Get Your Fix at Heman Park

Like many Americans, I find myself suddenly subject to a “Stay-at-Home” order in the midst of the novel coronavirus outbreak of 2020.  As a resident of St. Louis County, Missouri my movement is restricted to “essential travel,” which means I am not supposed to leave the confines of my home unless I have a specific, enumerated reason for doing so.  For example, I can go to the grocery store, to the bank, to the pharmacy, to the hardware store, or to the doctor’s office (no, I don’t think I’m sick yet). Within the scope of the Order, I am allowed to do a portion of what I used to consider the basics but many other joyful pursuits and passionate endeavors are deemed inessential and therefore off limits for at least the next thirty days, as the powers that be prescribe restrictions on free movement in an attempt to slow the rate of contagion.

My local gym has closed indefinitely.  There are no sports of any kind taking place, in part because public assemblies of ten persons or more are also forbidden.  Technically, I cannot get into my car and travel one, two, or three counties over to pitch a tent at my favorite campsite. Forget about going to Illinois to see my parents.  

These restrictions leave me feeling boxed-in.  A tinge of cabin fever flares up at the mere thought of the open road placed under effective roadblock.  I’m a guy who likes to get outdoors. I like to swing an ax. I like staring into the flames of a campfire.  I clear brush. I watch birds. I am acquainted with the cathartic power of a clear, clean, peaceful Missouri stream.  

If, like me, you’re starting to climb the walls during this coronavirus lockdown, you’re also asking yourself: what can I do, within these newly instituted, claustrophobic confines that doesn’t run afoul of the Stay-at-Home order?  How can I look after my own mental health, the quality of which has for years depended on being able to locate myself as needed in wide, open spaces?

Under the Order, residents of the county are still allowed to go for a walk in public parks.  Indeed, the County Executive has urged operators of public parks—presumably he is speaking to municipalities such as my own, University City—to keep their parks open.  To console myself, I think about all of the county’s various parks remaining open. Whether it has been for the purpose of playing disc golf, going for a run, or taking my dog Hugo for a walk, I have spent a lot of time in the parks of University City and St. Louis County over the past decade.  One of the parks nearest to me, which I have come to appreciate despite its faults, is University City’s Heman Park.

I first visited Heman Park while I was in college, some twenty years ago.  The school I went to had an intramural ultimate Frisbee team, which I joined my junior year.  We hosted a small tournament, which we held at Heman Park. Despite being a relatively large, centrally located park, Heman Park manages to remain tucked away along Midland Boulevard at Olive Boulevard in University City.  Before playing Frisbee there I hadn’t even heard of the park. Nor did I go back to it in college after playing Frisbee there on that tournament weekend. I remember thinking the park felt rundown, a little sketchy, not the cleanest.  

After moving out of the state after college, I returned to University City just a few years later, law degree in hand, newly married, a homeowner.  Our house had a fireplace and I’ve always had the firebug in me. Reading over some of the literature the City publishes to promote itself and its parks I read that there was a woodlot in the City’s flagship park, Heman. Firewood was freely available.  My wife and I got in the car late one Friday afternoon and drove over to Heman, imagining cords of seasoned firewood stacked and ready to fall into our arms.  

What we saw when we arrived at Heman Park late that Friday afternoon, probably a warm, crepuscular day in June, was a de facto street party.  Men with beers and brown bags in their hands, milling about in the road, the road that led to where the wood lay. These men were not in any hurry to let us pass.  Careful not to appear aggressive in my driving, and realizing that I had wandered onto someone else’s turf, I slowly navigated toward the woodlot, which consisted of any number of large, unwieldy trunks, stumps, and forked branchy pieces that I couldn’t have managed to get into my vehicle no matter how many cans of spinach I threw back.  Maybe I had my ax with me then, I can’t remember. The ax wouldn’t have made any difference. The trip was a bust, the park was still a dump.

