96.1 FM, 780 AM, Yours for Western Alaska

Born Free

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Walking home Saturday night, my boots, which for the past three weeks have slipped across the road, now meet traction.

The powdery snow, after weeks of falling and sifting and stirring, has created an almost grainy underlayer, burying the black ice that has twice smashed my body to my knees and has for weeks dripped every step with caution. I stop, skimming my sole over the street, friction scraping its track. I smile, and crawling into bed that night, my limbs tingle. My toes start bouncing, waving back and forth. I pull the covers up to my chin, giddy with the thought of tomorrow, feeling every bit my five-year-old self the night before Christmas. Sleep cannot pass through my body soon enough, and the sun cannot open its bright eye early enough. Blah. The clock moves so slowly, and I am too buzzy to rest.

But sleep does come, overstaying its welcome, in fact. I rise at 11am and pull back my curtain. The snow amplifies the sun’s feeble light, multiplying and spreading its few rays to illuminate this mid morning hour. After an oatmeal breakfast and a chance for digestion, I skip up the stairs, almost clapping. I pull on my black leggings and Texas Longhorns sweatshirt. And bounding back downstairs, I lace up my shoes.

“Where are you going?” Emily, my housemate, asks.

“Running,” I say, my chest swelling, loving the very word on my tongue. And turning on my heel, I’m out the door.

Pausing at the edge of the road, I reach out my arms and lift my chin to breathe in the cold, sharp air, releasing a silent paean. Then I’m off. Legs falling into their familiar cadence. Feet slightly sinking into the first fine layer of snow before finding the solid thickness beneath, then pushing off to stride ahead. My ears sting from cold, but I know another quarter mile, and I won’t be able to feel it. Same with my hands. Always beginning tucked into their sleeves until the steam from my body forces them outwards to the cool beyond.

I turn towards the airport. The slushy ocean on my left, steel gray with a strip of neon orange edging the horizon. Hills rise to my right, clouds blurring their tips. And all around me, snow. It’s been falling for a month, and I am still baffled by its enormousness. Coming from middle Tennessee where flurries melt by noon (and it’s only ever flurries), until arriving in Alaska, I’d never seen the world stretch in unbroken whiteness. Like a giant whiteout bottle spilled over the earth. Turning down a hill, I increase my pace, passing multicolored figures tomcod fishing in the harbor. No cars pass and the silence is absolute, absorbing even breath and pace.

This motion of legs reaching and lungs expanding provides a continuity. The continuum began in seventh grade, jogging the humidity heavy streets of my Southern neighborhood. Then into high school cross-country. Then college, where like a midnight vigilante, I ran beneath the rose and amber streetlamps, roving over, through, and between every blade of grass and tree on that ever-revealing campus. It was there, where after years of resentfully stomping through the motions, I fell in love with this action. To the point where I’d have to force myself to stop after an hour of freedom to return to studying. Then abroad, running along the canal, when flowing and frozen, discovering neighborhoods every bit the English architectural monoculture. Then in California, around and around the tree-draped perimeter of McKinley Park, passing rose gardens, duck pond, playgrounds, and stretching lawns of every outdoor recreation. And now here in Alaska. A string attaching all these places, braiding into sinew and stitching their terrain through my limbs.

What I learned in those places holds true here. That I cannot know the curvature of the earth I stand on until I feel it pounding beneath my feet, separated only by a slip of fabric and a slab of rubber, inhaling its atoms into my lungs, mingling in the space between muscle and vein, learning the nuances of its incline in my cells as oxygen and carbon slip past each other through membrane. And in this process, anxiety tucks itself into bed. Worries sort themselves into drawers. Fear takes off its mask and watches it disintegrate to dust. And in at least one moment during every run, I hear my best friend yelling to me, “Born Free!” Like she did that day sophomore year of college when from on a hill, she saw me running below and called out to me, cheering me on.

Looking at the white hills of Nome, I remember the summer of 2010 when my family visited the Grand Canyon. Standing on the edge of phenomenon, I wished I had never seen a picture of that sculpted landscape. I wish I had never heard of that chasm. I wished I was a pioneer, heading west in a covered wagon, having just spanned the Great Plains, and now without tale or forewarning, happened upon that site. Jaw dropping. Eyes bulging. Breath forgotten.

Since that moment, I have wondered what the places I have run over looked like before something stronger than beak or claw or grip or less patient than water or sand or wind gouged and shifted the land. I’ve fantasized of witnessing terrain without expectation or industrial alteration. And looking at Nome’s white hills, the stretching tundra, the Bering Sea, I sense the endurance of my run connecting to the (from the perspective of eyes that will only see a few decades) timelessness of this topography. And though empowered by blood and endorphins, I suddenly see my small life flick like a mere snowflake in the wind. But dear God, caught on a gloved finger and examined, it’s close to majestic.

Returning to the corner outside my house, I begin my cool down. And like at the end of every run, I say a prayer of thanks. For returning home without injury. For the ability to run. For a safe place to ramble. For the example shown by my family that this action is valuable. And this time I add, for being in Nome. For the snow. For the few hours of daylight. And for the tiny molecules of Alaska now circulating through me, adding another link to this chain.