Running is not my thing. I wish it was, and saw the need to run down Mt. Tam to avoid being on the forested trails in the dark as a chance to perfect my gait, an opportunity to run gracefully. Dare, painlessly. I had read recently that to run without pain requires one to run almost exclusively on the balls of the feet. My gait was more heel then toe, heel then toe. Then knee injury.
I ran below where the paramedics were tending to The Boy and blew a kiss up, wishing him strength and peace and a perfectly reattached pinky. The trail transitioned from the paved path to dirt, providing some relief from impact as I clumsily corrected my feet. Not heel, toe! Balls! I had to keep repeating it over and over. Balls! Balls!
A group of cyclists came up from the rear. I had passed them as I left the parking lot and made my way to the trail. Now they caught up.
You on foot? one asked.
I wanted to yell, No! Balls!, but I felt that would be inappropriate.
I am. Trying to hustle down before dark. I’ve never been up here this late.
You going all the way to Stinson?
Yep. I kept pace with him as he road along side me.
Well, there’s not many people on the trails tonight. You’ll be fine.
It’s not the people I’m concerned about. My eyes cycled left then right then up to the fog, the sun had now vanished.
He chuckled. Well, good luck with that! And off he rode to catch up to his buddies.
My right knee started to ache, but I kept up the run while I was on a relatively smooth path and had some light, albeit without the sun itself to keep me company. My mind wrestled with the events of the day – the bobcat, the snakes, the bees, the guinea hens, the caterpillars, the HGM kitten encounter, the slightly odd offering of tea from a Ranger (I’m still wondering if he was in fact a Ranger.), and The Boy. Man, a lot was crammed into about three and a half hours. It felt like a long journey had been put through a machine in the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory and became a tiny cube of miracles, sweet and sour, to be dissolved in my being. But not now. Later.
At this point it occurred to me that I must look an awful lot like PeeWee Herman running down a mountain, away from Large Marge, fearing he would be found in a creek bed upon sunrise, leeches (which don’t live in the creeks on Mt. Tam) sucking his blood by the dozens before the mountain lions came to take him away, the vultures waiting in the trees. I zeroed in on my gait, much like I do with my stroke when swimming and tried to be more fluid on my flippers. Now I looked like slo mo Chariots of Fire. This was just not going to look pretty, nor feel good, but it’s absolutely necessary. March on and stop thinking about it.
I kept up a decent pace, despite the impact of every step with my right leg causing bubbles of hot pain to burst beneath the knee cap. At this rate I ought to be crawling the last 3 miles. Looking like, well…prey. But I was covering ground and making good time. Better time than if I was hiking. And now was the time to do it. When I hit the lower trail I am not going to be running. Because I do not want to be falling. Feel every step, Cleo. You so don’t want to fall.
The air cooled as I approached the bend of an access road that leads into the Boot Jack area. I ran to the left and began to take the stairs down into the picnic area two at a time. Then I heard something snap behind me and off to the left. In a forested area, the base deep with wild scrub and shadows. I froze and took the time to scan. And breathe. The last sighting of a mountain lion on Mt. Tam, as far as I’m aware, was one at Boot Jack about five months ago, 2 hours before I passed through.
I was just a teency little bit jacked up. I needed a talking to.
Okay. If you see a mountain lion, you see a mountain lion. It doesn’t mean certain death.
Oh, my God. He called me an angel.
He called me an angel.
The Boy’s friend called me an angel.
I looked up the hill, scanning the black outline of the ridge against the gray-white mist of sea that crawled along it, looking for anything larger than a squirrel. There is no way I’m dying before I get a glass of wine at the Sand Dollar. I scanned 360°, up the hills, back down and across the floor of the clearing, darkened by the canopy of fir trees (I think?) that dotted the slope. Nothing. Keep moving.
Thankfully Boot Jack is right on a road. The perceived notion of having company of the human kind calmed me. I darted into the bathroom by the parking lot. Hovering was not an option; my knee couldn’t hack it. As I washed my hands I stared at my reflection in the mirror. (A rather generously sized mirror for a public park!) There was something in my eyes, I couldn’t place it. Not joy. Not happiness. Certainly, I couldn’t be happy knowing that The Boy was facing a long night of painful experiences. But it was something bright, and fulfilling and likely made all the more rich by surging endorphins. I dried my hands on my pants and grabbed my backpack. Light was fading and I still had several forest areas to traverse, the most challenging being the last mile.
My water bottle was half full, enough to carry me to the end, but I felt compelled to fill it anyway. On the water fountain was an orange prescription bottle, five inches tall, with no label. A white powder filled the bottom half. I smiled, picked it up and shook it. I looked around to see if anyone was nearby. All alone.
I am so not falling for the Alice in Wonderland trick. I put the bottle down, laughed, and took to the stairs to make my way to the Matt Davis trail. When I emerged into a clearing and rounded a hillside I came face to face with coastal England in the winter. The wind took me by surprise, a wet slap that wasn’t entirely unwelcomed. An hour and a half ago I was sitting under a blazing sun, the sky should have worn a sign that said Wet Paint, and the temperature was probably around 80, cooled to 75 by a marine breeze. Now I was zippering up my pullover and pulling the arms down over my hands, and scanning the rolling hills for wildlife, fast moving wisps of fog temporarily obscuring my view.
