Call of the City

I woke suddenly. I had been having the bad dreams again. I forgot that I was not home.

The predawn light shone palely through the broken shutters so that twisted rays splashed over the mattress. The desk by the bed was bare except for my notebook and my watch and the Jack London. I had read the Jack London in bed the night before to fall asleep. I had to make sure that Buck was getting along well. I was very nervous for him.

I put on my watch and shorts and socks in the darkness and padded out into the kitchen. Everything was very quiet and almost black. The refrigerator was humming in a quiet way. I felt inside for the jug of water. It was not yet cold enough. I took it out and carried it with me to the deck, placing it in a cool spot where the arch of a tree would bring it shade.

I went back inside and down the steps and out the front door. The sky was purpling over the hills in the distance. My shoes lay by the garden to dry. I slipped them on and began to run.

***

There was a sign on the beach at the edge of the trail that warned of mountain lions and rattlesnakes. I squinted at it as I pushed through the loose sand.

Marin County is home to a variety of wildlife. Be aware of your surroundings and use caution while you enjoy the trails. Know that you could be in danger at any time!

Isn’t that the point, I thought. I did not like the exclamation at the end. The sand became more firmly packed. I did not stop running.

***

The trail wound through a series of brush away from the ocean and into the foothills and plateaus and bluffs which lined the sea. From the road and the beach I had not been able to see the ocean. I could only hear it, waves slapping the shore, the dull roar of a gentle monster. Now the hint of it was there in my mind, hovering. Pleading to be seen. Calling back the bad dreams. My footsteps carried me away.

Away from the beach the roar lessened. My breath was sharp in the cold morning air. For a moment I regretted not wearing a shirt, but the feeling passed. I knew that a run through the coastal hills would draw out much sweat and the cold would soon pass. Early morning cold was always fleeting. Defeating it was a matter of patience and trust.

Ahead the footpath came to a hairpin. I could see that I would be going up soon. There was no way to go from there except for up. I had run deeply into the hills and when I turned around there was nothing in sight besides the winding path through the green bushes and the turning light in the sky over the hills.

I bent into the hill and felt the strain in my quadriceps as my breath grew labored. The strain became a burn. A fire. A fire that was red hot and shot up my legs into my core and my chest and made me take deep healthy gulps of the salt-sea air just to live. I did not raise my head, just stared at the clear sandy path which streaked upwards. I tried not to let my face twist into the death-scowl. I did not want the path to know my pain.

As I neared a switchback the incline lessened and everything was fine. The hill was feeling sorry for me. Perhaps it was not such a bad hill in the end. I ran up it thinking, you bastard. But the reprieve gave me a second wind. I settled into a good rhythm and ran the hill well. The bad part was over. It had not been a true hill of honor, worthy of a name. It had been a long time since I had a found a hill worthy of a name. It was a great honor, for a hill to be given a name. It put it on equal terms with any human. Any human that had a name.

Against nameless nature, I began to understand, I was fearless.

As I crested the final rise the sky and the air opened up. There was nothing above me. The wind felt sharper and brisker. I came around another bend and suddenly I could see the ocean.

***

The view was what I had always imagined I would never see. Even as the incline flattened and I began to descend the switchbacks on the other side of the bluff I still felt only a vague disbelief. The downhill was sharp and the footing became treacherous. A wrong step could send me plummeting down a rocky incline to a watery grave. But I could not keep focus. The ocean below was a massive pan of aquablue, stretching for infinity to kiss the sky-heaven on the horizon before continuing off the edge of the Earth. The swirls and eddies bubbled and hissed against the rocks and seemed to whisper devilish murmurings in an ancient tongue.

I chopped my steps and could only pray that each footfall did not snap an ankle. All of my fate was held in the hands of the dusty rocks beneath me and the unknowable rhythm to which my legs guided my feet. Should there be one small miscommunication then this hill would claim me on its weaker tilt.

As I ran I also became more aware of the thickening underbrush around the path. Soon I could no longer see the ocean. Its roar faded as I penetrated the valley. It felt wilder. Branches of holly and barberry cut me as I ran by. Bushes grew to my height and hid mysterious scamperings and rustles within their greening depths.

