Tracking  [Excerpt]


I.  The sand was damp from the recent snow, which had just melted.  We walked through the drizzle in our raincoats, my hand, in a cast, was drawn up into my sleeve to evade the rain.  The wet sand held the tracks intact to perfection.  The roundness of the paw and lack of claw mark indicated feline.  The size indicated mountain lion.  We picked up the track just outside our tents, at a wide spot in the canyon, on the human trail, where we slept beneath the pinion pines with the ancient milky way spilling through the clouds now and then.  Animals tend to use human trails, as they are the nice, posh highways through the wilderness.  The previous evening we had ventured a short ways up this canyon, and now the paw prints lay on top of our boot prints.  There was little water in the early spring stream running through that deep canyon of red and gold, whose rock surfaces were streaked black with desert varnish and towered above us as if we walked in the bottom of a well.  We followed the tracks for several miles through the sand and the cryptobiotic soil, whose delicate, crusted architecture peaks and towers over the micro world of busy insects with imperial splendor, yet crushes softly, helplessly beneath animal feet.  The lion stayed mostly on the trail but occasionally walked in the low stream bed when it was more direct than the path through the winding canyon.  At one spot it left the trail and walked over to a spot marked with deer prints.  It walked in a direct register—the back paws coming to rest in the same print the front paws made.  At another spot, it seemed to split into two.  I followed one trail down the human path, and Erik followed the other through the low brush, up over a high mound on the canyon floor.  Erik and I fell behind the rest of the group, entranced by the tracks, hypnotized into following them, refreshed by our alertness for any movement around that might be a mountain lion.  I pointed my finger, sticking out from my cast, at a perfect print and Erik snapped a photo.  We could not shake the feeling that the cat was tracking us as well.

We had come to track the Anasazi, to search for their ancient footsteps, the moki steps up the rock faces leading to their sheltered homes, recessed beneath the cliffs as if they were a secret.  We looked for sign.  In tracking animals, sign is scat, broken twigs, tufts of fur, scratched bark …  We looked for discolored dirt—gray instead of red—which signaled a midden heap, for arrow heads, chert, pottery shards, and tiny corn cobs.

The Anasazi footprints through the dirt have long been ploughed under by the blade of the wind and rain, and thousands of feet wandering the land looking for the very thing they trampled.  We found handprints on the canyon walls as perfect as the lion’s print in the sand.  I hovered my hand over one of the faint red prints pinned upon the desert wall, swimming among a school of others.  Who were they—these hands that whispered their names in red ochre?  In a lost tongue of dry desert heat and cool canyon springs?  The hands, varying in size and orientation, reached out from the past, breathing through their fingertips the breaths of ancient lungs.

II.  Paul Rezendes, Tracking and the Art of Seeing:  “If you know an animal well, you will know where to look for it and when.”  All trackers propose that “a firm grounding in nature observation is critical to the art of tracking.” (Tom Brown, Jr.)  Finding the next print should not be the only objective; the main agenda should be to learn about the animal, to unfold the story it left behind.  Sometimes there are not actual tracks, only sign, but you can track on sign alone.  There is evidence everywhere.

III. A woman in Texas has claimed her ham and cheese sandwiches were multiplied.  The woman said she used two loaves of bread, wrapping each sandwich in a napkin and serving them at a clinic.  “She had made 26 sandwiches, and when she got to the clinic she gave six or seven sandwiches to volunteer workers, and then started passing them out to the mothers, who were there to get milk for their children,”  Father Thomas tells us.  “I was standing right beside her and she told me she wasn’t going to have enough sandwiches.  But 26 mothers got sandwiches and she’d already given some away, and when it was all over she still had sandwiches left over.  As they were driving back to their house they gave more sandwiches away to poor people on the street.”

Why step there?

A man fell asleep at the wheel while driving his Porsche one night.  He woke up as he flew off a cliff.  As he and his car hurtled through space, tumbling, spinning and slamming into the ground over and over again, his car was torn to pieces.  The roll bar was ripped off.  Both doors were completely ripped off.  There was practically no front or back of the car left and there was no windshield.  He didn’t have a seatbelt on.  He walked away from the accident virtually untouched.

Why step there?  Whole television shows are devoted to the unlikely escapes of people with their lives from what seem the jaws of death—boat, plane and car crashes, stunts gone wrong.  There are tracks leading all over the world, the gait suggesting a sprinting run, dashing wildly from here to there, crushing the victims under their weight so they slide underneath the grip of death like a sheet of paper under a door.

