My sister and I are at the back of her mom-mobile, packing in the remnants of her daughter’s first birthday party, which was held at a lodge in the park. That park. The park that’s been there all my life, the one that holds so many memories for me. The other guests have gone, and it’s just us and her husband, giggling and dancing and chatting away while we fill our three vehicles with balloons and baby gifts and leftovers and the other odds and ends of hosting a party in a place where everything must be brought in and then back out again.
I’ve had three Christmas Ales and I’m not drunk, but neither am I sober enough to resist the crisp air on my cheeks–that same wind that rushes through the trees that grow up the side of a steep ridge I’ve climbed dozens of times before, the treads of my running shoes digging into rocky, packed-dirt trail. My sister and her husband exchange a doubtful look as I pull running shorts on under my skirt and writhe into a sport bra underneath my top, but I insist on going. Having their own relationships with this place, they both understand, and are even, I imagine, a little jealous of the freedom to leap out of the parking lot and onto the trail instead of rushing back to their three small children. I won’t be able to run tomorrow, I tell myself. I have to do this. I didn’t get to go at all while I was here and this is my chance.
This is where I became a runner.
As I dash out of the parking lot there’s no question which way I will go: to Squire’s Castle, one of the greatest landmarks of my childhood. I remember playing with my father there before he died, when I was very little. I remember the feeling of the cold stones on my cheek. I don’t know why my cheek was on the stones, only that my dad was with me and I was excited and happy to be there. I must have been so small. Nearly thirty years have passed, but the emotion is still so fresh inside my head and my heart that I barely notice the slushy, muddy snow-melt splashing into my shoes and bathing my toes in ice water.
As I approach the castle I swing a hard-right onto a paved walkway that takes me around the back of the unfinished building. I can’t resist yanking my phone out of the pocket and taking a picture. I’m still the teeniest bit tipsy, and sightseers laugh at me from within the castle’s open windows, but I don’t care, I wave at them happily and continue on my way. They must think I’m some tourist, with my neon shirt that says “I run NY” on it in big, black letters. They don’t know that I’m more at home here than in any place in the world.
After the castle comes the climb. There’s a steep switchback trail, a wide ramp that takes you up, up up up up in about 150 meter increments…but I only dash up one leg of the ramp before I abandon it for a steeper, less-traveled climb that takes me directly to the top of the ridge by way of hand-over-foot climbing on tree-root stairs and sliding here and there on the wet leaves and the mud from melting, slushy snow. At the top I see a middle-aged man with his young son. “Is there much ice going the long way?” I ask them, pleasantly. The child looks surprised, but the man smiles. “Nah, it’s not too bad. Just wet.” “Thanks! It’ll be good to know for the way down!” And with a wave at the boy I’m off along the trail, bounding through the slush, my heart leaping, loving the way it kicks up behind me.
Soon I pass a big group of teenagers, but after that I’m alone on the trail for a while, and I know it’s going to be dark soon. Maybe going back the way I came is best, but it’s only been a mile and a half. I want more.
I pass the place where I became a runner. It feels like hallowed ground. I am nearly floating along the trail at this point, where a newspaper reporter once stopped me to ask me for a quote about running in the park, where a photographer captured my feet in mid-air. I didn’t know I was a runner until I saw that photograph in the paper. I’d never realized before that my two feet were off the ground at the same time with every step I took, and that I was flying. I felt magic. I felt that same excitement of being in a castle in the woods with my dad. I felt like I could do anything. I could fly!
I am flying now, as I round the corner to the trail head at Strawberry Lane, my speed making up for the time I lost climbing the ridge. I stop a moment to peer at the map, to verify my route and estimate whether or not I can get back before dark if I go back the way I came. Nope.
Nothing to do now but keep going.
I love this part so much, but it’s also the tough part. I used to be in so much pain when I ran this part of this trail over and over and over again, coming round a bend where the trail crosses over a little creek. It sort of falls off on the inside of the turn, damaged from erosion. Damaged like me. I cried so much here, spat angry curses, wished he’d come back, wished he’d never existed, wished I had never existed…and then later, after I was done with that part of the grieving process, when I was ready to just miss him, I used to think it would be so nice if I could fix that part of the trail. I wanted to build a little overlook with a rail, so that runners could safely pass by, but also so that people could go there to look at the creek and watch the woods. He loved the woods, and I do too.
