HomePublicationsThe Tracker MagazineVol 4, No. 1, 1985

The Tracker Magazine - Vol 4 No. 1, 1985

The Numbskull
by Mike Arnot

Tracking is like learning a new language. One feels painfully clumsy for a long time and then, as a reward, momentarily becomes fluent and aware, all a part of the gradual process that leads to fluency. This process requires all the dirt time Tom says it does - just like it is impossible to skimp on learning a foreign language. Tom's courses, although excellent, only open the door and point the way. Groveling in the dirt, reading tracks, remain our responsibility.

In relation to the above, every once in a while I get a clearer picture of how far I've come as a tracker and observer of nature. Late one evening I parked near my favorite haunt with the intention of meandering over to the take. Here in San Diego County it hasn't rained in months and the dirt road and horse trail that lead to the lake are covered with powdery dust. Every morning the road is laced with tracks of coyote, fox, skunk, rabbit, badger, an occasional bobcat, and thousands of insect, rodent and bird tracks. This area is not a wilderness, but open fields, hills covered with chaparral, a lake, an accelerated encroachment of development and a main highway that borders on one side.

Tracks made in dust are incredibly clear and I stopped to examine mine. I was barefoot, and even the individual lines, as in a thumbprint, were very clear. Continuing on, I eyed a roly poly track across the road to where it was chopped short by a fresh truck track. Past the tire track there was no more continuation of roly - "squashed" was my first thought; but then I knelt quickly. There was the bug upside down mired in a sort of one inch, quick sand dust. The truck had missed it by a hair, causing it to flip over, and then it couldn't grab anything firm to upright itself again. Christ! Are you lucky as hell! I flipped the bug over again and watched it for awhile. Insect, rodent, and bird tracks are great indicators of how fresh a track is. On windless days I've seen my feet prints (the lines) remain visible for two days, making it difficult to estimate the age of a single track. Only by following a good portion of the trail does it become apparent how old it is; the amount of crossings by insects, etc. being the best indicator in such a case.

Moving down the road again, I feel the dust puffing through my toes - a gratifying feeling. On top of the tire tracks were minutes old sneaker tracks of a man and off to his left those of a woman and their dog. , "the couple" taking their walk, I noted. Nearly every evening they would take their whirlwind constitutional, always turning around before reaching the lake. I had never seen them before, but would invariably follow their trail to see if they had made it or not. Their tracks are boring because they don't do anything. I always expect tracks to amble all over the place like mine and therefore, be interesting. This type of viewpoint is a trap we fall into. Tom refers to it as "commonplace" - once you've seen common animals, such as rabbit or robin, you don't pay attention anymore because you've seen them all.

This evening, however, I didn't fall into that mode of relating to the world. They had not yet returned and I felt that irresistible curiosity to "meet" them. And as I scanned back and forth from the man's track to the woman's, commonplace gave way to meaning. Here was a classic example of "conversation tracks"! Boring, sterile, straight forward, and non-seeing, to be sure, but with meaning I had always ignored. They were young, married (no romanticism in these tracks!) and having idle conversation while taking their exercise. Measuring the stride of the woman I noted that she was walking faster than her companion. Every few yards her right foot twisted left a little while her left turned in. I felt like I could see them walking, saying something about nothing, with the woman glancing back occasionally at the man, as people do when they talk while walking. Important conversation, such as "I love you," requires a slow pace, stopping altogether at times, to muse the contents. Needless to say, I wasn't sure of any of this, but it somehow just seemed obvious (momentary fluency). There's nothing quite like setting the scene while tracking, and checking to see if you are right or not.

I started off down the road at a slow jog only to stop short and dive into the sagebrush, just before the truck roared by, the occupants returning from the reservoir. I berated my lack of awareness. I like to remain unseen and had been successful but at a cost. I dusted myself off and picked the debris out of my hair. Again the word "commonplace" - we tune out familiar sounds so easily. I didn't care about the tracks being blotted out as I knew right where they were going. Soon after I could hear the couple chattering and the dog tags in the distance. I calmly walked off into some pine goldenbush and sat down waiting for the scene to unfold. Stifling an urge to laugh, I watched the woman round the bend, the man valiantly right behind. Little puffs of dust floated off into the air from their vigorous steps. The dog dipped into a coyote run for a second and snuffled onward. "Hey, it's getting late," she said, jerking her head briefly toward the man. "Uh huh ... see that dog sniff around! He's the best tracker there is - a bloodhound, you know," said the man. "Oh, really ... blah, blah, blab," said the lady.

The trio sailed by in an invisible tunnel not noticing anything; the owl on the telephone, the quail finding their night- spot, the swallows snacking on the abundant gnats in the glow of dusk. Not even my bare tracks in the road ... crap! I stepped out and stood with my toes touching the soft, dusty road, laughing quietly, this time at myself. There were my tracks. So dear that they seemed embedded in the road forever. So clear, in fact, that they said:

Hi!  I'm a NUMBSKULL and I'm hiding in the bushes!!

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