Saturday, December 14, 2013

Reaching The High Country (At Sea Level)

The spell begins to break with the distant whirring of a plane’s engine.  As the season’s first significant snow begins to fall in ernest, seemingly captured in the small, silvery globe of my headlamp, I remain awed.  Each flake seems to chime off the bare branches, echoing onto the dried leaves on the ground.  The moment’s magic becomes ephemeral as my watch buzzes to tell me I’ve been gone for an hour.  It’s time to make my way home.

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What does it take to bring 300 runners out on cold Friday night, in the middle of December, 99% of them not sporting form-fitting tights or a technical t-shirt?  A movie about running (although if you had reasoned free food, that would be completely understandable).  December 13, Trail Animals Running Club stalwart (and my erstwhile travel/racing companion) Michael Tommie McDuffie organized a screening of Joel Wolpert’s film, In the High Country (a movie filmed largely at 14,000 feet above sea level), at the New England Aquarium’s IMAX Theatre (a setting literally sitting on the sea).  As McDuffie introduced the film, he eloquently stated how there seem to be two types of running: the kind we practice individually, moving within a landscape and our bodies and minds; and, the kind that brings us into a larger community of runners.  So often our larger community only comes together at races, a very distinct form of communion, that seeing a huge number of friends “out of context,” and being reminded of this communal spirit was as distinct a pleasure as the film itself (honestly, there were a couple of people I had to do double-takes with because I did not recognize them with hair coiffed and jeans on!).  It was all the great energy of a race, minus the nerves and anxiety about the task at hand.  People simply were there to enjoy each other’s company and the IMAX’s massive screen, which even though it was not in true IMAX-size, from where I sat in the first row, definitely made the film’s two stars (the Rocky Mountains and Anton Krupicka) seem larger than life.

In the High Country is, ostensibly, about the epic runs and journeys that Tony takes.  Journeys that easily spark envy in runners – high mountain summits and alpine lakes, sinewy single track, an onlooker marvelling, as Tony crests the summit, “Did you run up here?”  The film inspires a sense of wanderlust, that sense of freedom and adventure that a new trail, or route up a mountain, can inspire.  Yet the film drives home a deeper point, a point espoused by both the filmmaker and star.  It does not seem that Tony reaches for a summit simply, as George Mallory stated, “because it’s there.” The drive to run to these peaks is more about the desire to find one’s place in the physical landscape.  To feel a part of the physical world, to feel familarity in the practice of being exposed to it, and still be awed by its changing colors, seasons and temperments.  In essence to connect and feel “at home.”

Before the screening, a number of Trail Animals took Tony on a tour of the Blue Hills, just south of Boston.  Between skyline views and hopping ice, the conversation ranged from trends in running gear, to our group’s oddly color-coordinated attire, to training methods, to race plans for the coming year, to our collective addiction to electronic devices and media, to if said addiction is altering our neural pathways, thus making us less intelligent, to the remedy for such devolultion (it was agreed that running in the woods is a fine place to start!), to David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech (alas, four years after Liz and I left) This is Water.  In this speech Wallace suggests “. . . learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”  And this is what In the High Country drove home for me.  A connection to place does not necessitate the grandest vista or the steepest climbs.  It necessitates a choice in each of us to be aware enough to notice the landscape, be it physical or human, and to choose how we will experience this, both externally and internally.

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As my watch’s delicate reminder of an hour’s passage stirs me from my wonder, I remember that sixty minutes ago, I dreaded this experience.  I was warm.  The thermometer was reading fourteen degrees.  Snow was falling.  I've been fighting a cold all week.  Rest is good.  Do I really want to wear a headlamp?  Is it worth it if I just go for 10 minutes? I donned my gear, and headed into the building tempest, chiding my own foolishness.  Slowly I become aware of place.  Each turn felt familiar, but strangely new.  The hard-packed snow from earlier in the week had changed the landscape.  The falling snow made the path different  within the hour I was in the woods.  How long had I just been standing there, listening to the snow fall?  Four minutes?  Two?  Thirty seconds?  I was not standing on some remote peak, above the clouds.  I was in a one-hundred-twenty acre parcel of conservation land, just minutes from my door.  As I began the last few minutes of running home, noises brought me back to my neighborhood.  A snow blower clearing a driveway.  A pickup, plow attached, its diesel engine rumbling to life.  Two kids laughing in their yard.  My footsteps making that perfectly muffled sound that only the first slight layer of snow can create.  Forty-two seconds from where the trail meets the road.  I’m home.

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