That longest and most rewarding of Walkers wilderness escapes began in the Summer of 1980 and lasted into the spring of 1988. In 1987 he typed the following article in the woods outside the cave. It ran in the December 1987 issue of Tucson's City Magazine as Notes from a Solitary Beast. A shorter version ran in the February 1988 issue of Outside as The Commute. He's compiled everything on this site into a memoir manuscript in search of a publisher
Facsimile of articles from
City Magazine December ’87 Outside February ’88
Notes from a Solitary Beast The Commute
words and images by Walker Thomas
A flutter pulls me from sleep. Wing beats close to my face. It must be four. At four, the bat returns to the cave. It always flies first into the deep hollow I have fashioned for my bedchamber.
It’s a Townsend’s big-eared bat, a male. When the snows melt and nights grow warm, he remains to spend his days in this solitary alpine roost while the females gather each spring in large nursery colonies on the desert.
His ears stand tall over the span of wings and flattened body in flight. When I watch him in the beam of my miner’s lamp as he sails past stone walls and veers nimbly around obstacles, I feel myself in flight.
The first time I saw him, upside-down, clinging with hind toes to the cave wall, he opened his eyes and began to shiver in preflight warm-up. His ears, patches of rumpled flesh that hugged each shoulder while he slept, rose to unfurl like the wings of an emerging butterfly.
His upper lip twitched to bare teeth as if in a snarl, to emit sounds inaudible to me, their echoes retrieved in the big masts of his ears. Finger bones longer than my own, but as fine as the ribs of a trout stretched taut the dark, elastic wings. He flapped to a cleft high in the cave ceiling.
Each morning he makes the side trip into my quarters before he retires to a higher roost. Finding me here may calm a fear that I have climbed spider-like into his sanctum. He may dream of my giant, bearded, sonar-imaged face, but beyond the initial shock of the unknown his lack of human intelligence precludes human ignorance. His bat’s mind deals only with the facts of experience and in his experience, I have proven benign. I like to think the bat visits out of simple curiosity and something akin to friendship, or at least tolerance. Once during his winter hibernation, I bumped the dials on my softly playing radio in my sleep. A midwinter awakening, if stretched out too long, could be fatal. He flew down, landed on my chest, and I awoke to a cacophony of radio static and bat chatter. When I reached over and turned off the radio, he flew back to his high roost. Otherwise, I have been an unassuming roommate. In summer, he often chooses to share the body-warmed space of my bedchamber.
We tend to anthropomorphize an animal’s motivation, to bestow human thought processes. The concept of thought without language is hard to put into words. As Pooh’s friend Piglet said to Owl, “He hasn’t exactly got brain, but he knows things.”
When I come home late, the bat drops down through the canopy of oak and pine to circle me on the last slope and then precedes me into the cave. Bats frequently join hikers when we walk at night, so silently, so furtively that few notice. On switchbacks, they glide in low to zigzag around a hiker’s legs, wings barely seeming to move as they hunt insects kicked up with the dust. More often they fly just out of sight and are revealed only by a high-pitched chirp that seems to originate in our own heads.
When I am settled, the bat flies out of the cave to hunt moths. Big ears are an adaptation of bats that hunt moths. The sonar bats use to find their way in the dark is pitched at the same frequency as a moth’s love song. Moths hear that sound, fold their wings and dive to escape. Moth-eating bats can’t use sonar to hunt. Their large ears help locate a moth in the dark by the soft beat of its wings.
This morning, the bat makes two wing-slapping passes through my room before he retires to his own accommodations upstairs. I return to sleep in the dark and silence of our deep chamber.
When I wake next, a pale patch of light coats the rock high on the wall behind me. That distant glow casts as much light into the cave as stars on a wooded path. I feel for candle and matches. It is five twenty-two, Thursday morning. I should get up. I work in town weekends and I’ll start down today. I unzip my sleeping bag and get to my feet, grasping the cave wall for support. Equilibrium comes slowly in a candle-lit hollow. My breath makes misty ghosts in the flickering light. Peaceful as a tomb, the cave is good for profound sleep when I need it and for storing food and supplies. It becomes an oppressive place when I linger too long awake in this cold hollow. I spend my days and most nights outside.
