The clouds were thick and gray, trailing shaggy beards of virga, usually a sign that it’s too hot to rain all the way to the ground. The forecast said zero-percent chance. I walked to the Rio Grande, avoiding the place I used to go to enjoy it—Rotary Park—because it was packed with vehicles, and we’ve had an influx of Texans. Instead, I walked the dirt road, listened to red-winged blackbirds, admired the cliff with cacti sprouting from its steep sides, and headed home. Too many trucks puffing dust on the road. Thunder began rumbling, and was I surprised to feel a soft mist of rain on my skin. Such a gift, when least expected.
On a ninety-seven degree day with nineteen miles-per-hour wind, I had to run—well, jog, really—straight into the wind up the steep hill to reach my new favorite trail. And it was worth it. The rare little hedgehog cacti were displaying their last two blooms of the year. There are only three of these plants in the whole area where I’ve been running. Not a close family, they grow a foot or two apart. Their trunks are egg-shaped with starry thorn clusters, and they explode with big hot pink flowers that each stay open one day. The first time I rounded a bend and saw blossom number one, I gasped in awe and stopped. I looked deep in the cup of the flower to see something round and yellow bobbing and wriggling among the fluffy stamens. The hind end of a bee.
The rest of the desert is full of yellow flowers, the creosote bushes waving golden petals in the wind, and below them the low-growing purple prickly pear, also called a purple pancake cactus, is flowering as well. It looks like a mean little plant until it blooms. The pads can be purple, green with purple edges or green that looks as if it’s coated with purple, and sometimes the plant will sprout a single bright green pad. The thorns are long and sharp, capable of penetrating the human toe quite efficiently. The buds are pink, but they open yellow with pink-orange centers or streaks. There were so many, when I closed my eyes in the shower after my run I kept seeing them, a sea of pale yellow flowers on a background of prickly purple.
I’m glad I saw so much beauty that day, because climbing the hill for weeks has reawakened an old injury which is quite literally a pain in the backside, so I have to stick to for flat ground for a while.
Unpaved flatness is hard to find. I tried a neighbor’s recommendation: the cemetery. It is flat, and has a dirt road and nice views of mountains in the distance, but the gate has huge signs on either side announcing that this is a Known Rattlesnake Area, warning visitors to use great care. I chose to run laps of an open green space where there are not yet any burials. I saw no snakes there, but ran over so many goatheads the soles of my shoes felt like Velcro on the grass. So I plucked them and switched to the dirt road on the side away from the main burial area. This offered windblown dust and flying goatheads—really—scratching my legs. I even got one stuck in my thigh. Easy to pull out, but still, this is not my favorite running spot so far. A few people visiting their loved ones’ graves must have thought me a bit weird, but surely, there’s at least one runner buried there. Someone whose spirit understood.
My next flat-ground attempt was a dirt road that goes from one of the residential streets in my neighborhood to the area behind (how lovely) the sewage treatment plant. I haven’t smelled the facility so far, and getting there is pleasant. I pass a friend’s house and see her positive-energy fence signs and window signs, such as “Mask your face, not your heart.” I even encountered her once for a distant air-hug and conversation.
Scenery along the dirt road is so-so. The scrabbly dirt side of hill I’m avoiding is at the end of the road. You have to be on top of it to see the cactus patch, so this view is not floral. On one side of the road are the backs of a few houses, including one with some huge prickly pears that have poppy-like orange flowers. On the other side is an area of brush, bare dirt, and weeds that looks as if it was cleared once and is now overgrown. Facing a patch of dirt sits a single off-white folding chair, suggesting someone chose to sit and contemplate this inhospitable spot. My friend Donna Catterick, the photographer whose work is on the covers of Death Omen, Shadow Family and Small Awakenings, calls such sightings feral furniture. The cover of Small Awakenings, my book of reflective essays, features a feral chair. (The feral recliner at the bottom of this post is another one of Donna’s photos.)