I felt soft and vulnerable. Open, exposed. The hills were watching me. It suddenly occurred to me that they would not have put a sign up by the trail for no reason. No they most certainly would not. Perhaps I was not ready for this. I had only ascended a nameless hill. I had only held the burn for a short while. I had only known the very edge of the desperation. Perhaps it had not been enough.

Surely there were many mountain lions here. Crouching behind the bushes and waiting to pounce on the foolish prey who somehow thought it prudent to run through its lair. Not to mention the beds of rattlesnakes, silently slithering in the underbrush, preparing their fangs to strike a venomous blow to a passing pair of scrumptious Achilles tendons.

I am not strong enough to throw off a mountain lion, I realized. I am not quick enough to dodge a rattlesnake.

I am too weak to walk among the beasts of the wild.

My fear blossomed until it became something tangible, until I was running at breakneck speed down into the valley and up and over the shorter rolling rises and drops with a terror in my belly that the next moment could be my last. I could hardly imagine that there had ever been a time where I or my ancestors ran through the hills without such trepidation, knowing now how unfit my life unto this moment had made me for real living.

***

It had probably been cityfolk that had attempted to build steps from the bottom of the wild valley up the steep incline heading into the next hill. They had not been successful. It made the going easy at the base but after only seventy or so steps the wood was rotted and was being overcome by the vegetation from the side of the path. Soon rocks began to dot the path and then the steps disappeared altogether.

The footing was tricky and immediately I knew this to be more of a hill than the first. Perhaps more of a hill than anything I had ever seen before.

At its base in the valley there had been no sign giving a name.

The sun had risen but was obstructed by the swirling clouds of fog which seemed to grow ever nearer as I ran. The rocks forced me to plan each step, picking and choosing carefully amongst the ledges and outcroppings. They also made the hill steeper. Soon the fire was returning to my legs and the trail had only begun its second switchback. There was no real end in sight. The trail spiraled continuously upwards, ever disappearing around a new bend. Summiting each turn only produced an equal mystery, and I felt sure that I would be rounding the curve of a new switchback for all eternity. I lived in a constant state of waiting. Lactic fires burning patience. Testing all resolve in a task that had no end.

There was a silence that roared at me as I ascended. A silence borne of the air I breathed and the dirt I tread upon. The quiet desperation welled up and filled my being and beat in tandem to my heart. My breaths were no longer gasps, they were pleas, pleas to the silent shrubberies and the stubborn hill and the vast sea which all seemed to give a universal shake of their head to me as if saying: this must come from within you.

The vegetation was thinning on the sides of the trail as I rose and in the back of my mind I thought: at least now I can see all of the rattlesnakes and mountain lions.

***

I knew a girl once who spoke only in pleasing whispers and plain and open generalities. I spent much time with her and eventually I began to speak the same way. Everything was understood and there was no confusion.

She had cascading reddish-gold hair which I could always see from a mile away. I thought in my delirium that I would find her here. Up in the hills and far away. Where the wolf cries. The farther I ran up the hill the more hope I had. But I did not find her. Not in this place. Oh God no not in this place.

***

During the climb it was impossible not to check the watch. As though the numbers would be able to mitigate the pain. As though they could leap out from the trappings of coils and springs and LCD screens on my wrist and come to life before me to explain and reassure, speaking in a calming hush:

No, this uphill cannot last forever.

Yes, it has been going on for far too long.

No, we cannot believe it is unnamed, either.

But through the sweat tingling my eyes I could hardly see the numbers. And through the desperation of the moment I could hardly understand them.

I would hope for something more from the numbers, of course. But the nature of this place defied any such intrusion. The help the watch could offer meant nothing to my task.

Technology was a step back from where I needed to be.

Soon I forgot that there was a watch strapped to my wrist at all, or shorts pulled around my waist or socks and shoes covering my feet. There was nothing but my own body and the nameless forces wreaked upon it.

***

I thought of all of my brothers. All the men and boys with whom I had run in a time passed and swallowed by the pressing concerns of cities and towns.

