The Last Run of the Red New Balance
One’s life can be reduced to a series of goodbyes. For me, and my wife, this period of time signifies our goodbye to Tucson, Arizona where we have lived the most pleasant of existences for the past twelve years. We moved here from Florida so that Heather could have a new career. She flourished. As for me, I’ve been an English teacher for twenty years, ten years in Florida, ten years here. For the first ten I coached football, for the past ten I’ve fallen in love with Heather. For whatever reason, either lack of opportunity or lack of desire, we have found it difficult to find friends here, thus our retreat to the peninsula. Our friends in Jacksonville are starting families. It’s time to uproot and replant.
And maybe it’s time for this clown to choose another circus. I love teaching. I love the show. I love being thought of as a noble member of an imaginary community including Socrates, Jesus and Buddha. But I see my friends and families enjoying the material gains of other professions. And, although I never felt the needs for conspicuous consumption, maybe a vocation with more generous remuneration would be beneficial to my remaining time upon this mortal coil? And so, I’ve ordered business cards with the moniker “educational services” and “corporate training”. I have yet to muster the reality to place one in someone else’s hand. It’s o.k. though; I have to actually move to Florida before I can begin work. So, that’s where we are, sitting in libraries, while real estate agents guide strangers around our home like bass in a stream, until, one bites. Meanwhile, my beautiful wife works and I’m a stay at home dad with no kids. The plan was to be in Florida by now. Otherwise, I would have started the school year.
I’ve also taken up running. Only blocks from a national park, my anti-social wants are satiated in the solitude of long distances. Sitting at the foot of the Rincon Mountains, desert trails serpentine platoons of cactus and brush. It is devoid of humans for miles. The brown caliche bakes under triple digit sunshine. Nineteenth century mining pits, marked by seldom seen signposts, signify distances to the next. It is a tapestry of browns and greens set against a blue sky, frozen in time, belying the heavy heat of midday. Hares and fowl disappear across the wash breaking from the underbrush as they are startled by my rhythmic footfalls. Today is the last run for these sneakers. My rotation has been the same for years, always New Balance as close to black on black as possible. For me, they fit better and last longer than Nike. I ain’t hatin’; I’m just sayin’. Not sure why I gravitate towards black on black. I like to think there is something rabbinical about it. Today’s are black with red trim and dusted in dirt. Prior to this summer, I would wear the new sneakers to work; I am an action-teacher. Then, when they got a little scuffed, the sneakers would be relegated to the gym. Finally, like today’s red, New Balance, they would become trail sneakers. I like running outdoors in old sneakers and feeling the details in the ground. When I can feel the ground too well, they are garbage. As I peek down and acknowledge the shoes, I realize that this is the last pair of sneakers purchased before resigning. Today is our last run together.
Horse Shit! I jump cut to the right avoiding excremental disaster. In the early morning hours, locals ride horse-back through the saguaros. I imagine it’s gorgeous. The evidence of these excursions is manifested in piles. It’s just part of living in the western vistas.
Tucson is a small town. Once a thing is known by one, it is essentially common knowledge. As Heather was uncomfortable with the concept of lame-ducking her job for a couple months, the entire situation remained clandestine. This left me in an odd position. I submitted my resignation paperwork to the school district, but promised not to reveal my forthcoming disappearance to anyone else at the school as it would undoubtedly be reported to my wife’s coworkers by one of their many children attending the high school at which I was employed. As evinced by the grammatical struggles of the previous sentence, it was not a comfortable position. With the last week of the semester comes the distribution of the fall schedules. Adjacent to my room number and “English 11” there was a “TBA”. I was confronted. I was non-committal. The truth was assumed.
One forgets, or takes for granted, how much one is loved. Before and after school for the next few days, a maudlin procession ensued. I was not expecting it. I considered myself background scenery in their lives. I wasn’t expecting tears. I wasn’t expecting the physical pain in the middle of my chest. These people never really knew me; they know just the character employed by the community to sell them basic skills and knowledge. But they kept coming, one after the other. I felt hollow. The thin façade of my workplace self is more beloved than what lies beneath. This is not a new phenomenon. Truth can only be examined in solitude. Luckily, truth can also be ignored there. So I run alone.
As I run, I try to clear my mind as much as possible. I find that to be a good starting point. This is a good way to reach an understanding with oneself as to the pathway to one’s joy or the root of one’s anxiety. When I first started running outside, I would listen to music, timing my distance by the playlist. Three miles would be an average of eight songs. I take my time. Now, I leave the music at home. The sounds of the desert, the buzzing, the scattering, the chirping, pace me. Many trails stretch across this wilderness. In the dry seasons, they are visible for miles like veins protruding from malnourished flesh. The trail markers identify distances. Calculating one’s journey is easy. Today, I’ve chosen a four mile route. I’m starting south, looping back north on a different trail, and then east for about a mile into Monument Wash. Not sure; never saw a monument. The peak overlooking the wash avails one a vantage point of the wilderness. From there, I’ll double back over my own footsteps for half a mile or so and pick up another path back to the trailhead. I leave a quart of water in the car for my return. It’s over a hundred degrees. Peligrosso es mi nombre media.
