Desert Encounters

 

The hind end of an animal I’d never seen before in this stretch of desert silenced my thoughts. Whatever it was, brown and furry and scurrying, stub-tailed and about the size of a rabbit, it made me aware. The novelty of birds with bright yellow feathers broke into my thought-cycle also as I ran—yellow warblers migrating through (at least I think so; I’m not a bird expert, just an admirer). A quail atop a bush, its crest profiled against the blue sky, brought another moment of surprised inner stillness. Quail are usually running on the ground. It’s the lizards who pose.

I stop for lizards. A lesser earless lizard, no bigger than my thumb, has little bright eyes and long golden toes, subtle gray-on-gray spotted markings, and tiny arms that enable it to do push-ups with flawless form. Its miniature legs run faster than I can. The greater earless lizards seem to be showing off their green hind legs, their side stripes, their green-and-orange forelegs, and the rose patches on the females’ flanks. I’m sure they’re displaying for each other, but I appreciate the show. Everything else on the ground blends in—brown or gray—but they glow. It seems odd for small, delicate, ground-dwelling creatures not to be camouflaged, but they flourish, maybe because they like the heat and nothing else does (except crazy runners). Their body ideal temperature for activity is 101 degrees. I observed a large one getting brighter the longer he baked. On my third lap of the trail, his orange stripes were radiant, as if he had to be heated properly to light up.

The prickly pear cacti are blossoming, bright yellow. Creosote bushes have small yellow buds. Ocotillo blooms shoot out like red-orange flames on the tips of slender, bare stalks. The yellow birds are posing on them, contrasting with the flowers, and perching among the creosote branches in a yellow-on-yellow match.

The birds-and-flowers encounters make me stop in awe. Yes, I’m running, but there are moments not to be hurried.

 

Advertisements

Walking to the Lake

Once in a while I need a literal change of pace and take a very long walk instead of a run. Variety is good for the body, mind, and soul, so I explored several miles of Elephant Butte Lake State Park where the surfaces are either too hard (paved roads) or too soft (the beach) for running. Pavement is a great surface for vehicles. Tires don’t tear it up. But walking on it is noisy compared to walking on the natural bare earth, so I started veering off into the desert. To my dismay, it was so churned up by tires that it was hard to find an undisturbed place except in shallow arroyos, firm sandy paths made by October’s heavy rains. It puzzles me why people take their vehicles off the road. The roads are right there, designed for driving. If they want to get out and experience nature—I had an Edward Abbey Desert Solitaire moment—they should get out and experience nature. I can understand using a vehicle if one can’t walk, but otherwise, it doesn’t make sense. And it ruins the landscape. Instead of road runner and quail tracks, deer and coyote tracks, I kept seeing tire tracks. So I went back on the pavement.

I finally reached a dirt road, and when I got to the end of it, I found a patch of undamaged land, too steep for vehicles to intrude upon, with a  deep arroyo running through it. It seemed to be guarded by a low-crouching creosote bush that resembled a giant tarantula. Welcome to the wild.

Eventually, I walked down to the water. The lake was stunningly blue under the clear sky, and a few sailboats were gliding across it, none of the noisy motorized craft of summer. The beach has grown due to the reservoir being so low, and the islands look as if they have bathtub rings from the mineral stains marking how high the water once was. The shoreline is a stark landscape, beautiful in its bare way—nothing but sand, rocks, and water, like an alien planet with no plant life. Then it got more alien-looking, and not in a scenic way. I began to notice unnatural shimmers in the sand caught by the low, late-afternoon sun. Half-buried plastic. Snack food wrappers, foam cups, remnants of bags, fishing line, all on their way to the water.

My collection in hand, I reached a small spit of red dirt and dark gravel jutting out into the blue water. On one side of the curve of the spit perched a huge raven. On the far tip, a blue heron huddled with its neck tucked in so much that its beak seemed to poke out from its wing joints. It looked gray again the brighter colors around it. The only sound was the plop of a jumping fish. Then the raven croaked and flew west across the shining lake, a good direction for a raven.

I hiked back to the paved road, collecting more plastic for the dumpster at the top of the hill. Not far at all. Not difficult to do. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that on the rest of the vast beach, there’s more plastic slowly traveling down the slope toward the fish and the birds.

What would make people stop and see it? Walking?

Retreat

As a professor, I welcomed the holidays as time off. After the busyness of the fall the semester, what I wanted and needed most was a chance to go inward. When people would ask me, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” I’d answer “As little as possible,” and then explain that I used the day as a retreat. I gave the same answer for Christmas. My family long ago stopped buying gifts and switched to supporting each other’s favorite charities. I love visiting them, but not in the winter. That’s not the time to go to Maine. Spring or summer visits are our tradition, not holidays.

My personal tradition of using the major holidays as retreat days carries on in retirement. I’m normally busy, outgoing, and social, not at all the stereotype of the introverted writer, so I still need such days. Aside from walking to the yoga studio to teach a class on Thursday evening (yes, a couple of people chose to come), I didn’t go out. I did my own yoga and meditation practices, and I finished the first draft of a book. Perfect.

The only hard part of this is explaining it to people who think it’s sad or weird, when I’m actually happy not “doing” the holidays. When I do explain, I find quite a few people who like the idea, but others still seem to think it’s a bit pathological. We have Scrooge and the Grinch, after all, among our seasonal archetypes. One Thanksgiving in Virginia, some well-meaning neighbors anonymously left a huge aluminum pan full of turkey and stuffing on my doorstep, not knowing me well enough to realize I’m a vegetarian. I guess they saw that I didn’t go out and felt sorry for me. I never knew which neighbors did it. I wish they had known my day of inwardness wasn’t lonely or depressing, but liberating. Soul-nourishing.

I have friends who do the big family gatherings, and that nourishes their souls. I heard the community pot luck at the brewery was packed, and I imagine it was fun for everyone who went and gave them what they needed from the day, also.

Black Friday passed, and I didn’t shop. However, I hope my friends in T or C who run stores had good sales, and that those who did shop supported small businesses and found meaningful gifts.

My neighbor across the street put up her Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving. Though she intended to make herself wait, she couldn’t resist. She had creative fun, and the display is quite entertaining. (The pink flamingo is wearing a holiday bow.) I don’t own any ornaments and like it that way.

Today, I walked to the river, hoping to see water birds. The cormorants or coots—I still don’t know for sure what they are—have returned, and they were making their odd noises, peeping and croaking as they fished. On the opposite bank, where I’ve never seen any humans before, a man in a plaid shirt and denim shorts sat in a small, sunny clearing, perfectly still. Fishing or contemplating? I couldn’t tell. The sky was New Mexico Blue over Turtleback Mountain, and a blue heron perched on a for sale sign on a piece of land I hope no one ever buys, even though one of my yoga students is the realtor. The man on the bank moved just enough that I could see his fishing line catch the light as a fish stirred his meditation into new awareness, the present moment tugging on his hook.

His attire on a fifty-five degree day made me suspect he was a snowbird, one of the Mainers and Canadians who escape to T or C and think even our cool days are warm. If so, he has escaped to a town without a mall. What better place to spend the season? It was good bird day. Heron, cormorants (or coots), and snowbird.