“You need to go, it’s like heaven,” my friend Nell said over the phone. I called her to complain about my allergies, among other whiny subjects. A fellow sufferer, she was sympathetic and, unlike other stuffy heads I know, she offered a temporary solution: the Borrego Trail. Just below the ski basin and above the juniper line, it offers fresh air in idyllic surroundings.
“I bring my books up there and food and just hang out. You can actually breathe,” she said, knowing that for some of us, breathing clearly during March and April in Santa Fe feels like a treat. While I didn’t think I’d set up office under the aspens, I was willing to try anything. The back and forth between sneezing all night and feeling strung-out on meds all day had gotten old.
I’m a light hiker. I brought only a bottle of water and an iPod loaded with podcasts. That morning, I’d chosen one by veteran comedian (and former Albuquerque homeboy) Marc Maron, calledWTF. Maron interviews other comics (and sometimes musicians and actors) from the point of view of a neurotic man in his late 40s; in this one, his interviewee was relatively new comic and former rocker Dean DelRay, who had been in a number of forgettable bands before working with the Rolling Stones on tour. DelRay had a kind of upbeat stoner-storyteller vibe, and I was happy to listen to yarns about life on the road with Mick and Keith.
On the trail, in the dappled light of early morning, my congestion lightened. The deep cloud of a good podcast or book on tape often allows me to experience multi-layered sensory input: I was aware of the sun on my neck, slight pain in my wrist from a recent minor accident and the cool mountain air contouring my face. As I walked in the shade of ponderosa pines, I recalled my allergies every summer in Connecticut. I saw myself in athletic shorts, mowing lawns barefoot with a white handkerchief tucked in the waistband. Instead of aspens and yarrow surrounding me, our thick green lawn was bordered by maple trees and those brutal twin brothers: poison ivy and oak.
Nell was right. About 30 minutes into my hike (or walk, since the gain in elevation is negligible), my allergies had mostly dissipated. My head cleared, and I happily greeted the few hikers I saw. The dogs running ahead of them reminded me of the cats my family kept and my discovery as an adult that, in addition to juniper and grass, I was highly allergic to felines.
My father is the kind of man who believes allergies are “all in your head,” to quote him directly. Every summer, he was convinced that he could talk me out of my red nose and irritated sinuses; every summer, he failed. But on the Borrego, I fell into that deep trance state where everything—running dogs, folks hanging out by the creek, thimbleberry and geranium—seems essential to that moment.
I made my way to where the Borrego meets the Winsor Trail. As DelRay waxed nostalgic about his past, I looked up and saw a large black dog bounding down from the forest. Then my mind registered the size of the animal, its thick fur and the jaunty way it moved. It wasn’t a dog; it was a bear.
My heart tried to punch its way out of my chest as my mind scanned for any knowledge of what to do. As the bear moved across the path, it turned to face me. Should I run? No. Playing dead was just for cartoons. Make noise? Be still?
The bear scampered up the other tree-lined bank, only slower. I started to back away and headed in the other direction. I recalled the documentary Grizzly Man and DelRay’s stories about growing up in Yosemite, where he watched bears tear open cars after visitors left food in the glove box. I quickened my pace, thinking I heard crashing in the woods above me. The bear was tracking me—or so I believed. I grabbed some pebbles and dropped them into my water bottle, which I shook to make a chick-chuck sound. Even though the bear was long gone, I made that noise as I walked back faster than I had come, no longer able to hear anything coming from my iPod or appreciate the spring beauty unfolding before me. When I got home, I called Nell to thank her for her swell advice.
“I saw a bear,” I said. It felt as if I’d been holding my breath for a long time.
“That’s funny,” she said. “I have seen some big tracks up there. I just didn’t know who they belonged to.”
“God, you are so lucky,” she said. “A bear! What good fortune.” She paused, probably imagining her own encounter. “Oh, and how are your allergies?”
“I have no idea,” I said.