I dream of falling. If I fall, I’m really part of this. The sport has chosen me. In some ways, not falling is worse. You feel a sweaty surge. You think: I’m not a good dancer. Falling at least means there has been some recklessness and speed.
August 2018. In between jobs. In love, though arguably I had already been in love with him, on my own, for decades. A chapter of a novel written. Trying hard not to turn him into the hero, or the hero into him. When we got to the bottom of the trail, he didn’t notice that there were streaks and flecks of dirt all over my shorts. I had to tell him: I fell. Twice. I had wanted to. These falls were fun, even in front of an audience.
The first time, I fell up the last step of a steep, rocky climb, already close enough to the ground that it didn’t hurt. The second time, I stepped off a tree root, bouncy as a raw potato, and flew several feet before landing on my shoulder. This didn’t really hurt either. My mind told my body: Just ignore that, you’re in a hurry. When the couple walking toward me asked if I was OK, I laughed. I scrambled upright. I had to go.
Technology had recently made it so that we could measure ourselves against the other crazies who ran this trail—a steep, muddy, but short ascent to the craggy edge of the world where basin met bay, where so much water surged in and out that it destroyed all the tidal power equipment that had been installed beneath the surface by well-meaning energy companies and the government. People and dogs had fallen off this trail to their deaths. The edges near the top of it seemed sudden, unfinished, grassy ellipses that dropped off to a pebble beach 500 feet below. We would get the record that day, but in a few weeks it would be snatched away from us by a true local, who then followed me on Strava, taunting me with his triumphs. I was too far away to really care. I hoped the season changing meant we could hold on to second place until the spring and return to go for first again.
I don’t have as much nerve today. I'm not moving fast. Today is day one of a training cycle, so I’m being extra cautious. The run is exploratory. More of a trot. The ground is muddy and in some places crunchy with half-melted ice. Like most trails around here, nothing is groomed. Layers and layers of dead leaves provide some protection against wet rocks. I'm thinking less about falling and more about mountain lions, whom I imagine to live up here, in mossy caves near the top of the trail, too resilient to hibernate. She’ll rear up on all-fours and box me from behind. She—most definitely.
I forget that I always find what I’m looking for here, in the shifting here. It’s not quite a meditation today, because I’m not in enough pain for the pain to cut off thoughts at their source. But I feel closer to what I was looking for. The writer Eileen Myles says the refrain of her morning meditation goes something like: Who am I? Don’t know. Lately mine has been more imprecise, a plane circling. Where are you? A question to God, though I hesitate to capitalize the ‘y’ in you, if not the ‘g’ in ‘God.’ Today the question settles: Where have you been? I get back an answer: Where have you been?
Up ahead, near a steep turn, a unicorn. It’s a big white dog coming down the rocks on her own. Her movements are too playful for her to be anything wild, but for a few seconds I let her be. Then her owner appears, scissoring down the safe, leafy edge of the trail with walking sticks. Behind her, an older woman, perhaps her mother. These three are the only creatures I will see on this run. I hear a crow later, but never see it. The crow warns everyone else of my approach, and they all stay still and camouflaged amongst the browns and grays. The younger woman warns me of more ice toward the top of the trail. So far I’ve only seen little frozen pools, here and there, at the sunken middle of the trail. And off the trail, plenty of solid white icicles hanging off the rocks like fangs. She says: But good job! Her mother pauses to let me pass. She says Hello and then Wow. She doesn’t tell me to be careful, she just smiles.
Afraid of falling, afraid of dying. There comes a point where I reach the fog that I’m always admiring from town. It seems so thick from 2,000 feet below, but the air is just slightly hazier now, and cooler. And the wind blows now, too, or else I just didn’t hear it before. It blows through evergreens, makes itself known. The sound is an insistence of solitude. I remember then that there had been only one other car in the parking lot, and the women and their dog were now returning to it. So I turn back early, and stop to look at Hunter Mountain, so much bluer than I thought it could look on this overcast day. Above its own mustache of fog, the sun is thinking about coming out.
