I was a highly-impressionable youngster; the things I saw, heard, and experienced, affected my emotions far more than my peers. Cruelty to a dog, for instance, may have caused momentary gasps of indignation from the others, but they’d soon forget it and run off after some childish frivolity. Not so for me; I’d linger on the sight for days, knowing I had caught a glimpse of pure evil.
Something was wrong with me, I thought; the circumstance couldn’t have been as important as all that. I’m looking at the world wrong. I must be. Why do I dwell on these instances of excitement, when everyone else shrugs them off?
This same failing, that could fill me with disgust at the sight of rotten vegetables, or keep me up at night, terrified of ghosts, also worked in a positive direction. I had a deeper appreciation for music and art and poetry than those around me. I’d sit quietly, daydreaming about the nature of God, while other children played video games.
I was athletic as a child, as well. When I ran, say, during a game of freeze-tag, I’d feel the sheer thrill of it. I’d flip on my afterburners, complete with child-like sound-effects, and rush into the zest and vibrancy of life. Even later, well into my military career, when I was no longer forced to run, I found myself doing it anyway.
On the weekends I’d run ten miles or more, at a steady, relaxing pace. Sometimes I’d listen to music while running, or sometimes, I’d just enjoy the sounds of nature. And when I did listen to music, it wasn’t the fast-paced nonsense many listen to when they run; rather, I’d listen to inspiring songs that lifted my spirits. Combined with the surrounding natural beauty, this made a great impression upon my sensitive mind.
There were times, however, my negative and positive affections collided.
This happened once, when I was stationed in Washington D.C. I had found a beautiful apartment complex right off the Potomac river to live in. Directly behind it, there was a well-kept hiking trail running from Alexandria all the way south to George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation. This trail ran through rich suburbs and northern Virginian forests. I used to run it religiously.
During the day, however, (and, as you might imagine), the trail was crowded with bikers pretending to be Lance Armstrong, or with people walking their dogs, or with children being pushed in strollers, or all manner of traffic. The bikers were the worst. They go so fast, there’s a danger of serious injury during accidental collisions, which happened frequently.
On top of the traffic, and the blistering summer heat, another factor made running during the day almost unbearable: there were no restrooms on the trail. Up near Alexandria, about a mile south of the Woodrow Wilson bridge, there’s a park with public restrooms, but, beyond that, there’s no more until you reach Mount Vernon, at least a good fifteen miles further. The well-hydrated runner was obliged to do his business behind some unlucky tree and pray he wouldn’t be noticed. This is next to impossible however, due to the traffic I described above.
So I swallowed my fears and went for a night run.
All was good until I passed out of civilization, where the spheres of light from distant suburbia lit up the trail. But at the extremity of this boundary, was a long, wooden bridge. It stretched over an inlet where the Potomac swept into an inner estuary. On the other end, the trail slipped into a dark patch of forest.
Years later, after telling my mom of my night runs, she accused me of being overly-stupid. Big cities, to her, are cesspools of crime and filth, certainly not places to be out, alone, after dark. And being from a small town, I harbored some of the same fears (not without warrant, of course). I have a Hibben knife, flat, light weight, and perfect for my purposes. I still use it today when I go running – I slip it up under the arm-band that holds my MP3 player. It’s there, in plain view, and within easy reach.
I grasped this knife and ran off down the bridge.
Halfway across, I stopped, not from fear, but from the shear beauty of the rising moon over the Potomac. Thoughtful engineers had built rest-areas periodically along the bridge, with park benches. I dropped onto one of these and stared out across the inlet.
Alone, on the outskirts of D.C., far away from home, and confronted with natural beauty, I began to pray (and earnestly so). It wasn’t a prayer like so many metropolitan cries for money or petty advantage, rather, it was a heart felt prayer of excitement and thanksgiving. These prayers are rare in my life, and on that, I don’t suppose I’m too different than anyone else.
In any case, eventually, I decided to move on, my mind steadied. I halted at the edge of the bridge, barely able to see ten feet into the forest. What was out there? Criminals, maybe? Far more likely a deer, or God-forbid it, a bear! What about ghosts?
These thoughts swarmed into my mind, though with one last look at the rising moon and the glimmering Potomac waters, I pushed them away, asked God to be with me, and plunged into the darkness.