TRACKING

 

I.  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.  Erik and I 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 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.  Water trickled in the early spring stream cutting through that canyon of red and gold.  The rocks 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, 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.  I pointed my finger 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 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 by 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.

 

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.”

A man fell asleep at the wheel while driving his Porsche one night.  He woke up as he flew off a cliff, realizing he had no seatbelt on.  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. He walked away from the accident virtually untouched.

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 undercarriage 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.  Nobody who has seen my demolished bike and the crash site has failed to see the footprint.

 

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 this mossy chair of solitude.  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?

 

IX.  There is a tree beside our house that has a strip of bark missing the whole length of the tree.  The footprint of lightning.

 

X.  You can tell whether an animal is male or female by looking at its tracks.  A male has wider shoulders and his front prints will fall slightly to the outside of the rear prints; a female is the opposite, having wider hips so that her rear prints will fall wider than her front prints.

You can tell if an animal is left- or right-handed depending on which foot it starts out on from a still position and whether its runs lead to the right or left of the main trail.  There are many types of runs, leading to water or food, or to hideouts or sleeping lairs.  Some runs are seasonal, some are directional, being used by the animal in only one direction.

 

XI.  Some think they can track him by going from church to church, by staring up into the stained glass windows and folding their hands just so.  As if he is colored glass, or perhaps the light shining through.  Perhaps they think he starts in London at GMT and moves through the churches hour by hour, laying down a directional run.  For millennia, some have looked for him more fervently at certain times of the year as if he has a temporal run.

Some will say they can track him from hospital to hospital where newborn babies coo and cry, and the elderly alternately resign and perform miracles, that he works through surgeon’s hands, folding us like origami.

 

XII.  There is often only one approach to the Anasazi buildings; there is no mistake that you are following their tracks.  The day we tracked the mountain lion we tracked the Anasazi to a cluster of structures 500 feet above the canyon floor, built against the canyon wall.  Erik had to literally pull me by my one good hand up over enormous boulders and rock faces that littered the way up.  When we reached the ruin, a sense of vertigo flooded me.  There were boot prints in the soft sand that lined the floors of the ruin, and one set of barefoot prints that my sister-in-law, who preceded us to the ruin, had left.  In one of the square structures, now roofless, was the largest collection of tiny corn cobs we’d ever seen.  As I stood in front of the petroglyphs, their whispers rested on my shoulder, though I could not bend my ear over quite far enough.  They whispered of spirals and antelope, of reptiles and enemies.  I caught only the wisp of words, the tail of a lizard who has escaped my clutch.

There was plenty of sign at the high, nearly inaccessible ruin.  And inspecting it released the sound of feathers being sown into costumes, of medicine bags being opened, the sound of tiny ears of corn being shucked, of people gathering for ceremonies in the kivas, the raucous of feasts, the silence of famine.  Who are we, strung along the thread of time, that we can reach back along its length and hear the sound of singing through a mortar of red mud, that we can hear the crackling of a fire from inside dwellings where the roof timbers are charred black?  I could hear a wooden spoon scraping across the bottom of a fired clay pot, the soft murmur of the sleeping as they lay on their animal skins, the animals they had tracked and slain.  The sound of mano against matate wafted from the abandoned stones like the smell of baking bread.

 

XIII.  On a mountain one day, I spied a small pond in a clearing.  I trampled over the low brush, leaving behind the tracks of one trying to avoid the flowers, to the edge of the delicate pond, whose shallow water stood undimpled, unwavering, so perfectly still that had I broached its surface with a pebble, the whole world would have collapsed.  As I came to the edge I saw in the dried mud, as big as my entire out-stretched hand, the five-toed tracks of a young bear.  They came out of the trees right to the paper-thin edge of the pond.  It was easy to see his muzzle dipped in the water, his pink tongue lapping, his small brown eyes reflected in the ripples spreading from his mouth, his black nostrils flaring ever so slightly with each contented breath, inhaling the sweet scent of the stillness of the forest.  The tracks led only to the water, and I circumferenced the pond searching for exit tracks, but I could not discern any.  Had the pond reached up and swallowed him whole?  That night I collected five dollars from all my fellow backpackers for having caught the largest fish that day—a 16-inch rainbow trout, which lay wrapped in foil on top of red hot coals.

 

XIV.  Tom Brown, Jr. suggests making a test pit to watch how tracks decay.  Square off a patch of dirt and make tracks in it or let animals walk through.  Every day look at the pit and notice how the track deteriorates, how it changes each day, how wind, rain, sun affect it.  I did this, and this is what I noticed:  how attached I am to the fresh print, how enthralled I am with its detail, how I picture an animal and love it for knowing it; then how light the deteriorated track becomes in my heart, how I can barely conjure the shape that left the meager trace, how I scout around for fresher prints.  I find myself running down to the fox’s rock at the edge of my yard because he’s always just been there, yielding to me his topography.

 

XV.  Impressed in the cement of the sidewalk around my parents’ house are several handprints and paw prints.  They hold their shape against the whittling blade of time like the apex of some infinitesimal arc, while my feet grow ever softer, the toes spreading out in apathy, my heel digging in ever deeper so my tracks look unbalanced, as if I were on the verge of falling over backwards.  Come down on the outside, roll to the inside.  I must take Tom’s advice to heart if I am ever to become a tracker, if I am ever to unravel the story behind the tracks that crisscross my driveway and the halo of my existence.  The tracks all knit up into something so large I can’t discern its shape, only that its width is astonishing and its breadth without borders.  In their infinite numbers, the tracks may in fact be but one, stamped at the last gate like that of a juvenile who has just hopped the neighbor’s fence.


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Published in The Bellingham Review