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Thinking Like A Sidewalk

How winter road running brings one writer closer to nature. 

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This essay from our editor in chief appears in our latest print edition of Trail Runner. We hope you’ll join the TR family by joining here!

I struggle running in circles, but I’ve realized that says more about me than the concrete.

For a trail runner, someone who prides herself on exploring the expanses of the outdoors, I judge myself when forced to migrate out of the snowed-in high country like a migrating elk and succumb to the dry valleys below in search of safety and…the unsexy sidewalk.

Winter route choice is all about creativity. Not in the classic sense, as in Picasso or Proust, but in the manner that someone on a desert island might attempt to befriend a basketball. You work with, and celebrate, what you have. 

My hometown of Carbondale, Colorado is buried in enough snow each winter to force most of us to become connoisseurs of concrete. Having spent the spring inviting peaking greens, all summer squinting across a singed expanse, and the fall celebrating the leafy explosion, each winter I relearn how to appreciate the gradations between smoke, cool ash, slate, pewter and pearl.

Socked in all winter aside from skiing, those snow-covered alpine ridgelines tug at my gut from afar. Though the grimy sidewalk might not celebrate as flamboyant, tracing the circumference of a hibernating manicured lawn an acute question stopped me in my tracks mid-run.

Why wasn’t I able to value this outdoor space for what it offers? What makes the sidewalk feel so…lost, compared to the scrub forest it used to be?

Possibly because these spaces are what poet/essayist Gary Snyder described as “‘natural’ but not “wild” in his essay collection, The Practice of Wild. They provide a habitat, but only for a very specific type of wildlife: humans. 

“Wilderness is a place where the wild potential is fully expressed,” he asserted, “a diversity of living and nonliving beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order.”

We’ve all known a “trail runner” who resolutely refuses to run on roads. If you don’t know that person, it’s likely you are that person. He is lurking in the comment section right now, ready to demonstrate the purity of his connection to the trail and vilify anyone who might dare to claim that fun, joy or even sublime connection can be found on the suburban sidewalk or bike path through the park. But aren’t there pitfalls in attaching an athlete’s identity to experiencing the “right kinds” of wildness?

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winter running
(Photo: Getty Images)

My first winter living in the Rocky Mountains, I scraped together enough money to join the Aspen rec center, a sheltered retreat from the blustering snowstorms that made this southern gal wonder why anyone would choose to live in such a place. 

Unaccustomed to living in a town so snowy that avalanche charges regularly echoed through the narrow valley, I retreated to the warm, dry safety of the rec center’s treadmill. Situated near a wall-sized window that overlooked Maroon Creek, I plodded along to the smooth, artificial rhythm of the belt, gazing out at the beauty of that valley day after day. 

Alone on my mechanized hamster wheel, I became keenly aware of the small comings and goings just outside that window. The regulars included a nuthatch, extravagantly puffed against the cold. He would flit across the thin branch of a pine tree, whose boughs waved in a friendly, constant hello. Deer would wander from the creekbed, their steady gaze an amicable acknowledgment. Occasionally, a pair of beady black eyes would wink in the bright snow, and the delicate powder would move just enough to trace the slender outline of an ermine. 

I realized what made me feel part of the wild was not physical proximity, but emotional. The intimate connections I formed with my wintery tableau from the treadmill felt as real and important as any experience on the trail. I became more familiar with that patch of snowy creekbed than many people ever would, and even worried when my nuthatch friend failed to report for pine-branch duty (If you’re reading this, please reach out). 

The treadmill window allowed me to become what Ralph Waldo Emerson called the “transparent eyeball” in his essay, “Nature.”

I am nothing, I see all. 

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After Colorado thawed and I ended my brief but intense fling with the treadmill window, I was back on the sidewalks, resolved to run while more aware of the nature unfolding around me by collapsing the space between wilderness and me. 

Now I see the bouquet of moss and fungi that grow in the cracks in the sidewalk. I make eye contact with deer when they scamper across the street. I befriend the spider living in the corner of my apartment because he’s wild too, and to deny the wild out there is to deny the wild in us as well, according to Snyder.

“Our bodies are wild. The involuntary quick turn of the head at a shout, the vertigo at looking off a precipice, the heart-in-the-throat in a moment of danger, the catch of the breath, the quiet moments relaxing, staring, reflecting — all universal responses of this mammal body.”

We carry the wild with us, in us. Disconnecting from that led to the lack of wholeness I felt looking up at the Colorado wilderness from my sidewalk refuge. 

Snyder would call the development of that humility a practice because it demands it. Similar to a new strength routine, or a pre-race visualization, cultivating the habit of noticing the confident posture of a rook on its telephone pole perch takes focus, intent and repetition.

This demands turning attention toward the rustle of grass that says you aren’t running solo or the shallow pawprint that shows you aren’t the only critter perfecting their strides. Each run offers an opportunity to broaden our understanding of what wildness is, and connect with it in and around ourselves. 

Perhaps the sidewalk doldrums are due less to the monochrome concrete as the decline in our ability to appreciate the wilderness that exists between the cracks, and that exists in us.  It’s one thing to value a majestic vista worthy of posting on Instagram, something more subtle to celebrate the subtlety of snowy sidewalk. 

My hope for this winter is that it unwinds the false dichotomy of what is tame and what is wild. That it collapses my sense of distance between intimate experiences of wildness in the woods and nature out on suburban daily runs. 

The value of this practice less might feel less obvious than workouts intended to increase your aerobic capacity, but athletes, as animals, need seasons as well. Summer strength is harnessed through winter nadir. 

Aldo Leopold famously highlighted the importance of considering all aspects of an ecosystem in his essay Thinking Like A Mountain, but I think it could also be useful to learn to think like a sidewalk. By discarding romantic ideals of nature, of what is natural, and instead simply trying and learning to connect with what is. 

Sidewalks, treadmills and trails: all can be paths to connection if we’re willing to be open to the subtlety of winter.

Zoë Rom is Editor in Chief at Trail Runner.