Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.from Inferno, Dante Alighieri
I could say it started in June, when I dropped my husband off at the beginning of the race, on one of the hottest summer days Washington has ever seen. It was already 75˚ F when I left him, bouncing along with a crowd of other numbered runners, at the arched starting line, and it would be above 90˚ F by the time he finished. Even so, it looked fun, this half marathon down from Snoqualmie Pass.
Or maybe it was earlier, a curiosity bred on the trails of southwestern Germany, or the cobblestoned road races I managed to run in those days. It was always with a crowd of friends, mostly women, and always through the winding canyons of ancient cities in Germany and Switzerland, where buildings seemed to lean over on you like the branches of trees.
I walked a few marathons and half marathons before that, even, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving with my mom and her best friends. In thick layers we’d set out before dawn, taking up the rear of that athletic crowd as we clutched our paper cups of tea and coffee, telling stories against the chill.
But long before any of that, I was a teenaged runner starting my 5Ks too slowly. “Everyone starts way too fast. Everyone except Kristi,” our coaches would tell us with a genial laugh. They’d point at our starting line, a gentle decline that bisected two baseball diamonds in Lower Woodland Park. “Most of you will burn out super soon if you try to keep up that pace. But Kristi: you’re only running three miles! You can come out way faster. You’ll definitely be a marathoner someday, with a start like that.”
Twenty years later, they’re half right.
The temperature hovers around 45˚ F and it’s just stopped raining when the Cascade Express Half Marathon starts. I jog along somewhere halfway back, maintaining a pace my cross country coaches would have rolled their eyes at. But today it’s appropriate. Today I really am running a good long way.
The route takes us along the Palouse to Cascades Trail, starting just on the east side of Snoqualmie Pass. It used to be called the Iron Horse Trail, because it follows the grade of the Milwaukee, Minneapolis and St. Paul Railroad. I follow the runners ahead of me immediately into the tunnel, elegantly arched, that once sliced under the very last bit of Snoqualmie Pass, and for the next 2.5 miles we run in the bobbing blue lights of LED headlamps, which cast eery shadows on the echoey walls. It’s an odd road to run, and I can’t say I love it.
I mostly run for the views, to be honest. As a teenager, I found belonging in the cheerful camaraderie of my cross-country team, but even then I remember telling someone that I did it because I liked “being in the forest in the fall.” (I remember him not believing me, convinced that this wasn’t a real thought a teenager could have. Clearly he hadn’t tried to model his teenaged life on Anne of Green Gables.) I have the deepest respect for treadmill trainers, or those whose life circumstances dictate geometric routes made of city blocks, but it isn’t for me. Without a lake, a park, a wrinkled green valley dotted with apple trees and striped with vineyards, I’m not sure I’d have kept it up this long.
Partway through the tunnel, an impossibly small pinpoint of light tells me that it will end eventually. I think about how many times in my life I’ve searched for that point, the glimmer of transience to tell me that something new is ahead, that this isn’t forever. I need that point now; I think most of us do.
I love running, especially a long way like this, because of the very present nature of this challenge. Given the choice, I’d far rather ruminate on the past, reveling in the clarity of retrospect, than do much with the future, which every passing year seems to drag further from my control or even understanding. But running, running is neither. It matters that I spent the summer running, yes, and possibly I’ll keep doing this after today, but for the moment I only have these steps, one path and one finish line. In a season when the future is branched with possibilities, and the real outcomes likely hidden behind corners I haven’t even imagined, there’s something comforting in the linear simplicity of placing one foot after another for a long, long way.
Eventually I find myself more or less alone on the trail, or at least alone enough. I breathe in the glory of fall in the Pacific Northwest, which wraps itself around me like the sweater I dug through a box in the basement to find this morning. It is cool and misty, familiar mountains cloaked every now and then with fog. Vine maples and alders have begun to change, and whole avenues of this path are halls of cedar columns, stripping down the multicolored world to just red-brown and darkest green. Remember me? It seems to say. This is my first home, in so many ways a starting point. And in the midst of one of the more significant times of upheaval that I’ve known in the world, there’s comfort in the changing seasons, the holy rhythm of creation reminding me that God is still in charge, still deeply good.
And also: Remember you. I’ve been doing this for a while, most of my life now, but I confess that it’s been challenging in the last few years to find some pieces of myself amidst the busy, cozy thrum of togetherness that fills our days. As I run, “picking up my knees” as I remember being taught as a fourteen-year-old, I’m happy to greet my younger running selves—sixteen, twenty-one, thirty—but I’m no longer envious, as I might have been even a few years ago. Instead, I’m content, even elated, with the capable body of right this minute. And that, the sense of appreciation free of complaint or judgment, feels like something I’ve been missing for a while, a putting-back-together that is re-membering in another form.
I finish eventually, faster than I thought I would, still enveloped in the not-raining splendor of the season. It all feels so delightful, so improbable, such a strange and incongruent gift in the middle of a pandemic that feels like a tunnel that keeps curving ahead of us. Plenty has been made about Dante’s opening lines to Inferno, that instead of saying he was “lost” in the dark wood the —selva oscura—he insisted that he “found himself.” What did he mean, my teachers and professors asked me? What do you think he found? And while I’ve always found Inferno a little heavy on Renaissance inside jokes and a little light on relevant theology, the phrase has stuck with me, rattling around like loose change in the bottom of a purse.
I still don’t know what Dante really meant, but I can imagine what he could have meant today, in this dark forest of my own. If I take it out of context, if I go completely Jeremiah 29:11 on this tiny excerpt of an old Italian book about Hell, he makes good sense to me. Almost “midway through the journey of [my] life, I found myself [and beauty, and joy, and God] within a forest dark.” “Straighforward pathways” have their moments, but for me, for now, it’s in the dark forests where the finding happens, one gravelly step at a time.