A walk on the wild side

A walk on the wild side

Fergus, Jim

Exercise as it was meant to be

SURE, IN THE ENDLESS and generally losing battle to keep in shape, I’ve tried the health club; I’ve walked the treadmills, climbed the stair machines, ridden the stationary bicycles. But finally, it began to irritate me that despite my most strenuous efforts, none of this fancy equipment ever actually took me anywhere. No matter how fast I walked, climbed, and pedaled, there I still was, right where I started. I don’t know what I expected (the Tour de France, perhaps), and maybe when the clubs get totally virtual, things’ll be more interesting; but all the machines served to do was to make me feel trapped, not to mention really stupid-like a pet hamster running around the wheel in its cage. I mean, how many hours of Live with Regis & Kathy Lee can a person watch on the health club television sets before suffering permanent brain damage? Not only that, but I got so bored on the machines that I started looking around at all those sweaty women pumping away for all they were worth in their body-formed spandex outfits, with their muscled butts and their sports bras with bare midriffs, and out of sheer desperation I’d sort of let my imagination drift, and then before you knew it I’d have to focus on Regis for a while just to be able to walk back to the locker room.

So now I take my exercise as it was meant to be takenoutside. I walk, which is tame enough exercise to be sure, but I walk long, and I walk hard. I walk for miles. I guess you could call this activity “hiking,” which my dictionary defines as: “to go on an extended walk, particularly for pleasure.” But I don’t call it hiking because that term seems to me a bit grand, a bit self-important, and to me implies that the hiker might require some special gear, maybe even a hiking outfit. If a hike is an extended walk, why not just call it walking?

The Walk of Life: Usually I walk with my dogs, often in the mountains around my home in northern Colorado, and sometimes out in the sage flats. If I’m in northern Florida, I walk on the beach. (I have to be careful about this, though, because my male Brittany, Henri, enjoys lifting his leg on people’s beach belongings or on the bait buckets of surf fishermen, thereby claiming them as his own, which makes us distinctly unpopular at the beach. And nothing ruins a good walk faster than getting yelled at.) If I’m at points between, say, traveling around the country in the Airstream during bird season, I can always find a place to walk. Indeed, what is bird hunting besides walking with a gun in hand? And if I’m in a town or a city, I walk the streets or the parks.

The point is, regardless of where I’m doing it, not only do I get plenty of exercise, but there’s also a much better chance of something interesting happening on a walk out of-doors than on a treadmill machine at the health club-and I don’t care what manner of tawdry lowlife is being featured on the Jenny Jones Show.

For example, last year on our walks in Colorado alone, the dogs and I saw, and in some cases had close encounters with, members of the following wildlife species: mule deer, elk, moose, pronghorn antelope, mountain lions, black bears, coyotes, foxes, badgers, skunks, porcupines and raccoons, not to mention dozens of bird species.

In the case of the mountain lion, we were walking a familiar trail in the mountains late one afternoon, coming back downhill through a stretch of dark old-growth forest, when the lion crossed the trail exactly 30 paces ahead of us. It was a mature tom, or so I believe, although it was the first cougar I’d ever seen-a conspicuously large creature, and he saw us just as we spotted him, stopped in the middle of the trail, as did we, turned his head, and stared at us for a long, heartstopping moment. The dogs (the aforementioned Henri, my old yellow Lab, Sweetz, and our mutt, Betty, a dachshundterrier mix) made a halfhearted rush forward, but only for a few steps before they came to a dead stop, as if themselves awed by the sight of this imposing and unfamiliar feline. In fact, I knew ranchers who’d ridden this country regularly for 50 years and had never sighted a mountain lion, and my first emotion, not discounting the rush of adrenaline (talk about the release of beneficial endorphins through strenuous exercise!), was one of enormous good fortune. Then the lion turned his gaze from us as if in disdain, bounded casually across the trail, and disappeared into the timber on the other side.

Now has that ever happened to you at the health club?

Strangely Aggressive: Another time, out in the sage flats in the spring, I spotted an antelope watching us from a hundred yards or so away. There was nothing unusual about this, as we frequently see antelope on our walks, but instead of standing its ground or moving away from us as they generally do, this one, a doe, began to approach us at a brisk trot, got closer and closer, and seemed to be locked on the dogs in a strangely aggressive posture. Our mutt, Betty, who’s about the size of a small carry-on bag and would fit nicely under an airline seat, decided to make a playful feint at the antelope. But when she rushed it, the antelope charged back after her, rather than running away as I would have expected, which caused Betty to have an immediate change of heart about the game. She turned tail and ran for her life, zigzagging like an open-field runner. That’s when the antelope took off in hot pursuit, head down, tongue lolling, striking at my little dog with her hooves. I had to charge the antelope myself, waving my walking stick and hollering at her, before she finally flared away. After the dust had settled, I realized that the doe must have just dropped a fawn, perhaps only minutes before, and, mistaking my dogs for coyotes, she had come after us to divert us from her newborn.

I could go on and on. Like the time we were stalked by a coyote or nearly mixed it up with a cranky badger. Or the time a cow elk crossed the trail ahead of us with a line of 30 calves behind her in single file, as if she were a teacher leading the kids on a school outing. Or the time Sweetz and I got chased by the dog cops in the city, which just goes to prove that exciting adventures can happen on urban walks too. In fact, it occurs to me that maybe walking isn’t such a tame form of exercise after all.

Copyright Hearst Magazines Aug 1999

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