Meditation on Being Lost
Last November, I got lost on a trail run while visiting my mother in Austin the weekend before her hip replacement. Really lost. In the woods lost. Fall down on the ground and weep lost. Wonder when they will send the helicopters lost. I am such an idiot lost.
Getting lost is not new to me. My whole life, all four decades of it, I’ve been unable to tell north from south. It’s as if I was spun in utero for a game of pin the tail on the donkey and I have never recovered. It’s a minor handicap–I think of it as being color blind, but instead of to colors, I cannot comprehend cardinal directions. My directional failings have not held me back: I hike, I have a job as a doctor, and I married a man with a phenomenal talent for finding true north. I, on the other hand, have to look out the window to determine which wing of the hospital I am in.
When hiking with friends, I joke that I was born without a pineal gland, a small pine cone-shaped gland in animal brains that may interpret changes in the Earth’s magnetic field to orient animals in space. When the pineal gland is removed from a bird, the bird becomes disoriented and unable to fly. In humans, the pineal gland is thought to be vestigial. Descartes believed that the pineal gland joined our sensing of the physical world to our thoughts allowing for singularity of thought. I disagree with Descartes. Despite my pineal handicap with direction, I have had no trouble meditating, especially when running.
On the Sunday morning of my visit to Austin, I sat at the kitchen table lazing through the newspaper as my mother went off to church. I had offered to join her the night before. “No, no,” she shook her head. “You don’t need to go unless you want to,” she looked over her teacup, “And, I suspect you don’t want to.”
With her special dispensation to miss mass granted, our conversation turned to meditation and contemplative thought. My mom confessed that she didn’t go to church to listen to the homily. Instead, she would allow her mind to wander through the contemplative space that the quiet church offered. I had read an article that suggested that the brain waves of people in meditative thought are indistinguishable whether they be daydreaming during a church service, or pounding the pavement for a runner’s high. Total absorption in a singular thought or activity was equivalent to a human reboot. As my mother dressed for church the next morning, I decided that I would reboot with my favorite trail run through the Texas Hill Country that crept up to my parents’ backdoor.
As my mother drove out the driveway, I dressed for my run, and debated taking my parents’ dogs, two needy Vizlas who hovered at my side. “No, Annie and Dixie, no dogs allowed,” I shook my head at them. “I need some thinking time. You girls stay behind.”
I left my phone on the counter. Too many times, a run was spoiled by the mere weight and tedium of shifting it from hand to hand.
My parents retired a decade ago to the southwest portion of Austin. We had moved several times in my childhood, and this house, although never truly mine, felt like home. During my visits, I had carved out a trail run that eased along Barton Creek, turned along a pasture with a stoic Longhorn, then followed a dry creek, to a ridge that curved back above the creek and delivered me to the road to my parents’ house. Spanish oaks and cedars offered dappled protection from the sun. I am neither a long distance runner or fast runner. I’m happy to run 2-3 miles and my trail was closer to 2 miles. I allowed 30 minutes to run it, leaving ten minutes to watch the lazy creek and ponder the horizon from my favorite overlook on the ridge. Pineal gland or not, I enjoyed my ten minute meditation from my ridge viewpoint.
I hadn’t been to Austin for ages and this trip was rushed by the last minute scheduling of my mother’s surgery. That morning, I woke up early in order to spend time with my dad before he drove to Houston to watch the Texans game. We rode his Gator across the low water crossing to pick up the newspaper and he waved to the right, “Did we tell you that there’s a preacher renting that house by the gate? Well, he had a little dog,” he cleared his throat, “You know, one of those yappy things…found it eviscerated. Vet thinks it was a bobcat.”
My parents get a sick pleasure out of sharing horror stories about pets seized by animals of prey in the Hill Country. My husband and I call it the Land of Pestilence. Their retirement dream home boasts tarantulas, africanized bees, scorpions, armadillos, porcupines, water moccasins, and rattlesnakes. Their dogs have been “quilled” and snakebitten more times than I have digits. The bobcat was a new one, though. Must have replaced the coyote that was stalking small pets last year, I snorted to myself.
After I laced up my running shoes and extricated myself from Annie and Dixie, I slipped out the door, running toward the creek, its white washed limestone and emerald waters welcoming me home. I turned right along the creek, scanning the creek floor for the circles that the bass make in the debris on the floor of the creek, as intoxicating in their strange perfection as crop circles.
I ran past our swimming hole, its rope swing washed away in the last flood. I smiled recalling our last creek swim before the drought–my sixtiesh mother arcing over the pristine water, then letting go of the rope swing and canon-balling into its emerald water. My mother emboldens with age, each decade adding rope swings to zip lines to river rafting.
A bit further on my trail, I reached a bewitching turn in the creek, where the light filters down off the limestone ridge. I once took a picture of my nephew here–his vigilant gaze on his sister basking in the gloaming light. The bewitching point is important beyond memory; the grass grows taller here and with it, the worry of snakes. It’s not rattlesnake season, I remind myself, as if snakes were white shoes, never to be seen after Labor Day.
