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Prose Poem: The Hiker, The Biker, The Walker & the Juniper Tree

October 12, 2009

The Biker, The Hiker, and the Juniper Tree by Gwendolyn Alley

I walked everywhere when I was pregnant. Fortunately, Flagstaff, Arizona is a good walking town. In winter it’s never really that cold for long. In summer it’s never really too hot and there’s plenty of shade. In spring and fall, it’s windy, but I still walked. I walked a lot before I got pregnant too. And I’ve done a lot of walking since.

Mostly I walked alone. The man I called my husband –even though we’d never bothered to get married– preferred to ride his bike as his primary form of transportation. He worked for the county as a traffic engineer and planner so he thought it was part of his job, to model alternative forms of transportation, to ride his bike and not drive his car, which he left at home for me, except I preferred to walk. He thought walking took too long, was too leisurely, too public.

I didn’t mind. I was pregnant and the people on my path loved my pregnancy as much as I did. They commented frankly and often about my progress, encouraged me.

I didn’t know them by name, but by their gifts. The very short woman who grew the tallest sunflowers in reds and oranges and yellows. The man with the stiff black crewcut who daily shined his red convertible corvair and when a rainstorm surprised us he once gave me a ride home. The red headed boy who loved to swing and always had a treasure to show me—a darkling beetle or a marble or a roll of smartees he was saving to share when his dad got home from work. The young mother of three who passed on clothes and diapers and warnings. The man with the cane and coke bottle glasses who gave me asparagus and eggplant.  The Chinese herbalist who urged me to make placenta tea after the baby was born. The Zuni grandma who handed me warm cornbread or beans wrapped in a fresh tortilla who told me about how her people came from Ribbon Falls in the Grand Canyon.

I wasn’t working much. We’d moved here from Tucson a year ago late summer when my husband was offered this job which paid better than what I was doing: teaching cultural geography part-time at a junior college and showing people in the community how to collect monsoonal rains, grow their own food and flowers.  I would have made more money, had a more viable business plan if I’d just do it for them. But it was important to me that people learn the land, learn to do for themselves.

I was able to get a job teaching one class each semester at Northern Arizona University because one of the women I worked with in Tucson knew someone at the university. But getting clients was taking longer.

The land in Flag is unforgiving for people who want to grow plants that don’t belong there. And that’s what most people want—vegetables, flowers. The soils in most people’s yards are volcanic, rocky, thin, and very acidic, full of tannins from years of pine needle duff.  They didn’t want to mess with keeping compost and worm bins to feed the soil.

But if you choose to plant what wants to grow where it wants to grow, and if you learn to grow the soil, you can find a balance—some vegetation for the birds and the insects, to support the earth, and some plants and flowers to bring in the house and support you.

Since I wasn’t working much, I spent my time learning from the land in our yard, and walking.

Our first winter was mild. But our second winter was fierce. The snow came early and stayed late. High winds knocked out the power. It was cold, very cold. We were Californians who had met in grad school in Reno, and we thought we were prepared for winters in Flagstaff. That winter could be so strong was unexpected.

I still walked because I loved it and he still rode his bike because he was stubborn. I made soups from the carrots and beets and onions I grew and cellared.  I’d had a huge crop of pumpkins as well as butternut squash.  So I walked and made soup and taught one class. And in early February, during the snowstorm of the decade, with the power out and the fire warming us, full of soup, we made a baby.

Somehow, we were surprised by this. I guess we had grown careless. Or maybe we wanted a baby. We were in our mid-thirties, we were still young, and we just hadn’t really talked about it. I’d never been pregnant, didn’t have any accidents when I was running around in my 20s in college, and I wondered, secretly, that maybe I couldn’t get pregnant.

I told him I planned to keep the baby and that was all there was to it. I bought a prenatal yoga video tape, made and drank lots of fresh ginger chai tea, and life went on as it had before. I walked and he rode his bike.

The snow on the ground lasted through April. And then another storm on Mother’s Day dumped a fresh batch.

Walking after a fresh snow, the air so clear and firm, pine needles bruised and crushed from the wind scenting the air–this cleared the fog that often invaded my head, turned my stomach upside down and inside out. As the green plants pushed through the soil, heading for the sun, the baby began to push against my taut belly.
And I kept walking. But now I was walking for two.

The people who I passed took notice, took care.  My students started to whisper but I didn’t say anything to anyone at the university until after I had my contract for the fall. My due date was Halloween. I would leave the classroom right after I gave the midterm and someone else would take over.

