The Story of a Path (expanded draft)

7:00 on a Tuesday night.  We won the basketball game 43 to 40.  I flung open the gym door, and the roar of a hundred conversations flickered, as if blown by the cool dusk air.  With a slam, the noise was snuffed out, and I slowly began to notice the rising and fading rush of passing cars.  I pulled up the hood of my sweatshirt and disappeared onto the trail.  For a brief time, social obligations dissolved into the sky’s deepening blue.  Venus was hanging on the edge of the transition, winking confirmation that my homework would wait for me, even if I were late shuffling home.  With a deep breath and a sigh, I realized I had the whole bike trail to myself.

From the bustling hub of school life, a 2-minute car ride along my city’s central vein reaches into my neighborhood’s quiescent congregation. I always prefer the 5-minute transit by foot.  Between two distinct worlds, the bike trail runs parallel to a modest woods, which offers me a cut-across.  Its boundary is a bridge, not a divider; its memories intermingle both worlds.

On that bridge, my thoughts are those of a writer, detached from the imperative to make something of emotional condensation. Other than to filter what collects in the empty spaces, the trail demands nothing.

11:00 on a Thursday. With hands buried in our baggy pockets, my dad and I passed familiar landmarks like a rolling locomotive on well-worn tracks. Our conversation came in waves, with churning reflection far beyond the shore. After a pause, he spoke up. He’s changed hasn’t he? Though he already knew my answer, it was difficult to admit. Yeah, I can’t even recognize him anymore. I don’t know. It’s like he just stopped caring this year. Our walk resonated with him too. I could see it in the way his jaw clenched sporadically, with his eyes indeterminately scanning the ground. Decomposing leaves were scattered in clumps, like festering sores in the face of the concrete path, and I kicked at one. I felt like a child throwing a silent tantrum. Still, he heard me.

I’ve noticed my mind works best when it has ground to walk on, leaves to crunch, and air to breathe. The regular movement sets a pace like a clock, marking out irrefutable progress towards a daunting future. My legs tremble, but as long as they keep time to the cracks in the pavement, one after the other, I find myself marching past my towers of doubt, right on to that impossible next step.

8:00 on a Saturday morning.  With sleep encrusted in the corner of my wide eyes, I tried to wrap my mind around 8 miles of running.  If this practice murders me, you will be my witness, I promised Jon under my breath, then tried to readjust my air gulping to our trail pace.  We were out where the paved Mopac turns to gravel and exits the city.  Huffing past old grain elevators and open fields, my conversation spark died to fatigue and left us each with our own morning thoughts.  Part of my mind worked out fractions (2nd mile post = ¼ done).  Another part synchronized the tempo of my breathing with an encouraging song.  My internal dialogue argued about pseudo-psychology or philosophy, trying to hash out teachers’ actions, friends’ actions, their motives, and how I should handle them.  All the while, I tried to ignore the part of my mind that pitied my aching calves and cramping side.

As the path travels away from the heart of my daily activities, so also my mind begins to diverge.  Free from taskmasters and critical peers, free from the grind of merely responding, I can open up to sensory reflection.  Of course, with an outside view, I turn habitually to look back into the heart of my world.  But it is with new eyes and spirit that I perform the biopsy.

3:00 on a Sunday afternoon. After a stressful frenzy of hallway decorations and powder-puff games, I made my way home for supper. My mind was cluttered with snide comments and clamoring demands for attention made in the heat of competition. Noticing an empty trail crossing, I made a quick bolt for freedom and took off at a dead sprint. The first 200 meters were the blur of a gliding speedboat, clipping along without resistance. At the hill’s peak, the wind torrentially battered my watering eyes. My knees crashed on the way down, leaving imagined sprays of mist in my wake. By 600 meters I had completely doubled over, abandoned ship, and lay bobbing to my pulse on the soft trailside grass. Those slight flicks of avoidance in their eyes now seemed all the more insignificant, which in turn made the bent-over hobbling home all the more profound.

When a difficult stretch is covered, reconciliation comes in the walk back. Revisiting a familiar path or street or stretch in the mind solidifies the belonging lost in the chaos of movement – the moments lost in the clock’s insistent march forward.

