I went out early to go running. The grass was still damp with dew that did nothing to disguise the drought. Even at 7:30, the sun was already high enough to bounce off my bare shoulders with warmth like a toaster oven. I twisted the ear buds to my iPod into my ears; maybe the sound of someone else's voice, instead of my thoughts, would induce some sort of runner's zen state.
It is never easy to run on the dirt roads at Sandhill — they are uneven and rocky in spots, irritatingly sandy in others. When it's this dry, though, and the passage of tractor and large truck tires have created the state that gives rise to the term washboard roads, it's worse. Maintaining a rhythm is next to impossible. Zig-zagging from one side of the road to the other trying to find the spot least deep in sand takes concentration away from regular breathing. Tiny rust-colored pebbles skid dangerously under the treads of your shoes, leaving you constantly one stride away from a twisted ankle.
I knew all that before I started. And still I went.
The advantage of being out that early, other than the pretty much useless attempt to beat the heat, was getting to see all the animal tracks from the evening and night before. The thin delicate Ys of bird feet had left angled seams all up and down the road, field to field, ditch to ditch. As I came across the first one, not far from the front door, I adjusted my stride to step over it, leaving the line unraveled.
The deer tracks, edges of the heart-shaped depressions indistinct in the fine sand, were thicker and wider. Their depths indicated how fast the animals had been moving and whether they had leapt over the ditch into the road or simply walked out of the field or fire break. Deer are timid creatures and startle easily; their tracks don't always show up in a straight line. It was harder to make sure I didn't land a foot in a spot that obscured one of their steps.
At a low spot in the road I make a quick adjustment to avoid mussing a snake line even as I wondered why a snake would have been moving that early in the day.
I was nearly a mile down the road, tasting salt on my lips and wiping my forehead with the tail of my shirt, before I realized what I was doing — taking great care, at the risk of slipping on a rock or sliding in the sand, to avoid running over the footprints of the animals that had been out before me. It seemed a little silly. But only for a moment.
Animals don't write memoirs or create time capsules. They don't keep journals or make scrapbooks, but they do leave records of their days. Abandoned exoskeletons, shed antlers, empty cocoons. A buck scrape on a pine tree, a dropped feather, a dried nest. Hoof prints, paw prints, claw prints across a sandy road. Each is a story of a life that shared this small piece of earth with me, with us. Is it so much to imagine what that story might be?
I'd been passed by several vehicles — Keith in his truck on the way to PoJo's, a couple of four-wheelers with enough courtesy to slow down and minimize the amount of their dust I would have to breathe, a commercial pick-up — and I realized as I headed back toward Sandhill that all of them had driven over the tracks. The birds'. The deer's. The snake's. Mine.
The stories had been wiped away. The history of our presence in that place on that day was lost. Whatever message might have been written in the road had been erased. There had been no intent, no malice aforethought, not even an awareness of the consequences. And, yet, the result was the same as if there had been.
This earth, these days, these hearts that beat within us are tender. They bear the imprint of the slightest touch. We have no choice but to watch our steps.