A single step

In the 14th century, German theologian and mystic, Meister Eckhardt, wrote, “What we plant in the soil of contemplation we shall reap in the harvest of action.” 

What are these things we plant? Often I find that in the planting is both an anticipation of action as well as a synthesis of all that’s come before.

In this second excerpt from my book in progress, I focus on the first step of one of my longer journeys — my June 2018 attempt to cycle and run the length of Vermont from Canada to Massachusetts and back again, a total of just under 500 miles in 10 days.

The southern terminus with Dragon

I turned to face north, having just said farewell to my hiking companion at border between Massachusetts and Vermont, where a four-mile trail from the city of North Adams ends at the southern terminus of Vermont’s 272-mile Long Trail. There is little here to denote the the transition from one state to another save for a shallow widening of the trail and a welcoming sign. Beyond that, I am surrounded only by a forest of maple, beech, and yellow birch, all well into their early summer selves, shading the trail before me on this first full day of summer. 

At 9:00 am, with little fanfare, I gather myself, my dog Dragon, and put one tired foot after another on the path northward. This was meant to be an easier start to the day, so we had hiked up the trail from the city together at a leisurely pace, and despite being all uphill, it was a welcome respite to the frenetic pedalling I’d done the day before, and the running I was to do for the next week and more. 

Those first steps had a gravity to them, as the steps at the start of any adventure always do. There were a lot of variables ahead — weather, temperature, nutrition, hydration, injury — most of which were not at all in my control.

The light-brown forest floor is matted with last year’s beech leaves, having sometime in their over-wintering given up their persistent marcescence and succumb like other leaves to the cycles of seasonality.

I start a slow jog.

Harmon Hill

The light holds on to some of its springtime iridescence, and sun and shadow play lazily over the ground in the still air of mid-morning. From this first high-point, the trail descends slightly and undulates on smoothly rolling terrain of broadleaf forest as it heads for some of the lower summits and crests Harmon Hill at 2,325 ft before dropping deeply down blocky granitic steps to cross Route 9 and ascend again, just as steeply, on its northern side. 

There are ponds, and streams, and beaver dams to cross before then. 

But still, I am only on my first step.

That one first step is laden with the trail before me, with the training and experience behind me. It isn’t just a step on its own; it represents the potentiality of the trail as it lays out ahead and the choices and decisions I’ve made to reach that one point. In darker moments on the trail, I am drawn to think how every step has the potential to be catastrophic — leading to a broken ankle, a pulled muscle, a fall off the side of the trail, slipping on loose gravel or off a cliff.

Not yet, though. Now everything is working fine. I have plenty of water, I know I have a resupply in just over 12 more miles, and I have Dragon by my side. 

But still on that first step. 

I shift my weight slowly forward on my right leg.  Then the leg extends outward in front of me as I push off the ball of my left foot, pushing upward and propelling onto my right mid-foot onto a cushion of soft brown dirt, leaves, and scattered stones. My momentum starting, my weight rocks onto and over that right foot, the whole of the sole contacting with the ground as my left swings forward, driving with the knee, aiming, as best I can, to avoid any rocks set into the trail, though here it is fairly clear and smooth. Good running. And I land, mid-foot first onto the trail, and repeat the forward motion.

My running poles alternate, as they do when I ski, the left planting when I step with my right foot, the right with my left. These are often the only sounds that I hear when I run — my breath, sometimes my heart if I’m going up a steep climb, the sound of my feet, and the metronome of my running poles. 

I repeat this motion about 1,800 times each mile. On average, then, on this run, I will do this more than 50,000 times each day.

Each of those steps is both potential and culmination; each is a moment of becoming in the process of becoming something else. 

North from Glastenbury Mountain

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