Thursday, December 25, 2014

All I Want for Christmas is a Little Snow

A white Christmas is not just a line from a song or a Hollywood-esque, commercial vision for me. It’s something that I grew up with. My family would spend the holiday vacation on the farm with our grandparents and relatives, feeding cattle and building snow forts.

One winter vacation, when I was running on the high school cross country and track team, I went for a run in the freshly fallen snow. I ran several miles up the road and past the neighboring farm. By the time I turned to come back my tracks had vanished beneath a fresh carpet of powder. When I finished the run, my hair was covered in a layer of white dust and my proud, teenage goatee was coated in my own frozen breath.

It was an amazing experience, running alone in completely baffled silence through the thickly falling flakes. It was also an experience that I would not repeat for many years. Through several moves, and Army dictated adventures, I would not enjoy very many white Christmases for more than a decade.

Until now.

Char and I flew to Wyoming for the Christmas holiday to see her family before we left the states for a three-year extended vacation overseas.

Ok, pretty much everything I do is one form of a vacation or other.

The weather reports looked pretty solid to bring us some new snow on Christmas Day. When we woke up, sure enough, it was snowing. There was a solid two inches already sticking on the ground.

Yup, that's a white Christmas, alright.
I got what I wanted for Christmas, so I decided to unwrap my gift the best way I know how.

Char and I slipped on some winter gear, prepped for the mid-20-degree temperature waiting for us, and took off down the road.

The road out of town led up into the hills out of the valley. My lungs were burning from the extra 6,000 feet of elevation and the steady climbing of the lonely, snow-covered road.

That is a long and lonesome road when you're on foot.
 A mile into the run I stopped at the wild horse holding facility to see the horses and burros milling about in corrals, thick and fuzzy with their winter coats. The neigh of a wild horse is like nothing I’ve heard before. Imagine a horse whinny and a pig squeal mashed together and you’ve just about got it.

The road continued to wind slowly up into the hills and the silence grew more profound, more complete. The sounds of the city behind us, of people waking up to a wintery Christmas morning, were obscured behind thick curtains of falling flakes.

I must admit, I find supreme joy in the solitary enterprise of running. The solitude brought on by the snowstorm, along with the physical challenge of running through snowdrifts, left me ecstatic.

There’s something special and moving about leaving tracks in freshly fallen snow where no one else has yet tread.

Close to my turnaround time I came to what looked like a mountain rising up from the road. I just had to climb it. Slowly, I trotted carefully up the slick trail towards the peak, picking my way carefully across the snowdrifts and subtly hidden rocks. Twice I stopped to catch my breath and enjoy the view back into the valley, my lungs were on fire and my legs were starting to give out. At the top, I realized my mountain was only the edge of the prairie that sits above the town nestled in the river valley. The view was pretty awesome, even though the snow was now falling much heavier and quickly swallowing up the surrounding landscape.

Catching up to Charla, we could barely
see each other from a distance.
During most of the run, I had felt quite warm and even a little sweaty. Now, the wind was picking up and the flakes were falling hard and fast. It was time to go home. I started to pick my way down the hill back to the road when I realized that I might be in serious trouble.

One of the most important rules about running in the snow: Don’t lose your own tracks, or you won’t know how to get home. And I came real close to doing just that. For a minute or two I wandered across the face of the hill, searching the snowdrifts before I found my own trail that led me back to my road home. Getting lost in a snowstorm would have been pretty embarrassing. And a little cold.

The run home was only slightly less peaceful with wind and snow blowing into my face and clogging up my glasses with ice. But, it was all downhill, and I made good time following footprints left by Charla, trotting along in the snow somewhere ahead of me.

Her hair is completely frozen.
I couldn't help but laugh.
We came together just a few blocks from the end, and jogged slowly together, savoring this silent winter wonderland that we had been given.

It really did feel like the empty road and falling snow was a Christmas gift, just for us. And we made sure to unwrap it right away.

How else do you finish a run this awesome?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Autumn is all about Transformation

The first rule of trail running is:

Don’t fall down, roll your ankle, fall off the cliff, get hit by descending mountain bikers, crash into the random Japanese tourist doing shinrin-yoku or forest bathing, get eaten by a bear, molested by bees, or run face first into that tree branch that you should have seen coming.

Sounds easy enough.

I've run in the deserts of the Southwestern States and the Middle East. I've run on pavement and dirt trails all across the world. I've run marathons in Texas, D.C., New Mexico, and Hawaii. 

I've never run on trails like these: East Coast forests in the coastal plain, right at the height of autumn, with soft dirt paths surrounded by endless trees.
We had planned to explore a new trail every weekend, but quickly subsumed to our three favorites.

And, as we ran deeper into autumn, we watched the world change around us.

Everywhere we looked, the leaves were aflame with vibrant oranges and yellows; many had already fallen and cushioned the ground in a blanket of wet, brown tetrahedrons of dead leaves.

They also hid the ankle breaking rocks and roots. But, in the end, we both survived.

Trail running in these forested paths has been a lesson in life and change. As the autumn wore on, the forest transformed before our eyes. Our first runs were through a forest aflame with the early days of fall, the leaves under our feet still wet and cushioning every footfall. The walls of trees were still thick with their vibrant garb, hanging thickly and obscuring both vision and sound from carrying far. Squirrels rustling through the leaves moved unseen and nearly silent apart from their intermittent chatter or light crunch in a pile of dead and dried debris.

As the months wore away, the air cooled and the land drifted towards its long sleep. We exchanged shorts, t-shirts, and hats for warm caps, tights, and jackets. The ground hardened, and the leaves that had wetly cushioned our footfalls before now crackled loudly with every step. The acrid smell of sawdust permeated each breath; thousands of leaves ground to powder under the feet of passersby. Each carefully placed step of a squirrel now echoed through the brush, sharp staccatos rebounding off the bark and magnified through the forest. Bird cries shrieked through the treetops. Intermittent wafts of wood smoke drifted from barely hidden homes fighting off the morning chill.

Soon the first freeze came and the forest became both silent and louder simultaneously. The denuded trees loomed silently over the path, their palette of splendor stripped but revealing other wonders previously hidden. Behind their exposed fa├žade lay quiet homes, tucked into the hillsides; a meandering, icy stream, occasionally crashing over frost covered rocks; and dashing squirrels, their leaping and bounding through the woods now laid bare for the passing eye. Birds, previously hidden, now flaunted their colors through the treetops. Woodpeckers, brightly adorned, flitted from tree to tree. Scarlet cardinals darted between branches. The ground became hard, the leaves crunched sickly underfoot, everything coated in a thin layer of ice. Formerly trustworthy ground became slick and treacherous with ice. Sucking patches of mud became uneven patches of frozen earth.

Change happened swiftly even during a single run. As the sun rose, the ground changed, ice thawed and became slick, wooden footbridges dried out. The air became less harsh, snowflakes giving way to sunshine and warmth.

As with life, change is constant. Before, I had thought upon winter as a time of dying trees and bare, forbidding woods. Now, I understand a little better just how a forest can fall asleep, while also coming to life.

Winter isn’t about things ending; it’s about life transforming and changing. All it took was a little trip to the East Coast to watch autumn fall to teach me a little about life.