She was built like a hobbit hut.
Squat. Stout. Solidly constructed. Unlikely to tip over, even when besieged by orcs.
Then she bent down to examine something on the path, and as the elastic waistband on her denim shorts stretched to its limits, the outline of her person both shrank and expanded. Her skin was as pale as Dita Von Teese’s soft white underbelly in mid-winter, her brown hair shorter than General MacArthur’s at the peak of his power in the Pacific Theater.
Although she appeared to be nearly fifty, she struck me as someone who would move through life, even in adulthood, under the watchful eye of a guardian.
Yet there was no watchful guardian there on the trail. Hobbit Hut Woman was entirely on her own near the Amity Creek that day, apparently just another hiker out enjoying the gorgeous September sun.
I was out for a run, soaking up that same sun, and as I neared HHW, I tried to gauge whether or not she’d heard me coming. Giving her another second or two to note my presence, I prepared to emit a quiet cough to alert her. Wouldn’t want to affright the nice lady enjoying a lovely afternoon all on her lonesome, now would we?
She was squatting, deeply engrossed in the dry, packed earth. Just as I opened my mouth to give a warning cough, HHW stood up dramatically from her crouch, raised her arms above her head–What was that in her hands? A screwdriver? Ah, an awl!–and plunged the tool into the ground. Then again: she straightened, raised, and plunged, over and over, like Buffy slaying a vampire, if the earth were The Undead.
just as I opened my mouth to alert her–with a warning noise that could potentially save me from an awl to the heart–a bug (smaller than a fly; bigger than a mosquito) flew into my mouth and shellacked its twitching body to the soft, wet wall of my oropharynx.
The moment was a perfect storm, wherein a Human Hobbit Hut was stabbing at, puncturing, the surface of Earth, no doubt striving to reach Middle, and I, citizen runner hoping not to trigger anxiety in an awl-wielding maniac, was tamping down a gag reflex so strong I felt my gall bladder heaving.
In a nanosecond, my priorities became clear:
1) Stifle, lest history’s loudest-ever “HAWWWWWWWKHEEEEECKHEEEEEEKPATUUUUI” startle;
2) Get past The Wild Awler as quickly as possible, affording her a wide berth, and put enough yardage between us that history’s loudest-ever “HAWWWWWWWKHEEEEECKHEEEEEEKPATUUUUI” could come safely tearing out of my mouth. Repeatedly. Followed by some ladylike spitting, genteel hoiking, and polite mouth dabbing.
Lawsy, friends, but the gag reflex is a powerful thing.
Repressing it while simultaneously running quickly as possible past one of the forest’s Special Creatures, well, now, that was a physical challenge akin to being ten centimeters dilated and ready to push but having to fold a load of laundry first.
I tried distracting my gag reflex–recalling the words of a Texan college roommate who advised, referring to a drastically different scenario involving gag-reflex-stifling, that she’d always found helpful a policy of “Close your eyes, and think of flowers.” I tried distracting my brain–thinking about how I never could get through The Hobbit, yet my ten-year-old gobbled up both it and The Lord of the Rings trilogy a couple years ago, so whatever, J.R.R.. I tried distracting my body–forcing it to leap every tree root and muddy patch it came to.
It didn’t work. I couldn’t close my eyes and think of flowers while running on an uneven trail, or I’d trip and fracture my patella. I couldn’t think of The Lord of the Rings because such thoughts would just make me want to give Gandalf a makeover (don’t get me started on that hair). The mud and roots weren’t challenges but, rather, obstacles between me and a satisfying one of these:
All I could do, as I tried to put a reasonable distance between me and HHW so that I could expel my innards, or at least one very small insect corpse, onto the ground, was chant, “A few more feet. Just cover a few more feet. Almost there. Almost far enough away. Almost time to release the hack.”
Ahhh, there it was: a curve in the trail thirty yards away from HHW. Once I rounded it, I could stop, prop my hands onto my knees, get intimate with my uvula, and not fear the jamming of a stabby tool into my clavicle.
All right, then…almost there…just about around the bend…time to give in and let-‘er-rip…
Coming toward me were an off-duty Santa Claus and his Alison Bechdel-ish hiking partner. Even worse, these people were looking to friend up with any random passer-by on the trail. Full of direct eye contact, wallets stuffed with dollars aimed at the Whole Foods Co-op’s tills, and a desire to combat personal body odor by rubbing crystallized mineral salts on their armpits, this couple viewed every walk in the woods as an opportunity to commune with the immensity of existence. Their eyes clapped warmly and intensely upon my purple face, and Off-Duty Santa noted, under his breath, “Well, now, Runner Lady appears to be suffering from a tragic overdose of Blue Gentian ingestion.” His gentle gaze turned even kinder and softer as he contemplated a mid-trail Intervention.
This would, obviously, not have been the right time to scald my vocal chords in an effort to shed a thorax, for these were more Lorax than thorax folk, in truth, the kind who have the word “Unless” emblazoned on their car license plates.