4:00 on a Friday evening. A dizzyingly brief middle school track season was running to an end, and the team was celebrating with Wendy’s shakes. The bones in our skinny legs urgently angled our bodies over the trail and down a steep dirt walkway to the inviting smell of grease and bread. We piled in and coagulated by the cashier until our coaches formed a line that snaked around to the bathrooms. Once everyone had ordered, we trooped our Frostys back up the dirt hill and unhurriedly walked back. We slurped and made jokes and laughed, stopping and backtracking to join up with the stragglers. I was hardly moving at times, yet the migration seemed a short sprint, and ended too soon. Without ceremony, we tossed our bright yellow cups in the trash bin and changed out of our running shorts for the last time.

Daylight hangs on those hazy afternoons. Caught in tender rays, the dust motes have meandered along side me, just as reluctant to give up the warmth of the self-contained instant. But what is contained there is embraced, it seems, by the act of moving forward.

6:00 on a Wednesday, at a cold winter’s dusk. I pulled my bright cyan beanie over my reddening ears, snuggled my fingers into a pair of gloves, exhaled a warm cloud of smoke and set off on a brisk jog towards the O Street Bridge. I expected a solid 3 miles out of myself. Immediately, I felt the pinpricks of fine glass burning my lungs. My vision blurred, my eyes dried out, my toes and cheeks went numb, and my nose ran. Symptoms compiled existing symptoms, and I found that my side was ripping. Gasping, I slowed to a stop. With a gloved hand, I stuffed snow in my mouth for a drink, feeling my tongue unstick from my dry, frigid teeth. Closing my eyes tightly, I pressed on into the wind and endured.

The bike trail was never built to be a place of rest. It is a pedestrian’s path, which moves straight through the heart of Lincoln, Nebraska. It is a crisscrossing artery pumping vitality through the heart of my world. There is life in the pounding, resilient movement, and in the adrenaline-filled rushing of a youthful river. In both biting wind and joyful anticipation, the route is meant to be traveled.

Summertime.  Buzzing like scouts, my best friend, Quinn, and I cut around the bend in the trail, leaving the slowpokes behind.  My mom and two sisters were in no hurry, chatting and holding hands behind us, but we had an agenda with the tire swing we couldn’t miss.  Encountering the street, we diligently halted like cattle to an invisible electric fence.  You coming?  The crew caught up and we flooded the intersection together.  Again, Quinn and I rushed ahead with our feet loudly clomping the old wood of the Bethany Park bridge.  From a secluded dead end circle, an ice cream truck’s chime carried, and our heads whipped.  Sprinting back to my mom, we panted out our plea:  Hurry; the ice cream truck is here!

A walk is never mundane, no matter the pace. Either in revisiting lost thoughts or forging new wonder, there are always brilliant lights and sounds shimmering just around a turn in the pavement. Sometimes an obvious bell calls with its irrepressible lightness of being. Hasty skips and jumps follow there on a whimsical child’s momentum through woods of the unexpected and on to impossible adventure.

Other times, in the quiet, it is as if the trail itself rings out. When the light is low or nearly extinguished in the jittery, windblown dome of sky, a peaceful mind is prone to wanderings. In the absence of that piercing friction which is a cluttered mind churning in a brightly lit room, freedom winds down the often forgotten paths of lesser light.

9:00 on a Sunday night.  I ventured out from my home in a night storm, beckoned by the raindrops as they rapped like a harbinger on my front door.  My mom and I followed the runoff water down our sloping street to the Mopac Trail, turned, and set off leisurely towards a silently flickering wall of clouds.  Like explosions in space, the enormity of the distant lights reverberated beneath sound.  I was captivated, then awestruck.  The strobe flashed again, not pure white, or cold blue, or electric purple, but Christmas-light red.  What! Did you see that?   Our voices spun in the outdoor hallway, empty, between branched shadows, and again the trail lit up, this time in complimentary green. There was no danger of oncoming bikers at that hour; my mom and I were alone with the trail.  You are my witness if dad doesn’t believe me, I either whispered or shouted to the glowing dark of her grinning face.  As we left the trail heading back for home, the images were etched into that heavily traveled, winding progression in our minds.

The bike trail is a long stretch of concrete, unmoving and seemingly unfazed. And yet, each pass I made on its surface has chiseled new pavement cracks, and new mile markers. Each step has tossed insurmountable piles of decay into a wind that blows and waters infant eyes. In sporadic gusts, dust motes wander and settle into a film, waiting for the silence to call me back for second pass. My mirrored footfalls breath new motion into the pools of forgotten footprints while the old dust flies in its familiar dance. On an immovable concrete path, there is a chaotic insistence for motion, for cadence stepping ever forward. But with a path, forward means revisiting.