Spirit Coyote

© 2015 By Kathleen Kemsley, never previously published

My friend Margi and I decided to take a winter vacation in Yellowstone this year.  Always in the past I had traveled to tropical climates for vacations in January.  But these trips had been withIMG_0013 my husband, Brian, who passed away last fall.  So I wanted to do something completely different, start a new tradition, break the mold.

I met Margi in Alaska in 1985, and we have remained close all these years.  She’s the kind of friend I might not see for a year or more, and then we sit down at her kitchen table and talk like we had just seen each other yesterday.  She now lives in Helena, Montana, so I traveled there on a cold January day to begin the excursion to the park.

The ground was bare of snow south of Livingston.  We saw plenty of big mammals – elk and bison – near the north entrance to Yellowstone.  The creatures looked well-fed for the time of year.  There appeared to be plenty of grass and shrubs for them to munch on near the IMG_0035Yellowstone River.

We stopped to buy “supplies” in Gardiner.  Translation: chocolate.  Some $27 later we had M&Ms, hand-dipped chocolates, truffles, mint buttons, jelly bellies, almond bark, and caramel turtles enough to hold us for a few days as we ventured into the heart of the Yellowstone wilderness.

We spent the first night at the grand old Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.  In the dining room, I blurted out to our young waiter that I had worked there, doing the same job he was doing, back in 1977 and 1978.  He looked vaguely confused; those years were most likely before he was born.  But I had to tell him, because someone told the same thing to me when I was a waitress.  This old gal said she had worked there in the early 1950s.  And on back the history goes, back to 1938 or so when the place was built.  I liked the continuity.

IMG_0020Our snow coach departed early the next morning for Old Faithful.  The trek took more than five hours, due to planned stops to photograph geysers and waterfalls, along with unplanned stops whenever we saw wildlife (red foxes, bison, and a bald eagle).  We also stopped just before Madison to help pull out a snow mobiler who had run off the road and was precariously balanced on a steep cliff with rushing water and rocks below.

Happy to find deep snow at Old Faithful, we settled into our “rustic cabin” behind the Snow Lodge, then rented some Yaak Trax footgear to fit over our boots.  We tramped all over the Upper Geyser Basin on iced-over boardwalks, pausing to watch gurgling mud pots and bubbling fountains of hot water lined with brightly colored algae.

At one point, I might have put some of my husband’s ashes in a certain hot-spring-fed waterwayIMG_0111 when no one was looking.  Or I might not have.  At any rate, nobody except Margi saw anything, and I trust her to keep mum.  We agreed that Brian would have enjoyed the idea of floating in the current of a warm river on an eight-degree day.

Later on, we sat near the Giant Geyser and talked for a long time about Brian.  Margi knew him well, but she didn’t know what the last few months of his life had been like.  Seeing him through the end stages of terminal illness, including hospice and enough morphine to kill a horse, had been traumatic for me.  I admitted my resentments and talked about my fears.  I also talked about the happy times and the funny things that interspersed with the difficult days of watching the cancer do him in.  As we talked, a small, unnamed geyser bubbled and spurted gently nearby.

Finally, I finished telling what I needed to tell.  As we sat in companionable silence, some IMG_0107movement caught the corner of my eye.  Looking over toward Grand Geyser, I spotted a well-fed, healthy looking coyote.  Without a shred of shyness or fear, he loped directly toward us until he was less than 30 feet away.  For a moment he stopped and looked directly into my eyes.  Reflected back I saw the self-confidence of a creature living in the present.

Purposefully, the coyote moved off toward the Firehole River.  He appeared to be on a mission.  But as he disappeared, he left me with a feeling that Brian’s spirit had also been nearby.  Brian had always felt an affinity with coyotes; he had for many years worn a silver coyote pin on his hat.

I looked at Margi and she smiled, confirming what I had seen.  “That was Brian’s spirit coyote,” she said.  “We can’t know where Brian went when he left his body.  But the coyote came to give you the message that, wherever he is, he’s OK.”

IMG_0048Oh Yellowstone, I thought as I watched Old Faithful Geyser erupt in the distance, you are my favorite place in the whole world.  And you haven’t disappointed me.  You produced Brian’s Spirit Coyote in the snowbound, magical world of the Upper Geyser Basin.  And you helped, more than anything else has helped, to settle me, and to begin the process of acceptance.  You let me know that Brian has successfully moved on to a better place.

To Climb Like an Inca

Copyright © 2007 by Kathleen Kemsley, submitted to a travel writing contest in 2008.  

When the opportunity arose, I seized the chance to spend three weeks travelingPisac4 in the highlands of Peru.  It was not the easiest choice of destinations.  Five years earlier, I had been diagnosed with a nervous disorder that affected my legs, causing numbness, tingling, and weakness.  In the weeks leading up to the departure, I practiced hiking up and down the muddy banks of the Rio Grande River in my hometown.  I wasn’t certain how my legs would work in Peru, but I was willing to try.