I met a birdwatcher on my second run on this route—from the recommended twelve feet apart while exercising—and wondered if that was his chair.
I also met a beautiful snake from an even greater distance. It was orange with black stripes that diminished to mere spots toward its rattle-less tail. I looked it up later and concluded it might have been a ground snake, possessed of mildly toxic saliva. Does anyone else think ground snake is an odd name? All the snakes I’ve ever seen were on the ground.
My third time down that road, I was pain-free and happy for many laps, and then I tripped on a rock. I didn’t fall. No, I caught my balance with an instinctive and intense effort of the injured muscles, and learned how much strength it takes to keep your balance, how hard you work in a fraction of a second of not falling down. Needless to say, the old injury revived with a vengeance.
Perhaps I will have to heal where I can’t even trip. Inactivity is its own kind of injury, though, and I need to see nature, so I guess I’ll be walking on pavement for a while. Dancing in my apartment when I need variety. Practicing yoga as if I were my own student with an injury. I can’t rush the process or I won’t heal at all.
In Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic on mindfulness, Full Catastrophe Living, he quotes an elderly woman reminiscing. I can’t find my copy of it to cite the passage precisely, but she says something along the lines of, “Oh, I’ve had my moments. And if I had it to do over again, I’d have more of them. Because that’s all we have, really. Moments.”
Writing this made me stop and perceive my apartment in a new way. There’s no sound but the faint hum of the humidifier gently battling the total dehydration that is April in New Mexico. I look at my furniture, the quality of early evening light—all beautiful for being so ordinary.
Despite the shrivelingly-low humidity and frequent high winds, the desert smells like flowers. I can’t figure out which ones produce the scent, but I run through it in delight. Tiny yellow flowers grow wherever they can, in hard soil, in dust, in pavement, between rocks. Creosote bushes and claret cup cacti are blooming.
One day on my run, I noticed a peculiar shadow in motion near me and looked up to see a trio of huge black shiny bees flying in a sloppy little V. Another day, another trio. A bee-o. My inner Dr. Seuss can’t help rhyming this: Big black bees/ fly in threes.
I took my car out for her weekly workout to keep her battery charged. I drove her to a trail just outside of Elephant Butte Lake State Park, as close to my beloved park as I could get while it’s closed, and took a walk to see if it was a potential running trail. It wasn’t—too much lose gravel and then extremely soft sand—but it was a lovely walk. The deep soft sandy part of the trail was partially overgrown with flowers I’ve never seen before, purple clusters that sometimes curl over like fiddlehead ferns. The unique landscape of Elephant Butte is quite different from Truth or Consequences, just a few miles away. More gray rocks than red. More twisted, shaggy-barked junipers, fewer creosote bushes. Greater earless lizards rather than checkered whiptails. Sand rather than dust and dirt. The trail dropped off sharply into a dry arroyo, and I turned around, content with my exploration
On the days I would normally teach yoga, I’ve been doing my practice as if teaching, talking to myself with the cues I would give students, treating my own need for alignment , relaxation, and engagement as those of a student I was observing. It sounds crazy, but it makes me pay full attention. I can’t think about anything but the moment, as my body and my words meet in my focused awareness.
After today’s yoga immersion, I gazed out my screen door at the waving, rustling green leaves at the top of the tree that invaded our water line back in February. It’s a beautiful tree. And I have water.
The entire Mae Martin Series is currently discounted. Book one, The Calling is free and will be through June 13. Shaman’s Blues is 99 cents through the end of April. The other books are $2.99, and when the promotions end, the first two books will be only $2.99 for the rest of the summer.
It was a beautiful warm day, the rare April day without high winds. I made an early morning trip to Las Cruces for groceries. Driving through the dramatic near-empty land, I listened to music by friends who live right in Truth or Consequences but whom I haven’t seen for weeks. Uplifting. A reminder of them and of hearing them play live.
