This morning I went for a run up in the foothills of the Bitterroots above Hamilton, up toward Blodgett Canyon. It was a gray morning, with wet clouds hanging low over the mountains, and occasional droplets that misted against my face. Snow lined the road in slushy strips. I ran past paw prints, grouse tracks like little dinosaurs, and some sort of small pattering animal prints that skittered around on the shoulder before darting off into the woods. I saw bigger prints, obscured by melting snow. I imagined a mountain lion pacing along the road at dawn when the snow was fresh several days earlier. The jagged rock slabs of the canyon above me slid into the mist.
When I ran back toward my friends’ home, the neighbors were burning piles of brush beside the road. The flames leapt up at the sky and I caught a whiff of the smoke, sharp and pine sweet. All of a sudden, with that remarkable transporting mechanism that scent works on our brains, I was in Cairo, in a Coptic church, watching the priest walk up the aisle in his rounded hat, incense thick in the air. I was in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, I was in the tiny Palestinian Roman Catholic church in the village, and the priests walked through the high dim stone buildings, twirling incensors back and forth, walking through fragrant puffs of white smoke.
The wood smoke I ran through gave me a similar feeling, of being somewhere holy. But absent was the sense that I had to be proper, or exhibit the right amount of piety or reverence. Out there I could leap in the air like a leggy colt if the spirit moved me, and no one would care. Out there it was just me in my mismatched running clothes and the old guy in the rubber boots who tossed branches on the flames. The deer stood looking at me from the meadows, and I could feel the eyes of small animals and birds hidden away in the shrubs as I passed. The trees arched over the dirt road, creating an airy sanctuary. Small streams ran clear with a bright sound.
I didn’t feel the exclusion that I sometimes felt in human holy places, that I didn’t belong, that I didn’t understand the rites or the language or the belief behind each precise choreographed movement. Instead, I felt that in my limited human way, I could partake in this place. I felt a kinship with the man I saw moving through the latticed brushwork as he tended the fire. The careful way he tossed armfuls of branches into the flames. The quiet morning, the gentle crackle of twigs in the fire. This was his place, and he was a part of it, the wood smoke and the wild turkeys and the tangled undergrowth.
I ran on past him. The rain was on my face, the smoke perfumed my hair. I was just another animal leaving its tracks in the snow.