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running in umstead

July 19, 2011
[Welcome to the latest installment of Chasing Maybes, a self-imposed challenge to live beyond my comfortable edges.  Join me on my experiential ramble through Trivial Pursuit categories.  I’m working my way through July, chasing adventures related to Geography. Also, the spacing on this post is courtesy of WordPress — for some reason, it won’t let me space my paragraphs properly.  Oh, well.]
“When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
— Wendell Berry (Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays)
I was first introduced to writer/philosopher/academic/farmer Wendell Berry by my friend David.  We were both members of a small group with rotating leadership at our UU fellowship, and David chose Berry’s words to open and close our meetings every time he led the group.  Though he was intensely shy and said little, I grew to understand that David’s Berry-reverence was rooted in several shared beliefs: that we humans cannot assume that what is good for us is also good for the earth, that often even complex problems deserve simple solutions, that nature, like kindness, is a tonic.  If not for this small group, I’m not sure I ever would have met David or Wendell Berry.  What a shame that would have been.
Like Berry, I believe in the healing properties of the natural world.
Now, lest I paint a faulty picture of  myself, I should make clear that I don’t raise urban chickens in a hand-built coop in my backyard.  I try desperately not to kill even the hardiest of houseplants.  I use nail polish and have been known to take my children to Chik Fil A.  As far as Earth Mothers go (despite my best efforts), I am substandard.
And yet, when my children were babies, sleepless or cranky or otherwise impaired, I took them outside when I didn’t know what else to do with them.  Together, we watched the afternoon sunshine, the scent of the breeze, shift their moods.  Fifteen minutes of fresh geography was often all the rehabilitation they needed.  Similarly, when I am restless and inexplicably raw around the edges, I try to remember to take myself outside.  I try to, in Berry’s words, “come into the presence of still water.”  I don’t always remember to unhand my laptop or smartphone and go, but when I do, I am grateful.
My exploratory run over the weekend was through Raleigh’s William B. Umstead State Park, which is just the kind of pastoral paradise in which Wendell Berry would love to lie down.  Umstead is a tree-canopied maze of trails of varying difficulties. Since I had once run a race through the Crabtree Creek section of the park before, I chose to run through the Reedy Creek section for challenge’s sake.

The park's Reedy Creek entrance

I was surprisingly confident, driving to Umstead in the early morning hours, because I had read detailed descriptions of Reedy Creek’s trails.  I’d decided on a 5.2 mile trail called Loblolly, largely because it is an out-and-back (read: even an orienteering idiot like me can’t get lost on an out-and-back, right? ).
Just a couple of points to ponder, in the event that you plan an early morning run at Reedy Creek:  1).  The gates to the parking lot apparently don’t open until 7 a.m.  While I was able to park outside the gate and walk into the park, this is information you might want to know in advance of your trip to Umstead.  2).  Even though the sun had risen, the park’s heavy tree cover had me running in darkness at 6:30 a.m.  Not only was this “Blair Witch Project” spooky, but also ankle-turningly dangerous when you consider that the trail looks like this:

Can you see the tree roots criss-crossing the trail?

Loblolly is matted with enormous tree roots and bezel-set rocks.  It is beautiful and treacherous, so I would recommend waiting until after 7 a.m. to run if you can stand it.
Given that this part of my Chasing Maybes experiment demanded exploring new geography and attending to new landscapes, my Umstead run felt perfect.  Its dark, craggy hills were antithetical to my pleasant-but-mindless Tobacco Trail runs of late.  Sleeping at the wheel on this run would have found me broken in a ditch, and the attention it forced from me was a “rest in the grace of the world,” as Berry writes.  I even found still water:

There wasn't a soul around to see me snapping pictures with my phone.

Finishing my run (during which I saw wild things: countless birds, a darting rabbit, and two wide-eyed deer), I felt a renewal I didn’t even know I needed.  The sun was out in full and cars brimming with runners, native to this place, slid into its parking lot.

It was five miles, but it felt like a whole lot more.

Here’s to receiving more than you expect.  Thank you, as always, for showing up.

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