From the foot of my bed I've built a stone staircase up to a high-ceilinged, narrow corridor, a knife-blade slit thirty-feet high. The corridor slopes steeply up to a wall, eight feet beneath the entrance tunnel. The wall is an easy scramble for man or monkey, but that eight-foot drop into darkness discourages large four-footed animals from entering the cave, like the black bear drawn to the scent of popcorn when I still cooked in the cave, before bat expert Dr. E. Lendel Cochram told me that to warm the cave with stove or lantern would interfere with the bat’s winter hibernation.
I pause in the dark at the top of the stairs ten feet above the candle-lit hollow and switch off my headlamp. I look up another twenty feet to the entrance tunnel where rocks touched by the morning sun glow like amber lit from within.
This is not a chemically dissolved limestone hollow filled with fantastic and delicate structures that took millions of years to form and is more sensitive to human intrusion. This cave is tectonic, a complex of spaces left in the rock after the collapse of this ridge by an earthquake in 1887. The spaces are roomy and deep. When my friend Dave Baker and I descended to the end of a hundred fifty feet of rope we found no end or decrease in the size of the hollows. I suspect that a deep limestone cavern, now clogged with debris, swallowed up the rock dislodged by the quake.
The rock that forms the ceiling of my underground bedchamber projects another thirty feet outside and leans out over a ten-foot clearing. The ground here is composed of shards sloughed from the cliff face. I climb to the cliff top by way of a wooded slope beyond the clearing. I look out from the roof of the cave at half a dozen more monolithic blocks that punch through the trees.
I was reading on this rooftop the evening the bear came sniffing after popcorn. I walked to the edge to see what was crashing through the trees. He poked his head into the open and stared at me as if not sure of what he saw. I saw jaws.
I read a newspaper account years ago of a camper in Yellowstone who was devoured by a bear while her friends watched from the high branches of trees. They quoted her last words as, “Oh God, I’m dead,” as the bear closed its jaws over her head. Later, I dreamed a bear was closing its jaws over my head. I awoke on my bedroom floor after trying to dive clear of those jaws. Ever since, I smell in the strong scent of a bear the suffocating odor of breath as its jaws close.
This bear’s jaws were broad, powerful, easily capable of closing over my head. But this bear was far from Yellowstone where people are a common sight. I might have been the only human this bear had ever seen. He reacted the way a black bear should react to such a strange apparition. He turned and ran like an overweight racehorse, legs churning under ponderous body and kicking out behind so I could see the pads of his feet.
He was a big bear, not likely to share his territory with another large male. He was probably the same one that hibernated in the oak wood where I’d spend Saturday nights in a tent on my commute back up to the cave. It was also a large male, with well-worn paths all the way up to the cave ridge and he also ran kicking his feet high behind him. He was shy, but curious. He often circled my lower camp, but avoided me. And he never entered a fifty-meter perimeter around my lower camp. He did demolish another tent beside an enormous juniper on a mudflat below the cave. He had marked the tree with deep claw marks high on the trunk, and his path, maybe the path of generations before him, had worn a trench into the ground beside the tree. He must have reared up and dropped through the roof, ripping open the rain fly and tent, shattering the aluminum arch, ripping open my good down bag, the tent floor and the ground cloth below, yet he never touched the tent walls. He chewed a tube of K-Kote seam sealer, defecated a huge pile of golden nuggets beside the ruined tent as calling card, and went on his way.
Green velvet swells fill the distance to the east from my rooftop this morning, hiding a sun that backlights the pine-furred crest of each hill and spills over onto the rocks. Today I will cross the nearest hill and turn north toward Scotch Canyon for water to haul back to the cave. Then I will go around to the south side of the cave rock and begin the descent. Tonight, I will sleep on the desert, not far from the cattle ranch where I park my bicycle, and Friday morning pedal in to work.
For all the time spent commuting, the walk is a pleasure. Walking provides a time for creative thought and with that a truer sense of being. What I am most is in my thoughts and my thoughts are most at peace here. Since four days of my week are spent commuting, home is anywhere I walk on this mountain. I have commuted on foot and by bike for over seven years. I gave up driving seven months before I came to live in these mountains. (The rest of this passage is currently running in the Spring 2021 issue of the online literary journal, Canary, at canarylitmag.org -- click on "CONTENTS" box at the bottom of the page, scroll down to "The Road Less Traveled by Walker Thomas" (5 from the bottom) . . . Driving had become wrong for me. I could live more thoroughly as a walker.
