A truth in the wild
By Marlene Farrell
When I started running at 13, I thought it was about exercise and independence. I ran alone, and worked skinny muscles until they were capable of propelling me up hills, and further from home.
Unexpectedly, running taught me to forget myself, to be open to whatever my surroundings had to offer. Running stripped me down to essentials, and I moved, as I knew how, like my ancestors. I let my senses guide me, and I found wildness.
I felt compelled to run longer, breaking free of neighborhoods, following a rails-to-trails bike path. As I ran west, the northern Virginia suburbia fell away, replaced by ragged clumps of woods edging farmers’ fields. I passed other solitary runners and bikers though mostly I saw rabbits, cardinals and robins. Sometimes a cottontail would bolt, racing ahead of me, instead of darting into a thicket. I would pretend I was the first runner it met.
Through my college years and early twenties, running enabled me to find wild oases in urban settings. I frequented wooded paths and those beside creeks and lakes.
Now I live in a mountain town bordered by federally protected forest, where cougars are spotted and occasionally shot if they play with someone’s pet. I run often in the dusky gray of dawn. I’m apt to collide with wildness, with its yellow eyes and fondness of shadows.
One dark morning I followed my headlamp’s beam, when the sound of my footsteps doubled. Something was in the bushes to my left. A new friend, I guessed, a dog wanting to play.
The thrashing stopped, replaced by scrabbling and scratching. I swung my light left and down, seeing nothing. As I raised the beam, there at head height, two feet from me, was a young bear wrapped around a tree trunk. Her eyes shone straight at me. Not blinking. I was entranced, with no sense of fear. I was blinding her, but I couldn’t help it. She would be lost to me if I turned off the light. We were unmoving except our exhalations in the cold air.
I wanted to beckon to her to come with me. I wanted to touch her, run my fingers across her thick pelt.
I left her there and jogged on. Solitude engulfed me again. I wonder how often my passing is noticed, how often a head turns to inhale a whiff of me or cocks an ear to judge my size and speed. On a rare occasion, I look at the right moment, in the right direction, and we lock eyes. Perhaps we are equally curious, not really knowing, but acknowledging.
Sometimes curiosity is one-sided, but the encounter still rocks me. That’s what happened when on a recent trip to the coast. I ran on the beach. The wind whipped me with sand, and the waves crushed all thoughts of myself. At the lighthouse I turned and paused, taking in the pinks blooming in the southern sky.
In the corner of my vision was a black flash. The shape was too sharp to be a seal. Then I saw a smooth head and tall crescent fin break the surface. There were more — a train of five orcas. They were halfway between me and a buoy, which marked a hazardous rock. With unabashed glee, I ran along the beach toward them. Every time they dove my eyes fixed on where they would next appear. The leader spouted a cloud of mist each time he rose. Fins were close to one another — a calf hugging its mother’s flank. I jogged along, staying parallel to their path.
I felt an urge to turn and run into the slapping waves until the thigh-high water demanded I dive, shucking off shoes and untying the jacket around my waist. I’d never make it.
My heart pounded, and I wanted to sing out every time the leader rose up. Finally, they veered toward deeper water, and I lost sight of them.
These moments of photographic clarity, imbued by a runner’s high, stay with me. When I am hollow inside, they come to me. I close my eyes, breathe deeply and feel a wild presence beside me, a temporary companion. Inside my chest something strong and light throbs against the curvature of my rib cage. And silent behemoths weave a smooth rhythm behind my eyelids. I open my eyes and see the world through their eyes too. I am free of doubt and free to be in the moment, knowing it won’t last. It slips away. I run, and the moments and wildness find me.
Marlene Farrell is a Leavenworth resident, long-distance runner and coach with the Peshastin-Dryden Striders kids running club. She’s also a heck of a good writer.