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We walk alone, but we walk together

Nobody - not his wife or my husband - understands that when Coz and I walk in the early dawn, we have togetherness, even though we don't take these daily rambles side by side. A comfortable pace for one is not the same for the other. We walk the same path from opposite directions.

I drive to his home. After our greeting, I begin my walk and he takes my car back to my garage and begins his walk. We meet midway.

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Cousins (we're "Coz" to each other), male and female, we've been using the salutation for more than 50 years. His web of life experiences and history is so bound with mine that communication takes place without words.

As I arrive this morning in his driveway, he is waiting. We gesture as one and nod toward the dawn's clouds, admiring the salmon-pink glow over the still-black profile of the California High Sierra. We hear a hoarse squawk. A great blue heron glides across the sky. We smile at the anomaly - the magnificent bird with the raucous voice.

From the car window he says, "Watch for Mister Coyote. I saw him loping up Able Hill behind the tracks yesterday." He drives off; I begin.

The invigorating air clears my mind as I move legs, plant feet, and scan the terrain, alert for anything new to share with Coz. I try to imprint on my mind the picture of clouds above the snow-capped peaks, for I know they will never again appear in this identical configuration. This truth always floods me with wonder.

Grateful for the great ball of warmth and the increasing light it provides, I look deep into field and orchard for a glimpse of a scurrying rabbit, a slothful opossum, or Mister Coyote.

I leave the subdivision's pavement and step onto an abandoned railroad track. My soles crunch on the slag between the rails. I lengthen my stride to land my boots on alternate ties. My "clumping" alerts Old Barker. In the two years I've been walking this way, he has never failed to warn me that he's on duty. He races along the fence that separates his owner's yard from the right-of-way and charges into the corner. He rarely wastes more than three hearty barks on me. I'm glad his fence is in good repair.

The tracks cross an irrigation canal. Its dark banks are a tangle of wild grape vines, willows, and cattails. Here, ties and bed are level, so I don't have to watch my footing, and I gaze up at lavender-pink clouds that bonnet the distant hill.

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Grasshopper sparrows make wake-up talk. Then, a sudden rush of sound, like a blast of wind through fallen leaves, tells me I've alerted the blackbirds to evacuate their condominiums among the reeds. They dart and dip like small black kites against the sky.

The tracks break away from the underbrush. Behind a barbed-wire fence, a meadow pond frames the sky's white- tufted reflection. The beauty is completely lost on the also-mirrored cows, swinging long jaws side to side. A calf bawls for its breakfast.

The rails cross another rural street and heads among dry stalks of candle bush and giant balls of brittle tumbleweed, patiently waiting for spring winds to launch them on merry chases along the fence rows.

Now I turn west on a road that services acres of orange trees. Was that Randy Raccoon among the branches? Then ahead, a long block away, I recognize the familiar form of Coz. The timing of our meeting varies. We cannot know when bird or animal or distant snow crest will demand a pause. I see by the lift of his chin and the trace of a smile that he has something to tell me.

"High Flier has a girlfriend," he announces.

"Up on the pole?"

"Right beside him." Coz puts his left fist against his right to demonstrate. He squints at the sky, "I think they'll wait for you," he teases and starts off, knowing I'll want to hurry on.

"Randy is back in his orange tree," I call over my shoulder.

High Flier is the resident peacock on a property just ahead. In a remarkable feat of flying skill, considering his size and the weight of his elegant tail, he often perches on the highest cross arm of the roadside power pole.

I turn the last corner and shade my eyes, looking up. Our iridescent bird friend and his mate groom for the day, preening sunlight through their feathers. Soon - cock first, then the hen - they open their wings and glide down the bright slide of morning sky to their breakfast. My heart lifts as I add this visual delight to my catalog.

By now the sun is a red ball behind a lace of clouds at the top of our driveway. I'm home again.

My husband looks up from his paper, smiling, and reaches out to give me a hug. He and Coz's wife are not hikers or walkers. What they share is the conviction that no sane person walks at dawn for exercise or any other imaginable reason.

My dear spouse is especially anxious this morning. "If you must do this crazy walking," he says, "why don't you do it together? You'd enjoy the company, and it would be safer."

There's no satisfactory answer. "We are together," I say, "but we share the most when we walk alone."

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