There She Stood on the Edge of Her Feather, Expecting to Fly
First draft written with a vintage Olivetti Lettera 32 Typewriter
Watercolor with the same title – artist: Toni Youngblood
Toni Youngblood – 30 April 2023
Title inspired by the Neil Young and Buffalo Springfield song: “Expecting to Fly”
I pushed hard with my left foot to try and release my right foot from the force holding it. My left foot became stuck, too. Alternating a push with each foot, I continued to try to get loose from the suction. Each foot sank deeper into a substance that felt and looked like chocolate pudding. The sun was on its way down and I was being sucked deeper, ankles, knees, thighs, hips. It was liquefied soil, the most gelatinous mud I had ever encountered, and now I was being pulled into it like quicksand with every move I made.
One of my favorite places to run in the late 1970's and early 1980's was up in the hills above the Stanford University campus. At the summit is the “Dish”, a radio telescope that is visible from areas around Palo Alto. From the vantage point of the summit, you could sometimes see Felt Lake to the west, if it had enough water in it, and the panorama of Menlo Park, the Stanford Campus and Palo Alto. In winter and spring, the hills became lush and green. Summer, they turned golden,
and this is what I think of when California is called the “Golden State”. But for the golden orange poppies which Early Spanish settlers called “copa de oro,” or cup of gold, and the 1848 Gold Rush, California eventually officially got its nickname. Most precipitation occurs in winter between November and March. Summers are dry. Fires are common in the dry summers and can easily begin with lightning strikes or a spark from a car's catalytic converter as the vehicle speeds along the freeway. Vegetation lost during the fire season, often results in unstable soil during the rainy season. Landslides ensue. Two-lane California Scenic Highway 1 has been completely blocked by landslides several times over the years.
Today the Stanford “Dish” area is a popular hiking trail. At the time I enjoyed running along the rambling dirt road there, I seldom saw another person. Cows grazed the grassy hills, often standing frozen in the middle of the road as I approached them. They held their heads down in a menacing pose, staring at me as I got closer, like a bull getting ready to charge. It was intimidating at first to me, but I soon learned as I got closer that they were more afraid of me. They would suddenly jerk up their heads in an “ah ha”, gesture and amble off, giving me the right of way. Other creatures I saw were White-tailed Kites, hovering overhead as they surveyed the tall grass for small rodents. I would see an occasional Great Horned Owl as daylight faded. Their piercing yellow eyes followed me and their necks quickly turned through seemingly impossible positions. While running in the area one early evening, my college boyfriend, Nels who introduced me to this running trail, discovered a dead Barn Owl in the crotch of a tree. He cut off three wing feathers and gave them to me, as I have had a life-long love of birds. He gave the carcass to Nathan Oliveira, an artist and Professor of Studio Art at Stanford University, for whom Nels occasionally stretched canvases. Among other subjects, Nate painted birds of prey. While the sun was still hot in summer, I sometimes saw small rattle snakes sunning themselves across the dirt road.
On the early evening that I found myself stuck in the mud, I was running in the hills near the radar dish and it was winter. On a typical evening after work, I would park my car at the building by the golf driving range on Links Road. I would get out of the car, put one foot on the rear bumper and lean over, touching my head to my knee, then repeat the stretch with the other leg. Ready to run, I jogged westward on Links Road, crossing Junipero Serra Boulevard. On the other side of Junipero Serra, Links Road came to a fork. On the right side was the entrance to the Stanford Golf Course and Pro shop. The fork in the road to the left was abruptly halted by an imposing eight-foot tall chain-link gate. I would make my attack on the gate by jumping at it as high as I could while grabbing onto the chain link with my hands and positioning my feet in it for the lift off. Up over the gate I would throw myself and drop down the other side. Once on land again, I started off running up the winding road surrounded by old trees and natural landscape. I would pass by an unassuming building that housed the National Bureau of Economic Research. On the opposite side of the road, nestled in a curve was the Center For the Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, along with a small caretaker's cottage. At the top of the dead-end road was a four-foot-high fence with a rudimentary ladder going over it. I hopped up the ladder and down the other side where the landscape opened onto a field of tall grass, a few old oak trees here and there. As I knew there were rattlesnakes in the area, I usually sprinted through the tall grass until I reached the open dirt road.
