I am typing on my laptop on an airplane that, they tell me, is traveling at 34000 feet. This means that I am 34000 feet above any type of soil. I have spent the last few months apart from dirt and 34000 feet of altitude represents the most recent barrier. Even the trail shoes jammed into my carry-on bag have been scrubbed suspiciously clean by miles spent in the deep snow and ice of the past months. I can look out of my window and admire the clear ground below me. I can see dirt. I can also see scraps of jagged rock interspersed with winding roads leading to and from tiny doll-scale villages that occur occasionally in the distance. Mountains separate these towns. In some ways, they seem utterly alone in the universe and in other ways they seem like the very essence of community. It seems like they are spaced far enough apart to provide excellent weigh-stations for a pack of foot travelers. I imagine that it might be common for runners to see the world as one big opportunity to host an ultra. I seem to project this image onto nearly any landscape that I view. Or maybe I just dream about my preferred atmosphere when I am held captive in another.
I really do miss the feel of dirt. I miss the smell of mud. The other night I was doing some laps around the Delaware County Fairgrounds because the roads there tend to be nearly abandoned and yet, for some reason, reliably plowed. For about 50 yards on each of the 1.5 mile loops I was able to catch the scent of horse manure and it filled me with a longing for the trails at Mohican.
Dirt tends to attract trail-folk. Even though there are a lot of group runs happening in the area they differ in quality from the runs we have in warmer weather. No one stands around the parking lot for a long while visiting after a cold weather run and we are less likely to head off on an unexplored trail when the temperature is in single digits. This means we don’t get lost or dehydrated. Which means that we don’t get to live the best stories. Which means that the best stories don’t get told. Which means that our community grows on a smaller scale.
The sun is disappearing in the west and, even though our airplane is traveling toward it at a mighty speed, I feel certain that it will leave us soon. The communities below are beginning to turn on their lights and the entire effect reminds me of a small model village that I bought for my mother one year for Christmas. It consisted of 12 dollars worth of ceramic and paint modeled into a setting that Charles Dickens might use as the backdrop for a story that would both charm and depress the hell out of me.
She absolutely loved it.
In fact the Christmas village was placed front and center among the holiday decorations in our house and it became a bit of a tradition each year for family members to buy new buildings to add to it. After a decade or so it grew to an almost absurdly large size, occupying the better part of a room. It grew to have an ice pond with skaters that moved around the metallic ice utilizing technology borrowed from 1970’s electric/magnetic football games. My brother Steve used to climb into the middle of the village and take naps. Mom said he did it because it created a peaceful atmosphere.
The towns below kind of look like that. But mainly they look like quaint refuges from loneliness. Flying across the country reminds me that there are vast expanses of our country that are essentially unpopulated and looking down at the spaces surrounding the Dickensian communities fills me once again with charm and homesickness for places that I have never been. They seem so vulnerable…
The towns are likely not as peaceful as they seem from a distance. Reality can appear more palatable when we unfocus our minds, blur our vision a bit, and allow ourselves to be comforted by illusion. The villages below likely have wonderful inhabitants. But some of them might have hatred in their hearts. No doubt illness is a resident. And divorce. And envy. And sloth. And pride. Yet the residents must feel an attraction to each other and to their tiny corner of the world or they would not likely stay. From a distance my brother was attracted to the peacefulness of a nap in a lighted, miniaturized paradise but from a closer proximity he could notice that the buildings did not match each other in scale or in style. Some were made of plastic, some of ceramic, and some didn’t even fit the Christmas theme. None of this bothered Steve at all. But as the pioneering founder of the Christmas village it troubled me occasionally that we didn’t do a better job of civic planning. Why couldn’t we have a village that matched? Why would Santa’s workshop be located across the street from the train station? And why were there two sets of reindeer, one set languishing on a rooftop and another safely tucked into their stable on the other end of town? Furthermore, if baby Jesus was being born in a manger on the west side of town, how would it be possible that a Christian church, complete with carolers and a large crucifix on the steeple, was concurrently in full operation 2 blocks away? Steve was the biggest culprit of the lack of zoning and as the village’s most loyal trustee, he was also the largest donor…buying trees, train models, covered bridges and tiny citizens that clearly represented different eras (Why would a paperboy be delivering to a wise man?). I asked Steve once why we didn’t break the town up into one old town, one new town, and maybe one biblical town.
He told me to shut up. And so I did.
The only thing keeping me from becoming a rather flattened member of one of the communities below is about 8 inches of plastic, steel and insulation. I am flying along in a Tylenol shaped tube that weighs many thousands of pounds. The plane can, for reasons that have been explained to me dozens of times but still strain my ability to find faith in them, stay aloft and warm. It seems like this aircraft must be the most fragile housing unit on the planet. Catastrophe lies inches away and yet I have convinced myself to climb aboard anyway. I managed to book and keep this flight the way I manage to do most scary things. I blunt my mind to the coldest facts and top this obtuseness with a large dollop of denial. In this way I can convince myself that I am being perfectly safe and logical, even sophisticated, though catastrophe lies inches away. I passed a billboard on the way into the airport that depicted a successful and happy couple sitting in comfortable seats on their aircraft, sharing what appeared to be a Nescafe moment. That would be nice. I am now at a closer proximity to an actual aircraft though and from up-close I notice that my lap tray has 2 loose bolts. It didn’t seem like the successful, happy, in-love couple needed to hold their tray table up by propping it against one of their knees. I wonder if there are any other, massively more important bolts that are loose. But I only wonder this for a moment before successfully applying my blunt/blind-faith/denial strategy. I also notice that the other passengers on the airplane aren’t smiling or laughing. The flight attendant came along a while ago and I asked for a Nescafe just to see what he would say.