My husband decided to take time off before the baby came so we could be together, just he and I. This took the form of long weekends where we could camp in our VW Westfalia, and I could walk and he could mountain bike. Sometimes we would fish.

Arizona is beautiful, more beautiful than people can imagine, even people who live there. One of my favorite places in the world is the Grand Canyon, which people joke is in Flag’s backyard. While the Visitor’s Center is only thirty minutes away from our house, where I liked to go was much farther. There’s a campground on the desert side that I like a lot, but even better, I love the north rim’s pine forests and aspens. My best place is Turoweap way on the western rim, about a two hour drive on gravel off the paved road.  We camp right on the rock right on the rim and listen to rafters holler as they ride down Cataract Canyon. I’d always bring a book or pencils and a sketchpad but usually I’d just gaze off into the middle distance, see the light change, watch the patterns of the small animals, the finches and the golden mantled squirrels, the lizards—the sideblotched, the collared, the horned lizards. I understood why Andy Warhol filmed the Empire State Building for hours on end.

A week before my due date, my husband surprised me with a trip down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon where we would stay at Phantom Ranch for a night or two and then walk back up. I’d always wanted to do this, but we never had. We suspected this would be the last time in a long time before we‘d be alone together.

The fall weather was perfect that morning—cool and crisp on the rim, the aspens all golden yellow cups of sun, frost on the glistening grass. The waxing moon would be almost full that night. After dinner, I planned to walk in the moonlight in the warm evening air listening to the canyon wrens’ cascading calls and the Colorado River’s massive soothing presence.

Walking down the steep trail that pregnant you’d think would be tricky but it wasn’t. I had learned how to be balanced with that baby big inside, and I did a lot of inversions in yoga which kept the swelling down. I had few complaints beyond the typical problems of acid reflux and Braxton-Hicks contractions.

Along the way down we stopped in the shade of one of the last juniper trees we could see and sat down to enjoy the view and relax. I was eating a lot of dried mango and drinking lots of water. There was no hurry. We’d been trying to figure out a name for the baby, and since we didn’t know whether the baby would be a boy or a girl, we had to find a name that would work either way. I liked Fern and Juniper or Juni for short; he liked Emma, Ella, Emily. For a boy he wanted Michael, his father’s name, or David, his best friend’s name;  I wanted Jay or Clark.

A man going up paused with us under the shade of the juniper. He’d been out for a few days and had that glow of someone in his or her element. We talked about some of our favorite places in the canyon and he knew it well—he’d even been to Turoweap. He was about our age and had an interest in anthropology. He knew about the people who had lived here before, so we had a lot to talk about.

Now this is where the story gets a bit personal, a bit messy. When you’re pregnant, you pee a lot. And there are some different kinds of fluids too. Even though I was a week away from my due date, you never know when a baby’s going to come. And when you’ve never had a baby before, or really been close to anyone who had a baby, you just don’t know what to expect at all.

But I was starting to wonder whether maybe I’d lost my mucous plug and whether these weren’t just Braxton-Hicks pre-labor contractions but maybe the real thing.

Now the man I call my husband—he’s not really good with blood and pain. And my sister –she lives a thousand miles away. So I’d asked a friend of mine from town to be my coach and to go to the birthing classes with me. I really liked my midwife and I had a doula lined up as well.  Down there in the canyon, though, no one was near, and I didn’t bring any of my pregnancy books with me either; I didn’t want to carry the extra weight in my daypack.

But it got to the point where I couldn’t fake that I thought everything was normal and okay anymore. My husband became still and the blood left his face at the news that I might be in labor. The news startled the hiker; he didn’t have any experience delivering babies either.

I didn’t think we were that far from Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon at 2500 elevation and a thousand or more feet below us, but the consistency of the contractions and the heat of the day made it impossible for me to travel anywhere. My husband thought it best to go up about 3000 foot in elevation to the Rim. The hiker said he would stay with me. He set up his stove and put some water on to boil. We started timing the contractions until quickly that was obviously unnecessary and we were busy with the next stages of labor.

Some details I remember so clearly—there was a small rock that got between my toes, another one dug into my knee. There was a clump of cactus nearby and I wanted desperately to know what kind of cactus it was and what color it would be in bloom; part of me worried I might thrash into it. I kept wondering if those were condors or ravens or crows overhead, and if that was a bad sign. My sense of smell intensified so that I couldn’t stand my own scent.

My sister had what they call back labor, very painful she said. After nearly four hours of pushing, she delivered her son “sunny-side” up. There was some merconium too which can be a serious problem. So as my contractions became stronger, I had that fear in the back of my mind, weighing down on me. I breathed into that fear, filling it with air like a helium balloon until it lifted off and blew away.

