Surprising Myself

Multiple times in the past few months, I dropped my car key while running. My new Amphipod water bottle has a smaller pocket on the hand strap than the old one did, so I couldn’t fit the key with its great big head in the pocket anymore. It was either poking half-way out or dangling from my little finger. When I shifted the bottle from one hand to the other, it was easy to drop the key. After each drop, I told myself I would pay more attention. But I don’t run to pay attention to my key. I’m either brainstorming a scene in a book, admiring nature, or doing both.

I sometimes a route that doesn’t go in laps of a circular trail but along a stretch of sand above Elephant Butte Lake and back. I’ve never measured it, but it takes as long as five miles did on another trail. Not a great distance for marathoners, but it’s my usual. I changed the bottle from right hand to left at the turnaround point and didn’t notice my key was missing until I got back to my car. My phone and spare key were locked in the trunk.

No point in fretting or in objecting to reality. I had no choice but to run back. After a windstorm, the sand was freshly rearranged, and my tracks were easy to retrace. But the sand was soft in places where the key could have vanished. I could have dropped it into a lizard hole. Or a well-meaning person could have picked it up.

Seeing a park ranger’s truck on the dirt road above the beach, I pulled up my mask, waved, and ran to him. He loaned me his phone to call my roadside assistance club, and then I ran on, in case I could find the key.

It lay exactly where I’d turned around and switched hands on the water bottle. I ran back to my car, speeding up so I could get to my phone and cancel the lock-out service.

I did it! Success!

Almost. I was in the middle of the call when the ranger showed up, escorting the wrecker to my car.

Insights from this adventure:

  • I can make the same mistake five times before I learn from it.
  • I can be creative with what I have on hand: I crafted the world’s smallest fanny pack using the pocket from my old Amphipod bottle. My key will go in it.
  • And I can run double my usual miles.

You never know what you’re capable of until you do it.

A Writing Lesson

Those of you who’ve followed this blog for a while know that a certain trail in Elephant Butte Lake State Park is my sacred space, my refuge where I run in beauty. This fall, it began to lose some of its peacefulness to people who vented their feelings by writing. They could have done it in journals, blog posts, poems, or song lyrics—but they wrote in sand and on rocks.

Today, I decided to do something about it while in the park and later by writing a letter to the editor of the only local print paper. My original letter was 376 words. The paper allows 250. I had to find 125 excess words in what I thought was already perfect.

This was a fascinating process. The original version wasn’t perfect after all. It was wordy. I’d like it better with three of four more words. But I removed 120 I don’t even miss. Can I cut excess words in my fiction this ruthlessly? I’ll have to remember the lesson as I revise my works in progress.

The letter:

At first, I thought the wind would blow the words away. It didn’t. More appeared, political words, in the sand along Luchini Trail. Then words spelled out with pebbles. Then words scrawled on rocks in black marker. Not bad words—honor, respect, integrity etc. But it’s still graffiti. If one person starts defacing the rocks, what’s to stop others from doing it? (Except respect, honor, and integrity.) I turned those rocks over. The graffiti writer returned with yellow paint and rewrote the words. Every time I run, I stop to flip a heavy rock. The person responsible for the graffiti flips it back later. Dear scribbler, I don’t object to your words, but to the fact that you painted them on rocks.

Most of the sand writings were angry. When an f-bomb appeared, I couldn’t wait for wind erasure. With a fallen twig shaped like a broom, I swept away the rage, whether I agreed or disagreed with the writer. I tossed the political-opinion pebbles. One landed in sand so untouched it simply vanished.

The sand I swept was soft and warm. There were delicate little quail tracks in it. Peace. Beauty. It’s what people seek on this trail. But every time I passed those angry words, my mind snagged on inner noise and argument.

We benefit from a space that calms our spirits rather than aggravating our outrages. Perhaps the graffiti writer thinks they’re sending positive messages. But nature can do it better, without black marker or yellow paint.

