Wednesday, December 31, 2008


I do not like to run. I do not like strange places. I do, however, through some contrary alchemy, like running in strange places. Today I put on my new ear warmers and ran hesitantly through a run-down neighborhood in western North Carolina. The streets were the shifty kind, moving up and down and wiggling around when you weren't looking. There were no sidewalks. I ran up past the trailer park, away from the big black dog, down the hill that dumped you into the parking lot of Lowes. I got lost, then set myself straight. The mountains were hangdog and gentle; the sky was very blue.

At home, I have to trick myself into running. You'll only be out for a minute, I whisper. You can stop when you get to the end of the block, end of the park, end of the road. Running is uncomfortable and undignified and hard on the joints; it is not natural, like walking, or easy, like dancing. Yet, every time I go away, I take care to pack my running shoes. Sometimes they fill up half the tiny suitcase. Sometimes I take them in preference to other, more useful shoes, shoes that signal dignity or adulthood or anything other than "I run and I'm too cheap to be ashamed of lime green."

In 2008 I ran from one town to another in Connecticut. I ran down to the sea and back on a lonely road in Maine. I ran between strip malls in suburban L.A., under the eucalyptus trees in Palo Alto, up to the top of the hill in eastern Kansas, down the Colorado canyon, through the Ohio arboretum, past the early-morning drunks on the strict streets of that cinderblock Nevada town.

Sure, I could have walked. I would have been happier. I would have been considerably less out of breath. And, truthfully, I could have spared more of myself to observe, closely, the places in which I found myself. I might have cataloged more of the loveliness, more of the ugliness, simply more. According to journalist Paul Mowrer, “There is nothing like walking to get the feel of a country. A fine landscape is like a piece of music; it must be taken at the right tempo. Even a bicycle goes too fast.”

Still, there is that peculiar junction of strangeness and sweat that is running in new country. With all due respect to Mowrer, sometimes I think that a place truly impresses itself upon you not when you're taking it at any particular tempo, but when it's taking you: slow up the rise, quick down the hill, steady on the flat. If you let a place tax you, let it settle in your joints, you carry it with you when you go.

So long, 2008, you knee-grinding SOB.

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