Programmable roadside signs on I-25 South as I approached Las Cruces read: Shop alone. Stop the spread alternating with Limit travel. Stop the spread of Covid-19. An acknowledgement that people in small towns often have so few choices at home, they have to shop in Las Cruces, the only large city in the southern part of the state.
Natural Grocers was clean, orderly, and fully stocked. (Except for TP, of course.) All employees, and all shoppers but one, wore masks. I bet she felt out of place. Social distancing was observed well, with markers at the checkouts to keep the six-foot distance, and customers doing their own bagging, so one less person breathes on you or your food. An employee was sanitizing the handles of the freezer and refrigerator cases. The only thing that was normal was that I got a month’s worth of food and personal care products. For years, I’ve been shopping that way to save gas and time, and now that planning habit comes in handy. When the masked man at the checkout gave me my very long receipt, he said, “Now you won’t need toilet paper.” I had to tell him I was smiling behind my mask.
On the drive home, puffy white clouds were shedding trails of virga, white virga like the wispy beards of ancient sages. You usually see dark gray virga in June, when it’s so hot the sky can only try to rain, desperate would-be storm clouds doing their best and failing just short of moistening the ground. Today, it was raining so far from the earth, you had to be looking up to notice. April is so dry, it was remarkable it even rained way up there.
After I unpacked (and yes, sanitized) my groceries, my phone beeped an alarm. This is the second time the New Mexico Department of Health has sent these text messages to everyone in the state who has a cell phone. They feature a big red triangle with an exclamation mark in it. Extreme emergency. Stay home. Did I violate that order? We are allowed to buy food. If I’d shopped in T or C, much as I love my town, I would have felt less safe. I’d have encountered the same number of people in a store with fewer healthful options, and some of those shoppers would be ignoring social distancing and not wearing masks, because there are no detected cases in Sierra County. I assume there are covid-positive people here, asymptomatic young people who haven’t exhaled on their elders yet.
The stay-at-home order allows outdoor exercise, alone. I ran down the street toward the desert. As I passed a house where a man was working on his roof, I heard his radio blaring news about the situation in New York. About the health care workers’ challenges and how many people died there today. It was close to the same number as total cases in New Mexico.
In spite of the state of the world, I experienced joy as I ran. The zigzagging random trails liberated me. Checkered whiptails scurried around. A mule deer leaped past. I’m more appreciative than ever of strength and health, when none of us on any day knows how long we’ll have it.
On my return, I spotted a friend on the hiking trial as I ran on the OHV trail. We talked from about ten feet way. She’s a massage therapist and personal trainer, self-employed, and of course totally out of work. She asked me about the yoga studio being closed, and I said we’d closed even before we were told to. But I’ll be okay not working. At sixty-five, I have a safety net. At forty-something, she doesn’t. I urged her to apply for unemployment. It’s available to people like her now, though the process is probably slow as the system tries to cope with the load.
A neighbor texted me shortly after sunset. Out the door and to the right. We both stepped out and stood, far apart, in shared awe. The supermoon was rising, huge and golden, behind the slope of Turtleback Mountain.
I’m grateful for so much open space and beauty around me. It means I can still get out and run while doing some extreme social distancing. One new trail I’ve tried is steeper and rockier than anything I’ve run in years. It reminds me of places I used to run decades ago. Since I’m decades older, I told myself I had to find a safer way up the hill, one that didn’t involve a narrow path of loose gravel on the edge of a cliff. The hospital doesn’t need some crazy old runner full of cactus thorns coming in with a broken leg. Nor do I need to be that person.
I never saw the better route until the day I determined I would find one. Then suddenly, it was in plain view. All I’d seen before was the marked trail, but this other one was always there. Still steep, but not on a cliff side, and not so unstable underfoot. Funny what we can perceive when we open our views to alternate options.
