Just after daybreak, on the first morning of Daylight Saving Time, my sister-in-law Kiran and I met two other friends for a run in the woods.
We were running to the Blue Ridge Parkway and back along the Old Mitchell Toll Road. Now a trail, the Toll Road began as a railway line in 1914. The train took loggers to Camp Alice, about ¾ mile from the top of Mt. Mitchell. There they cut balsam, which the train took back down the mountain, where it was milled and used to build planes for World War I. After the war the railway was converted to a one-lane toll road for cars. You’d drive up the mountain in the mornings, down in the afternoons. The Toll Road closed in 1938, when the Parkway opened and there was a no-toll road to Mt. Mitchell. Now it’s a popular trail for hikers, bikers, and runners.
This was my first time on the Toll Road, and I was excited for that. Additionally, although I am not a fan of Daylight Saving Time — I agree with whatever Native American it was who said, “Only the government would believe that you could cut a foot off the top of a blanket, sew it to the bottom, and have a longer blanket” — somehow, for me, the fact that it was day one of Daylight Saving Time made it feel like a new year and added to the energy of the morning.
So did the fog. The clouds were close in, and all around, the air was the color of breath on a cool morning. It was like running through ghosts.
The deciduous trees have not put forth leaves yet, so the colors of the forest were mostly grays and browns — oak, poplar, and maple trees and the leaves they had dropped in the fall.
But there were other, more vivid, colors. The remarkable reddish-orange of clay. One friend on this run told of her first visit, as a girl, to the Appalachians. She grew up in the Midwest, where all the dirt is blackish brown. As her family drove east and south, her mother told her that, where they were headed, some of the dirt was red. She could not believe it or imagine it, she said, but when they made the mountains, there it was, and her mother’s making over it had helped her see it and marvel over it. And her story, of course, helped me see it and marvel over it, too.
There’s also lots of green in the woods, even in winter. The dark greens of laurel, rhododendron, spruce, and pine. The medium greens of ferns. And the crazy, ridiculous greens of moss. Lord, the moss. On trees, stones, and logs. On the ground itself. Cool greens, warm greens, bright greens, fluorescent greens. Kiran is a great lover of moss, and she has taught me love it, too. Mosses are the oldest plants on earth – 350 million years and counting – and they know a thing or two about adapting and surviving. But they’re not all about survival; they also give generously to the world around them. They build soil, filter water, release oxygen, and provide a home for all kinds of invertebrates. We ran past a long bank of moss-covered rocks, all of them roughly a foot in diameter and shaped like mushrooms, arrayed as if an artist had sculpted a moss garden.
It’s a long, steady climb to the Parkway, about 3300 feet of elevation gain. There were puddles, mud, and lots of rocks. We picked our way along slowly.
We passed three different hunting camps: two low-slung plywood structures – one with a “Black Mountain Bear Club” sticker on the door, one flanked by a dozen dog houses – and a third comprised of two old airstream-style campers that were like giant rusted metal caterpillars asleep in the woods.
We talked of work and family, of books, of runs past and runs to come. We wondered how many millions of years old the rocks are we were running on. We said how lucky we are to live here, in these mountains, and to be healthy enough to experience the woods in this way.
Halfway up it began to mist, and by the time we reached the Parkway it was full on raining. We were now at nearly 6000 feet, and the rain was cold. My fingers were so numb I couldn’t open my Larabar. I tore the wrapper with my teeth.
Maybe a quarter of the way down, in the middle of a conversation I no longer remember, Kiran tripped and fell. It’s so easy to do, running downhill over rocks, even when you’re being careful. Your toe clips the edge of a rock, and down you go. She landed first on her right hand, then her right shoulder, and immediately cried out in pain. The other two members of our pack were far enough ahead that – between the rain and their talking – they did not heard her yell. I called to them, but they did not hear me either.
I bent down beside her. “You ok?”
“I don’t know. My finger bent way back, and it hurts like crazy. I’m afraid I broke it.” She hadn’t noticed yet that her knee was bloody.
“I’m so sorry. We’ll figure this out, though.” I reached for her good hand and pulled her up, but she immediately doubled over and put both hands between her knees.
She stood up straight and walked a few steps. “Oh man, it hurts so bad!” Then she doubled over again.
I was unsure what to do be helpful. Talk to her, so she’d have a focus outside herself? Or be quiet, give her space, and let her go inside to find what she needed? I split the difference. I put my hand on her back and was silent.
She stood again, and now she was angry. “Dammit! I’m on call tonight!” Kiran delivers babies for a living. “If this thing is broken I won’t be able to work!” We looked at her hand together, and she could flex her fingers. “Well, they’re bending, so probably it’s not broken. But dammit! I did not need to fall! This is not convenient!”
We were still six miles or more from the car. The only way out was by foot. Plus, it was raining and cold, so we needed to keep moving. I didn’t say any of this, and didn’t need to. She was fighting the pain as hard as she could, trying to rally, to get herself together so we could get going. This time she tried running, but after twenty feet she doubled over again and made one of those long, primal grunt-yells that our species has been making for probably 200,000 years.
“Good! Yell! Let some of that out.”
She straightened again and walked a few steps more. Her eyes got wider, and she said, “My throat is closing up. I can’t breathe.” She paused. “I think I need to cry.”
And she did. She bent over – crumpled over, really — and cried. Sobbed. For thirty or forty seconds. Hard, loud, shameless heaves. Surrendering to tears, pain, anger, and who knows what else. In the presence of trees, and stone, and clay, and moss, and rain. And me. And God.
“That’s right,” I said, “Let it go. That’s good.”
And then she was done. Emptied out. Opened up. Done fighting pain. Done fighting herself. She straightened up, rose up, and walked three or four steps. “Oh, that’s better.” And then we were running. We took it easy — she didn’t want to fall again, and I didn’t want to fall at all – but we were running.
A minute later she slowed and stopped. “Will you look in my backpack? There’s a Ziploc bag with some dry wool socks in there. I want you to pull one of them over this hand, kinda like a splint or a brace.” My hands were still so cold that it was a bit of a struggle, but we managed.
Eventually we caught the other two. In truth, we didn’t catch them. They had stopped to wait for us at the giant rusty caterpillar. One of them is a physician’s assistant, and she took a look. “I don’t think it’s broken, but sometimes a sprain can hurt worse than a break. Also, it’s probably not a bad thing that our hands are so cold.”
On we ran. We passed the mushroom-shaped, moss-covered rock garden. I suggested that she stop, place her injured hand on the moss, and ask for healing. Which she did.
Over the next hour her hand felt better and better, to the point where she said it barely hurt at all. The rockiest sections of the trail were now behind us, and we could open our strides and really run. On the way up, dry and hoping to stay that way, we had dodged the puddles and the mud. But now, after an hour of rain, there was no avoiding them, and once you’re good and soaked, there’s no point in it anyway, so we splashed like kids.
And then we were done, back at the car, changed into dry clothes, headed for home, and grateful. The rain had stopped; the skies were clearing. Kiran was able to work the night, and now, a week later, she says her hand is fine unless someone squeezes too hard in a handshake.
And I’ll say this: It’s amazing what a good cry can do. A good quit trying to hold it together, just let it fall apart. A good stop fighting and surrender.
There’s an Isak Dinesen quote on our refrigerator at home: “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, and the sea.” I think that’s true. But wool socks, moss, and the company of friends aren’t bad either.