© Bruce Nichols
The first time I saw her, she was walking down the dry bed of the San Jacinto River. I had run out to where the last foothills drop down to meet the valley floor. And from there along a jeep track that parallels the southern fringe of the slope through dry golden grasses and scattered brush to finally climb a little rise and drop back down to cottonwood and the dry riverbed.
She was accompanied by two dogs. A black mixed lab that was smallish and looked friendly enough and a HUGE Rottwieler of undetermined disposition. The dogs ran ahead to "greet" me and I hoped for the best as the larger one approached. She called out, "Oh, they won't bother you!" I kept my eye on the Rottwieler as he lumbered up to sniff and check me out. My brother has had several and I have seen both sides of their personalities.
She was a small woman, thin, but with an erect posture and graceful bearing. She wore jeans, a faded long sleeved blue shirt buttoned to the neck, and white sneakers. On her head she had a wide flat brimmed western style hat with a thin leather band around the crown, and under that a green hair net. She carried a walking stick in her right hand, which she used for support as she picked her way among the rocks that were scattered about in the river sand. Her blue eyes sparkled in her finely chiseled face.
She introduced the dogs first in a voice that was almost as thin as she, but clear and with a particularly western twang. The lab was hers. Diedre by name, about 50 pounds with a face some dogs have that always seems to be smiling. Frank was the Rottwieler. He belonged to a neighbor and often joined them for their morning walks. When I guessed that he weighed about 130 pounds, she said, "Oh no, he weighs 184." (Donít mess with Frank).
Her name was Marie. I found out that she walked almost every morning with Diedre. She lived in a trailer park on the little bluff that rose above the river bottom. She had come to Hemet about 25 years before after living for a number of years in other parts of southern California. She was an older woman, a widow, and most of the people she knew didn't care much for walking or were unable to. So she walked alone with her dog down the access road that lead from the bluff to the lower ground and along the gravel roads that wound around the collecting ponds used to control the excess water when the San Jacinto was in flood. And when the river dried in summer, she ventured up along the riverbed itself as it wound through overhanging cottonwood and flood sculpted sandbars.
She had been up the river on the morning that we met, and told me of the places above where the water still came to the surface before disappearing into the sand. She warned me about going too close to the steep banks formed as the river carved a curve against the foothills. The year before, she told me, she and Diedre had been walking in such an area and Diedre had been investigating something near the foot of the bank when a voice told her to leave quickly. She told this with a conviction that made me believe she had heard a voice; inner perhaps, but from a source outside herself. She called Diedre and left immediately. When they returned the next day, they discovered that a large section of the bank had collapsed burying the exact place where the dog had been.
I told her a little about myself , why I was in California, and my volunteer work on projects for peace. We also talked a little about Peace Pilgrim, whom she seemed to have heard of but did not really know too much about. She told me about having typhoid fever as a child and the hearing lose that had resulted. I spoke a little louder. She was interested in healthy living and had been to several holistic heath centers in their early days. At one point in her life she had fasted on water for 27 days to cleanse her system. She was also interested in spiritual things, and spoke a little about some of the things she had investigated during her lifetime.
We also talked a little about the weather which had been quite hot. For several days the temperatures had been over 100 and the morning was the only sensible time to walk or run. She told me of running through orange groves with friends in bathing suits when she was much younger to cool off in the water sprayed on the trees during heat waves.
She had been born in Idaho. Her grandfather had owned a small ranch but her father had opened a general store. All had been fine until a chain market opened. "Everyone just walked by the store." She said. The business failed and the family moved to California.I told her a little about Friends of Peace Pilgrim and about John and Ann Rush. When I told her that they were both 81, she replied by telling me she was 89.
By now we had been speaking for 15 or 20 minutes. The dogs were getting a little restless and wanted to be off. A couple of times Frank had bumped into Marie (who might have weighed 100) while frolicking with Diedre and almost sent her flying. We bid farewell and I started back along my outbound track. I stopped after a short distance and watched Marie negotiate the rocky river bank and a steep three or four foot slope that lead again to the gravel road around the ponds. Moving slowly, using her walking stick she negotiated the tricky spots then headed down the track with Diedre and Frank out in front. I admired her tenacity, her calm spirit, and her joy in life.
I turned again and began the climb up through the cottonwoods enchanted by this chance encounter with a wonderful soul. (Some would say that nothing happens by chance.) The experience brightened my entire day and continues to do so in memory as I write.