I was not the only one of our party to struggle with disability.  My husband, Brian, had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; our friend Jim suffered from post traumatic stress, courtesy of a tour in Vietnam.  In the end we all went anyway, for we would never get any younger or healthier.

But alas, a serious problem arose when we reached the Andean highlands: Brian was unable to catch his breath.  Aspirin didn’t help, nor did coca tea.  What had been diagnosed as mild emphysema at sea level turned into agonal breathing at two miles high. Cusco’s exotic ambiance could not compete with Brian’s urgent need for oxygen.  He had to descend immediately.

Knowing how badly I wanted to experience the Andes, Brian urged me to stay in Cusco with Jim for the rest of the week.  With great relief – and more than a little guilt – I put Brian on a flight to Lima.

Jim, a long-time friend and former neighbor, had previously accompanied us on trips to Toronto, San Francisco, and down the Alaska Highway.  Generally, left to his own devices, he was more likely to look for a place to string his hammock than he was to explore.  Still, hoping for the best, I hopped a rickety bus with him to attend the Pisac market.

Pisac1_0001Thirty miles or so distant from Cusco, Pisac was, six days a week, the picture of peaceful serenity in the Sacred Valley.  Sundays, however, Pisac hosted a market attended by both villagers and tourists from miles around.

This particular Sunday, the last before Lent, offered a special bonus: a Carnaval celebration.  In the Andes highlands, the holiday was welcomed with parades, pageants, and colorful costumes.  Energetic dancers, accompanied by pan flute and drum, performed on a raised stage in the town square.  Bands of kids ran wild through the audience, throwing buckets of water at each other.  The younger kids threw indiscriminately, while the teenage boys slyly aimed their ammunition at the chests of giggling girls.

Jim mumbled something about getting horizontal and disappeared into the crowd.  Restless, I walked up to the Artisans Market.  Booth after booth was piled with stuff: jewelry, leather purses, flutes, tee shirts, wooden toys, sweaters, stuffed animals, paintings, key chains, pottery.   The sheer number of items for sale was overwhelming.

At the end of one of the vendor aisles, my eye was drawn to some verdant green terraces that sloped upward toward the sky.  I followed a muddy path to a trailhead.  Ruinas Pisac, the sign beckoned.  At a stone booth just past the sign, I asked the gatekeeper in my halting Spanish how far away lay the ruins.

“Una hora, cinco kilometres,” he answered.  With a hand he showed me the slope.  “Straight up,” I translated, tilting my head back.

Could I dare even attempt a hike like this?  Leading up to this trip-of-a-lifetime, I had faithfully practiced walking.  Covering two miles each day, never blowing it off, had thus far managed to keep me moving.  But that was on flat ground.  This was something else.  This was a stairway to heaven worthy of Led Zeppelin.

Pisac2From the time I read Secret of the Andes as a child, I had harbored a dream to someday walk these highlands.  Now I gazed at the terraced hillside, hopelessly steep, and decided to follow my heart’s desire in the Sacred Valley and climb.

There was something calming in the simple labor of stepping up each switchback on the mountain.  The past few days I had spent frantic with worry about Brian’s breathing problems, and selfishly fearful that I would miss the Andes experience.  More than anything in Peru, I wanted to do this:  I wanted to climb like an Inca.  A solo hike up the side of a Peruvian mountain might have been a modest goal for a young, healthy traveler.  But for me, this trek was the realization of a lifelong dream.

A curtain of rain and a shard of sunlight moved past me as I ascended.  There was no need to turn and check whether anyone was keeping up with me.  I breathed deeply.  My legs trembled and wobbled like they were made of rubber.  Prickly tingles along my thighs reminded me that I wasn’t used to this kind of a vertical stroll.

A quarter of the way up, I suddenly remembered Jim.  I had not told him where I was going.  But I couldn’t bring myself to forfeit the altitude I had already gained.  Besides, I told myself, he was most likely stretched out on a piece of cardboard behind someone’s craft booth, snoring away.  He probably hadn’t even missed me.

For one afternoon, nobody needed me.  I was completely free.

I kept climbing, up and up.  Flowers of gold and pale lavender bloomed along thePisac3 narrow trail.  A tiny waterfall tumbled over granite.  Wisps of flute music floated up on the wind from the Carnaval dances.  Beyond a steep gully, a shepherdess urged her flock of llamas across an impossibly green terrace that had been constructed in Roman times.  Essential Peru spread before me like a diorama.  The spirit of the Incas accompanied my every step.

The final half mile nearly defeated me.  Struggling up the last few steps, I cleared the top of the mountain and beheld the Pisac Ruins.

Intriguing the ancient rock structures were.  Stunning.  Mysterious.  For an hour I wandered, photographing a canal here and a stone wall there.  The air at the top of the mountain smelled pungent and moist like freshly turned soil.  A handful of people passed me on the trail; I wondered idly where they came from.  Then I rounded a citadel and – just like that Far Side cartoon – spied a parking lot full of busses and taxis.