I walked east of Tucson two months later and followed the San Pedro River south to Miller’s Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains, eighty miles away. It was a pilgrimage to the place where I had fallen fourteen years earlier.
I awoke beneath a cliff, eight hours after that fall in 1965. I had no memory of the fall or anything else of my nineteen years of life. I awoke a purely aesthetic being rapt in the sounds of a nearby stream, the smell of pine and earth, the feel of a breeze through the hair on my arms. I felt pleasure as an animal or a newborn unfettered by language. A solitary and unknowing beast, I was free of my history yet content with the fact of my being. I did not have brain exactly, but I knew things.
In my high school creative writing class in Pennsylvania a year before the fall, I wrote about a man lost for several days in a coastal, pine barrens. He learned to fend for himself. All he seemed to need was an ax. When he finally found civilization in a seaside resort town, he entered a hardware store and bought an ax with the money left in his wallet. Then he walked back into the woods and swamps. At nineteen, I needed to be lost or amnesic to find myself.
On my walk back to that canyon, I saw only a man and a woman in canvas-backed chairs at Manning Camp as I crossed the Rincons on the first day out and no one after that. Alone, I came to better know myself. When I finally did encounter others, human contact seemed dearer to me than ever before. Distant from the crowd, I felt closer to each individual. I can be lonely in a crowd; never so when alone in my thoughts. I have never known better health in body and mind than when walking in a natural setting. Such thoughts led to where I live today.
Another reason I came to this mountain was to bury my father, though I suspect he is alive somewhere in New Jersey. We both survived our final encounter twenty-three years ago, before I moved my sister into an apartment of her own, double locked against his unwelcome visits. In this better life, I’ve found an identity separate from that of my father’s son.
In May in 1980, I bicycled to a place between two finger-like ridges where I had often walked to unmuddy my mind. I parked my bicycle at a cattle ranch beside the foreman’s tool shed and hiked up to Crow’s Foot Pool. I spent the first night of my new life in the hind toe, the canyon just below the pool. My original intent was to spend a summer, but when that summer ended I remained and made a seven-hour commute to university classes and a job for two more semesters before, temped by a not too distant view of trees and winter snow, I moved higher.
Now it is Saturday seven years later. Several hours ago, I started home from an athletic club, a workplace that includes a shower and a locker for a change of clothes. I work as a weight room attendant/instructor for club members. The job is a valuable break from the days of solitude. Of the hand-full of people who have made the trek to visit my mountain home, half were met at the club.
I did some last-minute shopping after work: brown rice, lentils, barley, maple syrup, olive oil, candles and batteries for mountain supplies; cheese, cookies and oranges for the trail. I picked up my mail and bicycled back to the ranch. In a pair of thirty-gallon Rubbermaid trash cans beside the foreman’s shed are changes of clothes, pad, tarp and blankets for when I sleep on the desert between shifts at work, and my backpack already half-filled with supplies I picked up last night after work. I add the groceries from my bicycle panniers to the pack and start my walk home.
An hour of level walking precedes the climb to Fox Basin Ridge. The climb is steep. The basin beyond the ridge is greened by runoff from slopes on three sides. The water of countless rainy seasons has then poured over this front face to cut a near-straight drop to these desert foothills below. I stop to watch the sun set from the switchback just below the ridge for a moment to refresh before the pleasant walk ahead.
The mountain night is not always dark. A full moon will cast an eerie glow. Or, like tonight, the city’s incandescence, a glare that on a clear night would wash the stars from the sky, will reflect off low clouds. The light carried on the underbelly of the clouds will skip over ridges to bathe the ground beyond. Tonight, low-slung clouds light my route across Fox Basin with dusty, pastel highlights. On a winter night with fewer crawling things to watch for I can find my way without even switching on my headlamp.
Stars are scattered across the rain-moistened ground. The turquoise lamps of glowworms show brightly from the edges of rocks and from within clumps of grass. Starlight flashes from the lamplit eyes of spiders: blue-white, sparkling like crushed diamonds on the basin floor.
