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This article is featured in the Summer 2022 print issue of Trail Runner.
When I dream of trail running, I dream of a September morning high in the Rockies. The first snow of the year lies a few centimeters thick on last summer’s matted brown wildflowers. A fire in the woodstove feeds on split lodgepole; the kettle is empty by the french press. In the window, the great crumbling laccolith of the mountain is alight with the first rays of sun to make it over the high walls of the valley, and I am out the door without thinking. Fifteen minutes up the wet road to the Forest Service outhouse, a right on steep doubletrack through dark woods to the landslide at the base of rosy slabs. Then, bliss: two feet by two miles of packed dirt through aspens a handful of rust tones past their peak, slowly shedding contours on its way back to the cabin. I go with it.
When I run most days from my home in the middle of Santa Fe, New Mexico, the story is different.
I am likely to think twice when I lace my shoes—to consider that second cup of coffee. My soul does not soar as it trails my body on the way to the end of the block, where I turn right and jog through the park with its wastewater-fed cottonwoods and sun-cracked bike path. On the sidewalk along the arterial I notice the white Corolla with the pornographic anime stickers parked in its usual place. I drop into the arroyo on the trail lined with rotting tires and junipers while scrub jays call against distant jackhammering. I feel slow; I’m already sweating. I worry about emails.
Trail running—an activity defined only by where it happens—trafficks in escapist fantasies. In the pages of this magazine you can read about ultramarathons in Chamonix and high routes in Patagonia, towns you could move to where the scenery promises to make the boredom of training disappear. Dreams sustain us.
But the raw material of a running life is less exalted stuff. It’s the twice-a-week eight-miler to the desire path in a city park. It’s your Saturday long run past the strip mall to access the crushed gravel loop in foothills. The lines we trace with our feet often bridge road and trail, town and country. The human and the nonhuman. I’ve come to call these routes hybrids.
The best way to learn to love the hybrid is to get rid of your car. The last time I did this I was 23 and lived in Seattle. First its brakes failed, and then the circuitry in the dashboard, and by the end of the week I had sold it to an arborist for a thousand dollars. This felt good for exactly three mornings, until I found myself standing on the curb with shoes and backpack in hand, staring at the empty spot where my Volvo used to be. It was raining, and I wondered how the hell I was going to get to and from the Issaquah Alps before my meeting at nine.
The lines we trace with our feet often bridge road and trail, town and country. The human and the nonhuman. I’ve come to call these routes hybrids.
A clear-eyed assessment of my transportation options led me to the conclusion that I had none. Instead I resigned myself to the city and jogged twenty minutes through residential neighborhoods and parking lots to Carkeek Park, a forested ravine with three miles of singletrack. I’d run here before and found it underwhelming. Now somehow it was different. What once seemed to me to be a squalid little urban footpath had become a ribbon of heavenly looking loam through stately cedars. The depressing industrial gray of Puget Sound was transformed into a tableau of the snow-capped Olympic Mountains. Varied thrushes hummed, and chum salmon were returning to spawn and rot under the sword ferns along the creek. I let it rip. Loss is good at reminding you what you have.
This is the point in the essay where I would love to claim that ever since that day I’ve been my fastest, most enlightened, most contented self. But it wouldn’t be true.
Over time, the simple joys of Carkeek Park would wear thin, and I’d scroll Instagram with a flash of envy at every photo of a runner frolicking in an alpine meadow. I bummed rides to the Cascades, and returned in my daydreams to that long-ago September morning frequently. Nonetheless, there was a palpable sense of freedom in my new constraints, if only in reconnecting me with the reasons I began running in the first place. I was reminded that even in an era marked by endless streams of data from Whoop bracelets and GPS watches, running could be very simple. That in the face of $375 trail shoes, it could still be egalitarian. I gave up a bit of the illusion that novelty can sustain you indefinitely, or that something as closely tied to the daily fabric of living as running could always be pleasant. I like to think I gained an increased capacity to stay present in the mundane, the tedious, and the painful.
A few years later my vehicular asceticism came to an end. I bought a truck: work demanded that I find a more convenient ride than a steel single speed bike with a high gearing ratio, and I was tired of missing out on road trips and races. In the lead up to the purchase I had imagined I’d shortly be back to dawn patrols in the foothills. Yet this planned revolution in my running never came. I found myself chafing at the idea of driving at all, let alone to do something I could do anywhere. Most of the time I still just jogged to Carkeek or some other pocket of green space with a little dirt and a hill or two. What happened to you? I’d sometimes ask myself as I left the house, feeling washed up and wondering why I wasn’t making the effort to drive to some high country trailhead.
This gray mood would stick around for a mile or two. Then, like fog on the Sound, it would dissipate. My feet would strike a rhythm in the alley, and my eyes would begin to focus on all the remarkable and unremarkable things that stitch together a place. I’d find myself marveling at a big Doug fir in a weedy lot, a neon sign in the window of an old bar, the way the skyline of the city popped out against the distant mountains. Before long I’d have once again bought into the hybrid ethos: the guiding principle that, all else being equal, it’s probably best just to run from your damn door.
From Summer 2022