The grass was even taller than I remembered, licking at my knees, tender and awake in prepubescent light green. Austin was coming alive, relieved from the years of drought. I was so accustomed to the hues of beige and dust with sage and olive green that I took a false turn from the creek bank, mistaking abandoned fence posts for the pasture, only to end up looking through the neighbor’s sliding glass door.
I ran back to creek, smiling at my mistake. It’s been too long since I’ve been home. I thought as a sadness washed over me. This place is magic, and soon it will be a memory. My parents had had their fill of their palatial retirement home and were moving closer to the city. This run could be my last on my old cross country trail, I thought wishing I had a hundred more visits to my parents left.
I followed the creek to the true pasture fence. The grass grew even taller as the ground sloped up from the bank. I turned uphill and ran along the pasture fence. The Longhorn was gone. In his absence, I greeted the lone willow standing sentry on the path to the dry creek bed. The creek bed led me to a ramp-like climb carpeted in rocks and gravel. I remembered the last time I ran the trail with my husband, I grew frustrated as he scampered up, scuttling stones past my feet. At the top of the climb, the trail flattened into a rock-littered plateau that should have led me to the ridge above the creek.
On my run with Dan, I had struggled to find the plateau’s next landmark–the torn down barbed wire fence that we needed to step over to get to the overlook trail. “We take a little left, then right, then a left to the overlook trail,” I explained, desperate to prove my ability to scout a trial despite my directional failings.
The plateau’s grass was replaced by a scrubby plant, not 12 inches tall with the remnant of tiny yellow flowers. It wasn’t bad to run through, though a couple times, the scrub obscured my view of the underlying rock rubble and my ankle would turn on a hidden rock. A new grass appeared with a seed pod that would give a brief “ratatatat” as it fired off its contents. Still jumpy about the rattlesnakes, I ground my teeth a little more, anxious to get to the flat, rubble-less limestone of the ridge and my beloved overlook. Grasshoppers arched off the trail in cadence with my strides.
The barbed wire fence had been restrung, blocking the entrance to overlook trail. To the right, another access point was draped in barbed wire with 3 large boulders obstructing passage. To the left, a fresh trail was cut, the skinny cedar stumps bleached white in the horror of their massacre. The trail appeared to cut left and then right, mimicking my old route to the overlook.
I took the fresh trail to the left. I’ve been gone too long. Too much had changed since the last time I had been here. The freshly cut trail forked and I turned right and ran.
I ran some more. I ran, and ran and ran.
This is so wrong, I thought. I should be on the ridge overlooking the creek by now. I brushed a loose hair from my face. This trail has got to meet up with the old trail. Five minutes passed. The grass ratatated at me, the cedars grew in from the edges of the trail, grabbing at my hips, and the grass disappeared, drowned by the cedar droppings. Suddenly, I ran over a bright green, 4 podded acorn lying on the cedar litter as if framed. I stopped. It looked like a four leaf clover and I wondered what it portended.
I ran further and the ratatatat grass returned with it. A wide flat limestone trail opened before me. Finally! I burst forward with exultation. And tripped. I skidded across the limestone, my head missing a boulder by inches.
My cerulean leggings were striped in chalk and my right knee creaked with pain where I banged it in my fall. I brushed limestone clay out of the erosion on my right shin. All and all not as a bad as it could have been, but… It occurred to me that no one knew where I was. I hadn’t left a note, or said when I’d be back or where I was going. I decided not to tempt fate with my innate clumsiness. I started walking, certain that once I got to my beloved overlook, the pain would evaporate.
But this is all wrong, I thought, my knee throbbing. I’ve run too far and the ground is rising to my left and it should be flat. To the right, brave trees should be hanging to the cliff face above the crystalline creek. Throughout my run, I had been gaining elevation and as I looked to my right I couldn’t see the creek, only endless rolling hills pocked with scrub. And sun. Hot Texas sun. And not a single sympathetic cloud. Having just flew in from gray Seattle, I did not have sunglasses.
A scurry of claws and flip of a tail drew my attention back to my left. Whatever it was, it had scaled an anemic Spanish oak and was frozen, now watching me from twenty feet away. Bobcat?
I reversed down the trail that I had run. I walked and walked and walked. Seed pods popped. The top of my head burned. I felt tugging inside my pants and realized that in my fall, burrs had gotten under the fabric of my pants. Feeling five years old, I reached down my pants to pull them free. Live oaks and cedars closed back over the trail and I hid from the sun with relief. I passed a blue and white trail blaze that I didn’t recognize, but I could hear traffic from Highway 71 in the distance, so I knew I was headed in the right direction. Until, I didn’t hear the traffic. Then I turned around and headed back, until I saw the blue and white trail blaze again.
