Fleet of foot, arms pumping,
we run towards the first light,
our cries in the dawn a prayer
opening our internal passages,
all of creation before us—
the slivered, sinking moon,
canyon, cedar, and sage
scenting the desert air,
watched over by eagle and bear,
bobcat and mountain lion.
Our feet pound the sand,
first cold, then warm
as the sun rises, and canyon walls
glow pink and red
where the ancient ones
carved pictures into the rocks
of the canyon where our families
still herd their sheep
and grow corn and melons,
apples and cherries.
We run because our teacher
ran here once in the August monsoon,
as the wind shifted from the southwest
and brought a soft mother rain.
Under a grove of trees, he spooked a herd
of wild horses that took off,
adults closing ranks behind the foals.
Filled with rainy energy,
our teacher caught up with the horses,
and they parted to let him in,
their sweaty flanks rubbing his skin,
as shoulder to shoulder, nostrils flaring,
horses and human ran as one.
They ran for a blink of eternity.
Just short of the canyon mouth,
the horses all stopped,
as if toeing an invisible line,
ears pricking, pointed at him.
He breathed their vital presence
and knew them for the spirits
of the high school runners
he'd nurtured and encouraged,
until his team was destroyed
by school politics and jealousy,
and his runners disbanded.
That is why he created this race
and inspired us to run in it,
as Navajos have always run,
for the blessings of mother earth.
Thirty-four miles through sand and scrub
up a steep path where it's hand over hand
to the canyon rim, along the ridge
and back through red river washes,
past willows and cottonwoods,
arbors of birch and Russian olive.
Deep in the canyon, a black bear
ambles up the sand path, and we dart
into the woods until it's gone.
When the fastest among us start to flag,
a dog appears, an ordinary rez mutt
with brown-and-white fur and intelligent eyes
running beside us to give us strength,
until he disappears on the canyon rim
to reappear hours later when an older runner,
the last straggler, slogging through sand,
emerges through afternoon haze,
the dog keeping pace next to him.
So with the slowest as with the swiftest,
all of us finishing in beauty.
Inspired by Michael Powell, "34 Miles Forward,1000 Years Back," The New York Times, D1, D7, November 13, 2017.