I needed to go south. Where the corn fields that allow the wind to move unfettered give way to the land piled up on itself by a halted glacier. In these hills it is harder to farm, harder to develop and so we are afforded a more free, more wild terrain, where animals have habitat and the diversity of life can explode. I needed to be within all that. It had been too long, for either Laura or I to remember last when.
And the moment I stepped off the parking lot asphalt and into the concealed entrance of green, it was like stepping through an invisible window, into an entirely different world where the temperature cools and the flora surrounds you, envelopes you, like a blanket of protection. In here is safety. In here is calm. In here is a different relationship. In here is where, even you, become different, away from the complexities of modern life, away from the low level stress and conflict of other humans, away from the insecurities and consciousness and intentions of the thousands of nameless beings we navigate around without reprieve. In here you are your physical self, moving through an environment with a certain grace and fluidity, part by your own volition and part by the flow of the trail. In here you are less you and more everything.
I needed to get away from myself, and everything else. I needed to just move, but I really needed feel the life of everything that exists and grows and dies with little intentional help, to give me that reaffirmation that everything goes on, that humans don’t control the world, that what we destroy is never completely dead.
I feel that when I move through the woods, not as an intruder or an alien, but as a seamless inhale and exhale of it’s breathing. I feel it as my feet hit the ground and send small clouds of dust into the air, the ground pushing back on my impact with a gentle, cradling support. I feel it in the undulating air that cools like an open window, like the wind of a coming storm, like a drink, then heats like the embrace of a parent to child, like a pile of clothes from the dryer, like your favorite sweater. I feel it in the deep scents of ground that has thawed and cooked in the space of light broken through the ceiling of outstretched green. It surrounds me in moments of movement, entering my nostrils in an accumulated musk of wet dirt, bark, dying leaves and a moist heat that alludes more to the process of growth than decomposition. It pulls me from my thoughts in carnival like bursts of flower scent, reminiscent of cotton candy and cooked sugar and a sweetness that surpasses romantic gestures of rose bouquets to express true love and need and want in it’s signaling to the forest, to follow the map it has drawn to itself. But I run through.
I follow the softened floor as it undulates through the terrain like a dropped ribbon, laying where gravity decides it must, coordinating with my legs to make the smallest of adjustments left and right, forward and forward and forward, to move atop the ribbon, to use the momentum of it’s curves, to keep seeking the solitary life of the forest in it’s moments of expressions. I seek it and feel it over the rocks that protrude from the ground, pushed upwards in the continued, slow exhale of the earth, bringing new terrain to the surface, as if to renew the tired, worn ground again. I feel it in the snaking roots exposed from the ravages of growing close to the surface where feet and hooves and bellies pass. I feel it in the danger of their grasp, threatening revenge to distracted eyes and tired legs.
I feel it in the sounds of fellow animals, responding to the fight or flight of my presence as I dart around turns and up and over rises. I hear it in their loud swimming under the blanket of leaves as squirrels sprint to the nearest tree. I hear it in the lightning fast streaks of brown and black that leave lines in the dust as chipmunks pass mere feet in front of me. I hear it in the torrential symphony of birdsong, when I allow my sense to spread out as far as it can, the ceiling of sound signaling to each other when not in the silence of alarm. I run beneath it all either undetected or unthreatening. I hear it in the crash of the woods, as deer that tower above me bound and disappear through a shield of green, almost before I can even turn my eyes in their direction to catch inspiration in their effortless flight. I feel it deeply, personally, when the buck that disappeared stands atop the hillside, looking down upon me, quizzically, but calmly, measuring my presence, and making no gesture to flee. He looks at me, his antlers displaying a dominance and strength that can only induce respect, and I look back, slowing my pace to connect as long as possible. I turn out of sight to begin the next climb, and when I turn back he has silently vanished into the protection of the forest, proving the presence here is intuitive to his nature, a contrast to mine as a sorry attempt.
I find it as I crest the hill and begin unwinding the ribbon down the opposite side, feeling the change in by the direction of the sun, the forest floor opened up and allowing the growth of entirely different plants. The trees space out further, bigger, blocking out the sun and breaking it into scattered spotlights with longer, supportive branches and higher reaching hands. Responding to the power of the light, the ground cover is thinner, but more efficient and the leaves grow larger. Even the air feels thinner. I feel it as my pace opens up with my lungs and my momentum is carried down the hillside, twisting on switchbacks and flooding with speed on quickened drops that demand an intense control and quick footed dancing over strewn out rocks that lie without rhythm. Terra two step I like to call it.
I find it again and again through this strengthened effort of running, invigorated by the relationships of the forest, and carried away by it’s inspiration, until I must turn around and find my way back, out of necessity rather than desire.
The effort in finding the life of the forest shows itself as the fatigue overcomes my body, demanding a new concentration that must turn inward. I am aware of the failing form of my body, the erratic rhythms of my breathing as they struggle to keep pace with the flow of the trail, the shifting weight from compromised muscles to those prepared to handle the increasing stress. I seek the self-actuated life of the forest, but equally the self-actuated fatigue and exhaustion only the trails can bring to my body. This is my other objective.