He handed me a coffee. And so I drank it.
This isn’t my real environment. That’s why I don’t like it. My own environment is highly imperfect and uncomfortable, even dangerous at times but I feel an attraction to my tiny corner of the world or I would not likely stay.
A few weeks ago I met four friends and we did a six mile run in the cold. The temperature was four degrees below zero and for the first mile we trudged through deep snow and no one spoke. It seemed crazy. But then the expected happened. We warmed up. We knew we would and we were, once again, correct. Conversation melted into a drip and then became a flow. The woods turned beautiful; we had them to ourselves. Only distant parking would be available at the mall today and lines would form for the treadmill at the health club, but this world was ours. We had created our own environments. Aside from our chatter the woods were completely silent. All life other than us was in torpor and if I allowed myself to look from a closer and less blunted vantage point I could easily see why. The cold really was deadly. We had each created approximately a ½ inch atmosphere around our bodies that was sustained by our running. We might as well have been wearing space suits. I suppose that in a way we were. Everything around us was harsh and cold and lonely. Everything was forced to a standstill except us. We were the only exception that existed in the entire woods.
We were mismatched. Two of us were former football players and still had the build for it. One runner was in his first year at the sport and was flourishing. Another was into his 34th year and creaky as a wooden ship. Two were beautiful women, one younger than the other but each completely lovely and tough.
And it was wonderful.
Many years ago a severe hip injury took my running away and I was fearful that it would never return. My search for an alternative led me to mountain biking and it wasn’t a bad place to land. I put a lot of time, effort, and money into it. For a few years mountain biking was fantastically popular. The Trek bicycle company put large amounts of money into ads that showed young, strong athletes careening downhill and “catching air” off dirt ramps. Throngs of people went out and bought mountain bikes only to discover, when they had a closer perspective, that for every air-catching moment on a mountain bike many miles are spent grinding away on a muddy uphill with a clogged derailleur; an activity akin to mixing concrete with your legs. This activity suited me fine and so I kept at it but others left the sport to reside in alternate imperfect environments. The cycling eventually healed my hip and I went back to my world of torn windbreakers and broken shoelaces. I trekked the icy sidewalks of my hometown and looked longingly at the pictures of trail running magazines that depicted photos of a world where all running was performed downhill with the wind at your back. In our world trails, when not icy or buried under snow, tend to be muddy, or occupied by horseflies. Yet we must feel an attraction to each other and to our tiny corner of the world or we would not likely stay. My friends and I fit more uniformly into our workaday environments. But for some reason each of us can agree that when we are in those segregated places we daydream of the woods and our mismatched friends.
I believe that one of the benefits of having free will is that we get some amount of say over the environment in which we can exist. To some degree we choose our environments. We choose what we should cloak ourselves in. And our cloaks will become our barrier against the coldness, tragedies, and peril that can exist just outside of them. One of the things that I dislike about flying is the enclosed cultural space in which I find myself while waiting for my plane. No matter which airport I am in I find precisely the same atmosphere and it always reflects perfectly our modern culture. It is a world of USA Today and Good Morning America. People and Skymall magazines help us to pass the time. It occurs to me that if we don’t choose our cloak then someone will help us to choose it. In fact I wonder how much of our culture exists to assist us to create a space in which we feel like we are part of a community. I love America. My parents risked everything to come here to provide a better life for us. And they succeeded. I wouldn’t live anywhere else. But the distant stars and stripes, bald eagles, and stories of cherry trees being chopped down can give way, during a close proximity inspection, of the imperfections that exist. Berndt Heinrich wrote that America might essentially be an experiment, the hypothesis of which is: a nation can be built on the notion that free enterprise and consumption can sustain order. Education, jobs, laws, and infrastructure exist, at least in part, to support our means of selling to one another. And the basis for many of these sales seems to be consumption of products that will help us to demonstrate, through our style, where we belong in this place…how we shield ourselves from the coldness of being alone.
When we are born we are free from sin. And we are, for a while, free from temptation. Then we start the journey into the coldness. At some point we will decide upon a protective atmosphere and we will grow to become the inhabitant of that atmosphere. It will be who we are.
I have been told that I came from dirt and, they tell me, that I will return to it. What they didn’t tell me is that one option that I can choose in life is to never be far from it. That’s the choice I am making at the moment and so far it suits me fine.
Steve adopted the Christmas town after Mom passed away and kept it until his own death last year. My sister Noelle is the current owner. She offered to give each of the four remaining siblings a part of it. We all declined. We thought it would be wrong to segregate such a well established and successful community. The imperfect environment works for its own strange and mysterious reasons and it might be a sin to edit it.