Saturday, April 9, 2011

Lone Runner on a Long Road

From the Running Journal, April, 2011.

The lonely miles stretch through the long night. It is nearing midnight, and I’ve been running seventeen hours; I have seven more to go if I’m going to turn in a respectable time for a 100-mile distance. Around three dozen of us are strung out along dirt roads on this out-and-back course across the Kansas prairie.

So widely spaced are we, no runner’s light is visible to the front or back. Vehicles and houses are rare. I run alone, as I like to do. No human turns me from what I want to see and hear, or alters the thoughts I think.

The running has affected my sight. I can distinguish shapes but details are quite blurry—the Heartland 100-cum-American Impressionism.

I stop in the road and stand looking at the heavens—all blurry, the moon and stars. I turn out my light to sky gaze better. The moon is a fat crescent and will set long before I finish this race. A few clouds to the south glow translucent around the edges, outlined by the moon’s backlighting. There’s nothing here but the wind, the prairie, and me. This road may not see a car all day long. The view is marred by blinking light beacons on the horizon, visible across impossible distance in this open space. They annoy me, and I’d like to snuff them out.

I turn eastward, gazing skyward. In the corner of my eye, suddenly I see a dark figure lunge at my back. It’s too late! Instinctively I spin around to face the assault, fumbling with the light switch. The light flashes.

The beam blasts the intruder into the cosmic ether.

Gathering myself, I make a discovery. It’s my shadow, my moon shadow, nothing else. I stand looking stupidly at the figure in the road, its menacing darkness unwelcome in my post fright. I aim my light at it, blasting the wicked thing in two; the bright spot vaporizes its heart. I kill it at will and just as easily resurrect it. Turn the light away; the shadow lives again, none the worst for its recent death. It exists on my whim. I play God.

Baloney! It’s only a shadow. Granting full pardon, I turn my back and trot on. My benevolence is large, my study of the heavens finished. The run remains.

The synthetic world presses in, an unwelcome intrusion. Strobe lights and rotating beacons flash their warning, “tower here.” Some blink in clusters, like a field of towers—somebody cultivating the ugly invaders like photonic corn. I see cities, too, sprawling light clumps on the distant horizon, spreading a glow into the prairie night. It’s a panoramic surplus of light, an orgy of photons. Perspective lost to the dark makes the lights seem close. They are…just…right there. You aren’t lost, they say to the runner. This is a cozy place, a small space, after all. Just pick a light and go to it. There’s an easy way out.

But I’m not buying it. The reality is the prairie; the illusion is the lights. Those lights lie; they are a long way away. I didn’t see those towers during the day. How far away?—twenty, thirty, forty miles? Who knows; take your pick. It’s all the same to one on foot—a long way to anywhere. It’s an illusion, diminishment of the prairie by those lights. They don’t diminish the prairie; they diminish me. And mock my efforts to cross it. The prairie is real, austere; it doesn’t care. Let the lights blink. These prairie hills are made of flint, a hard rock that wears slowly, abides long. The wind blows across them, the coyotes howl, and prairie chickens cluck to their chicks each spring. The prairie is true; the lights are false. I chose the prairie and curse the lights. Damn the lights.

A pack of coyotes starts up on a hill to my left—yelping, barking, howling, yodeling squalls, everyone singing his part. The outcry could be mourning at a funeral, or rather a celebration of the coming Hunter’s Moon. I don’t know; the language is primal, not understood by me. There is the sudden nearby sound of hoofs pounding. A couple of nervous horses running away, maybe spooked by my light, wary this Saturday night. The canine singing continues. Soon a lone coyote answers from the right. The loner and the pack conduct a call-and-answer serenata across the road. Coyotes are pack animals. The lone one can't be too happy about being alone. I leave them to their coyote concerns and run on, passing out of hearing.

But the coyote action is not yet finished. Soon another one starts up near me, just to the right. The sound is pathetic and lonely. No one answers; he is alone. He squalls out agonized cries, formless screams of misery and pain. No one helps him. He cries alone in the night.