Tuesday, May 26, 2009


When I visited truly enchanting Enchantment Resort in Sedona, Arizona, in the spring of 1998, I was fascinated to see on display an art piece hanging in the lobby by a local artist, David Fischel, depicting the legend of The Roadrunner. Did I know that such a quirky cartoon character actually had a noteworthy past? Hardly. The main reason it caught my eye, however, is that my 83-year-old aunt of Swedish descent, who had died earlier in the year, had miniature roadrunners everywhere -- on shelves, pinned to jackets, hanging as drawings on walls. What was Roadrunner's story, anyway? I was definitely curious.

According to Southwest Native legend, at a difficult time in history the people had lost fire -- there was no more heat for warmth or cooking. The people decided to call on the fastest creature around, Roadrunner, to retrieve fire once again from the God of Fire. Roadrunner was also one of the most beautiful creatures at the time with magnificent colored plumage on his head and tail.

Roadrunner was honored and glad to help. He went to the God of Fire and made the request to take back fire so that once again the people would be warm and comfortable. But the God of Fire would have none of it! The answer was, "NO-O-O-O!!!" But Roadrunner was not to be deterred. He was disturbed that the Fire God was treating humans that way and was confident that, with his incredible speed, he would be able to successfully accomplish the mission. He snuck back to where fire was kept, took what could get the people what they needed, and raced back to earth.

Unfortunately, the God of Fire caught sight of him and unleashed a great bolt of lightning. But not even that could stop Roadrunner. When he arrived back at the land where the people were waiting for him, he did, however, look a little different: while he had survived the lightning attack, alas, he had lost the plumage on his head and tail. And, of course, that is how we see Roadrunner today.

I never would have guessed that my little, sparkly, always happy and loving auntie, steeped in Swedish and Lutheran lore, could have such a real connection with a mythic indigenous figure...but on second thought...on second thought, the fit was perfect. Besides her always optimistic attitude, she had never learned to drive, and yet she traveled the world. Hmmm.

Fast forward to my next trip to Seattle when family gathered to honor my aunt and handle distribution of her estate. During that visit, my brother took me and my daughter and her two children on a boat ride across Puget Sound to Bainbridge Island, leaving from a streetend launch in the Scandinavian enclave of Ballard. This was an excursion that was regular summer fare for our extended family my whole childhood and one that Aunt Lilly must have made at least 493 times. Bainbridge Island and the Kitsap Peninsula are also the home of a Northwest indigenous tribe, the Suquamish, and their leader, Chief Sealth, whose "Speech" reminds us of the continuing spirit presence of native peoples even after death.

As we entered Hidden Cove, gliding past the local yacht club, I remembered the aliveness and peace I felt as a child padding through the evergreen forest near the cabin, learning how to row a boat, and sitting around the campfire at night singing songs and listening to family stories. Silently I greeted the spirits I imagined were still there, asking if they remembered us, and they seemed to respond with, "How could we forget?" How sweet. It made me smile. I certainly hadn't forgotten them.

We spent about an hour in the small harbor, floating offshore, my brother and I reminiscing about adventures we had had there. It wasn't difficult to call up the memories: the scene looked nearly the same as it did 30 years before, including a cabin cruiser I recognized, listing a bit to one side, the varnish pale and peeling.

We returned to Ballard and pulled the boat up the launch ramp. It had been such a deeply satisfying trip, these three hours away. As we got our land legs back, I absently scanned the western sky under whch we had just traveled.

The thought came to me that the string of clouds which extended across above the horizon was much too long to be an angel. As I kept gazing, I realized that what I was seeing was -- you may have guessed it -- a Roadrunner -- in classic one-foot-forward/one-foot-back pose, tilting forward and down a little, as if heading for Lilly's soon-to-be-sold house! Extraordinary enough, this perfectly etched relief in white vapor, but the most magical feature of all was the small rainbow which, for a few minutes, graced the tail, a reminder of the ancient legend!

There was obviously no signature on this piece of art, and it was as transitory as a Tibetan sand painting, but it has a special permanent place in my inner gallery.

I give thanks to my aunt, to Alice and Mark who invited us to spend time at their cabin, to the spirits of the Suquamish, to the land and people who spawned the ancient story, to the artist who brought the legend to my attention, and, yes, to Roadrunner himself for inspiring us to not give in or give up, to carry on with lightness and laughter -- as my aunt was always wont to do. Oh, and thank you also, Roadrunner, for making this journey from the Southwest to the Northwest, and in such perfect timing.