It’s a mild day, the sunlight lying easily on the olive green hills that I am preparing to run. For a person from the Midwest whose memories are of green summers and brown winters, the seasons are backward in California: here the winter hills are green, browning like camels under the summer sun.
A flash of jeweled green catches my eye; a split second later it is gone. Returns; disappears. Returns. For a confused second I think of the centerpiece jewel of a crown, and a desperately fleeing queen using shaman’s magic to pierce the membrane of time. If the magic is strong enough, she will tumble through to stand among us, her golden coronet of hair the brightest thing under the winter sky. Where am I, she will ask, and the answer, California, will sound as fantastic and rolling as the landscape itself, a word that stretches up like the giant sequoias, rounds over the mountains, flattening to the sea.
But it is not the green flash of the crown jewel of a desperate queen, it is only the improbably brilliant breast of a humming bird. It suspends itself above the road, rotating first this way, then that within the circle of people who have loosely formed in those few seconds. We watch it quietly, our eyes alight, the buzzing of its wings clearly audible, until it dips in a hasty midair bow and whirs off, leaving us open-mouthed as children in our wonder.
I pass three teenage girls lounging on the roof of an SUV, and suddenly SUVs don’t seem so bad, because perched up there with their awkward arms and legs, their flowing hair flipping this way and that in the breeze, the girls are full-cheeked and juicy as Life and Possibility, itself. Their conversation mars this impression only a little:
“Oh my god, I love to dip my French fries in milkshakes!”
“Oh my god, me too. Especially chocolate!”
“Dude, don’t hack it till you try it. I mean, seriously..”
Running in earnest now, I ascend the first hill, gaining 900 feet in elevation in just under a mile. I propel myself with guitar rock: ACDC “Shook Me All Night Long”, Van Halen “Dance The Night Away”, Bruce “Born To Run”. I sing under my breath, and laugh out loud when I pass a couple and the guy flashes me the rock salute, finger and pinkie extended. Two 50-something women are paused at the false crest, and I read their lips as I pass “You go, girl!”
At the top I pause as always for the view which stretches before me like a set piece from Lord of the Rings: it is utterly calm, no wind, the clouds resting on a bed of blue. The sun is a ball of pure yellow fire hanging low in the sky, the massive becalmed ocean beneath it like a polished mirror that reflects a second ball of fire so that I can only look at it sideways, my eyes watering. A sailboat perches in the middle of the scene; to my right, Diablo broods in the distance.
I wonder who named this place Earth, lamenting that they didn’t give the job to a poet so that we might say we live in the GloriousKingdom Of The SunAndSea.
Looking out at the grassy mountains rolling placidly toward the sea, it is hard to believe that just a week ago and a four hour drive away, I stood in a theatre of trees during an eight foot snowfall getting married. We both cried and laughed during the ceremony, snow crowing our bare heads and melting on our reddened cheeks. Some memories are like a brief kiss directly on the heart.
Running along, I pass two dogs lagging behind their owners, the better to sniff curiously at this thing and that: a pile of horse poop in the center of a trial, a mysterious hole at the edge, the air, me. They give me that acknowledging glance, the one that says yup, another dog lover howyadoin, the one that always makes my heart expand a little with happiness, the one that makes me wonder for the hundredth time if scientists are somewhere studying this example of effortless interspecies communication.
There is romance on the trail, a couple in their 30s, fit and long-legged as colts, walking along with arms linked, talking animatedly. He lifts her up and spins her and they embrace, behind them the sun throwing its final spears of light at the glassy flat surface of the ocean. It is exactly like a Hallmark card, though the song on my iPod (Bruce Springsteen, Brilliant Disguise) reminds me how tricky love can be.
I don’t always listen to music when I run. Sometimes you need to hear the quiet. And of course when you are listening, it is not quiet at all, not really: there is a symphony of sound riding just below the place where we pay attention, from the scurrying of small paws in the brush to the intermittent chirps of the birds, the whispery sound of the unseen wind and the mysterious far off roar of the breakers.
But today is a music day so I carefully check behind me when I get to a steep downhill – trail etiquette demands I share this beautiful space, not run along in a selfish bubble of sound forcing others to avoid me. I see a biker racing toward me at speed and move to the side of the trail. He flashes past, lifting a hand – part thanks for my trail savvy, part salute: to the gorgeous day, the ideal condition of the trail, to our shared physical endeavors under that fantastic sky. He is gone in a flash and cannot possibly see me waving back, though I do.
The biker makes me think of an evening this past holiday; watching a video about professional mountain biking. The riders are young and fearless, their speed on the narrow, cliff-bordered trails beyond daring. They rocket through the landscape protected only by joy and their superhuman, Zen-like reflexes. A pile of nieces and nephews watches with us, oohing and ahhing, and everyone laughs when a particularly precocious boy, just three, stands up in a hilarious demonstration of true Shock and Awe: blue eyes round, mouth agape, hands clutched to his head of curly disheveled hair, he exclaims
“Wow! I can’t do that with my bike!” His locution, babyish but precise, gives the word ‘wow’ an extra syllable: Way-ow!
Spurred by the memory of the bikers, their mysterious grace, I race through the final leg of my eleven mile run and pop out at the trail head. It is getting late, the setting sun splashed across the mountain tops like spilled wine.
On the drive home the husband and I sit sweatily in the front seat chatting; we merge onto the highway and look directly into the face of the largest moon we have ever seen.
Way-ow! shouts the husband and I am startled at this latest example of our happy telepathy, him repeating this moment I have recently smiled over as I raced along the trail through a sentry of trees.
We are still laughing as we drive through the legs of the Golden Gate, that queen of all bridges, and witness the rare spectacle of the sun setting in its own magnificence to our right, while to our left a full moon rises above its own perfectly reflected face in the bay, the sky a Monet masterpiece of pinks and blues.