The country runner

Nobody exercised there, except through manual labor. The nearest gym was ten miles away, and I did not own a car, nor wish to pay dues. So I ran. Nearly every day for nearly five years, I ran. In the stormy season, I’d greedily await the lifting of the clouds, pacing indoors impatiently. In winter, I’d savor the half hour between the end of the work day and the point when I couldn’t see my hand before me, much less the path ahead. After a hurricane’s four days of downpour, I’d gamble that a sodden, weakened pecan branch wouldn’t crack my head open.

I ran everywhere in a three to five-mile radius: fields, trails, woods, roads paved and dirt, neighborhoods. People I had never met would say, “I seen you running, you still running?” My first season, I marveled at the carelessness of some trucker who must have spilled a bale of napkins to unravel over miles of road, until I realized that I was an ignorant Yank who didn’t know cotton when it hit her on the soles of her shoes. So running was my way of entering a foreign land, divining its curves with footprints, learning, soaking in.

It was a sensory carnival. The taste of pesticide infected my spit as I trotted along the perimeter of freshly harvested cotton fields, the poison upturned by the blades of the giant harvesters. Next it was the heavy stink of smoke, when the fields were burned to release the nutrition of ash into the soil, and next, manure, spread over the whole mess. In lovelier seasons, jasmine filled my lungs, dogwood blossoms and azaleas, birdsong, new ferns. I leaped across rivulets and puddles, investigated familiar paths turned new again with the changing of seasons.

In May, when the trail through the woods became so overrun with banana spiders that I tired of waving a stick in front of my face to prevent my head from being shrink-wrapped in dense, three-dimensional webs, I ran instead on the shoulder of the state highway. I’d switch to the opposite side when a car, or a semi loaded with pine logs, barreled my way. A neighbor told me that my image, jogging on the side of this highway, is immortalized on the street view of Google Earth. Though I have never found myself, I enjoy the idea.

In the hottest months, chiggers ate their way into the backs of my knees, no-see-um bites dotted my ankles, mosquitoes pierced my nape where the sweat dripped down under sun-scorched hair. Kudzu crept clear across dirt roads, consumed all other foliage, emitted unmistakable, sinister aroma. The roads in the wet season were mud and my sneakers and cotton socks stained red from sinking in, sometimes up to the ankle. It would not wash out.

People warned me about crazy rednecks who might abduct me or beat me with chains, but I never met any. People warned me about snakes. I did jump over a few, and others I saw in advance—a few weeks every spring, the big snakes, three feet long, would get wanderlust and I would come upon one lying across the road in a fat squiggle. I would stop: “Snake, I’m right here, and you are there. You can be comfortable there, I don’t want to bother you. I am going to walk way over here through the woods and behind you now. I’ll be gone in a minute. Thank you.”

But running was good. Alone, alive, away from people and people’s information. Omissions, ideas, insights rose from the path. Salt water seeped out of me, knowledge seeped in: the moon phases, which plants bloomed, which faded. The names in the graveyard, the unmarked stones. The taste of wild grapes, of sarsaparilla root. Barbed wire fences fallen and entombed by trees, ruined barns absorbed by forest, abandoned mattresses, beehives, and the hood of a 1948 Ford. Sweaters, condoms, beer cans, abandoned trysts. Passionflowers. The two oaks whose trunks twisted in embrace.

I knew where cows stared, rabbits fled. A loner fox, a pair of bobcats. Countless dead birds, squirrels, mice. A dead coyote on the edge of the cornfield, whom I had heard howling the night before. And human animals as well: the two guys who parked their red Ranger on the red road daily, their spot to smoke weed and eat ice cream, then toss the evidence—cardboard pint, plastic spoon. They waved, told me to mind the snakes.

Now I have a gym membership, live in the city, run on paths smooth and wide and populous with other joggers. But humans are territorial, and I am solitary. I miss patrolling my own beat, tripping, finding burs in my socks. Finding a narrow way through a strange world, rather than being guided over it.

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