Thursday, August 27, 2015

Tales of a Longtime Runner: Crossing Paths

Every individual has a place to fill in the world and is important in some respect whether he chooses to be so or not. ~Nathaniel Hawthorne

Runners tend to be somewhat habitual creatures - Habits can be good things. It's the habit that gets us out there day after day, week after week. Year after year. Once habit is established it's harder to break the habit. In this case that means it harder to not run than it is to run - even on the bad days.

Habit can also be revealed through the routes we run. I know for myself I have favorite routes that I've run now for years and years. I have a selection or 5, 10, 15 milers that I call up whenever needed. I even have routes I've run since high school that I return to when visiting my childhood home.

Over time the houses and the people in them change. The businesses change. Sidewalks are added or deteriorate to rubble. Dirt roads are paved. Empty lots are bulldozed and houses, malls, or parks replace the urban wilderness. Roads are widened and trees removed. Narrow country roads, once sleepy and peaceful, are now car choked thoroughfares of distracted and stressed drivers.

Running is both regular (runners do it everyday ;) and it's a grounded, relatively slow, manner of locomotion.

As a result, there are those interactions we have with others on foot, on roads or trails, that over years become more than just casual encounters. If we run certain routes regularly we start to see certain people, the same people, over and over. Over days, weeks, and years, we exchange greetings. Maybe a 'Good morning' or 'Beautiful day, isn't it?', or just a nod of the head and a wave of a hand. And over the months and years we both become fixtures on the trail for each other.

We see those with their dogs. We watch as their dogs, and our dogs, grow older. And then they aren't there one day. And we wonder. We watch ourselves, and others, get older, and one day we may realize that it's been a while since we've seen that one person we always used to see.

Unlike driving or even cycling, running and walking, moving on foot, is a somewhat naked and intimate activity. For some people this is what makes running so uncomfortable: People can see them. For me it's about as human a thing as we can ever do.

I nod to a passing stranger, and the stranger nods back, and two human beings go off, feeling a little less anonymous. ~Robert Brault

There's a trail I've run fairly regularly for the past 15 years. It's a very short trail, about 1.2 miles long, and is often part of a longer run for me. It is flat and often shady, winding along a creek. Being short and shady and flat and close to where many people live, it's very popular with dog walkers and causal walkers.

Many years ago, when running with my dog Willa (who is now gone) I would see an older woman out walking with her German Shepard. She walked with determination and strength even with a subtle limp. We would pass, say our hellos, smile and go on. She lived at the north end of the trail and I would often see her driving her vintage 1970s giant brown sedan around the area, her dog riding shotgun.

About 10 years ago I moved a little farther away from this trail, and as a result frequented it less often. But I was usually out there at least once a week, and in winter more so. And I continued seeing my trail acquaintance and her trusty walking partner.

But one day, several years ago, I saw her without her dog. I passed, and gazed down at my now 13 year old dog, and really wanted to stop and give this stranger a hug.

And so this continued. And then my dog became very ill and after 10 months of hospice, died. And then one day I realized that I had not seen my trail acquaintance for a while. For how long? I don't know. It's funny how these things happen. At first they go unnoticed. Then after a time the awareness hits you and then you realize that it's actually been a while but you can't figure out how long.

And I have wondered ever since.

Yesterday driving home from town, I drove past her house as I do dozens of times a week. At the end of the driveway stood a "For Sale" sign. I looked down the winding driveway to the house and it looked entirely empty and cleared out.

The sadness that hit me and welled up in my throat was instant and intense.

This is not the first time, nor is it likely the last time, this has happened to me.
There's the wife and husband, whose daily constitutional was walking the entire circumference of my neighborhood everyday. She was always slightly ahead of him as though dragging him through his paces. Where did they go? There's the man with the two enthusiastic black labs never tiring of playing fetch. Where did he go? (I have learned that he died of prostate cancer - now I wonder about the dogs). There's the woman who saved me from a dog attack a few years ago. I still see her, but she no longer has her small dog with her. And the list goes on and on and on.

Never underestimate the effect you may have on others. Those you don't even know. Those you simply cross paths with. Others see us out there. We see others out there. They may be walking, running, even driving, and you are a part of their world.

If you are lucky enough to pass the years watching and experiencing the change of season, of people, the world, then that's a pretty good life. The world may be full of people you just happen to see around, but when you start to notice them day after day, they may become something more.

I now see two older women everyday that I'm out on this same trail. They walk together chatting happily. And we have become trail acquaintances. Someday either they or I (and of course at some point all of us) won't be there any longer. Will we notice?

I wonder if someday I will be that old woman, so full of life, who someone sees everyday and then suddenly thinks about once I'm gone...

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