“Beautiful day—the kind of day that could tempt even the strongest soul to lose her willpower and eat a field of trumpet-shaped flowers,” offered Off-Duty Santa mellifluously, gesturing to the bounty of Gaia that filled up our senses as he began his Intervention. To his right, Alison Bechdel stoically bore witness and adjusted her backpack, which presumably held binoculars, a birding guide, and a mason jar of chia seed trail mix.
Unable to speak, and therefore unable to admit I was powerless in the face of my addiction and make amends, I gave them my best fake grin, an affirming nod, and kept my legs churning. Never let it be said I failed to run frantically in the opposite direction the second I saw a helpful Intervention coming my way.
Actually, the “HAWWWWWWWKHEEEEECKHEEEEEEKPATUUUUI,” she was rising, and the last thing I wanted to do was unleash it upon hearts that were already bleeding–especially because, if Santa and Bechdel abandoned the lost cause that was me and kept walking down the trail, they were about to encounter a Human Hobbit Hut vigorously attacking The Earth Mother. There’s only so much trauma dreamcatcher-lovers in North Face jackets can withstand in the space of an hour.
Trust me. I know. Some of my favorite people are lacto-ovo-pescatarians.
Fighting down my gullet, attempting once again to open a reasonable space between imminent yacking noises of insect carcass clearing and the good intentions of friendly question askers–Are you okay? Do you need some water? Should I slap your back? What’s wrong exactly? Do you need a doctor? Can I do anything? Is it still bothering you? Should I call someone? Maybe you should sit down? Now how are you feeling? Are you sure you don’t have a problem when it comes to Blue Gentian and all the rest of this is trumped-up deflection from the true issue?—I focused on rapid foot turnover and finding a companion-free oasis of trail.
Twenty yards; thirty yards; forty yards; out of sight. YES.
I let loose with it: “HAWWWWWWWKHEEEEECKHEEEEEEKPATUUUUI!”
Although the freedom to hack at will was glorious, the bug corpse didn’t surface. It had Become One with The Jocey. There was no other option: it was time to settle into some deliberate swallowing. Willing my stomach to welcome the protein, I frothed mouthfuls of saliva and forced them down my throat.
At some point during this esophageal hysteria, the itch that was the bug diminished to a tickle—most likely because only its wings remained plastered to my glands while the rest of its being descended into acid–and I was able to continue my run, this time with both voice (scratchy) and normal stride (glacial) back in place.
Tra-la-la, and ain’t the sunshine grand? sang my brain.
After a bit, I glanced at the time and decided to turn around and head back to the car–where a refreshing, larynx-restoring beverage would get the chugging of its life. Skirting muddy bits, avoiding horse apples, I looked up to see a fellow runner heading the opposite direction. As many runners do, she raised her hand to give a wave, but, as not many runners do, she raised her arm slowly, robotically, bent to 90 degrees at the elbow. She looked like a cactus propelled by Adidas. Articulating her hand back and forth a couple of times, she then returned the square angle that was her arm down to her side.
Apparently, that’s how we say “Hi” on Planet Cyborg.
Four minutes later, retracing my route, I looked down a straightaway of trail and spied Off-Duty Santa and Impassive Bechdel standing so close together that I feared the birth of their first child 40 weeks hence, save for the fact that they were fully zipped into their hemp clothing and unencumbered by attraction. As they sensed my presence, they stepped apart rapidly, each retreating with suspicious dispatch to opposite sides of the path. Nearing them and actually able to speak this time ‘round, I prepared the type of enthusiastic greeting that would assure them I’d never needed the Twelve Steps for Blue Gentian addiction at all, as I’d merely been purple-faced due to my penchant for opening my mouth at inopportune moments. If my enthusiastic greeting hit the mark, and Santa and Bechdel and I ended up chatting and eventually becoming friends, I would demonstrate this talent again and again throughout the years.
The enthusiastic greeting never found purchase, however, for Santa and Bechdel quite purposefully turned their backs to me as I approached, with Bechdel immersing herself in deep study of the flowing waters of the creek and Santa sticking his nose up and into the needles on a pine tree.
Perhaps they were contemplating their next purchase of Dr. Bragg’s Liquid Aminos, or perhaps they were giving me a good old-fashioned passive-aggressive payback snubbing. It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes with tempeh Reuben eaters.
My feet continued clouting the dry earth step after step as I mused upon the colorful cast of characters populating the trail that sunny afternoon. From pine sniffers to cyborgs to aggressive Hobbit huts, Nature was displaying both its most beautiful autumn colors and its most distinctive oddities.
The thing is: it’s all a matter of perspective. I saw a woman assaulting a trail with a tool; had she noticed, she would have seen a knock-kneed Michelin woman staggering sideways while clutching at her throat. I encountered a puzzling couple loitering without purpose; they encountered an antisocial runner the color of an eggplant. I passed a fellow runner whose body language was robotically bizarre; she passed a weak-looking peer whose eyes crossed and eyebrows furrowed together as she flitted by.
By the time I got to the car, snatching desperately at my water bottle, I knew only one thing for certain: it sure is hard to identify which ones are the queer birds in the forest when, in reality, we all are.