Sunrise and fog and a pond beside the road greet the Vol State runner
No town I run through presents two faces as starkly distinct as Parsons, Tennessee.
Three times now I’ve approached the western edge of the town on a Saturday afternoon, afoot, tired and hungry. It’s where I always end up on the third night of the Last Annual Vol State Road Race, a multi-day journey stretching 314 miles from Missouri to Georgia. I settle into the Parsons Inn, a shabby fifties-era motel, sleep a few hours and then run on through town in the dark hours of early Sunday morning. I like that run. There is a tranquil quality to my secret passage. The stores and streets are asleep; an eerie silence grips all I see around me. The aggregate of street lamps, storefronts and neon signs bring a grainy, warm light falling to the pavement.
So I look forward to that dark run. It has left me with sweet memories. Darkness is like a new snowfall. It smooths and softens terrain to its canonical essence, one punctuated by points of light randomly scattered across the countryside. That’s how it is when I reach the far side of town. When the moon is bright enough, I may see a bed of fog blanketing a vale.
But in darkness, it is sound that defines night and gives it meaning. A chorus of tree frogs, a grunting bullfrog, a distant hoot owl calling, a whippoorwill crying his name-sake song, all these sounds play their passage against the steady keening of a million katydids. These familiar sounds—now largely lost to most people—bring a nostalgic glow, a memory of growing up in the country in an era when their nightly presence was prevalent.
While I remember my previous runs through Parsons and I look forward to another one, sadly it must be noted, there is another side to Parsons. Near here was the scene of the abduction and murder of young nursing student Holly Bobo by four men in 2011, one of the most horrific crimes in recent Tennessee memory. On my first run here, in 2013, her remains had not been located. Hope remained she might be alive somewhere. Before my second run, in 2015, two hunters had found her skull. Three men now stand indicted for murder. A fourth committed suicide. At the present time, in 2017, the trial yet pends. The memory of loss and pain and heartbreak suffered by the young woman’s family and friends will last forever.
On this Sunday morning I stumble out of the hotel and pick my way across its pock-marked parking lot. I enter U.S. 412, which is also Main Street. In daylight it is choked with traffic. Cars and trucks are absent this hour.
Although, I can generally see where I’m going, I have only one eye and my night vision is poor. I use a flashlight to avoid twisting an ankle on road debris or a pot hole. Yesterday a hard summer rain came, leaving the ground and air full of moisture. As a result, the night is shrouded in fog. It wraps everything. Light reflects dimly on the street. Visual range is low, the night is close and surreal. The fog wraps me in a ghostly chill.
I walk down Main Street, beginning my fourth day on the road. It will take me eight days to finish this run. I don’t try to go faster than that. I have some 200 miles yet to go. I generally don’t get a lot of rest or sleep during the run. My tired legs need a chance to warm up a bit before I start running. So I walk for now.
I follow my flashlight past the dark stores. Fuzzy halos glow in the fog around street lights. I carry no weapon. Yet I have not been afraid on my runs across Tennessee. This morning I stay wary and alert and occasionally look behind me. Just careful. I recall a pit bull making his nightly round on my last run down this street. He showed no interest in me.
A tall object appears ahead. I peer hard. It could be a person or something else. As I approach closer the object gradually emerges from the fog. It turns out to be just another road sign, not a lurking person. The fog is at once intimate and deceptive, bringing uncertainty, uneasiness. Uneasy or not, the demands of Vol State mean running on all kinds of roads, day and night, fog or not. I drift on, watchful and alert.
A man’s voice shatters the night:
I look toward the call, to the right. Nothing. Only a dark drive-in, a Sonic.
“Who’s there?” I call.
Ah, John Price. I recognize the voice now. He has run this race ten times, and likely knows more about it than anybody. He shifts his position slightly and sits upright. Now I see. I can make out his bright rust-colored tee at the edge of the parking lot. Last night, when he reached Parsons Inn, the lone hotel here, no rooms were available, he explains. He spent the night sleeping on the pavement of the drive-in parking lot. We are runners. No one carries a sleeping bag. Pavement, a concrete slab, that’s all we need. Such is our exhaustion. I wish him good luck, and drift on.
It occurs to me, I didn’t ask him if he needed anything. We unaided runners are allowed help from random strangers and from other unaided runners. I have a Payday candy bar he might’ve used for breakfast. But I didn’t ask. I was rude. Because he is so eminently competent at this race, it didn’t occur to me that he might need anything. Too late now.
I reach the beginning of countryside now and once again hear the katydids, the frogs, as I’d hoped. But there is a pox on the night. No owl calls, no whippoorwill cries. As before, forms loom ahead, grow close as I trudge, emerge from fog, and then turn into familiar objects, trash cans, sign posts, and so on. It’s a tired joke they play on me.