The first seven tenths of a mile are south and lead to a picnic area. There are dozens of these concrete picnic tables scattered across the Tucson national park landscape. They are the stalwart remains of President Roosevelt’s employment plans of the early thirties. In one park, a three and a half mile road leads up a mountain to where a dam was planned but abandoned. In another, one can stumble across the old Catalina Honor Camp where European Americans penned Asian Americans. Hiking trails lead to and from the site but tourists seldom stop here. Maybe the trails at the upper elevations lend one to thoughts of a higher purpose than unjustified, interminable internment. Javelinas, deer, and snakes use the abandoned paths to scout for water. I’m always wary of mountain lions though and know not to run from them. I won’t see any wildlife on today’s journey as only humans and insects stray this close to other humans. The bees suck! I mean they are awesome, in general, all flying in ways that flummox physicists, but the killer bees are not cool. And they are killer bees. Calling them Africanized honey bees is nominally mitigating to the viciousness of these winged murderers. Sometimes buzzing makes me run fast. One mustn’t linger for long. The flies love sweat and the big desert flies sound like bees. So run son.
The journey is what illuminates. A few weeks ago, at the end of July, I was right about here on my run when I turned to the mountains and saw the cloud begin to form. The monsoonal rains are beautiful. I will miss them. The cloud starts as an innocent cumulus hovering still on the other side of the mountain range. Over the ensuing hours, it builds. Unable to transcend the peak of the Rincons, the white puff deepens in color, still bright white in its center, but grown so large, now silhouetted in silver, propelled by the desert heat, the cloud launches bright white pillars of itself higher into the atmosphere. Finally, this mass of water, frozen yet still growing, creeps over the mountains. It is now a deep, grave gray. Other clouds have gathered and amassed to block out the sun. Late afternoon turns to early dusk. Lightning, cloud to cloud and cloud to ground, begins somewhere beyond sight in the valleys trapped between rows of mountain tops. In a drop, then two, then faster than any human pace, the rain sprints down the western slopes turning path to stream. The grey sheets of water gradually move west across the foothills and across the old pueblo. These mountains have veins of copper, silver, and even gold. I like to think that the residual electricity in the metals beneath my feet help to energize my body. When I’m here, I feel like I could run forever.
No rain today. No clouds. Just heat. Nature at its most pristine. Shirtless, I feel the hot breeze as it rises from the dirt. Surely as the cactus and mesquite are part of this photograph, I must also belong here, running. I lift my gaze to the mountains on the left, covered in yellowed grass, dotted with green, in parts, suffused in it. An empty sky of deep blue frames the tops. How ancient are these hills? Imagine the miners, and historically they were here, in this very spot, camped out at three in the morning. The night sky is a sea of stars, occasionally on fire bolting over the blackness of the east where the mountains will appear in a few hours cascaded in hues of pinks and purples. From my old classroom, in the middle of town, on the second floor, one could view this daily. I hope one does enjoy it daily as this one did for many years in room 205. Some days were good, some days were not, but the sunrise was a beautiful reminder of perspective. Who bequeathed me this path? The indigenous peoples of this region left settlements which scientists date to the eleventh century. Their ghosts are here. I imagine that prior to our historical accounts, other civilizations flourished in these foothills only to succumb to glaciations. How far below my footsteps are the castles of the forgotten?