“There’s a road to get up here!” My laughter sounded like a screech, borne of both exhaustion and exhilaration.  Tourists ambling up from the parking lot detoured wide around me.  I strode past them, gulping the last water from my bottle and singing El Condór Pasa.

Righteous I felt for having reached the ruin in the same way the Incas reached it.  But I was too tired to walk back down the mountain, too.  Fifteen minutes and a five dollar taxi ride later, I was again in the Pisac plaza, reunited with Jim.

“Where were you?” he asked, yawning.  “I thought maybe you caught a bus back to Cusco.”

“I went for a walk.”

Jim took in my wind-burned cheeks, rumpled clothing and unruly curls.  “How far did you go?”

I waved vaguely toward the green terraces above our heads.  “All the way up,” I grinned.  “I climbed like an Inca to the sky.”

Top Five Runs on Foreign Soil

Running every other day — no matter where I am — has allowed me a different perspective on some very interesting places.  Here I’ll share briefly my most interesting runs in this big world.

5.  Coast of Wales.  The paved trail ran smooth and level for five miles from Swansea toIMG_0096 Oystermouth, a.k.a. Mumbles, where the ruins of a 12th century stone castle kept a silent vigil on a hill above the town.  I thought of a Brian-joke while I ran toward the castle: “What do you think the altitude is here?” Ha.  The tide in Swansea Bay was tremendous, advancing and retreating more than 30 feet per cycle.  The trail stayed a few feet above the high tideline, and I had the path to myself until I reached the village of Mumbles.  Then a bunch of tourists appeared wearing overcoats and gloves, and wondering, I’m sure, why was this crazy Yank running the trail in shorts.

4.  Bocas del Toro.  This island paradise off the coast of Panama sat on the IMG_0123Caribbean side, also known as the rainy side.  On day two of our four-day stay on Bocas, I decided that I was waterproof, and so it wouldn’t hurt me to run in the rain.  I set out from our hotel toward the coast, splashing through puddles and enjoying the eye-popping green tropical vegetation along a rural dirt road.  A couple miles along the way, I ran past an abandoned house with a “se vende” (for sale) sign on it.  Immediately my mind took off to imagination-land and I spent the rest of the run fantasizing about opening a women-only bed-and-breakfast hotel in Panama.  By the time I got back I had nearly convinced myself that living in a rainforest in a foreign country might actually be a good idea.

3.  Downtown Bangkok.  I had to start running at 0400 in order to escape the intenseWatArun_buddhas heat, humidity, and crush of humanity of the daylight hours.  At that pre-dawn hour, most of the city slept.  The rats were out in droves, big fat rodents that were unafraid of the passage of a pale, foot-stomping American.  I ran to the central park, a large grassy area in front of the palace, overlooked by golden Buddhas.  There hundreds of homeless people had taken up residence.  They slept in family groups on plastic sheets stretched out under the stars.  I circled the park several times, passing a belching diesel truck that was pumping outhouses.  I leaped over the raw sewage that ran across the sidewalk.  Awful as it was to run past it, I imagined it must have been a thousand times worse to live there.  Suddenly our $20-a-night hostel with clean sheets and a flushing toilet looked pretty good.

2.  Cotswold fog.  Running on the narrow lanes around the village of Stow-on-IMG_0151the-Wold made me feel as if I had stepped back into the time of Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights.  High hedges lined the fields, partially obscuring warm golden stone buildings set back from the road.  A dense fog added to the mystery.  I ran on the right side of the road to face traffic, but realistically there was no shoulder for an easy escape if some crazy British driver were to swerve toward me.  When I found an opening in the hedge I slipped through, to find myself in the midst of a flock of black sheep, who barely stirred at my sweaty presence.  I slipped back out to the road, popped a few blackberries into my mouth, and returned through the fog to the 500 year old hotel where we were staying.

1.  Masai Village. Running in Africa was a challenge, because the wild animalsIMG_0746 roam free, and we humans are not at the top of the food chain.  I became hyper-aware of feeling like prey after being chased by baboons during an early morning run in Amboseli National Park. So when we got to this Masai village a hundred miles out in the bush from Arusha, Tanzania, I had no idea how I could manage to leave the stone-age village to run.  Fortunately one of the Masai warriors volunteered to go with me.  At dawn one morning we pushed open the gate that encircled the village and set out.  He carried a spear and wore flimsy sandals, stealing what I imagined to be scoffing glances at my sports-bra and $100 running shoes.  But politely he didn’t say a word as he jogged effortlessly beside me all the way to the neighboring village and back.  At the end, he wasn’t even breathing hard.  Guarding a middle-aged American jogger was an easy assignment for a Masai warrior, and I felt safe running with him on the veldt.