It’s getting darker now, and I’m nervous, the same way I was nervous the time I ran here with my sister when she was pregnant with her firstborn, and I was so scared she’d trip on a root and fall. I used to trip on roots here all the time. Once I tripped right next to the ravine and my stomach lurched so hard I could feel it in my throat when I saw how very few inches there were between me and the edge that was so steep no trees could grow there and so tall that I could see the tops of the trees that grew below. After that I always stayed on the path farther away from the ravine, the safe path. And I run there now out of habit, only noticing afterward.
It’s twilight. I’ve been alone for a mile and a half. I wish I’d see another runner. Or some hikers. Anyone friendly except a man walking by himself–bad people are not likely in these woods, but also not completely unheard of. I think about the horror stories you hear about runners disappearing. It wouldn’t be so bad if it happened to me today, I think. I’m in a good enough place in my career that I no longer have a lot of debt, I live away from my family so the day to day loss wouldn’t be so great, and I don’t really have anyone at home who would be terribly affected. The world would turn just fine without me and I have about a fifty-fifty shot that heaven exists or not, but even if it doesn’t at least I wouldn’t have to worry about my apartment getting taken away anymore.
That might sound morbid, but to me it’s all pretty matter-of-fact, and I’m less scared when I think of it that way. But honestly, I’m probably more at risk from wildlife than anything–there is no one on these trails, dangerous or no. I hear a coyote in the distance, and keep my eyes peeled for deer. One cold, snowy day years ago I came around a corner on this trail to find myself about five feet away from a huge buck with the largest rack of antlers I’d ever seen, antlers that could easily hurt or even kill me. I was so scared I couldn’t move, but he just watched me with those big brown eyes, fat white snowflakes flurrying between us, while a small herd of does and fawns passed across the trail behind him. Then he gave a nod of his huge horns and trotted off into the blizzard. It was as magical as the realization that all this time, unbeknownst to myself, I’d been flying.
There are no deer tonight though, only squirrels. Throngs of squirrels. Enough squirrels to feed a thousand coyotes. I notice that there are more black squirrels than I’ve ever seen here before, and wonder if they migrated here from Kent, which is famous for two things: the Kent State University shootings in 1970 and black squirrels. When I was in high school I interviewed my uncle about the former, he and his wife having been students there at the time. I remember how sad and shaken he was, even twenty-seven years later. Sometimes, when I have felt that my mother’s family doesn’t understand that my life has been shaped by the loss of my father, I think of how my uncle couldn’t answer all of my questions because of the grief he felt and wonder if he understands, or if he just tries really hard not to think of my sadness so that he doesn’t have to think of his own. I really don’t know.
I notice the slush kicking up behind my feet again and my heart goes back to singing along with every step. Between those magical moments of flying, my feet are landing in the hoof-prints of shod horses, and I think about my sister’s little daughter, who has recently developed a love affair with horses courtesy of the My Little Pony collection I saved for her from my own childhood. I love that kid. She fell asleep in my lap earlier today; more snowy-deer-flying-feet-kicking-slush magic. Life is so good in these moments.
Thinking of her I’m more afraid that something might happen to me out here by myself. I’m scared again, because I want to go watch Star Wars with my nephew. I want to take my niece horseback riding. I want to watch the baby grow up. I don’t want them to feel sad and miss me the way I miss my dad. It’s really dark now, actual nighttime, and where the trail crosses the road I opt for road. For safety. For the kids. My neon shirt reflects in the headlights of an oncoming car and I sigh heavily, relieved as it passes me. I laugh at a black squirrel who can’t seem to make up his mind about crossing the road and tell him out loud to be careful. Who’s going to see him with that black fur?
At the baby’s birthday party, my sister’s father-in-law made fun of me for talking to myself today. Would he make fun of me for talking to a squirrel who’s as reckless with his running habit as I am?
Here come more headlights as a car whips around a corner, probably, I think, at around fifty miles an hour, judging by the speed limit and the lack of patrol cars in the area. It’s dangerous running along this road at night, but not nearly as dangerous as running alone on the bridle path at night. When I come to a good spot, I step off the road and check a map on my phone to make sure I’m on the right track. I am. I flip on the light so I can see the ground in front of my feet. Unprepared, I scold myself. I should have brought my headlamp. My headlamp is in New York.
In less than fifty meters the trail is back, across a small ditch from me, and I leap over, landing in a puddle and happy to return to the slush as I feel the cold water soak my socks. I don’t mind. I can’t mind. I love it here.
This, I think as I turn into the parking lot where my car awaits, key at the ready, is where I became a runner.
Sunday – 5 miles