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?

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Big Box Mind Walk

For a few days back to back last week, the wind was ranging from twenty-five to thirty-five miles per hour. The average human female runs six and half miles per hour, and this human female is a rather light object. Woman vs. wind? If I were to have gone for a run, it was clear who would win. But I needed to get out and move. My tiny apartment in perfect for everything except cardiovascular exercise. T or C lacks an indoor track for days like this. There’s a gym with treadmills, but I’m not a member. I like to move through space. So … off I went to walk in Walmart, the only large indoor space I could think of.

I expected this walk to be boring. I’m not a recreational shopper. In fact, I have an aversion to shopping. Normally, I run for an hour or longer, but my expectation was that I’d last twenty minutes, the minimum necessary for cardio benefits. The first few laps were almost oppressive, with all the consumer goods surrounding me, but then I got into a groove, keeping up a brisk pace, switching aisles if someone was browsing in my path. The sharp turns were fun, and the scenery began to amuse me. A packet of something called Dirt Cake. Day-of-the-Dead-themed exercise shorts with fancy, decorative skulls on one leg. A big poster for black lipstick. In April?

Once I got into the rhythm, I shifted into walking meditation of a sort as the visuals flowed in a stream of awareness, and it became like a walk through the contents of my mind. Automotive thought. Back to the sensation of moving, feet pushing and landing. Music thought. Back to breath and movement. Whoa, look at the great facial expression on that lady—can I describe it and use it for a character? Return to walking. Spacious aisle. Narrow aisle. Pivot and turn. Ah, good, people are eating veggies; look at the crowd in the produce section. Back to body and breath. Hula hoop thoughts. Return the mind to walking. Office supplies, cross-cut shredder. That’s my brain:  a cross-cut shredder. Walk. Breathe. A seven- or eight-year old girl is skating in her sneakers on the smooth cement floor of the meat section. Can I use that behavior for Mae’s stepdaughters? They would skate in a store. Resume body and breath.

After a while even those thoughts softened, and all I saw were words, signs, colors, shapes, fellow humans in the midst of their lives. The passing slices of their experience and my steps became all one flow.

I finally checked the time after I encountered a yoga student I hadn’t seen for a while, and we chatted briefly. I found I’d walked for forty surprisingly mindful minutes.

 

Water’s Colors

Shortly after I posted about the early spring and the warm dry winds, it finally rained. Cool as well as wet, it was practically our first winter day all winter. The rain smell was so welcome, so magical, I had to go out in it. With a large umbrella, of course. The sound of raindrops on it was the best music I’d heard in months.

There’s a beautiful walking route in Elephant Butte known as “the dirt dam.” It’s a road that’s been closed to traffic and takes you over the dirt dam to the big dam, the one that really makes the lake. It’s not the dams that make it scenic, though—to me, anyway. It’s the subtle colors and dramatic shapes of the desert. On a sunny blue-skied day, I’m drawn to notice the grand-scale sculptures of rocks and mountains. I seldom see this place soaking wet. It was a different world, where fat, silvery raindrops hovered on the tips of pale brown thorns. Many years ago, a friend told me he liked cloudy days because the colors of nature were revealed better, the way they were in classic Japanese watercolors. He was right. The rocks and soil were darker, and the bare thorny bushes looked black. Against this backdrop, dried-out straw-colored flower-stalks surrounded suddenly bright green stems. A red hue streaked up clumps of pale yellow grass, the same coral red as some crystals I’ve collected in the area. The flat, spiky pads of the purple cacti seemed more intensely purple and the green ones more vividly green. One full day of water and winter. I’m grateful.

One Step

The sun was so intense when I was out walking today, I had to lower the brim of my hat to keep from burning my face or being blinded as I turned to leave the park by the river. I couldn’t see the mountains, the river, the sky, or the two lone trees turning yellow in a world of evergreens, rocks and cacti. Just the ground at my feet. The gravel path. Then dirt with tire tracks. Then a patch of dust and weeds with a narrow path between the goatheads. Once I reached the street, I was no longer facing the sun, but my awareness had shifted.

Those steps with nothing but the view of the next step became walking meditation. I noticed the textures of each pebble, the curves of the tire tracks, and the green ground-hugging leaves and tiny yellow blossoms of the goatheads. Instead of seeing them as the foot-stabbing burrs they will become, I saw them as flowers. Walking slowly, listening, I only tilted my hat up to check for cars or snakes once in a while, then ducked back into my world of shade and single steps. Gravel-crunch. Wind-whisper. One step. Another step. The sensation of my legs moving, my feet contacting the ground. I should do this more often, even when the sun doesn’t force me into it. I used to teach walking meditation to my college students, and those were blissful classes.

Of course, I have no illusion that the rest of my job was bliss. It was work. The three-column to-do list on my desk ran into a second page most of the time. Things to do for work, to do as a writer, and to do for retirement planning. A few days ago, I went back to that system. Things to do for writing, for marketing, and my everyday life. The list is only one page, and two of the columns don’t even reach the bottom. Every day I cross one thing off, maybe two. Life isn’t about what I cross off, though. It’s a living moment. A single step.

 

Alternate Routes

While my car has been away on an extended health retreat, recovering its ability to recognize its own key, I haven’t been able to drive to the nearby state park where I like to run the trails, so I’ve been running on a dirt road along the Rio Grande instead. It has a flatter terrain, a harder surface, and not as much wildlife, but it offers a view of the river and of T or C’s magnificent landmark, the sleeping turtle formation atop Turtleback Mountain. For a second choice, it’s not bad.

On an unfamiliar route, though, I don’t know where all the lumps and soft spot and other hazards are, and I can get distracted by the scenery—and yet it totally surprised me that I tripped and found myself scraping my knees and elbows in the dirt and gravel before I’d even gone half a mile.

