On a mountain trail in West Virginia, I hiked, tired and slow. After a while, I stopped at a turn. I noticed a pair of eyes on me. I pivoted toward them. And I saw the gaze belonged to a stag. It was taller than me by half, at least. Its antlers were wide and pointed. The beast regarded me with a sense of calm evaluation. For a moment, we stared and waited for each other to move. The stag turned and walked on.
And I decided to remember.
I sighed and turned the steering wheel. I'd been working my day job, taking contract work, and teaching college courses. I was returning home later than I wanted from the college gig. When I reached my development only a few yards off route 194, I circled the court. All the spaces were full. I had to park in the row of trade vehicles a block away.
My back hurt from the cramped seat. My eyes hurt from the drive. When I'd started for home, my brain felt fine because teaching is fine, but the commute and the late hour had rendered me foggy. I'd spent part of the drive cursing myself for missing storytime with the kids. Maybe it wasn't too late. Maybe. The harder I worked, though, the more I missed out on time with the kids.
I had writing to do before I slept. There was a lot on my mind. As I parked my car, I glanced up.
A bright, reddish streak filled an inch or two of night sky. Amazingly, the fiery object broke up into three pieces. I knew right then I'd seen a meteor explode as it burned up.
"Wow." For a moment, I turned the motor off and sat. When would that happen again? I had seen hundreds of meteors in the sky as a child and not one of them got close enough to have the vivid red color this one did. None of them were big enough or close enough for me to see their disintegration. The previous ones had all winked out like shooting stars usually do.
I yawned. Already, as I tried to remember the look of the meteor, it was fading. My memory was a blur.
As I hefted my tired body out of the car, I considered how quickly I was forgetting these things that once seemed worthwhile. This time, I was going to lose the memory of a rare event because I was too sleepy and mentally preoccupied.
I stood up straighter. With deliberate care, I woke my body and mind. I turned to face the spot in the sky where I had seen the meteor crack into ruddy streaks of light. I re-woke the memory. I tried to fix it in my mind forever.
The effort sort of worked.
Between my training in awareness and my maintaining the influence of an old friend, Kate, I felt a good and possibly correct difference take place. I sensed my possibility of retaining the memory. My brain was shifting it from short-term to long-term or whatever was going on.
I looked up from my Blackberry. In theory, I was walking to take a break from work. In practice, I was working from my phone on a trail near my office building. The way it often went is I'd answer an email, stroll a few yards between the trees, and notice the prompt of another email. After one of them, I glanced up.
For a moment, I wasn't sure why I felt a difference. I waited in the shadows of the maple and mulberry trees. My gaze moved to a gap between the leaves and the natural wall of bamboo. There, I could see the brightness of the noontime sun on the far shore of the retention pond.
The pond caught rainwater drainage from artificial hillocks created with the office buildings. Even the basements of the buildings were uphill from me, here. So it's possible the pond was required by local flood or drainage standards but the property owners had gone one better and tried to make it into a miniature nature reserve. For sure, someone had stocked the lonely pond. Hidden pipes aerated it like a large, goopy fish tank. A few times, I'd noticed frog eggs on the shores of the green darkness. Geese visited the waterside and made their homes. Ducks did likewise.
A sign warned passers-by not to disturb the ducks. From the tales of office workers around me, though, it might as well have said, don't get attacked by geese. Although they had never bothered me, I sometimes paused to let geese pass or waited for them to understand I wasn't approaching their nest.
Something was odd about the geese, this time. Through my window into the pond, I could see they had all moved to one shore. A glance to the opposite side showed me why.
On the bank where I suspected the drainage designers hid an aerator stood an animal I'd never seen before. It was a bird with light, bluish grey feathers. The head bore a mark like a bandit mask, dark grey or black. When it lifted its neck, the creature looked at least five feet tall.
Its beak was long and pointed. Dangerous. But it didn't have eyes for me. It was focused on the geese. The geese, for their part, formerly the terrorists of the pond, were looking the other way, not even catching the gaze of one another, just strolling back and forth aimlessly as if they couldn't acknowledge this thing had kicked them out of their home.
Later, I found out what it was. For the first time in my life, I had seen a great blue heron.
We'd ridden less than a mile in the Arizona desert. My hand held the reins of my roan horse, Django. I was patting the gelding's neck and paying attention to him. I wanted to ensure we got used to each other early in the day. Django loped carefully between rows of cactus. He didn't want stabbed by them. Neither did I.