Riding my motorcycle down the canyon one crisp, autumn day I locked up my front brake trying to merge back into the traffic I was passing, and hit the pavement at 70 miles per hour, surrounded by cars on three sides.  My bike slid down the road 100 feet and flew off the edge of the road, tumbled end-over-end through the boulder-strewn riverside and landed in the river.  I started sliding underneath the car in front of me—I could see the whole under carriage of the car and the rear tire was right in my face.  Then suddenly I saw nothing but felt myself continue to slide.  I slid another 50 feet past where the bike left the road, slipped off the edge two feet before a street sign and came to rest between two boulders in a slot exactly as wide as my body.  I walked away with only my hand and knee injured.

After I was discharged from the hospital, Erik and I went back to the crash site.  The motorcycle had since been dredged out of the river.  I walked along the roadside picking up pieces of my bike—a mirror, the brake lever, random bits of plastic faring.  Erik picked out of the water my insurance papers, large chunks of plastic, and the top of the ignition key which had broken in half.  We saw the footprint clearly.

IV.  I look out at the half-frozen pond.  The ice is a grayish film surrounded by a crescent of black-green water perfectly reflecting the fractal patterns of leafless bushes.  A lone duck docks at the ice’s edge, stretches its feet one by one, and walks toward the middle of the pond, then on past to the outer edge.  Toward the edge where Mrs. X puts food out.  Mrs. X, whom I know only as “the duck lady,” the one who feeds the birds and lets me and Erik ice skate on the pond in winter.  Mrs. X who trundles around the house with the gait of age, leaving tracks in the snow of puffy, brown, fur-lined boots, in and out of the duplex, in and out of the blue car.  “Sure is blue,” I heard her husband say when she drove it home from a new paint job.

Every day the dawn breaks over the pond.  The fish the children hunt in their leaky boat catch the pink and orange in their sullen eyes, the clouds cast shadows on their shiny scales.  Repetition.  It is as if we are all practicing for a final production in front of a critical audience, as if the dawn is shaking out its nervousness through its first creeping rays stealing across the land, skimming the tops of the pine trees.  And the green needles say, “yes,” and the dawn comes forth.  And the muskrat who lives in the northwest corner of the pond opens one eye and scans the pond and the brushes around the shore.  He squeaks and opens the other eye.  The pond is a pink and gold track.  The muskrat swims in and out of the giant toes.  I scan for the next print.  Is it there in the meadow where the rusty red horse runs and bucks, tossing his mane into the gilded air?

The tracks seem to lead from the city into the wilderness. I follow the tracks to the top of a mountain, across a glacier, down into a flowery meadow, through a driving thunderstorm, into a quiet forest where I swallow the smell of wood and fern and mushroom.  I can’t shake the feeling he is watching me, like I thought that mountain lion was.  He, whom I have tracked through many religions.  I have looked for his footprints through Islam, Christianity, through Buddhism and Hinduism.  But they always seem to lead here, to solitude in the great outdoors.  As I track, I expect to find his prints pausing as he sniffs the air, picking up the stench of the doubtful, then doubling back and coming round behind me, following the whimpering trail of the agnostic.  I expect to feel his breath on my back, to reach behind and feel him there squatting in my footprints.  How do I stay upwind of something omniscient?

V.  When I was about 20, I heard a song on the radio that I liked.  The DJ said it was by the Indigo Girls.  So I went and bought a CD by the Indigo Girls, not knowing the name of the song I sought.  After listening to the CD I determined the song I had heard on the radio was not there.  A short while later I was house sitting for my brother and I saw he had several Indigo Girls CDs.  I brought a tape with me the next day and taped one of the discs until the tape ran out, leaving off several songs.  I also borrowed the CD jacket which had the lyrics to all the songs.  I love to be able to sing along to songs; I sing as if I have a magical, lilting voice, perfect and pure.

Somewhere along the way I lost that jacket.  I never told my brother about it, but I always felt guilty.  Then one day several years later my tape got munched and I went out and bought the CD, brand new and sealed.  When I played it, I heard for the first time the songs that had not fit on the tape.  One of these was the song I had heard way back on the radio that sparked me to listen to the Indigo Girls in the first place.  The words of the chorus are:  Your actions will follow you full circle round.  And as I slid the CD jacket out to have a look at the lyrics to this song, I discovered there were two jackets.  I sent one to my brother who had since moved to Utah.

