A note from the trail

A few days ago, I was lucky enough to be in Yosemite National Park in California. Down in the popular campsite of Curry Village, passed El Capitan and short of Half Dome, I found a valley that was predictably impressive, though lacking the isolation we idealise in such experiences. For once that didn’t bother me; I wasn’t here to discover unseen wilderness. I was here to touch back in with nature during the plastic-wrapped urban adventure that is touring through the US.

Yosemite National Park

After arriving, a group of nine of us set off on a short walk to Mirror Lake, a flat, easy walk of around an hour or a wander of two. We were rewarded with a pristine mirrored lake, (actually technically more of a big puddle), and a trail of giant boulders that had us wondering what it would have been like to hear them fall.

Meeting up near some grazing deer near the lake and with night approaching we chose between the three options available. We could turn round and head back the way we came, keep going around the loop which required a good pace to beat nightfall, or run. I ran; it was the only decision I could have made.

What to me happens in nature?

There is something about stepping back into woodlands or mountains, or simply expanses of non-urban landscape, that flicks a switch inside me. It releases some subtle energy that makes me want to scale rocks and run along paths. It makes me want to take out a map and figure out what each route available would be like. It makes me want to choose the route that is right on the edge of my capability, and then it makes me want to run it.

I have previously described this feeling as being released to childish wonder. But this is not quite right. It is not a naivety, but rather some sense of liberation from abstract responsibility and conventions to simpler, more practical demands of the environment. We are not on an edge of surviving, not even close, but that sensation or function touches me and provokes some sense of deeper energy. To hell with mortgages, neoliberalism and schedules, give me a map and my runners and I’ll see you at nightfall!

Running the trail

With all this in mind it was clear I already knew I was going to run. In fact, with the map unclear about a crossing, I had already run up the creek a kilometre or so under the guise of scouting out a suitable crossing point for everyone. I admit this was pure, shameless abuse of an excuse; I just wanted to see if the desire to run was real or not. I returned and encouraged haste in the decision-making so I could take off again.

I ran passed a white mountainside of huge boulders which had recently slipped down here with what must have been apocalyptic thunder. I ran passed huge trees, skipping the roots with fleet foot like I imagine hunting ancestors might once have. I crossed a torrent of a river, remarkably calm just downstream, traversing the simple bridge as the water raged over rounded-rocks below. I kept going, over gravel, dirt, concrete, tree roots, rocks and something soft enough to be sand.

Then hail came and I covered my hands. Then more came and I could feel it bouncing of my thighs and thought that this should make it horrible but it didn’t and I smiled at the thought. I left the map in a plastic bag for the following hikers and made a choice at a fork in the path. As it turned out, I misread the map and took the ‘wrong’ turn, heading off on a loop of the valley which doubled the length of my run.

I ran for just over an hour. I’m not sure how far I went but really that didn’t matter. You see, I write this today not to show off but to show what the environment you run in can do for you.

I run many paths

I live primarily in urban environments. I run on roads primarily. I enjoy road running, tracking how far I’ve been; getting myself lost, though never really lost, on city streets which adds an element of unpredictability; working on technique on a relatively consistent surface; running far enough to escape the noise of the city.

Others I know only run in gyms on treadmills. On the treadmill you can end when you like, as there’s nowhere to come back from; the run is not detached from the experience of the rest of an ordered, hermetically-sealed fitness regime; you can watch cartoons or the news and ignore the exercise entirely if you need to; and there are no pesky rocks or curbs to trip over. If this is the right environment for you, fantastic. But not for me.

Running the trail made me realise a difference between it and these other environments. And it is this: on the trail, I find myself entirely there and nowhere else.

I do not stare at my pace or the distance and race against a ghost of myself as he runs on some other path on another day in a comparison that is likely to be unfair on one of us. I do not watch myself in the mirror, pounding feet on a machine like some odd active meditation or narcissism exercise. I do not run a measured pace in order to exist in an optimum range for weight loss or cardio or or or. No, on the trail these things do not even cross my mind and it is a blessed peace.

Back to the trail

Perhaps it is the necessity to be present in each step. One lapse of concentration and mis-placement can easily lead to a twisted ankle, a lesson learned painfully numerous times. Perhaps it is the aliveness that fills a body as it has to navigate each step as a new task of alignment, re-alignment and organisation. Perhaps it is the multi-directional nature of the running, no longer the repetitive efficiency of the road but the energising variation of the trail. Perhaps it is simply the fresh air, the sound of footprints punctuating more ancient sounds; the way running is so often depicted in the movies.

Or perhaps running in nature simply makes it less of an exercise. I did not run the other day as part of keeping fit or monitoring my progress or any of those other fine, measured approaches we need to take when we take something seriously. I ran the other day because I was drawn to, because it was fun, because it is how I know I enjoy nature best. Nothing fires my soul and energises me like responding to massive, impressive, inspiring nature with my own expansive sense of physical possibility.

This run reminded me what I am missing. It reminded me what I need to remember when going out on the road makes me feel like I am completing another task in my day, one I must tick off in order to maintain equilibrium. Running, as all activity we choose to do, needn’t feel a chore. The next time it does, run for the hills.

I did not go the wrong way at all.

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