On a brilliant Missouri summer afternoon in Kansas City, my husband and I join the 10-mile Riverfront Heritage Trail at Town of Kansas Bridge, a long, weathered wood-and-metal structure that sways slightly with the rhythm of our feet. The bridge leads to a river overlook where we lean and ponder, our hearts warmed by memories of gray drizzly days in this very spot, years ago when we were dating. Now we are married and have a silk-and-rosebud baby girl, who sleeps unknowingly while we descend in the elevator to the bright concrete of the trail and launch out along the Big Muddy under the fierce sun.
The heat reaches our very bones. We hear the flap of birds' wings above our heads and see them, white against cerulean sky, soaring in parallel partnership. The Missouri River is a swift-flowing brown flood, even in the dry season, bringing logs, fish, turtles and debris on an unpredictable journey under great suspension bridges. The shadows of the birds flit between the lacy arabesques cast on the water by steel and concrete. A constant thrum of vehicles passing vibrates through the bones of our feet.
The baby stroller makes a soft shushing noise. We speak only in short words. The sun fills us too full to breathe. The path winds through light and shade, past strange benches like modern art, around a marshy pond subdivided by even stretches of string, and by abandoned warehouses picturesque in their desolate brick and glass. We smell grass, river, cement, our own selves.
A tiny spider, light green with a brown V on its thorax, lights on my wrist and flies away on a river breeze. When I pause in the glaring white stairwell to play my harp, my fingers are moist on the strings and I can feel the throbbing heat of the concrete through my jeans. Shadows are dramatic. Sound echoes and stretches. An occasional runner or cyclist passes by, stares, nods, and passes on. The trees lining the river are a rich green; they ignore the drought and draw their life from the heedless river and thrust their arms against the shiny blue sky.
The trail stretches on for a full 10 miles, leaving the embrace of the river and extending into the heart of old Kansas City, through the bustling downtown, into the now-defunct cattle auction houses of the West Bottoms, and all the way to the art and music of Midtown, honest and gritty. Here by the river, the colors are too bright for our eyes, the sun too hot, the shade too grateful. Trains pass only yards away, presaged by a low thunder and scintillating hiss. We turn around, harp and baby stowed, and make our sweaty way back to the bridge. The elevator has a clear side so we can look down as we rise over the passing freight train and see the closed cars stacked double, car after car after car into the distance. Blocks away, under the Kansas City skyline, a wide cross-section of humanity pursues commerce, pleasure, entertainment.
A single leaf lies golden against the weathered gray wood of the bridge. The stroller thuds quietly over the boards and we push on to our vehicle, parked near the River Market, the comforts of air conditioning, and huge bottles of water. The sun leaks out of us, leaving a burn as its calling card, and our tired limbs relax into the comfort of car seats. But the peace and glory of the river and its banks don't leave us. We hold hands as we leave, filled with the joy of exercise amid the beauty of nature and the fulfillment of creativity in music and photography.