Anxiety was slowly rising–each of my errors in judgment blooming like Indian spices in oil. The sun was so much hotter than it should be. I had no water. No one knew where I was. I have no sense of direction. I hadn’t brought my phone which would have had a compass. Screw the compass, it would have had GPS.
“Hold on, hold on,” I murmured to myself. “The sun is still low enough to tell you that that way is east, right? You’re smart, you can logic your way home.” I brushed the loose hair from my face, and tightened my ponytail. “So I really want to go west, then I need a trail going that way.” I applauded myself for my poise. Until I walked back over my green 4 podded acorn. Going the wrong direction, going toward the bobcat.
“This is so wrong.” I stopped. How many times had I changed directions? I bit my thumbnail, only to discover it was coated in clay. I should just pick a direction and keep going.
I walked until I saw a cattle guard I had never seen before. I turned around in a circle, spying a tripod of branches with a smooth piece of wood on top. A man made seat. I must be close, I thought.
I walked in the direction that I thought was east, toward the lumbering winter sun. But, this can’t be right because I thought I was heading the opposite of east, or was it south? Come on, Katy, it’s the sun, it can’t be wrong. I wanted to knock my head against something to clear it. Why can’t you for once figure it out?
My whole life, I thought, each word as if punched out in paper, I’ve been a disoriented bird. I continued to walk in the maybe east direction contemplating my directional failings.
Then, I saw it, glimmering in the sun. A perfect spider web backlit in the sunlight. My heart and head broke at the same time. The supporting arms of the web were at level of my head which meant only one thing–there was no way I could have passed this way without running into it.
“Fuck!!!” I screamed, long and guttural, not caring who might hear. Then, I cursed myself for every failing I’d own up to, “You are such a fucking idiot!” I stomped the opposite direction. “A fucking idiot with absolutely no sense of direction! You are less than 2 miles from the house and you can’t even find your way home. Every time you get lost, you have been lucky and found your way, but this time…this time…” I stopped, unwilling to speculate out loud on what could happen, but my mind flashed with images: a sheriff’s helicopter sweeping the shrub pocked hills, a blurb in the Austin-American Statesman about a lost forty year old woman, and a whole day blown waiting to be rescued a mile from my parent’s backyard. Would they have to cancel my mother’s surgery? My anger flared in search of more fuel to burn.
“And, if you are hoping that Mom will save you, you are screwed! Mom won’t even notice that you’re gone!” Guilt seared my tongue. Despite defining her parenting style as laissez faire, my mother was never absent when needed. Worse than my lack of direction, I hated my beaten dog way of lashing out at others for my own mistakes.
Annie and Dixie’s barks pierced the air. That’s it! I scurried along the trail to their barks. That direction! I held my right arm out like a compass needle. If I could just head that way, I would end up behind Dad’s woodpile. I know it. I know it.
“Keep barking girls!” I encouraged. I was close. I knew it. Screw these trails, I thought. I just need to go there, I squeezed through a break in the cedars heading downhill. As I continued down the slope, the cedars grew tighter, choking off my route, their spindly branches tugging at my hair and shirt like witches’ fingers.
The dogs stopped barking.
The ground fell away faster than I’d ever seen around my parent’s 10 acres. Without my canine heralds, my confidence evaporated. And then, I ran smack into a loaded spider web.
“Ahhhhhh!” I screamed as I tore at the spider threads mixing with tears on my face. I turned around and began to crawl up the slope. I emerged back on the limestone trail.
“Mom!” I yelled, turning myself in a circle. I snorted back my tears. You are a grown woman. Grow up! I taunted myself, Always crying for your mother.
I walked back to the blue and white blaze, growing familiar with each passing. Dammit, dammit, dammit. I swirled again, then stopped. You have got to fucking buck the fuck up.
I turned back toward the sound of the highway and tightened my ponytail again. I needed to make a choice and stick to it. Just walk this way, I counseled as I emptied my mind of all the conflicting signs of my lostness. Ignore the cattle guard…ignore the unbroken spider web. Walk. Ignore everything, and just walk.
I ducked under the backlit spider web. I watched the tips of my running shoes swing forward in cadence. I walked. I walked. I walked. I heard nothing except the scuff of my shoes and the whirling of grasshoppers evading of my steady purpose. I walked until I saw three boulders stacked in front of a barbed wire fence. Go right, then left, I told myself. The cords of my dried tears pulled at the skin of my face. The grass seed pods popped at my feet.
The plateau fell away at the rocky ramp. I was back to the dry creek, then passing the welcoming willow. As I descended along the pasture fence, I saw my mother with her familiar, hip-pained loping walk and the two Vizlas bounding in her wake.
I started to cry again when she was fifty feet off.
“Well, there you are! I was just starting to get worried about you,” she called out. I cried. I knew that she would have found me. Maybe even before the helicopters.