To the right, slightly higher than the two-lane road, is a nondescript field of mixed fescue and weeds, all wet with dew. A form looms in it, too. Another ghostly illusion, I pay it no mind – a snag or gate post. I walk on until I draw even with the still form. Then I realize the object is shaped like a woman.
It is a woman! I can see clearer. She wears blond, shoulder-length hair, black tee shirt, and jeans. She stands perfectly still, alone in the wet fescue. She speaks:
“Do you have a cigarette?”
“Uh, no, sure don’t.”
“I need a cigarette.”
The machine is broke. I can’t get any cigarettes.”
“I was gonna walk to the store and get some. But I’m barefoot and this field is full of rocks!”
She picks up an apple-sized rock in disgust and pitches underhand. The rock bounces and clatters to a stop on the pavement in front of me, an angular chunk, chert maybe.
“Yeah, if you’re gonna walk, you need to be on the road where it’s smooth,” I observe helpfully. “Did you say your car is broke?”
“No, my car is fine. I’ve been drinking and I don’t want to drive.”
I remember, there’s a beer joint just ahead.
“I need a cigarette.”
I’m a runner carrying little more than water. I don’t have cigarettes. I don’t know how to help her. But help is nearby.
He enters from the left edge, a young man of medium height and wavy dark hair, wearing a dark tee and jeans. He walks toward her, never once looking at me, gazing straight at her, stepping carefully and slightly high in the wet weeds, walking gingerly but determined, never looking to the side, his gaze locked hard on her. A bird dog going on point. She knows what he wants, but it’s not what she wants. She wants a cigarette.
“I need a cigarette.”
He stops and asks her something quietly. She demurs.
“I need a cigarette!”
He says it again.
“I told you, I need a cigarette!”
He grows more insistent. The disagreement continues. He curves forward and puts his hands on her arms. She twists away and yells,
“I need a fucking cigarette!”
Her squall cuts through the fog like a blunt plow.
It’s a domestic scene, I decide. Time to leave it. Time to move on. The clock is running. The clock is always running. It never stops. I need to be running, too. I drift on and leave the couple quarrelling in the wet field.
The fog is growing lighter now. After a brief distance, I look back over my shoulder. I’m surprised to see another runner. It is New Jersey runner Shamus Babcock, a smart, engaging man. He wears a black beard that tapers and curves to a point below his chin. It makes him look like Satan. He comes through the fog like a mirage. It could be the Devil rising on the roiling smoke of hellfire. But it is fog, not smoke. And Shamus is a friendly man. I turn and wait. The woman with the nicotine jones is still on my mind.
“Did you witness that scene?” I ask.
“Yeah. If you’re gonna spend the night drinking you oughta have plenty of cigarettes on hand.”
Shamus sums it up neatly in a single knowing sentence. The woman made a mistake. She should’ve had two packs in her purse. Now she’ll likely have to make a Sunday morning deal, that or face more withdrawal.
We walk along together, Shamus and I. Soon Shamus peels off to the side for a pit stop. I continue on, alone again. Six miles from Parsons U.S. 412 crosses the Tennessee River over a high plate-girder deck bridge. I look forward to it. On my last run here, I watched the sunrise from the bridge’s west abutment, the sun reflecting in the river below. Approaching, I realize I’ll see no sunrise this time. The fog hangs on stubbornly. As I cross the bridge even the river below is hidden by mist. At least the fog makes for cool air.
Parsons started my day. Many things will happen before Hohenwald ends it:
A little lost dog, black as night, will follow me for two hours leaving his home, likely somewhere in Parsons, miles behind, until Natalia Harrison, a runner from Fort Worth, Texas, passes me. Then he will choose her. Later I’ll hear from some runners that he found a new home, with a family living near the road who adopted him on the spot.
A man named Terence Teague in cowboy boots and a Predators hat will give me cold water and a peel-top cup of peaches that I save for breakfast the next morning. And he’ll tell me he drove from his home in Lexington, three towns away, to help runners, so moved was he by a Vol State story he’d heard. He will also tell me that Holly Bobo was like family.
And running friend Ladona Lawson from Franklin, Tennessee, whom I’ve not seen much in recent years, will drive to Hohenwald to catch me on the course there, visit roadside in the hot sun, and then drive into town to wait for me at Rio Colorado, a Mexican restaurant, where I can have a rare sit-down meal and a friend to talk with.
Before this year’s run started, I mentioned to Race Director Lazarus Lake that I wanted to make a run empty of drama, one so boring it wouldn’t be worth writing. “That’s not possible,” he’d replied. “Something always happens.” He was right, of course. Something always happens.
The town of Parsons started this day. A story happened. Written or not, it haunts. There are dozens of such towns scattered along our 314-mile path. We pass through them like shadows. Each town is packed with aching stories of the human heart. Some of them find me.