You learn to seize an opportunity when you get to my age, to latch onto it like a puppy on a leg because it may never walk by again. And besides, it’s something to do. I was having a quiet breakfast at a budget motel in Drumheller recently when a group of seniors rushed in like a flock of kindergarten children babbling excitedly about something they were about to do. They were wearing numbers pinned like diapers to their apparel so I suppose I could be forgiven for assuming they were on some form of supervised excursion from the Home, and their numbers were merely assigned for easy identification if they wandered away.
The strange thing, though, was that they were all wearing running shoes and athletic gear and doing stretches while they waited for their toast to burn. Powerful wrinkles rippled silently beneath their yoga pants and I tried not to stare; but it was difficult not to risk quick ocular sorties to identify the source of the crackles and pops that didn’t seem to be coming from their cereal bowls. They all looked so enthusiastic and animated, I wondered for a moment whether they had been pre-medicated with something.
Then one of them, a tall, thin, nervous looking woman with short grey hair sat beside me –by mistake, I imagine, because the rest had clustered together trying to fit themselves around a table so they could shout at each other more efficiently. She was wearing loose black pants, and a disturbingly dissonant neon-green hoodie that almost shouted. She smiled at me, rolled her eyes and poked carefully at a partially filled bowl of raisin bran. As I concentrated politely on trying to thicken an already decadent layer of peanut butter on my freshly toasted bagel, she muttered something. I suppose it was actually a whisper, but she was chewing at the time, so I couldn’t be sure.
“I wish I could do that,” was what it sounded like, but again, I wasn’t certain it was intended for me, so I continued slathering. “I’d feel too logy on the path,” was the addendum.
I didn’t respond, of course, so she tried it again –this time while attempting to dislodge a recalcitrant bran flake from between her teeth. Finally, in desperation, she nudged me with her elbow and spoke slowly and clearly, enunciating each syllable as if I were deaf, foreign, or challenged in some manner.
I smiled and put down my knife under intense scrutiny from the eyes she had sent to forage on the bagel. “I like a little bagel with my peanut butter,” I said, weakly, followed by a brief moment of embarrassment when she didn’t laugh.
“I love peanut butter,” she said, this time in a relatively normal cadence with a reassuring smile, still staring at my bagel. “But the organizers warned us not to eat too much before the race… Something to do with cramps, I think.” She glanced furtively at her friends at the other table. “None of us have ever finished before, but this year, it’s going to be me. I’m going to make it this time!” She sighed and wiped her mouth with a napkin. “Martha you’ll never do it, they keep saying.” She giggled like a teenager. “They only made it as far as the museum themselves last year and waited for me there…” She went suddenly silent and dropped her eyes to the table in front of her.
“And I never arrived… Got a cramp on the first part near the river and told them to go on ahead and I’d join them at the Museum. But it didn’t go away, so I walked back to the starting place and apologized to the race organizers for my failure.”
She seemed so ashamed of the memory, I thought I’d ask her about today’s race. “How far do you need to run this morning?”
Her grin almost split her face in two. “It’s supposed to be a half marathon,” she said excitedly. “We start at the bridge, run along the river path, and then through the badlands to the Royal Tyrrell Museum. We come back the same way.”
Suddenly, as if a switch had been flicked the entire group stood up and pretend-jogged to the door. Martha pushed the cereal bowl away, stretched, and then touched my shoulder. “It starts in about fifteen minutes; wish me well –I’ve been training all year for this…”
I smiled and told her I knew she’d make it this time, and then concentrated on my bagel while she and the group bounced out the door.
The silence following their departure was almost preternatural and although I’d been enjoying it before, I felt like there was now something missing. I’d done all the tourist things –I’d been to the museum; I’d hiked the World Heritage site at the Dinosaur Provincial Park -I’d even trouped around Drumheller in the wind and rain taking pictures of the model dinosaurs sitting coyly on park benches or crouched on lawns in front of restaurants. I’d decided to stay another day, but frankly I was already bored. It was raining again and cold with the wind. I’d already hiked every trail I could find, but in the rain, the mud in the badlands turns, well, bad. I wondered about the path the race was using, though –it couldn’t be over the same material. And if seniors could run it, surely I could at least walk it when the race was finished. They were putting me to shame.
I waited until the early afternoon to be sure everybody would have finished the course, and then simply followed the arrows chalked on the pavement. There were still a few race officials standing around, but I could see they were merely taking down the signs and tidying up. There were even a few of the seniors huddled in a little group, hoods up against the wind. At any rate, nobody made any attempt to discourage me from walking along the route, so I started out, leaning into the roaring wind, excited about having a purpose again.
The first part was rather dull –it skirted the road that led to the museum- and apart from a few motels and a Health Center conveniently near to the course, the only interesting part was the strength of the unfettered prairie wind fanned by a Venturi effect that was roaring down the highway. But the little chalk arrows soon pointed into the relative shelter of the woods by the river, and the cottonwood trees rustled their leaves in encouragement. In fact, they were swaying and creaking so loudly in the wind overhead, it sounded like continuous applause –a standing ovation. I felt protected and hidden in the relative calm on the route below their gesticulating arms; it was only when the path crossed the road again and scraped its way across the badlands that I felt the building fury once more. But the museum was still only an invisibly distant, lonely promise.
The rain started up again as I struggled along one particularly steep part of the trail. All around were striped, pale and dark, layered columns of clay and silt deposited thousands of years ago by endlessly repetitive river floods as the glaciers melted. Tiny linear crevasses streaked down each hill -eerie, parallel testaments to the ambivalence of water: deposition or erosion -nothing lasted here; nothing remained the same. A place of aboriginal myths and superstition, it was as barren and forbidding as legend, wind and passing aeons could beget. Postdiluvian, yet unfamiliar. Incongruous… And as I stood there in the dwindling light, I felt increasingly silly for even attempting the walk in these conditions; abandoned, and chilled by the rain, I was a man struggling alone and forgotten on the surface of a cold, alien planet. A stranger in a strange land…
And then, in the distance made blurry by the sheets of rain, I saw it: a flash of colour that at first I mistook for a light from the still too-distant museum -but there was only one and it soon disappeared behind one of the muddy knolls. Nevertheless, I was tired, not curious, and decided to turn around, even though I knew I was far from my goal. There seemed no sense in continuing further in the growing storm -no reward to be gained; no one even knew -or cared- that I had ventured this far on foot.
I turned my back to the wind and tightened the thin, flapping Gortex hood. I don’t know how long I stood there feeling sorry for myself, but all of a sudden I thought I heard a cough behind me.
“I’m gonna make it this time,” a thin, exhausted voice yelled over the wind and through the rain beating staccato on my hood. “My friends have already dropped out, so I phoned them and told them to meet me at the starting place.”
I felt a hand on my shoulder as I spun around and saw a grin on the familiar, hooded face. “Didn’t I tell you I’d make it this time…?”