A few years ago, my wife and I adopted a dog named Hugo from the St. Louis County Animal Shelter.  You never know what you’re going to get when you adopt a dog. Our first rescue, June, was a runner.  Get your sneakers on, get her out the front door, and hold onto that leash! Hugo has never really been interested in neighborhood walks, much less a sprint down the street.  What he does want to do, as soon as possible every morning, is get in a car and go somewhere.  

Because in recent years my wife has had a steady job and I haven’t, taking Hugo to the various parks of the area has been my job.  He likes them all but Heman Park is his favorite. This is probably due to the consistent scattering of, as I imagine it, casually tossed chicken wing bones that lay about some parts of the park, especially near the pavilions and the outdoor fire pits, just waiting for an enterprising hound to come upon them.  Hugo loves him some chicken bones and there’s no place better to find them than Heman Park.  

So we started going there a lot.  Slowly, the park unveiled itself. Or, slowly, I have awoken to what it has on offer.  Before my in-laws moved away several years back my father-in-law gave me a big, badass Farm Boss chainsaw someone had previously given him.  With practice I’ve learned I can do a lot of beneficial damage at the woodlot in Heman Park. With a 20-inch chainsaw thrumming in your hands, a thick trunk of oak is not only undaunting but a welcome invitation to a future campfire.  The wood of the ash tree, let me tell you, is a gift from God. Cut down by the city’s Forestry crew and graciously dropped in the woodlot, a trunk of ash, the wood of which can be burned green, is practically begging to be cut into a foot-long round, split into twenty sticks, and set-to with some kindling and a match.  I have, in a firewood sense, come of age in Heman Park.

My arrangement with Hugo is generally that he has to sit in the car while I chainsaw and then split some wood.  He’s alright with this arrangement because once I’ve gotten my firewood fix we go over toward the pavilions where patrons of a Friday past have chucked not just several dozen Bud Light bottle tops but also, if Hugo’s lucky, a gnawed-on chicken wing or three.  I know dogs aren’t supposed to eat chicken bones, but he waits patiently while I work with wood, so I gotta show him some respect, and let him do what dogs like to do.

After that, for both of us, it’s important to walk in the park.  An overlooked aspect of Heman Park I’ve come to appreciate is the River des Peres.  All I ever knew about the River des Peres as a kid growing up on the other side of the Mississippi River in Illinois was that people died in the River des Peres during flash floods because most of the time along much of its urban nine-mile stretch, there isn’t much water to speak of.  Vital for the role it plays in the St. Louis region’s storm water and sanitary systems, the river’s reputation could be reduced to “trickles and trash.” Still today, there’s always plenty of trash strewn along the banks and the bed of the river as it makes its way in a typically subdued, sometimes fetid manner through the heart of Heman Park.  

On the banks of the River des Peres in Heman Park, March 2020.

Then it rains.  Then we get a downpour, a gullywasher.  And then the River des Peres gets wild. Are you stuck at home in March of 2020 during the coronavirus lockdown and getting wistful for halcyon days spent on an unruly, white-rapid, mean as hell, get-out-of-my-way body of water?  Then the River des Peres is for you! There are times I have stood aside the River des Peres in Heman Park, closed my eyes, and just listened to it move. And I could have convinced myself I was in the middle of the state, on the banks of the pristine Current or Jacks Fork Rivers.  You gotta take what you can get. I once even saw what I believe was a weasel slipping from the bank of the river into the water as Hugo and I startled the lively writher on our weekly walk. Can you beat that, ten minutes from your house? A weasel!

It’s not the prettiest park, it’s not the prettiest river.  You have to do some work for the firewood. And I don’t recommend going there in the evening, especially not on a Friday evening (the last time I was there on the later side of a Friday afternoon I observed two instances of what  I could best describe as hooking.) But if you’re locked down in the midst of a pandemic, when the pristine beauty and uncompromised openness of the rest of the state is off limits; if your dog likes to skank around for chicken bones and other hidden treasures; if you want to go for a walk and catch your ear on what sounds like a spring-fed stream, then check out Heman Park, right here in University City, right here in the middle of an increasingly impromptu backyard.  It might not be the ideal choice to get your fix for the outdoors. But it might be the only.

It’s rained a lot this year. Rain makes the river happy.