Autumn Trails

NOTE: I’ve been editing my forthcoming book Running Toward Stillness (Rocky Mountain Books, 2013) for the last three or four months, but wasn’t comfortable with the ending. Yesterday something happened that helped me find the words to rewrite the final essay. Feedback, as always, is welcome.

* * *

I went for a run yesterday for the first time in six months. I hadn’t run since April. It’s the second time I’ve taken such a hiatus in the last eighteen months and I was beginning to worry that maybe my days of trail running were coming to a close. But yesterday it was a perfect blue-bird day; the aspen’s that cloak the hillsides above my Canmore home were ablaze in yellows and gold, and I’ve been itching to feel the steady rhythm of motion I’ve come to love.

My knees have been in rough shape of late. In April I woke one morning limping and it persisted for weeks. I took a break. I finished the ski season and then rode my mountain bike three or four times a week and learned to see the world at a very different speed. It was a lot of fun, and I got in decent shape, and my knees didn’t hurt as much.

But yesterday the sun and the colours made me throw caution to the wind. I took it slowly, worried that my knees might protest, or my lungs give out or my legs turn to stone. But none of this happened. I glided up the trail like I hadn’t taken six months off, and after an hour and a half of running on the dazzling aspen benchlands, I felt very good indeed. I didn’t care if it was my first run or my last; I wasn’t running for anything but the sheer joy of being in motion on a stunningly beautiful day. I felt once again the sensation of inseparability between myself and the landscape – between myself and everything else in the universe – and didn’t worry if it would ever happen again. It was enough to be alive, in motion and perfect stillness all at once.

I thought about the months when I hadn’t been running as a prolonged period of stillness, even though I’d been riding my bike and walking nearly every day.

Inside of motion there is stillness, and in stillness, motion. The ancient symbol of Taoism is the Tai Chi:  the black and white swirl with a dot of black in the white and a dot of white in the black. These two halves are not opposites coming together, but parts of the same whole, working in harmony.

There is a still point in motion that occurs when the runner, the rider, the walker, moves in a way that is completely free of effort, and in a manner where the barrier between ourselves and nature evaporates. At this moment we touch the perfection of creation and open a door to the mysterious fabric of the universe to reveal itself in us.

Just so, in stillness – meditation – there is motion. The circle of breathing that creates a rhythm also opens the door to a glimpse into the infinite between our cluttered thoughts.

Motion and stillness, working in harmony, can be a portal through which we glimpse the true nature of the universe, and our beautiful place within it.

The sun was setting as I wove my way home, the bright woods breezing past. I felt the familiar cadence of breath, the steady beat of my feet on the leaf strewn path, the rhythmic pulse of heart and blood and bone as I trotted down familiar trails.

Don’t be afraid to stop, I told myself, and don’t be afraid to start again. That’s all this is, a simple rebirth. Every single day.

Review: Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman

The first mystery novel I ever read was Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman (1986, Harper and Row). It was given to me as a going away present by my fellow staffers at Grand Canyon National Park and I read it on the long bus trip back to Las Vegas, and then on the plane back to Canada, in March of 1994.

I loved the book, and the genre, and read everything penned by Hillerman in the following years. Skinwalkers was the seventh book in the Navajo Tribal Police series that was Hillerman’s trademark.

Recently I had the opportunity to go back and re-read Skinwalkers. Tony Hillerman knows how to craft an engaging story without making the mystery too complex. The actual who-dunnit part of the story had just enough ambiguity to keep me guessing, without being impenetrably complex like a PD James novel. Interestingly enough, I had no memory whatsoever of who the killer was; eighteen years had passed since I last read the book and I simply couldn’t recall anything but the most rudimentary elements of the novel.

More importantly, Hillerman knows how to draw interesting characters. Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn are Hillerman’s protagonists, and Skinwalkers brought them together to solve a crime for the second time. These are not complex men, but they are interesting. They have habits that as readers attract us, such as Lt. Leaphorn’s habit of sticking push-pins in giant Indian Country map on his wall to look for patterns in crimes, and Jim Chee’s earnest pursuit of his training as a Navajo shaman.

His characters also have believable and relatable challenges: the death of Leaphorn’s beloved wife and Chee’s chronic misadventures in love. The chemistry between the two police officers – one nearing retirement and one just starting to make his mark on the Navajo Reservation – is compelling.

Between 1970 and 2006, Hillerman wrote eighteen mysteries set on the Navajo reservation, and another dozen books of fiction and non-fiction about the American southwest. Skinwalkers is one of his best, but to be honest, I don’t really recall the plot line to any of them. The last of the eighteen that I read was likely on a plane around the year 2000; that’s what Hillerman’s books were for me: a way to get from Calgary to Toronto or Ottawa while being entertained. Slow reader that I am, it still usually took me less than four hours to read them cover-to-cover.

But individual plots don’t matter much when it comes to Tony Hillerman’s body of work. What matters is the vast impression that the whole collection makes on the reader. The books are as wide as the desert they are set in and tower like the buttes in Monument Valley above everything else in the genre set in the American Southwest. They leave an impression of deep reverence for both the land and its ancient people, and stand as a great introduction to the mystery novel for anybody wanting to enjoy a tightly plotted read.

While Edward Abbey inspired me with his prose and passion for the American Southwest, Tony Hillerman showed me that there was more than one genre that could communicate a love of the deserts, canyon’s and the people who inhabit them. That lead me to write The Slickrock Paradox, the first book in the Red Rock Canyon Mystery series. I have Mr. Hillerman to thank for that.