Big round amber eyes stare at me from the ground ahead. A poorwill lifts suddenly in down-softened flight and settles again in my path. A hooded skunk’s eyes are red, a deer’s eyes pale green. Last week I watched half a dozen pairs of deer eyes move past a rock wall. Filtered through brush on top, another pair of eyes, yellow-white and as widely spaced, but more forward looking than those of the deer, flickered directly above them. The deer passed on and the other eyes winked out as the big cat moved back into the darkness.
At the far end of the basin three dry canyons reach up to the crest like the splayed toes of a crow’s foot. Subterranean water erupts through a dense growth of fountain grass where the canyons merge to empty into a pool, thirty feet long and six feet deep.
A hoary bat glides effortlessly while two smaller bats flutter like butterflies over the pool. The hoary skims a mouthful from the pool’s surface. Owls, too, will drink in this manner, cutting a V-shaped ripple across the smooth surface. Purple martins replace the bats and owls by day, chattering as they swoop on sickle-shaped wings.
The area around Crow’s Foot was my home for the first several months on the mountain. I would be awakened late at night by raspy shrieks. Mountain lion, I thought, until one night a gray fox, probably the same one that watched as I bathed in the pool earlier that day, challenged me in that raspy voice. She stood above me on a steep slope, her front legs propped on a rock to bring her face to the level of my chest. My eyes were focused on the ground when she began to growl, a full, resonant sound from deep in her chest. I lifted my gaze expecting to see a mountain lion ready to pounce. When instead a saw a fox not much bigger than a housecat, I laughed out loud and took a step toward her, breaking time-honored beast etiquette. Relative size was not the issue. I was breeching the fox’s territory. She was incensed and let me know with the shriek that I had been attributing to a cougar. She quietly watched me pass, but then paralleled my climb to the camp on the ridge eight hundred feet above, sounding that raspy, bulldog-cum-mountain lion shriek every few minutes along the way.
I watched the effects of the changing light of dawn spread across the basin below from my sleeping bag on the ridge a few mornings later. When I rolled over to look at the mountains behind me, I saw a lithe, small-headed cat, twenty feet off, dark red to nearly black in the dawning light and looking back over her shoulder as she walked away. She moved in a crouch on powerful legs —especially thick in the hindquarters— in low, reaching strides. Smaller than a cougar, but with the same long tail she looked to be a jaguarondi, a rare species this far north. She flowed over three rows of rock like a snake, her tail retracing each undulation of her body. As the ridge fell away, she too was gone.
Trails end at Crow’s Foot. Not so much end as continue in directions I don’t want to go: people places that other creatures and I tend to avoid. I spent a month close to the pool —with its running water and occasional human passage— and then began moving up.
There’s no end to up tonight. The top of the ridge disappears into the clouds. The outstretched toes of the crow, etched into the broad slope of the basin’s upper rim, reach up and up to fade into the pale depths of space. Clouds give the twenty-minute climb the look of a Himalayan ascent. I saw foxes play at the edge of the clouds on a night like this, two steps from invisibility. On another night, deer ran into the clouds and disappeared as if through a gauze curtain.
The mist is thin but wet at the top of the ridge, soaking like rain. As I climb down the other side out of the clouds, I hear the crackle of water through the upper gorge of Portal Canyon, a half mile away. The gorge carves its way through gray marbled rock, sculpted and polished by the water, which it in turn sculpts silver in both light and sound.
I cross Portal Canyon just below the gorge. Water is channeled through a hundred yards of flat rock before it drops again. A warm breeze, lifted from the desert through the lower gorges, spills into the valley. At night, the Portal canyon valley is the last warm refuge before the mountain chill. Rain will fall in this valley on winter while snow dusts every surface beyond.
I fill the gallon container I’ve stashed at the crossing with water for the climb to Anna’s Camp.
I reenter the soaking mist on an oak-wooded terrace, four hundred feet over the gorge. The ground rises steeply from the terrace. The cloud mist grows thicker as I climb, obscuring all but the nearest trees and rocks, isolating small worlds under a dome of false light. Trees and rocks dark with wet stand stark against the eggshell wall of mist. I would get lost on cloudbound nights like this for the first couple of years. When there is no horizon, a straight line becomes a curve. The long slope is steep and rocky. Terrain dictates direction. A curving course becomes an endless, serpentine meander. Cloudy nights would frustrate me into the early morning hours until I learned the shape of the slope and every rock and tree along the route.
