Living Extemporaneously: A Journey To Bennington Park

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Photo credit: Cynethia Conley

By Cynethia Conley

A trite pedestrian path lies beneath the soles of my boots, directing me to follow the sensible route.  The firm, durable, black asphalt seems impervious to the chaotic nature just on the edge of this unyielding conduit.  “Yes, keep going, this is the intended route,” I say to myself.  But, every nature of my being draws me toward the path least traveled, the chaotic, indistinct path of ambiguity.

For the past year, my life has consisted of various spontaneous excursions, spur of the moment, quick decisions to travel to destinations unknown.  This new found desire to let go of all control and venture out on a simple leap of faith overcame me; a leap of faith fathomed on the instinct that I would end up somewhere great urged me onward.  Knowing that I may not end up where I WANT to be, but that I would end up where I was MEANT to be at that very moment invigorates me to this day.

One day I am this control freak, facing a cycle of constant letdowns and disappointments because things did not go according to plan.  The very next, I am seizing the present moment, letting each flex of my heel and thrust of my stride lead the way, even if it means suddenly changing direction and ending up in a peculiar, novel destination unknown.

How did I become this crazy thrill seeker? What brought out such a transformation in me?

One morning, I simply woke up, and I wanted change.  Yes, the change that we humans dread so much.  The change that makes us curl-up and wither away in a life of dearth because we are so afraid of the unknown.  This unwavering urge to just drop everything and go on an adventure overwhelmed me. A restive desire to rid myself of the domineering existence I had created. I simply wanted to be away from all familiarity, all control.  After spending a summer in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, surrounded by beautiful natural land, I knew that the perfect getaway would be somewhere untamed by society…somewhere naturally scenic and tranquil.

At the sight of the very first nature trail I Googled that appeared on my GPS system, I knew I was on my way.  No second guessing, no checking the weather and planning a set route.  I remember standing before an ashen brown bridge, overshadowed by a wooden sign that read “Welcome to the Eastern Deciduous Forest at Oregon Ridge State Park.”  That bridge was the only thing that separated me from the paved controlled path created by society and the natural path conceived by Mother Nature herself, allowing me to envision my own direction.  Towering trees cascaded over me as I sauntered the earth unscathed by mankind’s subjugated touch.
Step by step, control wavered away. But as I approached a flowing stream of uncertainty, mounded rocks gasped for air under coursing water, struggling to create a way for me and that all too familiar disappointment returned.  The rocks were not high enough to create a path for me to reach the other side of the forest. I thought to myself, I’m so sick of this! I should have planned appropriately… But, it was in that very same moment I was faced with the fact that no matter how much I planned; I could not control the stream before my feet.  In that moment that I decided to take my first leap of faith and rid control of my life entirely.
Before my actions could register what I was doing, my gray, pink and white Nike Air running shoes plunged into the flowing stream and I was ankle deep in the water that had almost hindered me from seeing what great things laid ahead. From that moment on, I made a vow to live extemporaneously, letting passion and instinct guide me.
So, here I am today, on this trite pedestrian path.  Initially, I set out on a trip to Brookside Gardens to explore some 50-acre public display. I researched the entire trip, from the hours of operation to the rules and regulations and was all ready to go.  Amazingly, this trip did not go according to plan.  I am immediately reminded that I am not in control of anything, really.  The one thing that my GPS failed to mention was the Intercounty Connector/MD 200 toll that required money I did not have.  There was no way that I traveled 50 odd miles for no reason.  My newfound spontaneous intuition kicked in and I looked to my friend in the passenger seat and said, “Well we weren’t meant to go to Brookside Gardens today; let’s see where we end up.”
Driving on for about five minutes, rush hour had approached and I observed all of the tired workers in their button up shirts and ties restlessly driving home.  Judging by the houses that surrounded me and the commuter’s business attire, I figured I couldn’t have been in a bad area.  Impulsively, I turned on my signal and I made one left turn.  To my right appeared a burgundy rustic bridge with a flowing stream beneath it and a minute lot, capable of occupying maybe 10 cars maximum.  I pulled in, put the car in park, thrilled by the power of instinct and I told my friend, “This is where we were meant to be today!”
But, where were we exactly?  I had no idea, but oh was I excited!  I exited my car, and I asked the first stranger that I saw, “Do you have any idea where we are?”  The older gentleman smiled sincerely and said, “Well yes, you’re at Bennington Park, what are you looking for?”  I cursorily told him about my detour and he replied, “Wow, I wish you the best of luck on your travel piece.”
Fall has just arrived and the leaves are glowing crimson red. Pausing on the bridge that connects society to this picturesque basin-wrought community playground, surrounded by historic Victorian homes, I admired the view. I passed a family playing soccer in the park, and I walked to the nearest swing set basking in the autumn leaves, venerating their family time as I reminisced over childhood pleasures that were taken for granted.
The asphalt pathway encircled the park as the magnificent Victorian homes sat upon hilltop’s overshadowing the open space.  Ghosts made of sheets signified the approaching ghoulish night of October 31st, and cobwebs intertwined the bushes.  Each house had some loving detail that made the Bennington community so unique.  My friend and I stopped to admire a home that resembled a little villa with cobble-stoned stairs leading to the doorway.  As we walked on, a striking, fierce, red, flowering shrub chockfull of robins appeared before us.
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“It’s a Hamelia Patens, which means fire bush,” said the owner, who just so happened to be tending to his yard, as we gazed at his ‘fire bush’ simply infatuated.  He continued, “Some folks call it the ball thorn, a local vernacular.”  Mark Holzle was his name.  He’s resided in Silver Spring almost all of his life, “68 years,” he said, sporting a Baltimore Ravens t-shirt.
Holzle went on to express the battle he has faced over the years trying to trim and manipulate the magnificent Hamelia Patens or ‘Fire Bush” to his liking.  A battle that he said he has paid the price for numerous times. “The robins love the berries, but they are toxic to us,” said Holzle.  He pointed out several little green thorns that branched off of each stem, similar to the thorns of a rose, but much larger.  “When it goes in it’s the gift that keeps giving because of the toxin,” said Holzle.  He held up his thumb as he shared with us the number of times he had been stabbed by the thorns of this beautiful bush, describing how the real pain is from the toxin that sets into the skin.
The conversation began to stray as Holzle began to talk about the area and the people who reside in it.  He told us how the older folks would use the branches of the fire bush to make canes because of its strength and durability.  He also went on to give a brief history of Montgomery County, and my friend jumped right in.  They discussed everything from hunting grounds in Damascus to the phenomenal Jimmy Jones Ice Cream Parlor.