Tony Hillerman died in October of 2008 at the age of 83. I am grateful for the body of work that he left us.

Read more blog posts talking about the creation of the Red Rock Canyon series here.

Follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault.

Walking after Midnight

My time at Grand Canyon National Park was full of adventure. After a few weeks on the job my supervisor sent me on a week-long trip down the Colorado River. The voyage by oar-powered raft was part of the Glen Canyon Environmental Studies program, measuring the impacts of the Glen Canyon Dam on the downstream environment. The trip was in November and it snowed one day while we were on the water, but despite the frigid conditions it was a tremendous way to experience the Canyon.

I spent much of my free time hiking the Canyon’s many trails, or walking along the rim, searching for a new vantage point from which to watch sunrise or sunset. Beyond a doubt one of the most exciting things I did was to hike into the canyon under a full moon.

I did this three times; the first two sojourns were down the Bright Angel Trail – the canyon’s main thoroughfare on the South Rim – to the Tonto Plateau and then on to Indian Garden and Plateau Point. From there I was able to watch the sun rise over the defile of the Colorado River where it cuts through ancient Vishnu Schist to create the Marble Gorge. That’s a pretty good way to start the day.

For my third moonlight stroll I woke at 2 AM and made my way through the sleeping village to the trail-head and silently dropped below the rim. There is no easy way in or out of the Grand Canyon. Even the popular trails like Bright Angel and the South Kaibab are steep, with precipitous drops. When I was working at Grand Canyon there was little water to be found along the trails, so you carried your own, or you went without. In the summer months that could, and sometimes did, mean you died hiking the canyon. I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach starting this hike: it was so much into the dark unknown.

I started work at Grand Canyon in October, and my first night hikes where during the full moons of that month and November. My third was during the week between Christmas and New Years. The South Rim, though a thousand feet lower than the North Rim, still gets its fare share of snow, so for the first couple of miles I wore my in-step crampons. Unlike those worn for mountaineering, these crampons only cover about a third of the sole of your book, and are perfect for such conditions. The trail was icy, especially near the top where tourists had taken a few tentative steps into the gorge and packed the snow hard. A slip could mean a very rapid decent over cliffs that dropped hundreds of feet straight down.

I adjusted the headlamp on my head as I made my way down a series of steep switchbacks. I wanted to use it as little as possible, but on the upper icy sections it was just too much of a risk. By the time I got to Indian Garden, where there is a Ranger Station, I was able to stow my crampons in my pack and rely on the moon to light my way.

There is a stillness in the Grand Canyon at night that is mesmerizing. The canyon walls glow with a silvery-blue light; the sky, smeared with stars, is hemmed in between these ramparts. In the middle of winter there is also a silence: many of the Canyon’s nocturnal creatures are hibernating. Off in the distance, however, you can always hear the murmur of the Colorado River.

From Indian Graves I struck out on a trail I’d never walked, in daylight or night, that followed the rolling plateau two-thirds of the way into the grotto. This path, unlike so many in the canyon that go straight up and down, followed the rolling contours of the Tonto Plateau. It was here I was able to stride out, marching long at a brisk pace, the moon hovering above like a spotlight.

I recall getting turned around once or twice, but never for long. The hard packed track stood in stark relief against the red sand and scattered vegetation found along the plateau. Most of the way I walked without the aid of my headlamp, confident in my own route finding and comfortable and at home in the canyon environment.

By six in the morning I’d reached the intersection of the South Kaibab Trail and had started the long, grueling climb up three thousand feet of steep, winding trail. That’s about when the sun came up.

Everything stops for sunrise. I sat down on the rocks at Skeleton Point and waited. This is always a time of anticipation at the Grand Canyon. Every single morning I lived there I got up and walked to some random point along the South Rim to wait for the sun before reporting for duty at the Visitor Centre. These mornings, deep in the canyon, were the most precious sunrise experiences I had. Alone with the wheeling ravens and my thoughts, I began to develop a deep appreciation for what makes this place so grand. Its not just what is there: its what is not.

There is nothing that compares, in my experience, to the marvelous space that is the Grand Canyon. Watching the light adorn the Canyon walls in every conceivable shade of red and orange from several thousand feet below the rim that morning, and others, was the highlight of my time there.

After an hour the show was over, for the time being, so I hiked up the trail and at the payphone in the parking lot called my boss and asked for a lift back to the village from Yaki Point.

The second book in the Red Rock Canyon Mystery series is called Black Sun Descending. It’s set, in part, at the Grand Canyon. The Black Sun in question refers to Edward Abbey’s book of that name. On those moon-lit walked through the Grand Canyon I think I imprinted some of what Abbey must have felt when he said this of the place:

“It is an honor to be a visitor in the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, as it is an honor and a privilege to be alive, however briefly, on this marvelous planet we call Earth.”

I worked at Grand Canyon for about four months, and after some circling in the Southwest came back for another week later that winter before heading north to Canada. In that time I began to learn what another famous canyoneer did about the place:

“You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths.”

Major John Wesley Powell wrote that when he, and his half-starved and more-than-half crazed expedition rowed their way through the Grand Canyon in 1869.

I wouldn’t say I ever toiled through its labyrinths, but I spent many joyous days hiking in, and sitting on the rim of that extraordinary spectacle, and when I left it had dug an impression in my head and in my heart as deep and wide as the canyon itself. Telling the stories of Silas Pearson in the Red Rock Canyon series is an excuse to impart some of what I felt while exploring this amazing landscape.

The Slickrock Paradox is now available from fine book sellers near you, and online. You can follow these and other adventures on twitter @stephenlegault.