It is a unique fatigue, brought on by a certain momentum. At first this momentum follows behind the body in a wake of inspired and graceful effort, in running with the gravity of the trail and bounding up the hills in abandon, but as the stresses accumulate, the momentum begins to catch up from behind like a predator overcoming its prey. It runs close enough to never be dropped, until it begins to consume the body, entering completely before effort and momentum are one and the same. This momentum becomes the body until it seems to disappear into the struggle of the effort, of lungs grasping for air and muscles digging for strength. They work together as one, before the momentum finds it’s way through the body and begins to extend itself ahead of the effort, urging or daring me to catch up and grab onto a bit more of it’s assist if possible. But at some point, it’s out of reach, apart from the body now weakened beyond repair, and only a dangling hope, a tempting illusion to hold onto in the striving to finish out the distance intact.
In losing this momentum is where the exhaustion I seek finds me, as a growing desperation that fills the space where the energy once boiled, consuming the muscles and darkening the mind. It’s presence is subtle at first. An ungraceful dance through the rocks, a turn swung too wide, or a heel scuffed along the ground. And then another. And another. I told myself to listen to the warning signs, of the deception of momentum that came from the trail and not my body, as I rolled over the ribbon while hitting my heel on small rocks and imperceptible undulations. I told myself to run smart and lift my legs, but as I let my concentration wander away from my internal warning signs, the trail humbled me.
Humbled the shit out of me.
Humbled me to the ground. This is an exhaustion I try not to seek, but respect all the same. The weaving of roots lay strewn across the trail as I rolled with the momentum on a slight decline, my legs swinging out in front of me with a gentle braking form rather than the concerted push forward, and where my heel scuffed the roots before, the weakness brought my leg close enough to the ground that my toe slammed into a root, the momentum just far enough ahead that I couldn’t grab on to roll forward and my body lifted into the air before slamming into the ground without bracing. In the split moment I fell I registered the ground, peppered with scattered rocks, roots, and a sapling stump that lay directly in the path of my downward swinging face. My body tensed and I crashed into the dirt, forgiving, but barely. Instantly a shock surged through my body, radiating through my entire left side, though I felt it in all the direct points of contact. My knee split open on a rock. My hip bone bashed into a root. My shoulder, miraculously taking the brunt of my top heavy fall as my neck bent upward to avoid a solid hit of my temple into the sapling stump. I paused, leaned back and saw two dots of sweat from my shoulder resting gently on the stump, as if to say, so close. So close.
I took the humbling, stood up and started running down the trail….for two steps. As I realized the humbling was much greater than the adrenaline was trying to convey. My knee throbbed, my hip piercing in pain, and I reached to my knees to collect myself. But I didn’t dare brush the dirt from my body. Never brush the dirt and blood from your falls. It is penance for not paying attention. When I realized I could move, if only a bit, I took lesson in the survival mantra, “Stagnation is death. Always keep moving.” Trusting the adrenaline to take control of my body, in spite of the pain, until I could regain effort, I started run / limping down the trail, slower, gently. The blood pumped through, the trail relented, and I got back to the work of building the exhaustion past the humbling, with the deep physical understanding of just who is in charge, or at the very least, of who is NOT in charge.
The momentum lay much further ahead as I reestablished my relationship with the trail, trying to find the flow again, running away from the pain on the left side of my body until the processes of the effort were greater than the faults of the effort. I found the forest floor and it’s kind, cool air, offering an invigorating stretch of rejuvenation that wound over dry creek beds and past a personal spot for me, where, if I find myself facing mortality again, my ashes will be scattered. With a quick glance at that spot and and acknowledgement of my existence, I ran on, any further reflection on that reality now relegated to a further, distant future. I had a hill to climb. I had an exhaustion to find.
Further towards the depletion I ran, retracing steps in the opposite direction, as if on an entirely different trail, as an entirely different runner. I had lost control of my body, using the escaping momentum of the trail to pull me ahead, reserving any strength I had to focus on the humbling terrain and the necessity of effort needed to stay upright. The grace all but pulled from my body I could barely manage sharp turns, my lungs threatening to fold my body to the ground on the slightest inclines, my legs buckling with the pressures of holding my torso on the descents. The only relief coming with the rolling undulations that hung my limbs like a puppet, working in concert as nature and body, runner and trail no longer individual entities. The exhaustion had set in and I was brought towards completion under that mysterious force few of us can describe, but know distinctly, where we are not in control, but move forward no less, with speed, with control, with no will except the ability to see ahead, or see from above, as our bodies move without us.
Until we reach beyond the realms of possibility and the ground falls beneath us, or we find our way to the end, spent, exhausted, depleted…and fulfilled.
The gates of green that welcomed me in opened into a brutal, bright sun that exposed me completely, as if my skin was torn away. I emerged with the momentum of the trail, spit out into the world, a different person. Broken, but stronger. Depleted, but fulfilled. Bloodied, but intact. Exhausted, but enduring.
This is why I enter the trails, to seek a world that is as beautiful and bountiful and outside of myself as much as it is humbling, and threatening, and depleting. To find another me, an absence of me, to create something different, something greater, something that will always fail in words and can only be experienced in seeking and finding.