Past the dish, the road ran straight for awhile and then made a series of gentle curves rolling up and down in elevation. Towards the end of my route the road took a sharp hairpin turn and began a steeper drop down hill. Shortly after the turn is where my story begins.
A couple of days before when I ran the route, I noticed a sort of muddy spot in the road, nothing big. Today, I thought nothing more of it as I ran around a barricade set up with a “ROAD CLOSED” sign on it, though those items had not been there on my previous run. “Oh, that's just to let folks that don't come up here often know about the muddy spot”, I thought to myself.
I continued on the trail as I had always done and quickly realized the mud was thicker than it was the last time I ran. By then my right foot was stuck. It was winter and there had been rain. The uphill side of the bank had apparently become saturated by rain water and slid down over the road. It's surprising how unnoticeable it was to the eye. But it was now wetter and thicker. So here I was on a hilltop about three miles out, surrounded by pastures where the only living creatures were cows, birds, rodents and snakes. As I sank deeper into the muck, up to my waist now, I thought “There could be cows submerged below me in this stuff! Perhaps a small maintenance vehicle driving along the trail a day before, had disappeared into this mess!” Suddenly, I felt panic at visualizing what could be my fate. I tried to gain leverage to crawl out. There was nothing solid around me to grasp. I couldn't move my lower body, as the viscous mess held onto me from the waist down. I tried again while at the same time reaching with my arms towards the uphill of the bank. Nearly reclining on my left side with legs still angled down into the mud, I clawed at the earth on the bank for stability. Slowly, bit by bit, fueled by a surge of adrenaline, I eventually had the strength to pull enough of my lower torso out to begin to crawl, as small rocks tumbled into the mud from the bank. With a with a major effort, my legs, then my feet were free.
I rolled over on my bottom, jumped up, stomped my feet to shake off some of the thick mud built up on my running shoes. I squealed, “Yee, ha!”, and took off down the hill, considering my good luck escaping the death grip of the invisible landslide.
To say I ran faster than usual is an understatement. As I was flying down the hill, I saw another runner making his way uphill towards me. He glanced at my lower half, which was covered in dark mud from my waist to my gloppy shoes, and he said, “Oh, you fell!” I nervously barked out “Yeah.”, and kept running without slowing.
My running shoes stood outside my apartment door for a week like sentinels guarding my psyche. As the case with most apartment dwellers, I didn't have access to a hose, and I wasn't keen on the idea of taking my mud-encrusted running shoes into my bathtub to shower them and risk plugging the drain. Every time I left my apartment and returned, I would look at my mud-caked shoes and relive parts of my close encounter. Eventually, my thoughts included the memory of the runner coming up the hill as daylight faded. I recalled there had been no barricade with “ROAD CLOSED” sign to warn anyone taking the uphill approach as he was. In the dark, the mudslide would have been invisible . He wouldn't have known what was ahead of him nor seen it before he ran into it. In my own acute stress response of survival fight and flight, having just self-rescued from a miserable suffocating death, possibly eternally entombed with my bovine sisters, it hadn't occurred to me to warn the uphill runner of the impending danger.
Over the years since my harrowing escapade, from the perspective of my somewhat-more-mature self, I've felt a sense of regret that it had not occurred to me to tell the other runner about the mudslide. I also realized that I was embarrassed to tell what happened to me---I had, in fact ignored the sign and barricade that were put in place to protect people. Some amount of my young know-it-all pride had given me the nudge to go around the barrier, believing it was meant for everyone but me. Hindsight can be a kick in the butt, albeit too late. I hope the runner made it through his course without incident, and that no missing person's report was filed by his family.