I’ve modified where I go once I climb the hill as well, deviating onto the trails used by off-highway vehicles—trails I also failed to perceive until I realized I needed them. I’ve never been a fan of OHVs, but for now, I’m grateful they made the tracks—softer and wider than the hiking trail, and utterly random. They don’t go from point A to point B like the marked trail. They zigzag, loop, meet in sharp Y intersections, or turn into dead ends, giving me the sense of being in a desert maze. I can run with no goal and no sense of time, on and off the OHV tracks and the hiking trail, avoiding the stretches that are potential ankle-sprainers. I found a kind of rough amphitheater where I think the OHV people may play in mud when it rains. For me it was liberating and unconfined, a place where I could sprint in circles.
With so many surprises and no familiarity with the terrain, I can’t get lost in thought. I can only be present to the act of running and the earth under my feet, dodging the little bonsai-like creosote bushes popping up in the track, daring to look up now and then at the view of Turtleback Mountain.
By the time I got home from my first no-destination run, everything seemed brighter and also quieter. I stretched in the courtyard of the apartment building and then sat on a bench, in awe of the sky, the cooing doves, and the wild mustard taking over the yard with its slender, swaying stalks and yellow flowers. It’s a weed. Doves are nuisance birds we try to chase away. But I was in a state of suspended judgment, aware and immersed, with no likes or dislikes, only life and light.
On a sunny, sixty-degree day, the kind that tourists from cold places come here to enjoy, I asked myself, how would I feel, think, and act if I was on vacation?
Truth or Consequences used to be my vacation destination. As a full-time resident, I do the same things I did as a summer visitor. I live in a smaller, simpler space than I did back in Virginia. I soak in hot springs, run in the desert at Elephant Butte Lake State Park, I write, I go to Albuquerque to study yoga, I hang out with friends … It’s the same life, only busier.
I have a schedule. Teaching yoga three days a week is not what anyone could call a full schedule, though it does limit my spontaneity. I’m more involved in the community. I know more people. But the biggest difference is my mindset. I don’t feel the looming return to the academic calendar reminding me to make the most of my freedom. So I don’t.
I let my head get cluttered. After I encountered a number of vacationers hiking the trail where I ran yesterday, I switched to vacation mind, appreciating the moment as if I might have to leave any day. Wow. Isn’t this amazing? It’s so warm. The sky is so bright. The lake is so still and blue. I noticed the light striking one of the bare, rocky hills on the shore making it look golden, though the land in Elephant Butte is basically gray, and how the dried blossoms atop a yucca stalk held their bell shapes months after their blooming ended.
While I stretched at the playground, a spider web glinting in the sun caught my attention, its near-invisible threads turning iridescent. The weaver, a tiny dirt-beige spider with red-striped legs and two rows of dots down its back, clung to a green metal ladder on the play structure.
Yellow stripey things—bees or wasps, I’m not sure which—nuzzled around my ankles and inspected me. I rolled my pants legs tight so the inspections wouldn’t go wrong. Their soft buzzing was the only sound.
Spaciousness. Present moment. Vacation mind
It was thirty-nine degrees today, with wind at fifteen miles per hour. In the spring, when it blows at twice that speed on a regular basis, I would call that a light wind. But it’s not cold in the spring. It’s normally not cold in the winter, either, for which I’m grateful. I have a low tolerance for low temperatures. Still, I had to get out and run. The weather had been even less inviting for the previous two days. A third day without prolonged outdoor time would have been far worse than wearing the winter running gear I’ve so seldom needed since moving to Truth or Consequences. My mind and body crave nature, light, and movement.
It would have been easier to stay indoors, but less rewarding. The sky was brilliant New Mexico blue, and no one else was out on the trail. No humans, that is. On my third loop, there were fresh deer tracks, signs they had been there just before me. By the end of my run, my face was cold, and my fingers and wrists deeply chilled through my gloves, but I’m glad I braved the weather. It was uncomfortable at times, but whenever I turned a curve that took me out of the wind, I cherished the reprieve and communed with the winter sun.