I reach Anna’s Camp at midnight. A tent waits under an old alligator juniper in the hilltop depression. I will sleep here and climb to the cave tomorrow. I drop my pack and shed soaking clothes. My boots sizzle and bubble. I move slowly with chill and fatigue as I invert them on branch stumps and drape wet outerwear, socks and underwear over branches.
I step over to a refrigerator-size wooden box that stands on a dozen empty 48-ounce V-8 cans. I spent eleven hours one night, hauling up the eighty pounds of lumber, pine and tempered (inedible to bugs) Masonite, precut and drilled in my friend Linda’s living room.
I pull back the mosquito netting and tarp that enwraps the box, lift the heavy lid and prop it on my head while I unload dry goods into the box from the pack and gather towels and dry clothes out of the box. I dry myself and put on long johns, sweats with a hooded top, ski cap, wool socks and rubber-soled, pile slippers.
I mix up a batch of sugar water for the Anna’s hummingbirds that come to the feeder I’ve hung on a branch opposite the box and tent, and as I re-hang the feeder Effie appears at my feet. The original Effie was Sam Spade’s receptionist, but this Effie is no lady.
My first porta-john was a garden trowel. When I moved up into this wood, Effie began digging up my burial plots and leaving biodegradable toilet paper strewn in the surrounding manzanita branches.
Cottontails are coprophagous —literally: fecal-eating. Her high-cellulose diet yields little the first time through the small intestine. The other animals that eat grass —cows and deer and horses for example— have multiple stomachs to accommodate a necessarily long digestive period. Cottontails do not. Bacteria begin to break down the cellulose in the cecum, making nutrients available, but the large intestine is inefficient at absorbing them. The most nutritious part of a cottontail’s meal is defecated. Effie eats her food twice. Still, she needs vitamin K to help prevent pernicious anemia so she also has developed a taste for the feces of other animals. Effie eats her food twice, and mine too.
I established two toilets: one fifty meters above camp and one fifty meters below. One site has a fallen tree with a convenient forked branch of just the right thickness and curvature and paralleling the ground at just the right height, while the other has a pair of rounded boulders to serve as toilet seat. A thicket, one of hackberry bushes and the other of manzanita, backs each site to ensure Effie’s safe approach. I dig no hole and set aside used toilet paper in zip-lock bags that I pack out. I alternate sites. Effie cleans up each before I need return. As an added benefit, the bear that overwinters on the heavily wooded hilltop above has apparently deemed the two toilets my territorial boundaries and never enters the fifty-meter radius they mark. I find his readily apparent sign right up to the edge of the toilets’ radius.
Caught up in the intimacy of our shared meals, Effie began sleeping beside the tent. Sometimes I would hear her scratching, thump, thump, thump, on the nylon by my head. One day while I was scattering grain for juncos and towhees I found her sitting between my feet.
The mist is rising into the belly of the clouds. Wind disperses trailing tendrils. Rain will soon fall, rinsing the grime from my clothes. Hopefully, it will then allay soon enough for them to damp-dry before I continue the climb in the morning.
Warmth gathers within my sleeping bag. Outside the tent, a screech owl whistles: a soft, hollow sound repeated slowly, then faster and faster until it makes a tremulous trill. My body feels leaden. Lulled by the owl’s song, I sink into sleep.
Small paws press gently along the side of my leg. My eyes may be open. It is too dark to tell. Even so, I recognize the wary touch of the ringtail. If I do not respond, he will pace along my side until I do. I switch on my headlamp and prop it against a water bottle so its beam is bounced off the tent ceiling. The ringtail has already slipped from my hip to the floor of the tent. His nose is inches from my beard, sniffing for crumbs.
His eyes are big and black, surrounded by a white mask, the photo reverse of the dark mask of his cousin, the raccoon. But his face, with its long nose and high, pointed ears, is more like the face of a fox. His long, sinuous body is like an otter’s. His tail is ringed like a raccoon’s but fuller, and longer than his body. He moves like a large squirrel in bounds that undulate through body and tail. I call him Gem, short for Gemini Dancer, for the twin images of body and flowing tail.
