Monday, October 08, 2007

Animal Freedom

Jolanda Dubbeldam by Jolanda Dubbeldam

I don’t remember what the dream was about, but the alarm honking turned it into a trip on a steamboat. Wide river, big boat – do steamboats actually honk like that? Switching off the noise, I face the familiar urge to roll over and ease back into warm sleep just this once ... what am I trying to prove, anyways. Getting up all alone at six on a Sunday morning, which also means, by the way, going to bed early alone without enjoying that glass of Chardonnay last night. You’d think I was an actual athlete training for the Olympics, instead of the middle-aged slow jogger that I am. Still. I open my eyes (sleep has escaped me, too much thinking already) and notice the gear I put out last night. Smart idea. Now I can just grab the stuff and sneak out of the bedroom without waking my husband, but more importantly, just seeing the well-worn actual running brand shoes with excellent mid-sole cushioning and support, not just any old sneakers, and the sweat-wicking top which chafes just a little under the armpits but only near the end of the run, well, yes, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.

Light breakfast, just enough to fuel the run but not to nauseate. I find a bottle of my Gatorade of choice, pink, which does happen to be my favorite color though that is beside the point. The lighter the color, the lighter the taste. Some of those flavors are so strong they stick to your throat and teeth and tongue after just one sip, and there I’d go huffing and puffing and choking on Xtreme Orange for miles. No, pink is my flavor, mixed 50/50 with water for good measure. I fill up a bigger quart-size bottle with ice water to wait in a shady spot in the car until I get back from my run; by then the ice will have melted but hopefully the water still cool enough to enjoy. Nothing compares to it! Making it back to the parking lot, hot and sweaty and thirsty as hell, and then cracking open that bottle of water and drinking, drinking, drinking like there’s no tomorrow – tastes better than the classiest five-star champagne, I swear.

Jolanda hiking in the hills near San Diego

I drive the few miles to my trail. There is no one else around at this hour, as usual. A broken down truck the only other vehicle in the parking lot, but I’m pretty sure it was just sitting there empty last week, too. I step out of the car, and take a brief moment to engage with my inner quiet. Closed eyes. Perfect. The promise of another scorching summer day, but for now air still tinged with the coolness of night. A slight breeze like a whisper, stroking my face, raising the hairs on my arms in slight goose bumps. Quiet all around. No cars, no people, no dogs. Perfect.

Well! Let’s get this show on the road! I strap on my pink Gatorade, slip my car key onto my shoe lace and tie it down with a tight double knot. Check the knot again. I worry about losing that key somewhere along the way, because then what? Drag my poor exhausted body home along the I-101? I think a huge bout of weeping would be more likely, and it’s hard to imagine how that would solve anything.

Starting is always the tough part. Brisk walking for a mile to warm up muscles and ease the heart into working harder, lungs into breathing deeper. I feel a little like a horse doing that trotting thing on a race track, you know, they’re going as fast as they can without actually breaking into a run but you can tell it’s driving them crazy and every once in a while one of them just can’t take it any more and off he goes galloping wildly, racing past the others, free at last. I never walk that full mile. Legs want to run. And there I go.

It takes a few minutes to settle into the rhythm that will take me out an hour and back an hour. My feet hit the ground as regularly as a clock ticking thump, thump, thump, thump and my breathing settles into rhythmic ins and outs. Not too fast. Going long today. My body finds its comfort zone and does its own thing, needing no instruction, unfettering the mind. I think of Aria sitting lazily by her bowl this morning, waiting for food as if nothing ever happened. I cuddled her tight before filling her bowl, annoying her by obviously not having my priorities straight (food! Give me food!) but, damn, I missed that silly animal. She was gone four whole days and yesterday we were still running all over the neighborhood hanging up flyers and asking people to check their garages, even though hope was running low. Then this morning, when I open the front door to leave, there she is, quietly sitting on the doorstep. She wanders in, cool as a cucumber and none the worse for wear, I guess just finished with whatever she needed to do and ready to come home. She paused on her way to the food bowl just long enough to rub along my legs. What a sweetheart. I'm glowing just thinking about her.

A loud cough. Danger. My body freezes to a halt before my mind catches up. My heart stops beating. In the tall yellow grass beside the trail I look into two golden eyes. A split second. Then the cougar turns and runs. My heart starts up again. My brain belatedly starts to work. What was it, what was it you were supposed to do when confronted by a cougar? Oh yeah, right, make yourself as tall as possible and make noise and make sure the animal has room to escape. I raise my arms and yell. And yell and yell and yell. Then I stop, though I keep my arms up. I’m not sure when it is OK to stop doing this. I know the cougar is gone, but I can't remember which way he went. Finally, I lower my arms.

I look across the wide field of low shrub and grass in front of me, hills off to the distance. It is kind of odd that I didn’t see the cougar run off much farther than I did, I really only saw him when he was two yards in front of me. It's like he disappeared into thin air. I know I am safe now. But I don’t know what to do next. I think I'd like to go forward and finish my run. Or would that be running towards danger? Or does it make any difference which way I go? I’m still facing the grass. I feel a deep revulsion at the idea of turning my back to it. But finally I accept that I can't just stand there all day. I decide to turn back towards the car, not because it makes any logical difference, but because I’m having a hard time thinking straight and for some reason it just seems like the right thing to do.

Legs start running. Not easing into the comfort of it anymore. I am tense, keep having to glance over my shoulder. I slow down a minute to pick up a branch and carry it with me - fat lot of good that's going to do me - I smirk at my pathetic attempt at fooling myself into feeling safe. I’m really relieved when I leave the fields behind me and the trail snakes into a street with houses, parking lot nearby. I drop the branch. When I reach the car, I lean my full body onto it, eyes closed, finally able to relax. So now, I wonder, will I ever be able to let go of this fear, or will I lose this thing that was all mine, the freedom and solitude and exhilaration and naturalness of this Sunday morning escape? I can’t tell. I guess I'll just have to wait and see what happens next week when the alarm starts its early morning honking.

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