While spending a raucous two weeks in the California sunshine with family and friends for the holidays, I fell into a lovely rhythm of getting outdoors far more regularly than I’m able to during a typical Denver work week. The daily fresh air spurred thoughts of the many ways we wander through this world.
I usually relay stories of travel by car (I am American after all), or the occasional plane or train or boat, and some times I even sneak in a tale or two about hiking (really, with my own legs). But all of these modes possess a certain stride, a directness to reach a far off place. Yes, the journey is everything, but even while hiking we cover ground at a rather fast-pace.
Since I was five, my dad has taken me tracking (the simple, yet rather complex art of following animal sign through their habitat). So on New Year’s Day, we avoided the more classical pass time of watching the Rose Parade (not that it happened on the 1st anyway), by going out to check our “tracking boxes” in some near-by public lands. We’d smoothed out large sections of trail with a broom on New Year’s Eve in hopes that we could capture some clear, crisp prints of a mountain lion we knew to be traveling through the area.
I won’t confess to any shananigans, but tracking is a perfect way to spend the day after celebrating the end of 2011. The tracker moves slowly, attempting to observe the natural world with keen senses. And when scat or tracks or some other disturbance appears on the trail, the tracker stops to study the sign. Every step becomes a destination. Each piece of animal evidence provides a welcome reprieve from movement.
And of course the mountain lion had in fact left us a gift to begin 2012: dozens of fresh tracks. We worked the area, finding that the lion, and maybe its friend, had passed through the tracking boxes more than once. It meandered down to a creek and some thicker cover, and then out into a meadow, home to a bounty of deer. Eventually, the lion headed up the trail, and the siren called.
My dad and I thought we’d just follow the trail to the top of the small rise, around one more bend. Once there, another set of lion tracks intrigued us, so we climbed further up the ridge. I scanned the brush and rocks above us, imagining that the mountain lion might be happily perched in a hillside lair, watching his dinner walk closer and closer.
With the haunting feeling that we were now the ones being observed, we continued to pursue the trail. On several occasions, we stopped to look back at how far we’d come. The meadow below us grew smaller and smaller, and the top of the hill seemed to still linger far away. But at the sight of another definitive track, we’d echo the same refrain, “let’s keep going.”
Almost two hours later, we reached Idyllwild’s Inspiration Point. We lost the lion’s trail about 100 yards before the summit, but he’d led us to a grand vista: the Pacific Ocean gleaming orange in the setting sun, the rolling and sharp peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains and the Peninsular Range, and the view of the long, winding path the mountain lion had guided us up.
Yes, I was inspired. 2012 had begun with a great reminder of life’s beauty: regardless of the chosen vehicle, we travel to unknown destinations with our every breath.