This post was written back in January, which becomes apparent upon reading it. It was one of those pieces that seemed to lack enough purpose or clarity to merit publication at the time. I'm always telling my students that their writing must have a purpose, a theme, a main idea. If they don't know what that theme is, then how can they expect the reader to figure it out?
With the advent of the very spring-like weather this week, it felt appropriate to dust this one off and try to clean it up. I'm still not certain I've nailed the purpose to my satisfaction, but it feels worth sharing at least.
My feet hit the dirt in an easy stride, as I head toward the South end of Peters Canyon Regional Park. I bound over the railroad tie at the gap in the fence and head up through the eucalyptus trees. The pace feels gentle, and even the continuous incline doesn’t seem to increase my breathing. I follow the familiar, dry trail, winding upwards until my legs finally seem to feel the effort, and my heart and lungs respond accordingly. I simply can’t run slowly up this hill.
It’s the first day of a week’s visit in Orange County, and I’m planning out my daily runs with child-like anticipation, fueled by nearly six weeks of holiday excess and sloth instead of running. My legs are ready to get back to business.
I grew up running these streets and trails with the Foothill High School cross country team, and even during my racing days in college I returned to train here over school holidays. My legs know these routes better than my brain, and they turn instinctively onto the East Ridge View Trail, a rollercoaster of hills laid out across the crest of the ridge.
The park is comprised mostly of dry, hard-packed trails, winding their way through the openness of coastal sage scrub, offering rare moments of shade with small stands of eucalyptus trees. The creek running through the canyon below supports a riparian habitat and attracts a variety of birds. The dominant green hue gives testament to the recent rains, and I enjoy the relative lushness that is the privilege of late winter in these grounds where brown normally dominates the palette. New grass coats the dirt between shrubs, and green shoots foreshadow the golden poppies that will grace February and March.
At my current home in the small town of Truckee, high in California’s Sierra Nevada, the trails are deep in hibernation under the snow. It feels good to get some dirt under my shoes in January, and to run at sea level, where the oxygen is thick.
I ran through this canyon at 15 with my high school teammates. It was private property back then, and we had to duck more than one barbed-wire fence to get here. Resting on the edge of the neighborhood, it stretched out into a vast wilderness beyond. As the recklessness of youth often does, our disdain for the rules lent a heady sense of freedom and power. We flew through the canyon without caution, the only humans around, and felt a giddy kinship with the coyotes and mountain lions with whom we shared the trails. We reveled unknowingly in the sweet immortality of youth.
Now the park sits trapped between major roadways and housing developments packed with swimming pools and red tile roofs. But the trails still speak the same language--one I know fluently.
In contrast to my high school days, when we dove into the bushes at any sign of people for fear of being caught trespassing, the trails are now packed with hikers, runners and mountain bikers. Rather than feeling sad at the loss of the wilderness, as I am typically inclined to do, I find myself appreciating the number of people who are out enjoying the trails today.
Automatically, I push hard up each short, steep hill. In spite of my off-season lack of endurance, I decline to take this trail at a relaxed pace. That’s simply not how I run here, and my muscles know it. With the slow awakening that accompanies a long slumber, recognition dawns. We know this place, they say, this is where we run hard, where we search out our limits. And they take me, a passenger seemingly along for the ride, over each hill with a short, quick stride, arms pumping and lungs heaving. It feels good. It feels familiar.
The following day I am headed out to Colonel Barber Park to meet my sister and her two young boys. I pull out of the driveway in my dad’s ’68 VW Bug, and this, too, feels familiar. I hate to even call this car “my dad’s.” This was my car for the first 5 years of my driving life. It still feels like mine, and as on the previous day’s run, my body agrees. Muscle memory kicks in as my heel naturally shifts over, toes still on the brake, to tap the gas pedal so the cold engine won’t die. I need the full foot to brake at the first corner, so it dies anyway, but it’s downhill, and automatically, I roll through the quiet intersection without stopping and pop the clutch, like so many times before.
Cruising down Barranca Parkway, I inhale with quiet pleasure, enjoying the warm January air of Southern California. I flip open the front triangle windows to adjust the wind directly at my face. As my hair blows back, the breeze carries with it the freedom of a teenager with her first car. I am sixteen, and I can go anywhere I want. I briefly contemplate heading down to Balboa. I could cruise the peninsula for hot surfer boys, music up and windows down. But reality snaps me back from those years to my playdate with the toddler set, with its promise of smiles and laughter, and I happily pull into the park a half an hour early to meet my sister.
