A few weeks ago, before we moved to our house on the edge of the forest, and one of the last times I pulled into the Maston trailhead parking lot in the dark, I was not surprised to be the only car. Central Oregon doesn’t have as many fans of early morning trail running and now that it is headlamp time, and cold, the number of people out and about pretty much includes me. Even the rooster that lives at the house nearby wasn’t up.
The thermometer on my dashboard said 31, but often it feels 5-10 degrees colder in the lower elevations of that rolling open space with cold air sinking and holding on tight. The dogs and I run as fast as we can through the cold corridors to the next rise.
We have to stick together in the dark. Emma is getting older and there are coyotes around. That morning she was taking an extra long time sniffing each bush and as I waited for her my breath lingered in the air in front of me like smoke, clouding the light beam from my headlamp. It was nearly a full moon, but with thick cloud cover, it was extra dark with only stripes of orange light in the west.
When Emma is inspired she will happily zip around the 6-mile loop, but this morning she was doing her old lady trot and I opted for the short loop, three miles. Halfway around, as we circled an open area in the trees, she stopped and stared away into the darkness. I nudged her a few steps and her head swiveled again to look into the dark. Nudge, stop, stare. Repeat. What is over there little dog? The beam of my light showed trees and sagebrush, no glowing eyes or moving shapes. A few more steps and she stopped again, head swiveling to look. We were moving slowly but suddenly I was sweating. She was spooked. I was spooked.
Mack was not, of course, and he took advantage of the slow pace to wander into the trees and back and forth on the trail. As we finally rounded the meadow and re-entered the trees, Emma relaxed and began moving forward again. When Mack ran off ahead, she came from behind and galloped after him, two sets of paws thundering against the hard packed dirt. I could just make out the trail through the cloud of dust swirling in my light and I started to accelerate after them. And then a third sound echoed their running, right next to me, staggered, thumping, flapping? For a split second, I felt electricity zipper up the sides of my backbone. Birds startled awake flew from the tree next to me, the noise mimicking exactly the footfalls of the hungry coyote I imagined.
There is nothing productive about imagining the worst, about allowing your mind to travel to what might be out there. I needed to keep running, to keep my dogs safe, to keep my wits about me a mere mile from my car and 30 minutes from sunrise. It was only darkness and a crazy old dog that made me wary.
Twilight was just barely lightening the sky as we reached the car. We usually stretch/sniff around the parking lot, but I rushed the dogs into the car. I laughed as I pulled away, with relief, at the fact that I had experienced literal shivers up my spine. The doors locked and we safely escaped both the bogeyman and the fear of the bogeyman. Whether the bogeyman is a coyote, a cougar, or a creep in the woods.