They would love to be here, I thought. Yes indeed they would. But too they would know when to turn back home. They would see and know when enough was enough.

This I cannot see, I thought to myself. This I cannot know.

***

I could not know the passage of time. Seconds and minutes came slower in periods of great duress. Still I knew I had been climbing for a long time. I allowed myself no rest. I ran to each hairpin as though it were the last and when I felt sure that I could no longer go on I continued and promised myself only one more turn.

When the final turn did come I crested the hill with my body numbed from the lactic acid and my brain bursting with untold revelations. At the top my legs buckled and I sprawled face-first into the sand. I could feel myself slipping into the dirt. As though an invisible force were trying to bury me. The fog swirled around me, the sky eager to convince me I had reached heaven.

With a savage roar I sprang back to my feet and tore through the clouds.

***

In the late winter of 1853 the steamer ship SS Tennessee arrived along the California coast outside of San Francisco. It had traveled over five thousand miles. It left New York harbor packed with eager and anxious gold-seekers hoping to strike it rich on the other side of the continent. Like all good Americans they were obeying the pressing concerns of cities and towns.

They sailed around the Atlantic coast to Cape Horn, around the continent, and into the Pacific. They sailed along Baja California and up along the west coast until they reached the foggy waters surrounding the infamous Golden Gate.

On March 6th they sailed towards what would come to be known as Tennessee Cove. Perhaps they did not know that no city could be placed over the sea. Even San Francisco. It was not known as Tennessee Cove then, no. Not until March the seventh.

In some inexplicable fit of compassion, there were no casualties.

None of her wreckage is visible through the sand, even at low tide. Nature has swallowed her.

***

There was another great downhill which I ran with reckless abandon, trusting instincts ages old to guide my steps through the maze of rocks. I no longer was afraid. Even when I came upon groves of bushes that could hold within them a mountain lion or a bed of rattlesnakes, I was not afraid. Let’s see them climb those switchbacks, I thought to myself. Let’s see them.

I did not shake my head or laugh at the next warning sign I saw. I knew now that such signs were a sad necessity. There is no conquering of nature, I thought. Not by man and not by woman and not by flora and not by fauna. There is only the process of becoming wild enough to live in it.

***

How I felt just then was how I always imagined I would never feel. I knew it was a moment that I had been searching for for my entire life and after which I would probably continue searching for until I became old and could no longer do battle with the honest-ancient mountains in the mist. To know that feeling when it comes is a frightening and exciting and melancholic thing and I could only smile sadly at the dance which I knew I would dance for the rest of my life.

***

I came to the parking lot. Tennessee Valley Road stretched two miles back into town. I could be lying on the deck in the warm sun with the cold jug of water from the shade in a little more than ten minutes.

Where the road ended the trail picked up and headed back out towards the sea. I chanced a glance into the valley. The bluffs and the hills smoking in the fog seemed to bend towards me. Their many green-spotted embankments beckoned. Like all things unnamed they triggered a yearning within me and in that moment I felt sure I could run forever through the mountains and plains to the very edge of the Earth.

***

Inside I was still breathing heavily and I could feel the sweat dripping onto the carpet. The calm of the doorstep and the foot of the stairs and the hum of the refrigerator did not make sense. Walking up the steps I felt nothing in my legs. There was nothing to climb here.

I went out onto the deck. The water jug was in the shade where I had left it in the semidarkness. Drops of condensation sweat off of the side. I took my shoes off and dropped them over the edge and down into the garden where they could dry. Then I put one foot up on the bench and drank from the water jug while I looked out over the town. A breeze blew from the west and dried the sweat on my chest. The town was quiet. My eyes felt warm and pleasant from drinking the water.

I left the deck and ambled slowly to my room. I was becoming stiff. There was a good and strong ache in my hamstrings. It felt good to be finished the run and back in my room.

I drank the rest of the water and climbed into bed. I left the watch on the desk next to the Jack London. The numbers, frozen in time, watched me as I slept. A monument to an experiment in exorcism. I knew I would be having the bad dreams again.

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