Rock Watching

Trying new running routes, I have to be mindful, a rock watcher, even on a broad, sandy trail. I dare look up only for seconds at a time to admire the view—a cliff in the distance, blue water even further off—under the bluebird-blue sky. Little flying silhouettes might be bluebirds, but the light is so strong behind them, they have no color at all. The same slant of light does wonders for the view at my feet, though. The late afternoon sun makes them stand out in the sand and dirt, dull gray tricksters I might otherwise trip over. Strange formations like a giant’s petrified bubble-bath bulge from the sides of hills, scrubby junipers perched among them like the giant’s bonsai. (I know, that’s a clunky juxtaposition, bath and bonsai, but I did it anyway.) The bubble rocks may be lithophysae—meaning there could be geodes inside. But I’m not going to bring tools and attack them to find out. The mystery is part of their magic.

Thanks to observing the ground as I ran, I found a fine little metal toy truck of the kind I used to love a child, the kind that could whizz along the floor of the playroom with satisfying smoothness. The truck is weathered, its white paint marbled by sand-scrubbing so the black metal underneath shows. Its wheels are gone. Its windshield has turned dark. But it’s still an excellent little truck. It has a story. Somehow, it got half-buried in a road so seldom used, so totally abandoned, that a lizard I startled ducked into a large, well-established hole in smack the middle of it.  Another reason for rock watching.

Scaring the Bluebirds

I felt bad for alarming them. They’d settled into the tall junipers on either side of the trail. But if I let them sit, I’d have never finished my run. So, three times, making laps of my favorite trail, I scared the newly-arrived flock of bluebirds into flight. Once they were aloft, it was moving, magical, a soul-stretching experience. Thirty or forty bluebirds, the males’ wings flashing like fragments of the New Mexico blue sky.

I have to upend my characters’ lives. Make them fly. It brings out the beauty and strength in them. No one wants to read a book about an easy life. We’d all like to have one, I suppose, but according to the concept of Flow, doing something difficult that we can master makes life interesting, not doing what’s easy. The character arc in a book and in a series is like that. Characters have to struggle and face setbacks before finally they arrive at some version of their goals, changed by the effort. And then, as they get comfortable in a new stage of life, the author comes around the bend in the trail again. The bluebirds take flight.

*****

Bird notes: I have learned that the Western Bluebird lives in most parts of New Mexico year-round, but some from further north may migrate here. This flock arrived in Elephant Butte Lake Park about a week before the state parks shut down again due to the pandemic. The closure may only be for two weeks, or it may last a while, depending how things go. My alternate running route is beautiful, but without bluebirds. I hope they stay the winter, and I can see them again. If I do, I will probably scare them again. I miss them, but I doubt they miss me.

Hugging a Wasp and Other Encounters

I walked the road along the Rio Grande, going well past the areas where people fish or put in rafts, far enough to be alone with the cliffs, the cacti, and the red-winged blackbirds in the shrubs on the bank. A huge blue heron flew low over the center of the river, gliding upstream. A jackrabbit on the opposite bank crept down to drink. The shared silence felt special. I was at peace. The rabbit was at peace.

The rainbow-like greater earless lizards are one of the many beauties of Elephant Butte Lake State Park. There’s one who lives under a certain juniper at a bend in the trail where I run. She was pink-sided earlier, and now she isn’t, meaning she has laid her eggs. Now she’s just green and orange. I look forward to seeing her on her favorite rock when the temperature is in the eighties and low nineties, and she needs to warm up, holding still as I slow down to admire her.

I spotted another of this species standing upright on its hind legs near an empty campground, front feet on a flat-topped pink rock that was perfectly scaled to be a little bar for lizards. It looked so much like it was ordering a beer, I wished I had a camera. Not that I would go running with a camera, but it would have made a wonderful picture.

While picking figs outside my apartment, I accidentally cupped my hand around a small delicate body. A wasp. Not the kind that crawls inside a fig to lay eggs, but the kind that stops by to eat after the birds have carved holes in the fruit. They’re a stunning variation on the theme of wasp, adobe brown with yellow stripes and geometric designs on their backs. They remind me of some pottery ornaments I bought years ago at a Pueblo corn dance as gifts for my family. It didn’t react to my touch, and I let go, surprised by its gentleness.