Who are we that we can be tracked down by a bundle of paper?

VI.  Tom Brown, Jr. talks about how to walk silently through the woods so the animals won’t be startled by your crashing feet.  Hold your body upright, take short, easy strides.  “Instead of coming down heel first, come down on the outside of the foot and roll to the inside before committing your weight.  Lift the feet with the thighs rather than pushing off with the calves.”

VII.  There was a time when I found myself alternately wallowing through life like a pig in mud, and pecking at it like a farmyard chicken.  I would immerse myself, tracking him to exhaustion, and then withdraw, listless.  Then one night three weeks after I’d been in the motorcycle accident, I awoke abruptly in the middle of the night to a deep voice crashing through my head, saying, “you are not alone.”  Sweat immediately formed on my brow.  I lay frozen except for my panting and my eyes scanning the dark room.  But there was only the dark.  I lay awake until dawn, the silence broken only by a barking dog and a braying mule.  If he had tracked me down, why?  What was I to do with that one little phrase?  After it was light, I swung my feet out of bed and stalked the bathroom mirror, heel first, rolling to the inside, lifting with the thigh.  I inched my head around the door frame until my face was in full view.  I leaned forward and stared into the mirror, right into my eyes. The voice still clattered through my head like a marble that hasn’t yet reached the bottom of a Pachinko game.  Had I tracked him down here to my bathroom mirror?  Was he sitting in those small black circles in the repose of Buddha, his lips still formed around the “o” of “alone?”

VIII.  My parents and I went backpacking in Dark Canyon, which is resplendent with light and water.  My father is aging and affected by Parkinson’s disease, my mother is aging and prey to weak knees and a heart condition.  We hiked in on a sun-drenched day, every crook in our bodies pooling sweat even as we moved.  It was much hotter than we expected for that time of year.  The trail down the 1,300-foot canyon wall was nothing but a jumble of rock cairns marking various treacherous routes down loose skree of varying size from large boulders to small pebbles.  I reached the bottom to look up and see the dots of my parents less than half way down.  I took off my pack and sat in a shady spot formed by several large boulders leaning against each other.  I sat until my sweat was dry, sipping on my water.  I watched a couple make their way down like this:  The man would come down several yards, drop his pack, hike up to the woman, put her pack on and escort her down to his pack.  Put his pack back on and repeat the process. After they reached the bottom I hiked back up the skree until I heard Mom’s voice bouncing down the rocks with desperation, “I can’t do this!”  I took mom’s pack down into the canyon.

The sun was getting low; it was still a mile or two to water.  I hiked on and found a campsite and waited there until the light began to dim.  Worried, I set out to find my parents.  Just then Dad hobbled into view.  He had twisted his ankle.  And he’d left Mom back where I’d left her pack.  She couldn’t go any further, he said.  It was starting to get dark and I walked, starving, as fast as I could back up the trail.  I found her on top of a tall rock.  “Shara!” she yelled to me.  I put her pack on and said, “Let’s go.”  Her heart had calmed down a bit and she kept up with me as I picked my way back down the rock-strewn trail in the failing light.  Exhausted, I decided not to take my anxiety medications, which I knew to be dehydrating.

The next day dawned with brutal heat, and that afternoon the anxiety knocked the wind right out of me.  I became convinced we would never get back out of that canyon up the skree slope.  I felt sure I’d have to do the slope twice—once with my pack and once with Mom’s, all in the menacing heat of the sun to which we’d be fully exposed.  I couldn’t sleep; I could barely eat.  After two more days we decided to hike out early.  A man and his son were camped a short distance from us.  My dad introduced himself and offered them our surplus food which we were otherwise going to burn to make our packs lighter.  He explained very sparingly that we were hiking out early because of his hurt ankle and his wife’s heart.

A short while after Dad returned to camp, the two men came up to us and said they’d like to volunteer to carry our packs up to the top of the canyon.  I was so incredulous that I laughed.  My laughter hit the rock walls and bounced back several times, so that I seemed to laugh over and over.  My parents and I stammered around for awhile, not sure what to do with such a generous proposal from complete strangers.  In the end, we let one of them carry Mom’s pack to the top.

Who are we, floating on an undulating sea, where peaks and troughs colliding cancel each other out?   ......


end excerpt




Published in The Bellingham Review