stroller. I didn't think no more of that than nothin'."

One day many years ago, I decided to take a short cut between the "U" and the "R" in the "MOUNT AUBURN" shrubs. By my rising, I was almost directly behind my own apartment and could easily scramble up the side steps and glide in my front door, but alas my reckoning was wrong.

I climbed straight up for a while with no problem. Then, large limbs began to tear my clothes and lash my face and I was coughing and breathing dust. Nettles caught in my hair and I began having to climb using my arms to get to the next boulder.

I quickly abandoned my short cut but found I couldn't get back down. Finally I reached a back door, and I knocked. The two men who answered the door shrieked. I explained to them about the short cut and the brambles in my hair and how I'd missed my own apartment. They said absolutely nothing. In desperation and close to tears, I said, "If you would just let me go through your house you'll never see me again."

By contrast, the enchanted path at the south end of Walker Street wound through arched boughs of tree branches that might have been painted by Mother Nature herself. There was very little light, but you could hear anything that moved in the undergrowth. Deer had made huge nests at night in the shallow woods, and you could still see their imprints.

Sister sniffed at the nests and barked wildly. To her it must have smelled as if dinosaurs had camped just a mile or two from home. On the other side of the part, in the sun, children giggled and screamed from the pool. There's nothing like swimming on a hot summer day.

Sister gave a little shake of her leash — a trick she'd learned from Robert Frost's horse — and we went down the Mount Auburn stairs, placed there so long ago by a public works program that's seldom honored. Shafts of sunlight penetrated here and there, late-afternoon sunlight, illuminating a lichen covered branch, a mossy acorn and an osage orange, rotting. The woodsy smells were overwhelming to Sister; I had to let her off the leash, and she went bounding away through the trees like a big red fox.

There was shattered glass everywhere, broken plastic cigarette lighters, butts, beer cans, urban detritus. I held on to the black rail and watched my step. I was walking straight down now, and I didn't want to fall.

The stairs ended at Liberty Street, and the calm of the woods was gone. The peace of mind I always get from walking was shattered. Cars were rushing past us menacingly, and I blinked to get used to the city again. Friends walked past and waved or stopped to talk, car horns were blaring, boomboxes were rapping.

I could feel the opposing energies, and Sister was beginning to bark again. I thought about the wondrous things I'd seen on my trek. Behind me Sycamore Hill stood, beckoning climbers like the Matterhorn.

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