Two friends invited me to go to the Mojave Desert in California, to take a weekend course on tracking animals. I said yes right away, even though it seemed a little harebrained to want to acquire such a skill. My cottage is in the midst of the rainforest. Despite my going there for the last ten summers, I don’t ever remember seeing the tracks of animals. Perhaps I haven’t been paying enough attention.
But the idea of being able to notice things currently invisible to me was appealing. I did hope, however, that the tracks we found were of fairly small, friendly animals.
I have no idea what pleases a tracker, what infuriates a tracker, or what keeps her awake at night. What does a tracker do?
I was going to find out.
We drove east from Los Angeles on a hectic freeway with six lanes of traffic going our direction. As the landscape became rougher, the lanes reduced and the traffic thinned. After three hours, we turned off into the bleak and barren beauty of the desert. We travelled for a few miles along a newly paved one lane highway, black like a robber’s glove, when suddenly the road was broken up and the gouged asphalt overtaken by sand.
The indomitable weather, which seemed so still, was moving in hidden sheets of effort, reclaiming the road.
For some reason it pleased me, this patch of taken-back ground. It seemed to reveal the truth about all our endeavours.
Even in the desert, water grinds stone, drop by drop. To prevail, it only requires time.
On the distant horizon, sunlight reflected off the watery surface of a vast lake. How curious its presence was in the midst of the desert. My friend said, “Wait. You don’t know what you’re seeing.”
As we got closer, the lake became what it was: a dried up bed of white salts.
Starting in the 1880’s, and for decades, mule teams, comprised of twenty animals each, hauled out this borax. Fortunes were made in places named for the difficulty of the endeavour: Death Valley, Funeral Mountain, Furnace Creek, Badwater..…
We eventually arrived at a place of sturdy, ambiguous mystery. It could have been an isolated munitions base. Some signs said “keep out” and others said “keep right.” I didn’t know if we belonged or if we were intruders. The history of the Desert Studies Centre was present in all its layers.
We kept right.
In front of low scattered buildings was what appeared to be a small pond. Having just been tutored by the empty soda lake, I was wary. Yet as we got closer, I saw lily pads.
A few miles back was a salt bed which had been a lake. In front of me, now, a lake which would become a salt bed. It was like a running gag, this dried up lake business; and a great joy, because I think I’m never going to see the same thing twice. Of course, I might be wrong about that.
We pulled in to the parking lot and got out.
A man wearing green army fatigues, the same colour as his jeep, drives up. He consults his clipboard, tells us our room numbers, and informs me that my roommate’s name is Doris. I don’t know Doris.
There are two small beds in my spartan accommodation. I don’t want to sleep in the same room as Doris. I want to be in a fancy hotel and order room service and drink from the mini-bar.
We don’t have plumbing, and by that I mean no sink, toilet, or shower. Nor pictures on the whitewashed walls.
An inner voice says “My dear, your roommate’s name is Doris. And this is where you’ll be, for three days. Think of Pioneer Ranch Camp when you were fourteen. You survived Pioneer Ranch Camp.”
Barely. God help me.
Inside the entrance to our classroom, a table is set with vegetables and dip, water and juice. My fellow students arrive. Everyone wears a hat.
There are twelve of us in the class: four women (myself, my two friends and I assume that’s Doris slouched in a chair in the corner) and eight men. The men, except for one, look like thugs: broad shouldered, beefy, tanned. They scare me. The different one is soft and fleshy; I could touch his cheek and it would keep the mark.
Our teacher, Jimmy, stands at the front of the room. He’s elfin: fine featured, size 5 ½ shoes, short greying hair. He’s the kind of guy who would put his pen in the pocket of his new shirt, with the cap off, and ruin it. And be forgiven by his partner.
As we introduce ourselves, I learn that two of the men had been members of the Los Angeles Police Department drug squad. The older man has a craggy face, deeply lined, as if someone had taken a sculpting knife and done their worst. The younger man is heading to the same facial destiny. They now run a business looking for owners’ lost pets.
The soft-fleshed man, dressed in desert gear purchased from Value Village, is a retired pastor.
Doris teaches autistic children.
I identify myself as a novelist. The drug squad looks alarmed. I add that if a friend points at a rare species of bird in the nearby tree, when I look the bird disappears. “So, there might not be many animals around us this weekend.” What I say is true, but I’m just trying to be clever. And because this seems also to be a course in subtext, I realize I’m saying I have power but it’s a gimped kind of power. I want to see things, and they disappear on me.
In one way or another, everyone has come here because they want something new in their lives.
Our teacher hands each of us a bright yellow 6” ruler, and a sheet of paper with paw marks. I’m particularly fond of the ruler.
Jimmy tells us we will learn a methodology for understanding which animals have been in our environment. “All of this is knowable, as long as you learn it and apply it — as long as you are aware and have focus.” “You have to learn how an animal moves. A coyote never moves like a bobcat.” As I try to picture these animals, I drift off into imagining I’ll be able to tell someone: “there was a red fox right outside your bedroom window all night long.”
Eventually we follow our teacher outside and across the road to the rilled sand-waves in front of a grove of palm trees. Suddenly, Jimmy is no where to be seen. I look for him. He has fallen to the ground, and, on all fours, his head is inches from an animal track. He pulls the yellow ruler out of his pocket, and begins to measure.
The first time this happened it was so endearing I decided I did want to stay for the weekend. I promised myself I would be a gracious roommate for Doris.
“It’s a coyote,” our teacher says. We gather around and stare at what appears to be a smudge mark in the sand. “A track is a window into an otherwise invisible world,” Jimmy says. “You can see how the animal is walking, its mood, its posture, its personality, whether the animal feels safe. Where is it coming from? Where is it going to? I’ll teach you how to assess the age of a track. That’s important. I once found the tracks of a bobcat. They were very fresh. When I looked up, he was staring at me from about 30 feet away.”
When class concluded that first night, I decided to approach the older member of the drug squad, so I wouldn’t be afraid of him.
[To be continued 🐎🐎🐗]