I was really hoping to see an owl. (Gluttonous, no?) I’ve only seen one owl in the wild, back east. I was due. My eyes drifted up to the tree tops to see if any were serving as a perch. Then, off to my right as I faced south, my hair whipping in front of my eyes, I saw something run behind a bush on a hillside just across from mine. It came straight out the backside and ran 10 feet down the slope to the east, and sat like a sentry.
I half-expected to see the Hound of the Baskervilles.
It was a bobcat. A really good-sized bobcat. Probably the same one I encountered earlier – same area and they’re territorial. By now it was definitively twilight, but I could clearly see him. He sat back straight even though his paws were on the downslope, surveying the area I had just traversed. I watched him for a few minutes before calling to him, Thank you! He looked over at me, but I don’t know if he blinked gently or not. I just know he didn’t run. It was as if he wanted me to see him there. To witness him standing guard as I made my way back into the forest. I felt so very grateful to have shared that space with him. To stand with each other, on the edge of land, the ocean white noise beneath the fog, at sundown on Mt. Tamalpais with Stinson Beach, a crescent of twinkling lights below us, beckoning me.
At that very moment I felt two things:
I am living a dream. And,
One day I will live in Stinson Beach.
I still feel them.
I continued on, running along the narrow trail that rose and fell over the hills until I reached the forest. My phone rang. It was my mom. I had texted earlier explaining briefly what had transpired and that I would let her know when I was off the mountain. I still do this.
I am 46.
Hi! I’m still on the trails. All’s well, but I can’t talk and walk. I’ll call when I get down and fill you in. Okay? I love you, too.
It would be all forest from this point on. Forest and stairs and tree roots and creek crossings and rocks like popcorn left behind to mark a trail, only more likely to twist an ankle. I used my iPhone as a flashlight for the last mile, recalling when Mr. Triathlete used his to light our way at Limantour. Only his was an actual light, courtesy of an app. (Note to self: do not procrastinate on getting that app.) Mine was the home screen, shutting off every minute or so. Once I accidentally dialed my mom trying to tap the screen back to bright…in an area where I had one bar and no shot at a clear conversation. I ended the call quickly, hoping I didn’t send her into a panic thinking it was a cry for help as I was being dragged off into the den of some furball.
I only tripped six times between kinda dark and pitch black. I took one short cut off a switchback down a steep slope to save some time and handled the stairs with care as my knee was really losing patience with me. Finally, I emerged in total darkness.
As I walked along the road to my car I realized I hadn’t pondered much about the day’s events on the descent. Focusing on the task at hand was a factor, but something else was a contributor. Perhaps I let something go on the mountain as I knelt with The Boy. Or something ‘concluded’ there. Came to its end. I felt serene. Relieved. Refocused. I felt like me.
Normally I change in the backseat of my car, but my knee was having none of that. And after the lengthy descent I was risking my glass of wine if I didn’t get to the Sand Dollar post haste. I’m sure I’m not the first to get naked in the dark just off Route 1. The balancing act to put on my shoes without touching my feet to the dirt lot was a sight. (I neglected to mention when I first posted this entry that I forgot to pack my bra. Nothing like walking into a tiny, tiny bar, all eyes on you, on a chilly, chilly night…bra-less. Classy. Really. Just the epitome of polish.)
But not as pretty as the glass of sauv blanc that sat in front of me as I perched on a stool, rubbing my screaming quads, and chatting with a colorful Stinson local. I ordered a beet salad, doubled, with chicken. I would have happily shoved my face into the fridge, eating everything but the glass, had it been offered. As I told him my tale, the gravity of the whole experience came alive in me. It didn’t upend me. I never felt like I had to shed tears (I know – me who cries when a leaf falls!), but I felt tied to The Boy by that invisible umbilical cord still, and he was in turmoil. The vortex had closed (do you all think I’m bat crazy?) but the connection was still there, and I could feel distinctly his profound sadness at what he had done. Which is exactly how he saw it. Nothing happened to him. He did it to himself. I could feel it as if I was still holding his head.
My heart ached for him, yet I was so grateful our paths crossed. That was precisely what I had a hard time reconciling. Something so tragic for him was an encounter that was touching and beautiful for me. It left me feeling calm, at peace. Centered.
As I wrapped my tale of The Boy, I looked at the man to my right, so sweet, like Father Time. I smiled at his round Santa spectacles and face full of thick, smooth beard the color of condensed milk. His eyes twinkled back.
You were his angel.
I dropped my head and played with the napkin on my lap. I had that same gripping sensation I had on the mountain when The Boy’s friend said the same thing.
Those words…there’s something to them.
Sure hope they don’t mean I’m getting ready to kick it here on the blue marble. I am NOT going out without finalizing this divorce!
Which hits its stride this week. So please, stay close…