I have a list of unpleasant tasks I’ve been crossing off, one by one, but a few remain—and they’ve remained on that list a long time. I have to remind myself that the actual doing of the difficult thing is less stressful than thinking about doing it.
Noise fast. News fast. Brain clearing. I need it all. It’s necessary to be informed, and to be informed in depth, but I need space inside my mind as well. I took Thanksgiving as a news fast. After spending time with a good friend, I went out walking in the remarkable rain that moistened the desert for two and half days.
I try to stay out of stores during this season as much as possible. My family doesn’t do a gift exchange, and I want to avoid catchy pop Christmas tunes that stick in my head. I heard a particularly “cute” one in the laundromat four days ago, and it still intrudes to grate on my mind now and then. I need a good dose of classical music to rinse my synapses.
As I listen to Beethoven’s seventh symphony, I realize how important silence is in music. The dramatic, suspenseful pauses as well as the tiny spaces in which the musicians take a breath and the fractions of seconds that are neither one note nor the next. Without silence, there’s no structure, no movement, no pattern, no melody.
I took a walk under the full moon tonight with no sounds but my steps.
Snowbirds visiting southern New Mexico are showing up on the desert trails where I run. I’ve noticed some of them are still plugged in. Sitting on a bench staring down into a phone. Walking with earbuds in or with music playing aloud. Sitting on a rock under a juniper tree with talk radio crushing the silence.
Their avoidance of the unbroken experience of nature makes me pay more attention to it. On a cloudless blue day, it was so quiet I could detect the soft sound of the breeze across my ears and the flutter of a quail taking flight. After a wonderfully long and heavy rain, the sandscape was dramatically repainted in soft, curving streaks of beige and brown where new rivulets had run to the lake. There was even a little mud. Not to mention deer tracks, a roadrunner, and a jackrabbit.
On a warm day, I even spied a few snake tracks. They like the sun as much the human visitors do.
It was the wrong Tuesday for the event in Hillsboro I meant to attend. Not realizing I was a full week early, I drove through rolling desert hills to the historic town and arrived at the community center to find no cars in the parking lot. Only a man out for a walk who told me it was ping-pong night at six-thirty, and that the off-leash dog with him was not his. I decided not to stay for ping-pong, but moved my car down to the main street and took my own walk in light rain. After all, I couldn’t come all the way there and not enjoy the place.
The old buildings are solid and well-kept, the houses as well as the art galleries, antique stores, and the museum. The former county seat and former mining boom town is now small, serene and beautiful, with a population of a little over a hundred.
I spied a large, handsome cat on a stone wall around a yard and went to greet him. He was one of those extremely friendly cats who not only allows petting but demands more. He had blue eyes and brilliant orange markings in the Siamese pattern which made his eyes look even bluer, but he didn’t otherwise resemble a Siamese cat. More like a very attractive knock-off, a variation on the theme. He jumped down to follow me a short way but decided to stay home.
As I was about to get in my car, I turned back to look at the view just in time to see a mule deer and her spotted fawn crossing the street and ducking into a ruined building near the park, where a few fragments of wall stand around weeds and a table full of objects that may have survived a fire. The doe and fawn ambled through the underbrush, taking occasional glances over their shoulders to observe me while I observed them.
I read the historic marker commemorating the colorful life of Sadie Orchard, then the rain grew heavier, and I started driving home. When I was about half-way there, the sunset appeared, not in the west at first but in the north, a glowing pink aura with a flame-like sword of rainbow in it. Then a double rainbow arched across the gray sky, so the road east seemed to drive under it, and the root of the rainbow in the south grew as vibrant and intense as the end in the north. I pulled over to get out and admire it. It’s not safe to drive under the influence of too much beauty. In the west, the rainstorm had broken up enough to let in orange light that coated the bottoms of the clouds. On the horizon, streaks of rain caught the color against a blue backdrop, while brushstrokes of gray floated across the orange overhead.