All quail family encounters are aww-inspiring. The chicks are SO tiny and so numerous, running to keep up with their parents.

And then, there were the coyotes. One crossed my path in the desert, looking back at me. Then another, paying me no mind. The lack of people in the park may be making them feel free to roam their territory in ways they wouldn’t in a normal year. They’re such a rare sighting, especially in the middle of a summer day, I took them as a sign. Not that they were there for me, of course.

I perceive these various creatures—in my human way—as cute, beautiful, or meaningful. We’re connected in the web of life, and my spirit needs them. But none of them are there for me. That’s part of the magic of wild things.

Moments

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.

Exploring My New Normal

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.

A Small Dent

Since New Mexico State Parks are closed, I’ve changed my running route. One trail I’ve used is so short it takes five laps to do my usual distance, but it’s right beside the Rio Grande, a great place for seeing blue herons and other birds.

As I passed by on my cooldown walk at the end of this route, a woman parked near a picnic shelter announced, “I locked my keys in my car.” No “excuse me” or “could you please help.” She was a middle-aged blonde in jeans and a purple shirt, accompanied by a tiny, dachshund-mix dog in a purple collar. I offered to call her roadside assistance club, ran to my car, and came back with my phone.

That was when she told me she had no Triple-A or Better World Club membership, and no money. She lived in the car. No wonder she didn’t say anything other than to declare her situation. That was her whole world, her whole reality. She was from Arkansas, stuck in Truth or Consequences while waiting for a check she hoped would soon arrive at general delivery. I didn’t ask how she ended up in that situation, and she didn’t offer to tell me, perhaps because I was on the phone so much as well as social distancing.

I spent forty-five minutes on the phone with my roadside assistance club, mostly on hold, trying to see if they’d cover rescuing a stranger through my membership. I’m grateful that I have my basic retirement income while I’m not teaching yoga and people can’t afford books, but I admit I was trying not to spend money on my tightened budget. The club representative never told me if helping a stranger was covered, spending time instead trying to locate this trail with no address. I wondered if she was working from home or with a reduced staff.  The inefficiency was unusual. Meanwhile, my phone battery was running low.

The stranded woman finally suggested the police could help. I told my roadside service rep to call me back rather than leave me on hold, and called the local police. No, the officer said, liability doesn’t allow them to help with lockouts anymore. He recommended a towing/wrecker service they use. I called, and they came. My roadside club rep then called to say she’d finally found a service for me. It would take ninety minutes more. She never confirmed if it would be covered for someone else’s car, and the towing service she’d found had a Northern New Mexico phone number. Not a good sign. What if I had to pay after they’d traveled all that distance? At least I’d negotiated a discount with the local company.

All in all, it took two hours. And it wasn’t a heartwarming experience. I made a small dent in the woman’s troubles, but no real change. Honestly, the smell when the wrecker service guy opened her car was distressing. No one should have to live like that. The only upside was that she was stranded in a beautiful place. While I was on hold, we admired a heron.

*****

I debated with myself over sharing this story. It’s not about me being a hero, because I certainly wasn’t. I decided to post it, though, because it’s the truth. I promise something more uplifting soon.

Cold Day Run

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.

 

Snake Tracks

What was going on that night? Are they always out in such numbers, and the conditions simply revealed their traces? Or was it a special event?

A light evening rainstorm, isolated in Elephant Butte, cleared all other imprints from the sand on the trail, so only the tiny dots of rain pocked the otherwise smooth surface. It was so hot the next day, no humans had set foot there until I went for a run. Every few feet, a snake track crossed the trail. Thin snakes, thick snakes, straight-line travelers, undulating travelers. Travels to bushes, to rocks, to holes. I had wondered what lived in that hole. Now I know.

I also know how a snake can travel in a straight line. If it’s in no hurry, it can propel itself along on the scales in its belly, almost like walking. I watched a video. Amazing. Now back to writing the book in progress. As long as it’s been taking, I seem as slow as a scale-walking snake after a rain, but I’ve been busy. Every night. Apparently, so have the snakes.