Around me, I saw baked, hard ground when I spared my attention to it. I noticed yellow brittlebushes and a few tiny, desert chicory flowers. An Arizonan friend, Carol, rode ahead next to our tour guide. Carol gestured to the herbs and bushes. She knew the names the local life. Among the rocks and tough soil, she pointed out barrel cactus, prickly pear, ocotillo, and saguaro. We passed a pair of mesquite shrubs, stunted and dried out, and a thriving greenstick tree.
"Is that ...?" Our guide turned sideways in her saddle. She squinted against the angle of the sun.
I raised my head. She shielded her eyes and nodded at something not too distant, maybe thirty yards away.
"Is that a coyote?" She leaned to her fellow tour guide. The other girl’s mouth fell open.
As the others followed her line of sight, I did as well and ended up staring at a tall saguaro. I didn’t see what they did, at first. The brown shape lay in the shadow at the base of the big cactus. Its body blended into the dirt and the background of a dry buckhorn cholla.
“Are we okay?” asked the younger girl.
"We'll, we're on horses." The senior guide gave her companion a wry look. In fact, we had passed the coyote by on horseback. We must have come within a dozen yards. It hadn't moved.
The coyote rested in the shade, not quite motionless but not concerned with us either. We would have had to make the horses ride through cactuses to approach.
“Let’s go,” said the guide. She had a schedule to keep.
Some people say a coyote is basically just a dog. In my experience, yes, it is. It's a nice looking dog. Smart. A wild sort of animal but at least right then, it was not very wild looking.
High overhead, dark winged figures shifted back and forth in the sky. Behind them I saw the blue backdrop of a clear, open sky. Occasionally, one of the predatory birds drifted in front of the tall butte of rocks that everyone called the Devils Tower.
We had come to Wyoming by driving from place to place, traveling on the cheap to see what we could. As I glanced up, I was standing in a crossroads of nature trails at the base of Devils Tower. The easy trails were populated by drivers like us who had gotten out to walk. The harder, higher, or more remote trails were nearly empty as far as I could tell, except for one, where a group of mountain climbers was gathering near the base. They had layed out equipment and nylon ropes on the stones.
After I looked up, I found it hard to stop watching the sky. Seven or eight of the birds looked like vultures to me. I'd seen plenty. One of the avian forms, though, looked different from the rest. Its wingspan had a more pointed shape. The sun filtered around the feathery edges differently. Its head was white, I guessed, although it was hard to tell from a couple hundred feet below.
The exceptional bird and the vultures danced in the air. The vultures had numbers on their side but they seemed wary of the stranger among them. After a few minutes, I understood. The other predator flying near the top of the butte was an eagle. The eagle flew differently than any vulture, despite how their wings and bodies were roughly the same size.
My wife beckoned me to follow her across a strand of tumbled rocks. My attention returned to the trail. We followed the path widdershins and uphill. Around a bend, my wife stopped to point.
"Eagles," she said. She gestured to a tall pine tree. I counted nine eagles in the tree and four in the diseased pine next to it. None of them glanced our way.
As I crouched down, I made out the print on the ground more clearly. It lay partly in the summer snow, pebbly and off-white, partly in the layer of grayish mud beneath. This print came from a cat. It was a cat too big to be domestic, not that we were likely to find any of that variety this high up. It was also too small to be a cougar, or so I judged.
We'd gotten here by driving up Blue Mountain in the twilight dark. The journey had turned out to be its own adventure. Diane had grabbed my shoulder along the way as the road narrowed and she caught a glimpse of the path ahead. The mountain pass turned into a roller coaster, the kind of ride that slants toward the ground as if to throw you off. In this case, the slopes of the road led to falls from sheer cliffs. You wouldn't want to be in a car that skidded. There was no rail, no border of any sort, just dirt that dribbled away from the tires and bounced down the slopes into the treetops a hundred feet down.
After a long hour of switchbacks and crumbling gully-filled gravel and dirt, we arrived at the base of the Blue Mountain trails. And then, after a hike to the peak, we found this cat paw print.
"It's pretty big." I rose, hands on my hips, and considered. I turned to Diane. "Is there anything for a cat this size to eat?"
"Squirrels and chipmunks. I saw plenty on the drive up."
So it wasn't a hallucination. It was a bobcat. Of course, I would never see the actual animal. Cats were too clever and quiet. I knelt and touched the edge of the print.
I'm old. Yet it's not hard to feel awe at the most mundane of things. I'm collecting all these natural wonders together into one description because isn't finding our sense of awe somewhat repetitious? Each person, animal, and object around us inspires awe when we think about them.
Aren't these incidents all basically the same?
No. Every awe has its own flavor.
Every moment is different.