“And standing in the yard above his one clean sharp footprint, feeling his own verticality in all that spread of horizontal land, he sensed how the prairie shrank on this morning and how he himself grew. He was immense. A little jump would crack his head on the sky; a few strides would take him to any horizon.”
-Wallace Stegner, “Goin’ To Town” (1941)
In the vast stillness of the morning I lope west out of town, following prints of coyote and pronghorn in the alkali mud and flushing jackrabbits from their leeward posts in the shrubbery. Sun rose an hour previous but the flat, amber rays carry little heat yet. My feet thump hollowly against the hardpacked clay, crunch over granitic rubble washed shallow across the road. The two-track winds through greasewood and shadscale up to the water tower, then beyond into the Smoke Creek Desert. Taffeta-yellow primrose blooms along the path, still effloresced but swiftly drawing down in the lengthening light. A meadowlark burbles its plangent song. Flocks of sparrows flit about. There is a butts-up beetle ambling ponderously toward its burrow and I step carefully around it, eyes on the radiant hillside, blood pounding in my ears, thoughts centered on the burgeoning, brightening day.
The static desert air carries traces of petrichor, ozone, damp playa, smoke from wildfires distant. The locals run their dogs on this track and there are turds everywhere; I catch feculent whiffs in the act of dodging, sidestepping these piles. But overall it smells clean, fresh. The air thrums with an expectant quality. Some sort of latent possibility, some unactuated promise that lingers in my nostrils, raises the hairs on my nape, prickles my scalp like a shuddering chill.
I dole out strides in a measured cadence; I set my pace and stick mechanically to it. The desert blurs past. My mind wanders further afield, up and away from my feet, my heaving torso, my bunched calves and pistoning arms. It crosses a threshold of bodily awareness into a realm of pure, abject anticipation. Now I’m feeling impatient, eager to discover what this day holds in store. I’m ready to turn back. The threshold is re-crossed. The light intensifies and the morning seems dauntingly protracted, left to aggrandize like an overproofed dough spilling out of its bowl. Now I’m sweating and the sun’s making its presence felt. I quicken my pace. I hie it home.
The running is a meditation. A distraction. A means to some hazy, unspecified end. I run to remember—to jog those squeaky wheels, jostle that touchy bulb—as often as to forget, to defuse my petty vexations and derail those runaway trains of black thought before they plunge too far. It can be an act of distillation, serving to focus errant ideas. It can be an act of contrition, of absolution. I run because it gets me high and afterward I feel better about things. I run because, in a weird way, I know no worthy alternative.