I came to these mountains intent on making no impact on the original inhabitants. I was proud to use no more space than a sleeping deer. The spaces I occupy began to grow after I found it impossible to be entirely unobtrusive. Every time I swept the crumbs off my pad I provided sustenance for a variety of my neighbors. The ants came. Then the ground became pocked with the craters of ant lions. The larder was increased for the juncos and towhees, ground squirrels and mice that were pecking and scratching for seeds and nuts in this clearing long before my arrival.
I see signs of the local bobcat near my supplies. The occasional rattlesnake will appear in the camp area, both Arizona black rattlers and the more colorful black-taileds. A friend brushed out her hair. Two days later, a bushtit worked the long, silky strands into its nest in the mistletoe on a nearby branch of the juniper.
I find none of these visitors an intrusion. I try not to become a key factor in their life schemes, but leave about the kind of supplement they might find in the refuse of a sloppy bear from which they may gain additional sustenance through stealth. I have come to feel less an intruder, more a functional part of the environment. Life goes on around me, gaining from me where it can. Wherever we are we become part of its nature, despite ourselves.
Gem takes a date and hops over me to eat in the space between my legs and the tent wall, his sanctum. He first came to the tent two years ago when he was very young, probably freshly weaned. Of a species famed as opportunists, he entered to forage only when he thought I was asleep. So, I feigned sleep.
A spotted skunk walked in on Gem one night, stomping its feet in threat. Gem jumped over my legs and hunkered down to hide. Seeing that the threat was aimed only at Gem, I blocked the skunk’s approach with a hand. The skunk had long accepted the territory as mine and left while the ringtail peered over my legs. Gem remained behind my legs until dawn. He pressed close as if to a surrogate mother and has trusted me ever since.
Now, Gem will approach me asleep or awake without fear. When there is no food to be found —I make it available only occasionally so animals don’t become dependent— he will curl up on my legs for a brief nap, as he does tonight. Sleep comes as quickly to me.
He is beside me now, standing like a pointer dog with one foot lifted, nose stretched toward the tent flap, tail straight out behind. The end of his tail begins to curl and twitch. A skunk or another ringtail is nearby. Gem evaporates into the night. There is no sound of a scuffle, so the intruder is not another ringtail.
Sal the skunk comes in through the open flap, stomping her feet as she always will when a ringtail is nearby. She is a fraction of Gem’s size and a fraction of the size of the common skunk. She is no bigger than a chipmunk. She has a white spot on her forehead, between short, half-moon, teddy bear ears just visible in her thick fur. Squiggly white lines form concentric patterns on her back and sides. A single spot escapes from the pattern on each side of her rump. She has the slender build and agility of a chipmunk. She even climbs trees. Her tail is a white pompom, a fluffy snowball that billows over her back when she runs in the open. It is held flat behind her in a gesture of trust when she is beside me, except when I take her picture. The high-pitched whistle of the camera flash is so like a spotted skunk’s whistled threat that the tail goes up for each portrait.
There is no scent in the air. Gem has escaped in time. When Gem exits late, he’s forced to jump over Sal who does a handstand under him and soaks his belly fur with noxious scent. With surgical precision, Sal gets not a drop in the tent, but a demoralized Gem will return after she leaves, dragging his damp smelly belly on my bedding.
Sal arrived four years ago, one of many spotted skunks. Most were young and small like Sal, with slight variations in pattern and personality. Sal dominates and sometimes drives off competing brothers and sisters, even the rare adult, with foot-stomping, whistling tirades. With me, Sal is gentle tyrant, taking a date with surgical precision, first sniffing each finger before teeth close on the date and gently tug it away. The skunks had come to know my tent as a safe-haven in their search for crumbs. When they grew so comfortable with me that they’d walk on my chest to sniff at my beard, I offered one an almond and it took it in the same cautious, gentle manner. They are not pets, but I rationalized the rare offering of a nut.
Sal rushed in on an especially cold, winter night during the first year of our acquaintance, as if in a panic from the cold. Finding no crumbs, she paced and then made her threatening stomp toward me. She did a handstand, her back arched as she shifted her weight from forepaw to forepaw. She aimed her hind port —her chemical canon— at my eyes. I briefly considered that compliance would only encourage more extortion, but my options were limited. I put an almond between her handstand supporting forepaws. As soon as she dropped from her offensive pose and took the nut in her teeth, I put my trust in her sense of territorial prerogative and the experience of a dozen prior peaceful encounters, closed my eyes and swept her out of the tent with a cupped hand and back into the cold, night air. No scent was released. Our pecking order was reestablished. I tied the zippers shut —all the spotted skunks could work them— and kept her out for the rest of that night.
