The dance of self and place

I awoke this morning missing mountains. 

It seems strange that after a longer outing yesterday that took me up and down nearly 8,000 feet over 100 kilometres of cycling I would miss the mountains, but I think that yesterday’s adventure kindled a sense of self I have missed these past months — the feeling of pushing (or, more often crawling) up 20% slopes surrounded by the open moor reminding both body and spirit of their connection to the world. 

Perhaps inspired by these thoughts, today I dusted off a chapter from my book in progress, Running North, and spent some time revising. I share an excerpt below. 

Enjoy. 

‎⁨Padjelanta National Park⁩, ⁨Sweden⁩, 2017

This is what I know.

I have run into the night in a land where the sun refused to set and the sky stayed resolutely, defiantly bright. I have run upward into the cooling dark of an alpine night at 11,000 feet. I have run from the predawn to sunset on low ridges near the sea. I have traced contour lines on steeply wooded mountain slopes written indelibly into the landscape by century-old logging roads, their vestiges slowly sliding on a downslope verge.  I have run mountain ranges from end to end, among the cobblestones of Europe’s oldest cities, to some of America’s highest peaks, across countries, volcanoes, beside glaciers, rivers, lakes, along suburban streets, and up and down stadium steps. 

And I will not stop running. 

There is a strong, resounding connection between the act of running, my sense of self, and the world into which my body passes when I leave everything else behind. Sometimes, when I slip into the darkness of a long run, or I can trace the arc of the sun between stunted birch and spruce and fir along high ridges, or navigate by granite tors across miles of undulating moorland near my home — when the cadence of shoes on earth and wood and stone entwines me in the rhythm of the place I run — this is where I feel the bounds of body, spirit, soil, and mountain dissolve before me — it is where I become closest to this world.

Long Trail, Vermont, 2018

In my now more than 30 years of trail running, I have followed the contours of mountain trails — as fast and for as long as they will let me — sometimes overgrown, sometimes lost entirely to history or to the re-wilding of the forest around me. 

Sometimes the trails I follow are more ideas, or memories rather than the foot-worn paths that skitter among low slopes of nettle and birch, across mossy outcrops of schist, and higher, through dense nests of krummholz holding fast fiercely against high alpine winds. 

The ripples and rolls of earth and stone — usually underfoot, but I recall the many times I’ve felt for subtle ridges and swales of stone as I’ve inched my way up ledges along exposed ridges and at the tops of remotest tors. In the woods, they vary enough for my foot to gain purchase enough to propel me upward, sometimes to a gnarled elbow of spruce, smooth with use — sometimes to a shallow hole filled with matted leaves of ash and beech — and sometimes just a shift of weight is enough to hold me on the slope, stepping upward into more forgiving matts of duff before moving ever onward.

How much does one remember from a 40-mile day on the trail? I’d like to say everything — every rock, fissure, root, slope, hidden hole, stream I’ve hopped over on rounded, slippery stones — but that’s not true of course. As time passes, there are whole days that I can hardly remember; there are days when I wish that I could remember more of the place, more of what I had felt as the rain began to ease or the wind rise from a mountain col, more of what I had been thinking at the time. 

What does stay with me, etched deeply within each successive step I take, is the feeling of being utterly immersed in a dance of body, place, and time, when I have given myself up entirely to the process, to the rhythm of self and place. 

I become calligraphy, in Thomas Merton’s words, writ large on the landscape — not in indelible marks etched into soil and stone, but as ephemeral script that settles within my soul as I continue on my way — having shared my self with that place, it is forever with me. 

These are the thoughts I carry with me on every run I take, and even when circumstance keeps me close to home or on the roads, I hold those moments close and dear. 

Valley of the West Dart, Dartmoor, 2020

3 thoughts on “The dance of self and place

  1. Victor Schoen says:

    HI Pavel,
    Beautiful prose. I enjoyed reading this excerpt and look forward to reading your book.

    Question: Is the “sentence” just under the picture of The Long Trail a sentence?

    Like

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