“OMG, is that old parlor still there?!” asked Holzle.

“Yes,” my friend replied, “one of the few things that they haven’t gotten rid of yet.”

Discontentment and gloom invaded their vocal chords as they spoke of all the changes that had been made to a place that they cherished a place that they called home. They described Montgomery County as a place where many people who have never resided in the area could never appreciate because an outsider simply would not understand the journey and change that each generation endured over time.

“This land is not ours, we are all renting really, just passing through,” said Holzle.  The government has offered his friend a substantial amount of money to have her land, land that if she gives up would be for the “greater good,” and used to build a parking lot.

As our brief encounter with the remarkable Mr. Holzle came to an end, an older couple approached him, hand in hand.

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Photo credit: Cynethia Conley

“You’ve been away a while Mark,” I heard them say as I walked away.  The few people I came across as I ventured through Bennington Park and the homes that surrounded it represent the true meaning of community.  Bennington Park, also known as Sligo Creek Park was developed in 1930 as a result of the Capper-Crampton Act.  Initially the land was ignored because it was not the most optimal location for high-rise buildings.  Today, it is a beautiful park, created in part to protect its surrounding tributary, Sligo Creek.

The park was quiet and serene; the reverberation of the cricket’s chirping, the runner’s slight patting footsteps on the pavement, the gentle humming of passing car engines in the distance and the rustling of leaves as the squirrels scurried by, gave life to the world around me. As I walked on, I pondered over change, a universal and inevitable occurrence, affecting all things. Mark Holzle’s words dwelled within my mind: “We’re all renting really, just passing through.” Nothing in this life truly belongs to any of us.  As we live our lives, treading our various predetermined paths, we experience sporadic impacts that generate meaning to our existence and make us feel as if we are fulfilling our purpose in this world.  But, in the end we really own nothing; we are in control of nothing.  Yes, things may go according to plan… sometimes, but there is not a human being alive that has not experienced change.

Immediately, I snapped out of my racing thoughts and came back to reality as I was nearly run over by an older gentleman riding a weirdly shaped bike I had never seen in my life.

“I didn’t even hear you coming,” I said out loud, almost to myself in a frantic voice.  He rung his little bell and smiled at me, “Oh I am so sorry.”  The next biker wasn’t so nice. More bikers sped by and rung their bells.  “They take biking very seriously around here,” I said as I got into my car.  I started my engine and headed back to school, continuing on my life’s journey; always ready for the next sporadic impact life may place before me.

Try it for a day: give up control, give up stress, worry and anxiety and experience life’s next sporadic impact to your psyche, invading your equilibrium with a memory that will forever be a branded fraction of your existence.

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