My feet find and retrace the steps of those left before me. Of that much I am certain, maybe in this lifetime, most likely by humans, but certainly by my kindred spirits, the deer, fox, rabbit, coyotes and this time of year, the bear. I see his footprints ahead of me, briefly in the earth exposed by last night’s rain where the runoff had dislodged the forest debris for a few feet before the water infiltrated into the ground in the endless cycle of our hydrosphere. I glance overhead reveals what I suspect: The humidity is high enough to keep water from evaporating and it is still raining, if you will, under the canopy of trees overhead. A squirrel chatters for a moment, startled out of its self-reverie long enough to fuss over my observation of his vanity.
It was not always this way for me. As a child and teenager, trail running wasn’t a sport or an event. My parents didn’t take me to cross-country practice, nor did I try out for track until I was fifteen years old. I ran out of sheer enjoyment. I loved to follow the small trails, traces of semi-bare dirt through the Appalachian Plateau, pretending that I was an Indian delivering news from one village to another. Perhaps a Scottish warrior, running in pursuit of another tribe for glory or retribution or both.
Perhaps I would be a soldier in WWII, running for his life above the Cliffs of Etretat in France after D-Day, marked as a traitor by the German SS and being followed for the knowledge that I carried. In my imagination, I was many things, but rarely was I content to just be what I actually was, a young boy running on the same trails that my predecessors had no doubt ran on, winding their way through the Appalachian Mountains into North Carolina and the Coastal Regions beyond.
Running was the best way to navigate long distances in Appalachia before fossil fuels forever altered modes of transportation and the landscape itself, violently and disdainfully cutting across ancient terrain delicately balanced by the local ebb and flow of life, a part of the larger ecosystem that was lost and is still being lost at an alarming rate.
Transportation before development was relatively slow in Appalachia. It could take days to go from one village to another. Population centers could be close, as a crow flies, but navigating the steep and sometimes impassable geography was difficult. Despite the limited influence of the Spaniards on Appalachia, the horse never became the symbol of wealth that it did for the Plains Indians, becoming instead a bit of a burden to the owners. Like owning a Lamborghini, I suppose. Traveling on foot was much faster.
The footing underneath becomes a bit more tenuous and I no longer think of anything else. My pace becomes a crawl and I can no longer imagine myself as being anything other than what I am. Forty years old, with a small son and a wife, questionable health; I am really not supposed to be “running” anywhere. Years of habit though are creeping back in to my life as my health improves and I move easier and more lightly. The pure enjoyment of running is as addictive as nearly anything else. I’ve had more broken bones than anyone I know, more surgeries than I care to count and a bum ankle. But damn it feels good to be jogging along under my own steam again.
I’m not exactly transported back in time, nor do I see through the eyes of a younger me, or anything so spiritual. I’m reminded of my age, injuries and bad decisions. I keep thinking of what an older coal miner once told me: “I would have taken better care of myself had I known I’d live this damn long.” But I do have a few moments where smells and faint breezes do remind me of being young again, of running just for the sake of running, not thinking of my health, or the danger of flinging myself headlong down a mountain trail, nor worrying about money or bills. I would just run.
My favorite run was to my grandmother’s house. It was a short run, just down the mountains a piece, as she would say. I would call her excitedly at night on the party line, waiting impatiently until she could shuffle to the phone. “I’m on my way Grandma!” I would exclaim, leaving the line open and dangling as I shot out the door, down the steps and bolted down the mountain in the darkness, heedless of the footing or lack of light. There is always just enough light to see by in the darkness of night. Especially when you pretend that monsters are chasing you.