Day #12: Finding My Zen in the Palo Duro Canyon

Running or other strenuous activity done in temperatures greater than 90 degrees can lead to heat stroke, brain damage, or death.

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That’s the sign at the Palo Doro trail head. Next to that: a huge thermometer that read 110 degrees when I arrived on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. I made the decision right then if I was going to run the Canyon, I was going to need to hit the trail by no later than 6 a.m.

I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. on Thursday, and began the long, slow process of waking up. I was trying to time the run so that I wouldn’t be on the trail in the dark, and yet still have enough pre-sun time to make serious headway on the run.

I reached the trail a bit later than I wanted – about 6:15 a.m. – but the sun wasn’t up yet. I hoped to reach The Lighthouse, an amazing dual rock structure that sits about 500 feet above the canyon floor that’s a destination for trail runners.

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Three miles into the Givens, Spicer, & Lowry running trail, you reach a crossroads. I veered right on to the Lighthouse trail. I let out an audible “yawp,” a tradition I’ve adopted on my running routes as I feel my body beginning to pull out of warm-up mode.

Today, the three-mile warm up coincided with my first view of The Lighthouse way off in the distance.

Unfortunately, the trail in this direction isn’t marked very well so the momentum I’d felt as I rumbled towards my destination dissipated relatively quickly as I kept losing the trail. Frankly, I was getting annoyed and I could feel the energy of the run slipping away.

This was made worse when I reached the edge of the formation, a picnic-like area where the trail just ended. There were no signs, no indicators, and the terrain is such that everything and nothing looks like a trail.

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However, there was a dried stream. I decided to climb for it.

This began a harrowing, 500 foot ascent that first took me to the top of a ridge with another bench area, sitting directly in front of The Lighthouse, a structure that towers hundreds of feet above the ground.

(Aside: The Ranger at the park said he’d never seen an image that adequately gives the scope of the structure. Standing in front of the structure, preparing to climb to the top, I had to agree.)

I scrambled up the base of The Lighthouse, jogged across the flat surface between the two rocks, and sidled up a small wrap-around trail that went to the top of the second structure. That’s when my mood began to lighten (although I kept wondering how normal humans would ever get up here, which is why I was annoyed by the lack of trail markings):

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I didn’t stay long on the structure for two reason: the sun was coming and I didn’t want to get stuck in the heat, and I wasn’t sure how long today’s run would be. I’d packed 2-liters of water, but after the Disaster at Double Oaks I didn’t want to risk anything.

Still, it was difficult not to sit down and just look at this:

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Back down I went, though, intent on exploring the Little Wolf Trail, a side-jutting 2-mile circle, before I returns to the trail head. The sun was up, but my run was mostly shaded by the canyon walls to the east. In the shadows, I ran as quickly as I could until the switch off.

By this time, the canyon animals had awoken. Deer gracefully sprinted along side me. (Aside: I am sure of two elements here: they were not actually running with me, and they were much faster than me.)

At one point, a giant porcupine rumbled down the path at me. We both stopped. We stared. My little buddy turned around and ran back up the trail, me right behind him. He eventually turned off, disappearing into the brush as I pushed on.

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Eventually I reached the switch off, turned towards the 2-mile loop, and made haste towards The Beach Box area. It’s a weirdly Zen-like section of the park where runners, hikers, and wanderers are invited to share their thoughts with those who will come after them.

If you look at the full-sized picture (just click on it), you’ll notice there’s a bunch of toys and other pop culture relics hanging from the trees. This is really a post-modern Zen garden.

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My mood, which had been sullied because of the poor trail markings and stops and starts, just changed for good when I reached this place.

I stopped for a moment to collect my thoughts, to remember why I was here, and to let go of my expectations about the run. Enjoy the moment, I kept telling myself. Enjoy being alive. Enjoy the canyon. Enjoy this place.

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I have to remind myself of these things because – like the rest of the human race – I get caught up in the wrong parts of the world. I forget to be grateful for wherever I’m at and whatever I’ve got because that’s where I am and that’s what I have.

Wishing, hoping, and complaining won’t change that.

I walked over to the Box, opened it, flipped open the book, and read the countless pages and notes people had written before me. I smiled, and grabbed one of the pens. I wrote a short piece of advice I’d Tweeted to two young writers yesterday:

Too many tomorrows turns into empty yesterdays. Remember there is no good time. There is only time. So just do it. – Brad King, Muncie, Ind

Reinvigorated (and a little toasty as the temperature had risen to 90 degrees, up from the 72 I’d started at just 90 minutes before), I started the 3 1/2 mile journey back to the trail head.

I didn’t look at the watch, or think about the poor trail markings, or wonder about the future. I just shut everything off, focused on the ground in front of me, smiled, and ran.

Today, as it turns out, is the best today there is.

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This newsletter is the outgrowth of The Downtown Writers Jam podcast. What that means is I will collect information about the authors I interview, book happenings around the Web, and other literary events that I find interesting. Without you, I'm just a crazy guy sitting in his office furiously screaming on the page for no reason.
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