Rambling Thoughts on Running and Objects Seen Beside the Road

IMG_2495Every couple of days, I pull on a pair of shoes and go out for a run. It’s prime thinking and reflecting time, and I credit it for having kept me sane through some hard moments over the years. Running was once a mandatory part of daily life as a soldier. I didn’t have to like it. I only had to do it. My father-in-law, an Army veteran, used to say, “PT might not make you live longer, but it sure makes it feel longer.”

After a couple years of military service, I made peace with the necessity of daily running. A year or later, once I reached a place in my career when responsibilities sometimes precluded exercise, I found that I missed the feeling of my feet in contact with the road or the bare ground. I missed the rhythm of breathing and heartbeat and cadence that had become the background to a cherished interval of personal time each morning. When there was no available time during the day, or when I couldn’t sleep, I sometimes ran late at night.

When I retired from service, I spent about a week doing nothing more strenuous than grilling steaks and drinking cold beer. One morning, before my eyes opened, I saw myself running. I heard the sound of my steps and felt the humidity on my face. I got out of bed. I put on my shoes. I found that the ritual of donning shoes used only for running put me in the proper mindset to push my body toward its limits. I didn’t have to run anymore. No one was ever going to subject me to an Army physical fitness test again. I just wanted to run. Now that my body is noticeably aging, I understand that it’s the mental state running induces that I crave.

Funny thing–on military installations, there is no litter. We police that stuff up every day. Mostly what soldiers see while running is the back of the soldier running in front of them. Grey cotton, damp after the first mile, stained dark by mile two. Saturated in the North Carolina heat by the time the sun rises. Soldiers are trained to notice roadside debris. Improvised explosive devices are often disguised as bags of trash, discarded auto parts, dead animals–anything boring or repulsive. Soldiers can’t run down a road without mentally sorting every object they pass. The training doesn’t allow it. Running in the “real world,” outside a litter-free military installation, becomes a tour of objects, each with its own story.

I don’t mean to imply the streets are blanketed in litter. It’s the occasional thing on the side of the road I’m talking about.

There’s a sort of hierarchy of objects. There’s the 16-oz Natural Light beer can and the tiny airport tequila bottle. I live in the suburbs for now, so I imagine these are the detritus of reckless high school kids, or their parents making one last orbit around the neighborhood before pulling into the driveway. Where have they been? What happens when they step inside the house?

There’s the single white tennis shoe. It looks fine, as though someone slipped it off a moment before, yet there it is in the median with the stray bolts, bottle caps, and broken sunglasses. I imagine someone hit by a truck hard enough to pop right out of that shoe. Maybe they’re still attached to the grill, clinging for dear life. Single flip-flops abound. I once encountered a black, patent leather man’s dress shoe with a mirror shine. Somewhere, a hapless groom limps to the altar on one shoe. I wonder why it’s always male footwear. Somebody answer me that.

The other day, I found the abandoned driver license of a young man named Baumgartner. It hadn’t expired, and I imagined a man who had changed his identity, emptying his wallet from the passenger seat of the get-away car driven by his attractive and dangerous lover. Had he abandoned a family, a job?

I stuck the license in the top of a bus stop sign in front of the YMCA. Maybe he’d pass by again, a runner like me, and find it. Or maybe a better runner than I, farther down the road, can recover a the spare house key, the mini-Polaroid of the cute dog, and make something of the former Mr. Baumgartner’s shed skin.

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