Racing the Bird: Where Memories and Trails Collide

Original artwork by Lynn Suyeko Mandziuk.

Usually, when I run, I don’t think about much of anything.  Random thoughts blow up like balloons and suddenly burst, while others begin expanding, most drifting away into the ether of my vacant mind.  Even when I try to think I don’t have much luck.  I can’t make myself concentrate because I’m so often fleeting through the physicality of the act.  Strangely enough, with nothing to do but think, I have no time for deep thought when jogging on the road or trail.

Sometimes, however, passing stimuli triggers a memory, a moment I haven’t thought about in months or years.  It can be a familiar house, the smell of fresh rain clinging to a recently clipped lawn, a beautiful girl I pass at a heightened speed to impress with my herculean jogging prowess.  Tonight, it was a bird.

I was jogging on the trail between the South Platte River and Elitch Gardens Theme Park, near lower downtown Denver.  I like to jog on the worn dirt shoulder of the pavement. Any day now my knees will explode in a crimson and gristle vapor from years of bouldering falls and old single leg takedowns.  Best to steer clear of the cement.

I rounded the bend at the halfway point of my regular route and a couple birds were trotting along through the dust in front of me.  Nearing, one burst into flight and cruised over the trail and into deeper shrubbery.  The other, a dirty brown little guy with gray and black streaks across his wings, just kind of hot-footed along in front of me.  I slowed down a bit.  I wasn’t sure if he wanted to race me, on foot, but I hoped so.  The pudgy softball of a bird wobbled along just in front of my Nikes, his yellow-orange legs thrumming along in beat to the Foo Fighters on my iPod.  He must have kept pace with me for fifteen yards, a remarkable unspindling of time for a lily-livered bird.  Finally, maybe sensing my growing competitiveness, the dark fellow flapped his wings and glided his feathery bulb over the pavement and back to join his lingering mate.  He was the best jogging partner I’ve had in ages.

That bird triggered the strangest memory.  Like an intruder you wake to find staring over the bed after a peaceful sleep, a remembrance shocked my system.  I thought of that night in college in Iowa City when my whole house imbibed in some illegal hallucinogens and went to watch “From Dusk till Dawn” at the local theater.  That was a bad idea, but I won’t go into that.  We came home, had a fake sword fight with kitchen knives, and then peeled off in groups of two or three and kind of wandered into our own dreamscapes, hunting out the surroundings each of us needed.  Places to “even it out.”  Me and another friend went to the bars and chatted with a gaggle of relatively sober friends but had to leave early because the whole place morphed into a funny mirror carnival house.  Too much laughter. Too much everything.

As we walked home we met one roommate sitting on our porch and smoking a cigarette.  It was around midnight, I guess.  We asked him what he and his drug-buddy, who we’ll call J, had gotten up to during the night.  He said they’d gone walking around the neighborhood, talking and generally keeping deviance at bay.  They’d toyed with the idea of going to a friend’s party but decided against it on account of their bubbling brains and misfiring synapses.  Arriving on our block, J had noticed a raven crouching under a conifer, not stirring at all upon their approach.  J had said something like, “Hey man, look at that bird.”  Our buddy had looked and shrugged his shoulders and continued the few paces to the safety of our house.  But the footfalls stopped behind him.

“J, what are you doing?” he had asked.  “That bird is…it’s a bird!  It’s filthy.  Leave it alone.”  But, no.  J had the bird cradled in his arms, gently, petting its jet black crown.

“It’s hurt, man,” J had said, walking towards our porch.  “We gotta take care of it.”

We?  Don’t even think about bringing that thing into our house.”  Like that bird was any worse than a number of our house guests, but again, that’s another story.

“C’mon.  It’s hurt.  I’m gonna nurse it back to health.”

Against his drug-buddy’s best hygienic advice, J scooted past him on the sidewalk and shot indoors and up the stairs to his room, the room with a sign over the door that said “The Chapel.”  I don’t know why he had that sign over his door. I reckon it was better than another roommate who had a “Masterbatorium” sign over his door.

Sitting there in front of us, our roomie shrugged, tapped ash off his cigarette and kind of smiled. “So, I think he’s up in his room with it.  I don’t know.  Fucking bird…”

We went up to J’s room, the door slightly ajar, and entered The Chapel.  J was sitting up on his loft bed, long legs swinging beneath him, a shoe box on his lap with a little black head, beady eyes, orange beak peaking above the cardboard rim.  He gazed at the beast lovingly.

“Look at this!  I found a bird,” he said, presenting us with the box, arms outstretched and nearly touching our chests.  We put our hands in front of us and shook our heads, asking him exactly what he planned on doing with a dirty crow full of lice and parasites and a dozen other insidious maladies.

“I’m gonna nurse it back to health.  I think it has a broken wing.”  Totally earnest and definitely on LSD. We congratulated him on his husbandry skills, inquired about his health care status, and went downstairs to jam on the guitars, as we had a gig the following night.

We woke up the next morning and the bird was gone.  The little shoebox hotel sat atop a trash can in the kitchen.  J had apparently performed some hallucinogen-induced miracle on our avian guest and placed it beneath the pine where he’d found it the previous night.  He offered no news on if it flew away into the sun or simply sat there, stunned by an evening with humans.  J just smiled and pulled out a cigarette and went downstairs to dink around on his drum kit, a tap and bang echoing up the dark stairwell.  I don’t know what ever happened to that bird.  I guess nobody does.

And that’s what I thought about tonight on my jog, racing the little avian blob along the trails of downtown Denver. It’s funny what can sneak into the bouncing mind when thoughtlessly pounding the pavement. Maybe it’s the continual jarring of the head that loosens and oils the agility of memory. Maybe it’s the physicality of running that wipes the slate clean and allows old circuitry to be rewired. Then again, it could have just been a flashback.


Addendum and moral to the story:  J is now a very successful nurse.  Go figure.

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