Because of the new outdoor gym equipment at and because I can save gas by walking there for my workout, I hadn’t been back to the half-mile track on Hazeltine (just a short jog north of TJ’s) that used to be my favorite place to power walk and people watch.
It’s a bigger park than Beeman and it changes its “face” almost daily. You’ve got Little and “Big” leaguers playing baseball, grown men playing weekend soccer as families grill their lunch while they cheer, physical trainers “boot camping” their clients on the grass, semi-annual carnivals with rides for the kids, toddlers playing in the sandbox watched by their parents or nannies, and the ever-changing array of joggers, power walkers, and mommies pushing strollers.
Like Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries detective, Kinsey Millhone, I power walk to burn off food. For me it’s the Cheez-Its I eat late at night while watching Charlie Rose interview people I would love to know… she jogs to burn off her Big Macs (maybe Grafton’s first book should have been “A Is For Appetite).
It doesn’t matter that Kinsey’s a fictional detective who solves mysteries and I’m a real person who reads them, I relate. We both love junk food and we both get “high” from our morning jaunts. Of course, her jaunt is a three-mile run around the streets of her picturesque California town that’s exhilarating and meditative. My jaunt is a three-mile “power” walk around a California dirt track that’s neither exhilarating nor meditative. But my town is picturesque.
And like Kinsey, I observe people.
While in my power walking “zone,” I became familiar with many of the faces … a swarthy (I love that word), compact, middle-aged man, who listened to his iPod and nodded when he passed me on the track; a rugged looking guy about forty in jeans and cowboy boots who walked and talked with a coiffed blonde dressed more for shopping than working up a sweat; plus assorted elderly people who walked in pairs and those new moms who ran as they pushed their infants in carriages trying to lose their last five pounds of “baby” fat before it turned into ten pounds of “toddler” fat. This was my crowd. Even Alec Baldwin jogged there when in town…
And then there was the mysterious woman known from here on out as the lady in the park.
The first time I noticed her she was climbing out of an old Chevy van parked in the track’s adjoining parking lot. Dressed in matching beige cotton sweats, she slid open the van’s side door, pulled out a folding “beach” chair and sat herself down… right on the track. As I breezed by her, I saw she had also taken out a cooler and a fishing rod. It was a lovely day, so I figured she had come to the park to picnic. I didn’t think she was going fishing. And, I didn’t question why she hadn’t carried her chair the short distance to the grassy knoll that actually offered picnic tables… I just figured she liked to be surrounded by the “action.”
The next morning the lady showed up again, this time wearing powder blue sweats. As I ramped up my heart rate during my first half-mile, she placed her chair under a tree on the edge of the track and sat contentedly doing nothing. She smiled at no one as I whisked by and wondered if her long, straight platinum hair was her own (the hair, not the color). By the time I finished my second lap, she had moved her chair into the sun.
Six minutes and thirty seconds later as I approached her again, she was standing by her van, the doors wide open, and I could see that it was filled to the brim with “stuff.” It looked like those vans “open for business” at flea markets.
She came to the track every morning from then on, each day with a different color sweat suit. My personal favorite was pink. Not light pink or dark rose, but pinky pink bubblegum pink. While I marveled at the color and wondered why anyone her age would wear so much of it, I began to really wonder who the lady in the park was. Like Kinsey, I ran through my mind what I knew. She appeared to be around forty, she had an array of colorful sweats, she was probably blonde, drove a van that was about ten years old and she was clean.
Unlike everyone else at the park moving in circles to keep fit, the lady in the park just sat. During my thirty-minute walk, she often moved her beach chair from under the trees to alongside her van, then back again. She did nothing else of note, except fill her water bottle from a nearby fountain from time to time.
At first I thought the lady might live in her van… a Valley bag lady... but I couldn’t figure out how she kept so immaculate. Where does she wash her hair (or wig)? Where does she do her laundry? How does she pay for gas?
Nope, she wasn’t a bag lady. This was an Immaculate Deception. I decided she was an undercover cop surveying the park for gang bangers, terrorists or possibly just litter-ers. Or maybe she was a P. I., keeping a clandestine eye on Mr. Cowboy Boots. I mean really, not even Texans would walk around a track over and over again in cowboy boots. OK, maybe they would.
Would Kinsey sit day after day in plain sight watching her prey? Would she disguise herself in pastel sweats and a blonde wig? Wouldn’t she at least read a book as she sat vigil?
It’s been a couple of years since I walked the walk on the Hazeltine track. I missed my crowd and I missed my lady in the park. So, I drove over there last week to check in with everyone. I recognized a few of the ol’ regulars, but my lady wasn’t there. I’ve been going back almost every morning since, but the lady in the park has vanished. I hope she’s all right.
I often thought of talking to her, but as I watched her watching me and my crowd back then, I decided I really didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to know if she was homeless or if she came to the track to escape her life. I wanted to believe she was a lady of mystery whose life was filled with many friends and loved ones… and that’s when I understood that I’m really not like Kinsey Millhone. Kinsey’s a fictional character who lives in the real world. Me? I’m a real person happiest in my fictional one.