It’s quiet and cool in the dim forest light. No one stirs at the nearly empty trailhead. I start my gps app, tuck my phone in the zipper pocket of my running shorts along with my car key, and after locking my door and easing it shut I turn toward the inviting corridor through the emerald shade of the trail ahead of me.
The first few steps are tentative. My mind is still fogged from sleep but eager to be moving. My legs are sluggish but fresh. It takes a few minutes to find my breath. Once my lungs and my legs find their rhythm I can turn off my brain and soft focus on the trail a few yards ahead of me.
My mind escapes from the hard timeline of the present and roves through past, present and future, seeking out answers to past troubles while also imagining various alternate futures. I’ve long since settled the trail ahead of me on which to run, but I’m engaged in trying to sort out where my feet will take me beyond the effort of the day.
I chase fantasies of athletic and occupational greatness. In my head I have conversations with the future about what I want to be, where I want to go, and the things I want to accomplish in life. My meditations are high definition as my body runs on autopilot down the twisting, narrow, and undulating trail.
Roots and rocks are no longer obstacles. They are springboards to the trail beyond, to the future in the moment, to some other point in the linear progression of my divorce from time and space. Fear is absent from my head as I move deeper into the wilderness and beyond the bounds of the safe and secure feelings of what passes for civilization these days.
It is a contrived wilderness—surrounded by a rural landscape influenced too heavily by the peer pressure to become suburban—but wilderness all the same. It is a refuge from the hectic nature of daily life, but only temporarily so. There is no escape from the modern arrangement for living in the West. We’re slaves to a system of supply and demand that demands too much and supplies too little. We’re slaves to the industrial clock and the cubicle.
I shake off the stench of what I am running from and bear down into the depths of the misty reality I have thrown myself into. Sunlight slashes through the shadows. It’s real like balefire. It’s mystical and tangible. I absorb youthful energy from the air, from the water, and from the beams of light I dance in and out of along my path to destruction and redemption.
Recently on some running or cycling film/documentary I heard someone say that they’re not running away from something (meaning family responsibilities) but rather running back to their family. I wish I could remember where I heard it, but I’ve been thinking on it for a while. On Friday evening as I ran deeper into the woods I finally think I struck upon the truth of it, at least for me.
In all my proprioceptive pursuits I’m neither running to nor running from anything. I’m running to find a void. I’m running to attain a state of flow.
Professor Bob introduced me to the concept of flow as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I’m glad this is written medium, I wouldn’t have a clue how to pronounce his name). I run, ride, climb, hike and dwell inwardly to find a state of flow. It’s my escape. It’s my drug. It’s the only place where I feel confident and capable. I self-medicate on flow.
It’s what I use to stave off the crippling depression. It’s what I seek to evade the feelings of inadequacy that plague my life. When I’m running (figuratively or literally) through the woods for hours on end I can imagine a different world for myself. My mind becomes untethered to the natural social laws of this world and I can live in the utopic fantasy world I’ve spent forty years building in my mind.
When I can’t find the elusive state of flow I begin to have dark and hateful thoughts. I pine for the apocalypse. On those days its onset would be welcomed, and I would do my part to hasten it. I’m ashamed to admit I have more of those days than others.
I guess I could argue that you should be happy I don’t medicate with chemicals. There’s no point. A figurative drug still destroys. Balance is as elusive when you’re high on endorphins. As much as I desperately want balance in my life I fear it is forever out of my reach. You can’t get there from here.
Friday as I staggered along the Gorge road trying to get back to my car from the Osborne Bend Trail I was surfing a wave of turbulent spiritual waters. I would crest on euphoria and drop deep into troughs of despair. The feelings weren’t divorced from real life. In the chaotic flotsam and jetsam of my uncontrolled mind thoughts of debt, of financial friction, of social obstacles, of spiritual quagmires, of totalitarian neurological disconnects, of weakness and doubt and inadequacy…all of those thoughts tumbled around in the other random thoughts in my head. I couldn’t untangle them from the desires of my heart or from the necessary psychological maintenance that I should have been able to focus on while out on my run.
My body had betrayed me. At that moment I felt overwhelmed by the churning wave of stampeding thoughts breaking over me, and I wanted so desperately to run until my heart exploded. I wanted to find that state of flow again. It had gone and left me beached in a bleak landscape. The bones in my knees ground together in a sweet agony mirroring the feeling in my mind. The pain kept me from making any kind of significant progress toward salvation.
|A good place to lie down|
There have been times in my life when I wanted to give up. The earliest memory I have of this feeling is from 1993 when I was wrestling with trying to stay in college. The overwhelming waves of my life had broken me. All I wanted was to lie down in the floor of my apartment and not move until someone came looking for me. I wanted the world to react to me. I wanted help. I wanted an escape route.
Only time came. Finally I picked myself up off the floor—bored out of my mind—and went off looking for some lukewarm scheme to deliver me from my misery. I didn’t find anything. I had alienated my girlfriend. She was my first true love, and I blew it. Without her distracting me from the heavy reality of my situation I couldn’t bear to keep going to class or even stay in Nashville. I called home, begged for help to haul my crap back to Kentucky, and said goodbye to Tennessee.
My escape then--from the soul-crushing factory work I took up when I returned home--was into the Red River Gorge on those same trails I’ve been running this summer. Sometimes I wonder if I didn’t just get lost in one of my flow fantasies of twenty years ago, and I’m going to wake up on the side of KY 715 under a sweltering sun in the summer of 1994. Would I welcome a second chance at my adult life? Or, knowing all I know now, would I just start running harder trying to blow up my lungs and heart?
I’m not self-destructive. I want to better myself. Flow is a good place to be if you can direct its positive benefits. If you can dwell on good things and find the answers then it’s good to get out and move until your body tells you it’s ready to go back into the world.
I have fun. I truly enjoy hiking and running and cycling. I enjoy other things in life too. Movement is the one activity that comes close to soothing my demons though. I reckon I could take up drinking or heroin and quiet my mind. But, like I said, I’m not self-destructive. That’s not where I see balance in life.
Flow can come through writing. I’ve felt it while out photographing things. Probably the most common occurrence of flow in my life is in reading. I’m often able to completely lose myself in a story and not see the room around me for long periods of time. In my middle age it’s much harder for me to achieve it through reading though. I think my adult mind is often too tired to maintain long stretches of reading.
I’m confident in a few years I’ll be able to look back on this time in my life—these past eight years or so—and see things so much more clearly. Right now I’m caught up in the storm and visibility is zero. But when the dark clouds clear and I can look back on it all I think things will make perfect sense to me. I have faith in that future and in my ability to endure through all to get to the good high ground where I can have that perspective.