Spenceville Wildlife Refuge is a divine expanse of golden-haired hills where ancient oaks erupt like massive mushrooms. The Refuge is adjacent to Beale Air Force Base in the lower Sierra foothills. I like to run there, but only when I’m nearby on business, because the Refuge takes some getting to, and I feel guilty spending so much gasoline driving all the way out Waldo Road, my jump off point. Not guilty enough, however, to prevent me from enjoying, a few times each year, its grace and beauty.
If you want to run the Spenceville trails, you have to know when to go. At dangerous times of the year, from September 1 to January 31, the Refuge is intensely hunted. Deer, turkey, water fowl, and pigs. During the Fall it sounds like Omaha Beach on D Day. Better you should go running there when it calms down in the Spring. The paintball crowd also likes to stage their own brand of mayhem out among the oaks. They’re kind of lazy, and kind of drunk, so they mostly stay within a mile of their vehicles. I am through their war zone in less than 10 minutes. They hide their smirks from me, and I don’t let them see how I roll my eyes at them. Then, paintballers eat my dust, the Refuge is all mine.
Well, it’s mine . . . and the cows. There are a gazillion free-range, pasture grazed, grass-fed cows wandering around everywhere. I think the local ranchers traded trail easements for grazing rights throughout the preserve. It seems to work. The cows ignore me even when I say nice things to them.
Today I parked out at the end of Waldo Road, by the old bridge, and began my run about four o’clock. It had been one of those irksome, arrhythmic work days, and, baby, I wanted some time alone. Solitude, quietude, and anonymity; three of the attributes I need for a contented life.
Solitude, quietude, and anonymity.
There were two other cars parked near the bridge, but I soon intercepted both parties on their way back in. The second group, a young couple, were chaperoned by a dignified short-haired pointer. We were happy to make each other’s acquaintance, me and the dog, I mean. Very polite he was. Maybe I should get a short-haired pointer? Just a thought. Leaving the dog and his people behind, I turned on the afterburner and began to feel the buzz that rises in me when I know I am finally running alone and in the wilderness. The Refuge belonged to me, to me alone. Oh yes, and the cows. Lots and lots of cows.
After a mile along the service road that winds through the hills, I turned through a cattle gate and entered an area of sun-lit, cattle-daubed pastures. Another mile, and I followed the path as it broke left and wandered upward into scrub forest and rock outcroppings. Before too long, I could hear the distant roar of the Falls. On maps they are usually labeled “Feather Falls,” but the old timers still call them “Fairy Falls,” and they are referring to the little forest spirit fairies, not some other kind. The Falls, by any name, are one of the secret treasures of the Sierra Foothills. They ain’t Moseoatunya, the Smoke That Thunders, but they’re still dramatic enough to catch you by surprise.
Fairy Falls is one of my favorite places on this earth.
At the bottom of the Falls is a gorgeous deep pool, just the right size for cooling off in the summer. Both Falls and pool are fenced, so you really oughtn’t climb the fence, but if you should happen to climb the fence, and I’m not suggesting this, you would then face a rather dicey climb down the rocks, and you probably oughtn’t try that either, but if you did, just saying, if you did, and it was a hot day in July, you might find some weathered old runner down there skinny dipping. You have been warned.
Continuing along the path above the Falls, you will come to a place where you can cross the creek. You’ll recognize the crossing by the remnants of steel cables that still swoop from one embankment to another. Now, you have to make a decision. You can turn around and go back the same way you came, a round trip run of about six and a half miles, mostly down hill on the return, or you can take your shoes off, sling them around your neck and wade across the creek. When the water is high and fast in the Spring, try not to slip. If you do reach the other side, put your shoes back on, take a breath and attack the forty-five degree upslope right in front of you. Yes, it does look like something out of a movie. Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, perhaps. If you do make it to the top, you can run around for a while until you get hopelessly lost. So, unless you take me along to show you the twists and turns to loop back to the bridge, you could be in for a long, thirsty afternoon. Maybe you should exercise the first option, and just return the way you came. Capiche?
That’s what I did today, chickened out, turned around, and headed back the way I came. Oh, don’t give me any attitude. That section of trail across the creek is tough. Someday I’ll take you out there, and we’ll see just what happens to your attitude.
When I ran down and out of the scrub and rocks, I discovered that the cows had deserted the pastures. I could hear them for a while, faintly in the distance, giving udderance to their sundown moos. (Udderance, c’mon wake up!) Now, it became profoundly silent. Even my footfall on the soft dirt trail was muted. Glorious, late sunshine still warmed the open pastures, crisscrossed with indigo gullies that foreshadowed the evening’s arrival.
There! There in a patch of sunlight, I saw him watching me.
Old Man Coyote.
About a hundred feet away, he stood, getting along in years, but still fell and fearless. Handsome old devil. He turned his back on me and trotted off, but just a few steps. He had a thought. You could almost see that thought as he stopped and cocked his head. He turned around, facing me, and sat down on his haunches, watching. This was his place, and he wasn’t planning to skedaddle for the like of me.
I kept running, watching him, watching me. The curve of my path took me closer to him, but I didn’t stop.
“Buenos Dias, Senor Coyote.”
He didn’t move, not a blink.
I was now as close to him as my path was going to take me, passing right in front of him.
“Ey, Ese! Que paso!”
For some reason still unknown to me, I began to play the idiot. I jumped and bounced my way down the path, yipping and barking in my best Coyotese.
I tried a few howls.
“I am your brother the WOOOOOOOOLLLLLF!”
That got me one twitch, of one ear. Only one. Other than that twitch, he was frozen, watching me make a fool of myself. I was laughing now, laughing aloud. The distance between us slowly increased, the path reached a clump of brush, I turned a corner, and then, he was gone from sight, never having moved. He had held his ground.
I loved him for that. Loved him beyond expression in words.
A few more minutes of delirious running and I was back to the truck. Running into that coyote was the coolest thing that happened to me all week. Probably it doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, just two old dogs sniffing each other, out in the Spenceville Wildlife Refuge.
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