Since then, even though she runs the show with the other critters, Sal seems to sense my every mood and act the way I would have her act around me. She seems to know when I feel nervous about what she is doing, like when she searches through my trash or threatens Gem, and she will stop to watch me for a sign of how to proceed. I have a friend who thinks that her horses can read her mind. Around Sal, I understand why.
Sal came in at five one recent Sunday morning, walked down my legs and curled up at my feet to sleep at the foot of the tent. She pressed a nest into a blanket after I got up, and she remained. Fearing no threat, she would probably do the same thing in a rabbit burrow if it were the best nest on the hilltop. She has continued the practice, apparently living in the tent during all the days of my absence. She comes in each Sunday at daybreak to curl up at my feet.
I awaken late this morning to a susurrant chorus of bees. I leave the tent carefully so not to disturb Sal’s sleep. Bees rise in waves from clusters of manzanita flowers as I go to empty my bladder. The female Anna’s hummingbird, her China-doll eyes outlined in white, a blush of red speckling her throat, hovers in my face, a Sunday morning ritual. She, never her mate, has flown to me while I’ve walked, far from the feeder.
The clouds have risen. Later, the male Anna’s will display in the afternoon light. He will fly high, arcing back over the top of a great loop, then swoop down so fast he seems to disappear. He will reappear with a loud, high-pitched chirp at almost the same moment, then hover at the bottom of the loop. I’ve read that the chirp is not vocal, but made with a tail-feather flick at the speed of his descent. Afterward, he will fly from tree to tree in a half-circle around the perimeter of the hilltop. Landing on each highest perch, he will chatter and flare the crimson feathers of his head and throat —a crimson so deep it appears black until ignited by the sun— in a brief, fiery flash.
He was king of this hilltop before I set up camp here. Since then he has brought his mate and three broods of young to the feeder. He competes now with the past two generations of young males for hilltop dominance.
The feeder, a hamster cage water tube with a band of red tape on the tip, will go dry before my return Thursday so the hummingbirds will continue to defend their chosen flowers in neighboring canyons. A female Anna’s will sometimes hover before me in the cave clearing. I wonder if it is this one’s mate, up to remind me that the feeder needs tending.
I reorganize my pack and secure the tent. A night here has cleared the noise and pressure of city streets from my head. The only weariness left in me is from the effort of last night’s climb. The slope ahead is steeper still, but I’ll tackle it an easier pace. I can take as long as I want to cover a short distance and another fifteen hundred feet of elevation. I will wander, trying new routes, adding scenic miles to the trip. Rocks and trees will grow larger the higher I go.
Commuting offers a physical challenge each week. The effort of the climb is magnified by the weight of the pack, the wet rock, the cold wind. There are times even in summer when the effort to stay warm and dry is a major task. But pleasure lies in each success.
I’ll scale one high boulder after another near the crest of the cave ridge. Rockbound arbors, dark and lush, fill the spaces between. Hollows in the black earth of ancient muskeg might hold the imprint of a bear’s heavy body. There will also be signs of fox, bobcat and cougar.
I’ll look for rattlesnakes amid the moss and ferns. There is an aura of calm about an unprovoked rattlesnake. Every movement is deliberate and unhurried, as if a thick root has surfaced in the moss, patterned light and shadow barely moving at all but for the flick of a tongue.
I’ll approach the cave’s roof from the city side and look down on the backs of soaring prairie falcons as I climb the rock. A peregrine passed at eye level last week and stood for a moment, rock steady on a current of air.
There is a depth to the beauty here. My sense of beauty blends with the integrity of this natural world and the place I seek in it. I am not a perfect part, but I hope to move always in that direction. A life needs a direction, and my direction now – to better mesh with the workings of the natural world – places me precisely where I would choose to spend mine.
I adjust the weight of the pack on my shoulders and begin the climb at a pace suited to a man at home, in an environment that becomes less alien every day.