I carry my t-shirt with me, switching hands, evading invisible tacklers. Here, I slow my pace for a second and scan through the brush for parked cars. This picnic area is accessible from another road. Seasonally, people will bring lunches or walk dogs or participate in the nefarious activities of those who acquiesce to the demons of a lesser nature. But today is a day when all mammals seek shade. Even the reptiles burrow into the cool desert floor. For they know, if they persist, the sun’s slow violence will drain all life. I am solar! When I first started on these trails, I would try and replace my shirt if I felt I was approaching people, not out of modesty or embarrassment, but rather, politeness. Sometimes in my daily life, I feel guilty for not dressing like an early twentieth centurion replete with woolen hat and jacket. How did those people survive in this heat? This century is so much more comfortable. Predictably, the area is desolate. I could probably run naked today but the image is ruined by the necessity of socks and the titular sneakers. The trail continues, turning north and dipping down into a wash. Parts of the trail cut back and forth across washes that drain the mountain rain. The sun-dried silt turned sand is challenging. In this subtle depth, the trail narrows. The draining rain from the mountains provides sustenance for shallow-rooted trees and bushes. Thorns grow on most vegetation here to prevent the population from ingestion. In the heat, the oxygen dissolves. A tangible foreboding lurks as the path winds through a waterless bog. The first few times through this section were sketchy. I couldn’t see any residual footprints as is customary in arid places. Although it hadn’t rained in days and the rest of the trail is gritty and dry, some patches of dampness prevail in varying deepening shades of brown, unabsorbed by the rock-hardened caliche. But I just kept going and as the ground dried on the next incline, and the green receded into yellow into beige, I could feel the oxygen again as one emerging from an underwater tunnel into the light and safety of the surface happier in the surmounted risk. Can a person experience true exhilaration without traversing the processes of fear and emptiness? If one makes decisions solely motivated by fear, one is left to collapse upon himself like a dying star. There is no enthusiasm in fear. I choose enthusiasm and I run faster, not deterred by my fear, but inspired by it. That’s why I’m following my Heather to Jacksonville. Optimism is energy. That’s why I followed her here. I can’t wait until I get to see her tonight. I have nothing special planned. I’ll pick up something healthy for our dinner. She’ll come home later than she planned. We’ll eat and watch Jeopardy. She’ll fall asleep on the couch while I’m doing the dishes. We’ll go to bed and snuggle until one of us sleep breathes and the other will roll over and do the same. It’s the best part of everyday.
Now, the mountains are on my right. The trail follows the crest between two washes then descends and veers east toward the peaks. The path continues over a series of inclines and declines to the base of the foothills. As one ascends, the entire landscape opens revealing the profile of the Catalinas, the adjacent mountain range to the Rincons. Mansions scatter the face of the Catalinas. Somewhere a lord of capitalism gazes south across the city as the sun rolls west ignorant of his intentions. Equally ignorant, I jog at my petty pace, equipped with a stupid smile as I imagine her face. Time becomes meaningless on my runs. I feel the ubiquitous presence of a greater power in these places. I’ve studied religions. I have also studied Calculus. My mind has limits as to the depths of its comprehension. If one cannot grasp calculus, what of the pretense of understanding divinity? Morality must be descriptive, not proscriptive. Heather was very patient with me as I discovered this truth. One is honest because it makes one feel good to be honest. A person needs to feel proud of his actions. The Greeks called it “integrity”. Like an integer, we are whole numbers, fractioned by compromised values. I eat healthy, I exercise, I follow the basic principles of polite human behavior so as not to compromise. On either sides of this philosophical path are traps spiraling downward to resentment and guilt. I’ve slipped before; I hope not to slip again. Today, I am sure of my footfalls. The junction of three paths marks the entrance to Monument Wash. From here, it’s a steady incline to an overlook in the foothills where one has a vantage across the arroyo. This is the border of the National Park. There is no fence. On a map at the trailhead, a green shade marks the wilderness from the official park. That is the only claim of separation. The trails continue into the mountains. I’ve taken those long hikes before. They lead to natural springs, other parks, even across Reddington Pass into the Catalinas and Mount Lemmon. But that journey is for another day. I know I can keep running deeper into the abyss of nature, losing myself in the beautiful minutia. On the opposite side of the wash, I can see a scorched tree gripping the slope with its roots as it reaches skyward with the small remains of its green life. This was a lightning strike as evidenced by the specificity of the destruction. A fire would have left its traces for acres until it exceeded its fuel. This tree was solely selected for electrification. I stare at it. I convince myself that the extra expenditure of energy is small in comparison to the mystery. And I think of her, and I look at my shoes. It’s time to go. To keep on would be selfish, even greedy. I came for my inspiration, now I must pass it on, inspired in my life with Heather. I think about our impending evening and the release of my soul into hers. I turn towards home.
The journey back again always begins as a struggle. Human knees are miracles of nature, but like all miracles of nature, their demise is inevitable. Walking is cajoled into shuffling and implored into jogging. Thankfully, the pain subsides. One day it won’t. That will be a tough day, but it will not be today. I’m a mile and a half away from the trailhead. In about fifteen minutes, I’ll be drinking water and stretching my hamstrings. I do my best to extract all the nectar I can on the return. I breathe deep and keep my eyes lifted to the scenery. Whoa! I extend laterally with my right leg at the last minute to avoid an enormous heap of poop. That could have turned out a lot worse. In fact, it worked out pretty well. I am becoming more agile every day. Instead of imagining all the horse shit I’ve avoided, I focus on the paths that have led me to today’s beauty. It’s worked out pretty well. Thanks.