I run in a place by my home in a wooded sanctuary that surrounds an old 1800’s mill with a paddlewheel that moves the mill stone that grinds the corn into cornmeal. I have been coming here since I was a child, going into the dark cool mill house to watch the miller make cornmeal. My mother turned this gold dust into delicious cornbread and corn muffins. I can taste it now right out of the oven warm with butter melting deliciously down the sides of it. I get a lot of my inspiration for stories and poems from running the paths of this place.
Getting out of my car in the parking lot, I am braced by the cold of the day. The rain has finally stopped and this is the first day in some time that the sun is out. The parking lot is full but I don’t see anyone outside or on the trails. They must be in the Nature Center, or deep in a trail somewhere. That’s fine with me; I like the solitude to start my day. There are two separate trails, this one runs for half a mile and ends at the mill. It has a nature center and most importantly to me, bathrooms. So, I park here and run the half mile to the mill, turn around and go back to the mile mark and do it all again until I am done with my two miles. But not today, today I am bored with the monotony of it and so I run through the mill perimeter and down to the other trail that will take me two and a half miles through the woods and over a bridge to my awaiting car.
As I run, turning the corner onto the path, I am swallowed up by the trees. I am overcome with the smell of the woods in fall. That earthy smell, the decay of the leaves bringing a comforting assurance of life’s cycles. No matter what else happens in life, no matter how much upheaval and change there is, we can always count on this death of a season and birth of another. I look down as I run and there are leaves scattered across the path, as if it were paint spatters on a painter’s palette. There are green ones, brown, orange, purple and of course my favorite, the brilliant red ones. They jump out at me as I look down, telling me to look at them. I want to stop and pick one up to keep but I must keep running and I don’t have anywhere to put it anyway. My hands filled with keys and Kleenex. My allergies are year round but in the fall and winter, much worse. With the cold wind stinging my eyes I have to slow to wipe away the tears and wipe my nose. A runner is coming down the path toward me; I wonder if she thinks I am crying, but I am not. I am grateful that I have eyes that see and can tear. I think of the friend whose wife recently woke up from an operation on a tumor near her optic nerve and couldn’t see, she is now permanently blind. I thankfully blot away the tears in my eyes.
I keep running along the curved paths thinking that around the next bend I will see the bridge, near the end of the trail, but I don’t, it’s just another ruse as if the woods are mocking me. I keep looking for it and finally see the bridge, I run faster motivated by the sight of it. I run up its curved planks running by a woman stopped at the bridge stretching. I saw her earlier running up ahead of me; she must be done with her run, lucky girl maybe I will stop for a bit and talk to her, my mind begs. No, I say to myself sternly as my resolve returns. I struggle up the bridge and back down the other side. I don’t have too much farther to go, I think to myself, a warm feeling of relief and satisfaction comes over me. Why do we runners run? Why do I run? I wonder.
It is hard, sometimes you flame out and can’t continue; sometimes you get injured and must quit the race. But then there are those times that after the struggle and fatigue and when you get to your wall and feel like you can’t go on another step, something deep inside of you kicks in and spurs you on, until you finish. This resolve spilling over in to other parts of my life helping me run those paths. I come out of my deep thoughts just as I follow the path around one more bend and look up to see the path rising steeply ahead of me. My mind seems to always diminish this in my memory. I always seem to forget this is here until I am upon it gasping for air as my leaden legs try to move back and forth as if by shear will I can make it.
I labor along thinking I am not going to make it, I slow to a walk, thinking of giving up. I start to think of our friend’s wife again and feel guilty for thinking this or anything else in my life is hard. I say a prayer of thanks mechanically, as a way of moving on and trying to forget about that feeling. The helplessness we feel when something terrible happens to someone we know. I finally hit the rise and see the path laid out before me all downhill ending at my destination; the nature center, and my car. As I run down the hill picking up speed, I look down at the leaves that scatter as my feet hit the ground, I smile; the red ones are my favorite.