I jogged back home, cleaned up, bandaged my gashes, and decided to take a walk rather than sit around getting stiff from the fall or frustrated about not running. The route I chose took me to the highest point in town, the hill crowned by the water tank, where you can see to the edge of town in all directions. The tank features one of the town’s best murals, an image of Apaches on horseback coming to their traditional healing place, the hot springs along the Rio Grande. When I descended to downtown, I continued on to Ralph Edwards Park, one of our two riverfront parks. On the opposite bank, in the wild area across the river, a mule deer stood with her feet planted on the steep slope, her head lowered to the water, drinking in a position that would have caused a human to flop head first. She sustained her balance at such an angle it was like getting aerial view, revealing the subtle brown stripe on her back, a marking I’d never been able to see on a deer before. Four legs and hooves, I thought. It would be nice to have hooves. Her fine pointy feet enabled her to turn on a camber in a tight little clearing and angle herself uphill to browse the shrubs without a stumble. If my big ol’ size nines hadn’t stumbled, though, I wouldn’t have seen her. I’d have been somewhere else.

If my personal training business in Santa Fe hadn’t crashed, I wouldn’t have taken a job as health educator at a fitness center in Northeastern North Carolina. While I was working there, they needed a yoga teacher and none was available, but I had decades of yoga practice and offered to go to teacher training. It changed my life as well as serving their needs. Teaching has deepened my yoga practice profoundly and brought me in contact with some of my most valued friends. I found the setting for The Calling in that North Carolina town, and met the young woman who inspired the character of Mae Martin. If I’d stayed in Santa Fe, where there’s an excess rather than a shortage of yoga teachers, none of this would have happened. I can’t regret the alternate route. It was better than the one I’d planned on.

“Do You Need a Ride?” A Pedestrian Ramble

One of my favorite Edward Abbey rants in Desert Solitaire is about tourists who won’t get out their cars in a national park and who suffer the illusion that they have actually seen the place when they haven’t walked in it.

For me, walking is a way of getting to know a community and its personality. I seldom sit in waiting rooms when I could be out exploring. A place doesn’t have to be scenic to have character; even a kind of dreary character can be interesting to a writer. While waiting for oil changes at the Ford dealership in the town that inspired Cauwetska in The Calling, I explored the neighborhood behind it. Many years later when I wrote the book, I knew which house Mae and her mother would move to in the opening scene and I could see, hear and smell every step of the life-changing walk Mae takes that evening.

In my review of The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras I mentioned the narrator Hubie Schuze’s reflections on the superiority of walking compared driving. The line that stuck with me from this particular scene is I saw a baby gopher—one of the many things one could not experience if driving a car. I’m trying to find the chapter for another quotation but I keep finding all his other walks in Albuquerque instead. Hubie walks in his city quite a lot.

Based on this literary precedent, I believe it can’t be remarkable to be walking in Albuquerque, surely not so odd that a complete stranger should offer me a ride—and yet someone did. I arrived early for a yoga class Tuesday and decided to walk a few not-very-scenic blocks to pass the time rather than sit. A man of about fifty to sixty, driving a nice car, rolled down his window in passing and asked if I needed a ride. New Mexico is a friendly place, where we talk to strangers all the time, but I’ve never been invited into a car. I was so stunned I just said “No,” forgetting add “thank you.” What was this man thinking? I was wearing yoga clothes, flip-flops, and a sensible sun hat, so I don’t think I looked like some middle-age hooker angling for business at five-thirty in the afternoon. I didn’t look feeble, either. When I was walking in T or C a few nights earlier, a woman I’d never met before asked me what I did to stay so fit. She was getting out of her car, and she didn’t offer me a ride. (On that same T or C walk I passed a group of people who’d been rafting on the Rio Grande. They’d just unloaded their gear and I think they’d been imbibing a little on their trip. One woman, still holding a half-empty beer bottle, hugged another, and liquid poured from the bottle to the ground. The recipient of the hug asked, in a most serious tone, “Are you peeing?” You couldn’t get a laugh like that while driving. That was as good as seeing a baby gopher.)

When I went to the corn dance at Kewa Pueblo (Santo Domingo) earlier this week, I chose to park a distance from the plaza and walk. Twice, shuttle bus drivers tried very hard to let me know I could ride. I know they were just being courteous, but I couldn’t bring myself to ride. In my work in progress, this pueblo will be one of the settings, and walking helped me to soak up details.

When I walk in Santa Fe, no one offers me a ride. The city is full of pedestrians, some of them very interesting. While I walked to the Best of Santa Fe Block Party last Saturday, I encountered young women striking dance and yoga poses on the streets. This evening in the Plaza at Bandstand, I saw a tall trim Anglo man with a white tiny goatee wearing a little round flat African hat in pink and green and orange, pink John Lennon sunglasses, an orange-and-green African print shirt and a swath of similar fabric wrapped around his waist over his bright green shorts. All the clothing looked new, clean and crisp, a carefully chosen concoction.

The best-dressed dog at Bandstand belonged to man whose lean, scruffy appearance and worn-out backpack suggested he might be homeless. He had placed a pair of sunglasses with bright orange frames on the nose of his dog, a gentle, friendly mutt. Children broke off dancing wildly to the Santa Fe Chiles Jazz Band to pet the dog, and the man was gracious, careful of the children’s well-being and his dog’s good behavior. The way he steered and guided his dog made me think perhaps the glasses were there to indicate that the dog was blind. I had to wonder about the story behind his apparent good cheer in what looked like tough circumstances. Now, while writing this, I wonder if anyone ever offers him and his dog a ride.