Tracking in the desert

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Back of Beyond, the Known Universe, Utah
In the washes, there are sets of four-toed tracks compacting the dust, no longer than a nickel, made sometime before the rain this morning.
I feel the crunch of soil compacting under my show, step after step as I create a new trail across the desert and I feel guilty for all the fun I’m having.
There is a conversation taking place behind me, four people who used to be in my shoes telling each other stories whose words I can’t make out.
Tracking is a lot like journalism. You’re given pieces of information but left to piece them together, decide what’s relevant, and decipher meaning. You start casting a wide net, gathering as much data as you can. You write down anything you can, ask as many questions as you can think of. You get close, get obsessed, caught up in trying to find the story. You try angles, test theories, try to stay unbiased. Not every government project is hiding a larger social problem. Not every track with four toes and the perfect x above the metacarpal pad is a wolf track. You learn from everything imaginable, and your biases guide what you follow and where you choose to go. There are stories etched deep in every landscape if you look hard enough.
Today, following those coyote tracks, I found myself in a trance. It’s almost meditative, the inquisitive silence punctuated by gasps as you look down to see a print so clearly defined you could frame it and sell it as art. I got on all fours, trying out gaits, trying to decipher what I was seeing. I know the names—direct register walk, trot, lope—but I have so little practice picking them out in the sand. I want to be a better student, spend more time drawing and journaling and seeing everything the land has to teach me. But I like what Craig said today—try so hard to pay attention and you miss things. All of our minds wander. I’m no less holy or motivated because Ke$ha is stuck in my head, because I’m spending half of my walk across the canyonlands worrying about civil engineering. And those things that snap me out of my self-centered thoughts, the things that slap me across the face and make me sit up and pay attention—those are the things I want to learn about. And more of the than not, they’re tracks.

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