Running down, trying to make up some time, I lose track of it. Despite the slow pace coming up with a combination of running and power-hiking, the ascent had flown by, as new places tend to. Now, it feels as if I’ve been running for hours. There are more near-falls. I notice that any time I’m thinking grumpily, aggressively, about something, I slip or nearly turn my ankle. Here you are again, teasing me for going negative, when the point of running is to not think at all, and the point of running in the woods is to listen to you, and say nothing back.
The trail is really just a suggestion of one. It’s an attempt to cut a path through something stubbornly ancient, the remains of an old glacier. In certain places along this coast, the landscape seems newer, almost ornamental. In Vermont, nubs of sparkling granite poke out of the ground. On the sandstone beaches in the warmer parts of Nova Scotia, the color is such a startlingly rich orange that it brings the blue out of the sky and the green out of the land. On the Bay of Fundy side of the province, where our favorite trail ends, the rocks are darker blues and grays, as if shocked by the colder water, deadened by it. They’re mostly pebbles, smashed and smoothed over by strong winter tides over millennia, but still there seems to be something designed about them, and welcoming, in a way the Catskills are not. Fittingly, the biggest ultra in this area is called Manitou’s Revenge.
This is all I wanted, standing outside a sensible outdoorswoman’s car, blasting music through the open door, stretching, smelling that musty, sweet smell of sweat trapped inside water-repellant polyester, like a tent that’s been rolled up in a closet for too long, and thinking: I can go anywhere. I spent years running places I could only access by foot, train, bus or someone else’s generosity. I got to know towns and cities by running them, memorizing street names and landmarks that I never saw under any other circumstances. This instead of learning how to drive. For a long time, a person might be able to get away with this, especially if they live in a city, but there comes a point when you realize life could be bigger than 12 miles around, and the only way to find out is to drive out of this nonexistent border you’ve created for yourself. Run without this skill, and you are forever running with an invisible rope tied to you and the place you began. In the parking lot, a dirt and gravel turnout on the side of the road to Mount Tremper, the Subaru waits for me like a parent at the finish line of a cross-country race. It is a conspicuous trace of me. It gives the run more intention somehow. It seems to make getting lost or dying more difficult. It gives me just enough rope to take myself a little too far, then turn around and dash back, racing the dark.
When I reached those high pines, they spoke to me like the glum rock walls in Labyrinth, bellowing to Jennifer Connolly’s character: You’ve gone too far. Turn back now. Wrong way. Maybe this was my god or proto-god again, who remembers better than I do that a fracture kept me from running for a year, no, more. I’ve stopped counting. Plodding a few times a month during that time thinking, I’m finally free of it, which wasn’t true and still might not even be now. I wonder if this god believes in the same things I do, whether she or he can accept all my superstitions.
For one: some say the sacrum, where the fracture occurred, is an energy center, the house of relationships within the body. Walking around New York at two miles an hour looking up at buildings because I was finally moving slowly enough to notice them, I thought it was perfectly fair to have my house of relationships declared uninhabitable by this injury. It seemed all too true. I had wanted things my way and kept charging towards what I wanted until, going across the Manhattan Bridge in the rain, I felt something between a twist and a crunch beneath my left glute, something like the sound when you crack a flare and wait for it to light up.
Things like this always seem to happen when you’re doing something out of the ordinary: running ten miles home from work in the pouring rain because you had planned to, and the weather wasn’t going to change your plan. In this? a coworker had asked me. I didn’t see the difference between daring and impatience, or between going after what I wanted and greed. Going too far wasn’t really out of the ordinary for me.
I didn’t really get anything I’d wanted that year, nor the year after. In the year after the injury, life moved so slowly that I was forced to find a way to make the new pace enjoyable. The old tricks weren’t working. Maybe I could listen to the wise people around me and just try to be a good kid. Maybe I could be a sponge, soak up life, stop trying to say so much, do so much. See what came to me. Be OK if nothing did.
— Mount Tremper, NY, January 6, 2019
Photo by Clarisse Meyer