Duncan - Santa Barbara, California
Entered on August 19, 2008
Age Group: 50 - 65

When we do the same thing on a regular basis, we call it routine. And leave it at that.

I’ve developed a running routine, a rut to hear my ex-training partners tell it. It wasn’t always like this. When I ran with my friends, they would show up wearing watches, heart rate monitors, GPS devices. I’ve got orthotics in my shoes. It wasn’t enough; I was a disgrace to my demographics. I had to bring something, I brought a field guide. I stopped to identify some seasonal wildflower and lost track of where everyone went. They didn’t like to wait.

Now I run alone, the same 7-mile loop through a section of Tuckers Grove, a short respite from cars, car exhaust, car radios, cell phones and the ubiquitous asphalt.

Why haven’t I become bored running the same route day after day, year after year. Maybe it’s because there doesn’t seem to be anything routine about this routine. Tuckers Grove trail, as short as it is, provides a nuanced variety of experiences, with no two days ever the same; as different each day as Coke from Pepsi or a latte from Starbucks versus one from Peets.

The first time I ran this trail, I was guided; the second time, I got lost; the third time, it was part of my daily routine, and has remained so for the past twelve years. Of course, I’ve noticed that my lunch hour has gotten longer over the years. It can’t be that I’m getting slower (though I did misplace my watch); I must be taking a longer shower or eating slower after I run. Yes, that’s it!

The path meanders in an elongated “S” up out of the Kiwanis Meadow, crossing San Antonio Creek twice, from the east to the west and back to the east side before it touches asphalt again, where a moments rest provides a stunning view of the Pacific from south facing Santa Barbara.

First, there’s the flora – starting in groves of oak, heading up to the creek crossings, where sycamore always seem to find their home, sudden pockets of sandstone boulders, as if a bocce ball game involving Shrek had once been interrupted, sharp thistle, wild blackberry and the indomitable Chaparral. Even the shortest day dream can catch you up short as you realize you are quickly passing through multiple climate zones.

And what lives here, a wild area now designated park? High above, the Red-tailed Hawk, a bird of prey I thought had deserted the trees in favor of freeway-hemming telephone poles. Great horned Owls; one year two fledglings roosting in a live oak just above the trail, together, waiting to fly. I looked up at them each day, until I twisted my ankle, then I stopped before looking up, then one day they were gone…for good. Bushtits, crowded together, randomly swarming among the oaks, small but unafraid. And the Roadrunner, a bird that can actually fly, but prefers to run, unless startled by a solitary runner into flying to the top of the nearest tree.

Closer to the ground, squirrels, rabbits and once, just once, a bobcat darting to the edge of the grove and stopping to stare back at me. Anything with claws and sharp teeth, I defer to. That should be routine as well.

Snakes: California Kingsnake, Gopher Snake and the occasional real thing, Rattlesnake; and hiding in the pools of the fluctuating creek, asking only to be left alone, Newts.

Someone places stepping stones at the creek crossings each year – they wash away each winter, or each winter that it actually rains at least. One year, a goldfish had taken up residence in a quiet pool created by the stones – more likely dumped there by someone unused to the stress of pet stewardship. Then I started a new routine – looking for the goldfish when I made the crossing. Miraculously, the fish remained in place throughout the year, through a mild winter, and was still there the following year.

In and out, the creek breathes. When it hasn’t rained in a long time, the creek can go completely dry, holding its breath, only to be reborn in an impassable torrent after a healthy downpour; in and out, water level up and down.

There are years when the creek runs year around and times when it disappears completely during the summer and struggles to return late in the winter, or later, thanks to El Niño. Times when it is so swollen I cannot cross and must turn back and return to the asphalt. The crossing changes with the seasons, rocks are washed in and out. Rain and wind can change the creek bed or block the existing trail and force a detour; suddenly I’m running on an all new trail.

I change like the trail. There are days when my shoes barely touch the ground, and days when they seem stuck in cement, no matter the effort. There are days of twisted ankles, where I turn, head bowed, to hobble back. There are days where I am soaked to the skin with rain, and days where I am soaked with sweat. There are even days when I am injured and look out the window, longing for my routine.

Twenty years ago, my wife and I went to Yosemite in search of what John Muir must have seen when he said, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” The valley was crowded beyond anything I could have imagined. The roads were blocked with cars, horns honking, passengers sweating. We might have been in LA looking at a billboard. We almost left, but we had driven too far and desperately wanted out of the car. We put on our backpacks and headed up Cloud’s Rest trail. We had only hiked in a few miles when we found ourselves alone, isolated; what had inspired John Muir was still there, only maybe a little harder to find.

We don’t often stray very far from the interstate highways we have created for ourselves, or society creates for us, but when we do, Muir’s route into the Universe can still be found. Indulge me if I think my little lunchtime trail run affords me at least a fleeting glimpse of that route.

I’ll be running today at lunch. It’s sunny, but the wind is up. What will that mean to the trail? I’ll soon see. What, after all, could be more varied than a routine?

Now, about my breakfast cereal routine…well, that’s another matter entirely.