The winter blanket covering Wilmington last weekend looked decidedly more threadbare, even crusty, than the crippling snows covering Buffalo. Maybe the new season here couldn’t decide exactly when to begin – and so it heaved a resigned sigh rather than a consummate barbaric yawp. YAWP! I whooped aloud in the pre-morning haze, hoping to give unto winter what winter had yet to give unto us.
I set out to run as the sun topped the mountains off the back of my right shoulder. Powerful pinks and streaking yellows skirted the elevated horizon, only to be devoured by a familiar cloud cover. From Route 86, I hit the crossroads, the sign to Santa’s Workshop beckoning me up the Toll Road while the knowledge of a hot drink at the Little Supermarket urged me further into town.
I ignored both.
Instead, I kept on the straight trajectory, running up Bonnieview for as long as I felt like it.
The run itself held a slight uphill grade on the way out, a fairly steady, almost unnoticeable climb mile after mile, with the only obstacles being the occasional passing vehicle and thin snow condensed under tire tracks. Such corridors either provided great traction under my well-worn sneakers or disguised a calamitously icy surface. So I ran in progressive patterns, alternating between sinking into the soft shoulder for two, three, four steps (demonstrating to oncoming trucks that I’m happy to share the road) and weaving over and through the compacted tracks, where I sought the stickiest ground cover or most graveled road patch – the navigations of an innate problem solver.
The key to running aimlessly, as I’m sure you’re aware, is always keeping the return trip in mind. But the immediacy of route-finding often overcomes my sense of self-preservation. Add to this that I often employ running to familiarize myself with new landscapes, and that I typically don’t run with water or snacks (unless I know from the start that I’ll be running over 12 miles, which admittedly I rarely plan in advance), a single run can easily deplete all of my reserves – be it for lack of planning or want of hydration, or because I got lost.
Today, thankfully, I would not fall prey to the latter. Bonnieview, it turns out, dead ends into Silver Lake Road. A single right or left and I would easily find my way back to 86, eventually. What I didn’t know was that I had run myself right out of Wilmington. So where did I go? Wilmington, then “not Wilmington.” Being unexpectedly confronted with the sign, “Welcome to Wilmington: Home of Whiteface Mt.,” I felt as if I’d stepped back through a mystical wardrobe I never knew I’d entered in the first place—you know, the kind of wardrobe that leads you into a faraway land with a lion and a witch? And delivers you to save the world?
Some heavy thoughts were clearly weighing on me as I ran.
My return trip reminded me how quickly and innocently boundaries can be crossed. It has been a rough week. Busy with the work of planning the new academic program, still prepping for a course that is quickly drawing to a close, beginning to coordinate next semester’s courses, preparing for a big family holiday visit, and more. All customary, expected, routine. Then the news of a friend in Alaska who took his own life.
That fleeting sense of weightlessness between footfalls, as I run alone down Bonnieview, clears a space for thought, a coveted gap in my ever-more frenetic lifestyle within a seemingly unavoidable and urbanized world. The endorphins flow, too, and bring my emotions to a vulnerable state; they percolate to the surface and break over my thoughts, drenching my cold, pink cheeks in freezing tears. Just a few drops, really. Enough to betray the heartbreak, I suppose.
As is often said, those who live in Alaska are either running from something or to something. Most often, however, I’ve found it to be a combination of both. And I suspect that those like myself who actively seek out remote places, from Alaska to the Adirondacks to elsewhere—to live, to work, and to play—all take up this combo in some measure. Some just more enduring than others.
Our friend was a musher, and could often be seen in summer walking a rollicking pack of new husky pups (sometimes 40 deep!) over the boggy tundra of Moose Meadows. From Girdwood, AK to the High Peaks of ADK, I rehearsed the scene. He was the beastmaster, a mentor for the necessity of putting your dogs before yourself, of learning more from them than they would ever learn from you. He taught me how to work with (I wouldn’t say train, exactly) my rescued dogs, showing me how to play to rather than against their superior instincts. In particular, he showed me how to reel in—less with a leash, more with my body language—my own dog, Timber, who like all sled dogs is genetically predisposed to stubborn streaks and the raucous activity of pulling. Then I thought about a couple of the long conversations between us, sans dogs, while I ran on and on through the north country. We talked German philosophy, debated pedagogical principles, examined Romantic poetry. He spoke at least four languages fluently; completed the Iditarod more than a handful of times; owned the best piece of real estate in town (in my opinion); ran a sustainable tourist business with his dogs (able to provide mushing tours year-round by moving up from the valley onto the glacier every summer); and actively committed himself to bettering his community through volunteer programming for veterans and local youth. He was a highly sociable man. Yet he remained an aloof character.
I wouldn’t call myself a close friend, more of a casual, happy-to-run-into-each-other-and-chat kind of acquaintance. But he left a mammoth impression. Thinking about boundaries and their transgression put me in mind of how he embraced his solitude, found comfort and company in his dogs, lived simply in a small cabin not much bigger than a luxury dog house, and nevertheless made quick friends, gave clients the literal ride of their lives, and almost never asked for help. He certainly had boundaries, both physical and psychological. But perhaps not even he knew their actual delineations. Maybe there never was a sign saying “welcome back.” His dogs required 24/7 care. His work emboldened his life. He seemed to require very little. And yet…
I could’ve sworn the town dump (ok, “transfer station”) was just down this road. Did I run right by it? Placelessness—what a jolt! That you could be comfortably some place only to find out that you’d been unknowingly some place else. Or conscious of one direction, only to find that that direction was not toward where, what, or who you thought it was. Or that you’d been left with the haunting breath of a friend unsuspectingly not long for this world.
The non-route of my run proved more wayfinding than not. In a lost friend I found a glimpse of myself, and an embedded lesson to preserve community within the seclusion I cherish. His passing—though I wish it were not the circumstance—seemed the final knot in the tapestry of decisions that have led to our imminent move to the High Peaks. Bonnieview certainly lived up to its namesake; it was a handsome run, physically, aesthetically, and spiritually.