At some point, I had thrown off all my clothes, and my shoes, and I was laboring mostly on some large rocks or holding on to the juniper or a pinyon pine or on the hiker’s sleeping pad. I had to ask him to dig a hole for me after I had some diarrhea and then again when I threw up. It felt like the baby was trying to come out through my anus and I understood why most hospitals give women an enema. These things he did for me he did effortlessly, naturally. He rubbed my perineum with the oil I had brought along. He breathed with me. We were a team.

All of my ideas about my labor, my birth plan–everything that I thought was real–became meaningless. All that mattered was the breath, my breath, our breath, our breathing together through the pain to bring this baby to birth. Between my pack and the hiker’s, we had what we needed to get the job done.

I was worried by one thing—my water hadn’t broken. But since I didn’t know what to do about it, I just labored on. I trusted the process, trusted all the mothers and grandmothers who had gone before me giving birth. And I trusted the hiker.

I breathed in, and imagined myself as Turoweap, as strong and serene as the red rock walls, the baby flowing out between my legs like Ribbon Falls. And then, in that miracle that is birth, I pushed, and I pushed again, and I pushed a third time with everything that I knew and held precious on this earth, and the baby slipped out, still in the bag, looking like a being from another plane of existence. The hiker caught the baby. I think I was holding my breath.

The bag burst and right then and there I named my daughter Juniper after the tree which had invited us to rest, and brought the hiker too, the tree which protected us, sheltered us, shaded us, while I gave birth.

The hiker cut the cord and tied the knot like he did it every day of his life. When I asked him, he gave me a small cube of placenta which I swallowed whole then he made a tea under my direction using juniper berries and pine needles to which we added the placenta; we both drank the warm, earthy broth. The hiker dug a deep hole and we buried the placenta next to the tree.

When I felt ready, we wrapped Baby Juniper in the remnants of the flannel towel he had surrendered, and we slowly, gently climbed up the trail. At the top, we found her dad. I held her out to him and he took the baby into his arms. He looked confused, surprised, but then when he gazed down on her, his face melted.

The hiker who delivered Juniper disappeared then and I never saw or heard from him again. I would have married him had he asked me to go with him before he left.

This happened many years ago. Juniper loves to hear the story of her birth as much as her dad does not. We three—Juniper, the hiker and myself– are still connected by an invisible cord to that tree which she and I try to visit at least once a year. We wonder if one day we will see the hiker again.

Note from Gwendolyn Alley: This incident of a baby being delivered in the Grand Canyon by a stranger while the husband went to the Rim actually happened; I heard the story from a friend who knew the man. It caught my imagination and created the kinds of characters I imagined would experience it. First draft written 10/09/09; this revision dated 12/07/09.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 13, 2009 5:58 pm

    What a wonderful story! I hope someday you reconnect with the hiker. Glad to hear you can find people that are willing and able to assist in such an important time in your life.

  2. October 13, 2009 6:27 pm

    Thanks Ann! But I must point out that it is fiction–this didn’t really happen to me but to someone I know of and I fictionalized it.

  3. October 14, 2009 1:55 am

    I’m so glad I found you again! (I’ve been out of blogland, closed the old blog and opened a new one. Thank goodness Poetry Train brought me to you b/c I don’t have my list of links and I don’t have pregnancy as an excuse.)

    This story brought me back to nature as if I was walking there with “you.” This flows like life’s gifts should, as naturally as the two in love bonding together, using the earth’s gifts, and exploring (walking and riding- love the anchoring of that rhythmic repetition) all the way to you naming her Juniper. I enjoyed this very much!(My old blog was Emerald Eyes and I’m an artist and writer, if that helps jog your memory. )

  4. October 15, 2009 3:08 pm

    It was a pleasure to read it..

    honeyed glow

  5. October 16, 2009 7:55 pm

    This is a good story and a well told story. I enjoyed reading it…
    I like how it builds the bond between the baby and the local nature and people …from the first months of pregnancy to the glorious delivery under the tree

  6. October 20, 2009 4:49 am

    Gel, so glad you found my blog again too! Of course I remember you! I was just wondering what had happened! Welcome back! And very glad you liked the piece!

    Gautami, I know it was long for the Poetry Train but I went for it anyway–I’m happy you found pleasure in it.

    Thanks, Ana–I wanted it to show that bond between the mom and nature and I see how it shows the baby as part of that from early on. Nice observation, thank you.

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