Unsure of what to do with this nugget of free time, I automatically look at the endless, grassy playing fields with longing. I’m dressed for a run, except for the flip flops, and I silently curse myself for not wearing running shoes. It’s only after a few minutes of staring at the vast expanse of empty soccer and baseball fields that the patently obviously finally occurs to me: With so much well-groomed greenery, who needs shoes? I drop my jacket and kick off my flips at first base, along with any remaining cares, and trot off through the grass.
This particular park is new since my migration from the South, and I’ve never run here before. My feet explore the terrain with that sense of freedom gifted by the absence of any sort of plan. I don’t have an intended number of miles to run, nor a certain pace to hold. I don’t even have a direction, as I’m prancing aimlessly around the sport fields. I decide to make it an interval workout, and alternate my speed: sprint, jog, sprint, jog. I don’t know how long each period lasts – either in time or distance. I just enjoy the racing of my heart, the spring of my toes in the grass, the sweat between my shoulder blades as it trickles down my back.
“Auntie Gretchen! Auntie Gretchen!” calls the five-year-old voice from the playground. Like a school bell at recess, that’s my signal for the end of the workout. I round first base to collect my shoes and head off to push swings and chase kids through the sand.
The following day I talk my mom into going to Irvine Park. She’ll walk; I’ll run. I don’t usually get as many miles here, or as much dirt, as I do at Peter’s Canyon. Still, this park holds even more memories.
One of these memories revisits every time I run the paved hill on the South side of the park. It was here, when I was 19, that I had my single encounter with a mountain lion in the wild. As I neared the crest of the hill, the lion emerged from the bushes at the side of the trail 30 or 40 yards in front of me. She stepped casually into the trail, and I immediately halted the forward progress of my run. Having grown up in the area, I was well-educated in the behavior of the lion and knew I didn’t want to trigger its prey instinct. In spite of a disconcerting lack of fear, I still had immense respect for the animal.
She paused to look at me, and the moment of mutual curiosity makes me smile when I think of it now. I was so naive. But truly, it’s better that way. I felt safe enough because I thought I knew that one should act aggressively toward the mountain lion in the event of an attack. What I didn’t realize was that my own choices and behavior likely meant nothing at that moment. All of the power lay with the lion. And again, I am reminded of the infallibility of youth.
On that day, after the lion continued across the trail into the bushes on the other side, I merely continued (at a walk) down the trail. When I reached the point where she had disappeared into the bushes, I looked up the hill to find her sitting there, calmly looking back at me. What would most likely be a heart-racing, fearful encounter at this point in my life, was then merely exciting and beautiful. I have that lion to thank not only for choosing to give me nothing more than a few casual glances, but also for giving me a powerful memory that’s often been cause for reflection.
Irvine Park was also the site of every one of my home cross country meets in high school, and I can’t run on a section of the course without recalling the feel of that particular point in a race. The specificity of those memories has faded with time; I can no longer recall specific races, and I no longer race rivals of the past as I flee down the trails. The mountain lion, however—I can see her face clearly every time I am there.
These are the thoughts that amble through my mind as I let loose on the dirt downhill that comes in the first mile of the old x-c course. The sunshine of the previous day has given way to a warm drizzle, and I wipe wet hair from my face as I cruise through the section my coach used to call “through the oaks.” On the far side of the creek bed I catch up with my mom and opt to walk the last mile with her. It only makes four miles for the day, but mileage is still trivial in January. Walks with Mom are precious and few.
I’ve heard it said that in life, we are our current age, and we are also every age we’ve ever been leading up to it. This makes perfect sense to me. I am 36, but I am also 12 and 15 and 19 and 26. On the trails of Orange County, more than anywhere, I am a teenager. I’m not the confused, angst-ridden teenager that I may once have been, but I still recall the joys, some of the challenges, and the simplicity that often accompanies youth. When I run here, I can let go of goals and needs, and yet still run hard. Somehow, I can tap into every type of runner I’ve ever been—5K road runner, miler, trail runner, ultra-runner—and be all of them at once, while defined by none. If a place can have a memory, the trails of Orange County remember exactly who I am.