Friday, November 09, 2007

Words for November

This piece of mine ran originally in ULTRARUNNING and most recently in the BARRE-MONTPELIER TIMES ARGUS and RUTLAND HERALD :

Running with the Wind Eagle


It wasn't supposed to be a vision quest, just a simple run up my favorite Vermont mountain trail: up the old carriage road to the bare rock summit of Mount Hunger, then down the other side and across the wooded ridge to the open, sun-baked ledges of White Rock Mountain. It was not an epic journey, just a couple of hours of moderately-challenging trail running.

Thomas Merton, the monk and writer, once wrote something to the effect that to begin each day by describing the same mountain is to be in the grip of delusion. One way I've found to escape that grip is to simply take myself physically right into — and onto — that mountain, the one I see almost every morning.

Above all, it was the amazing clarity of the morning air that pulled me out to run that autumn day. I'd been up on those trails a few times that season, on longer approaches. But today I was greedy for one more gulp of that mountain air, hungry for another look at that long, all-encompassing view from the peak.

So I ran — first through groves of hardwood, then, as I climbed higher, through dark, cool pines. The mountain was mine alone, it seemed.

I reached the summit after a short and exhilarating rock scramble. Stopping to catch my breath and drink in the view, I noticed the odd way the clear morning light seemed to lengthen the far Adirondack peaks to the West: an optical illusion that created dark spires and towers that I knew weren't really there.

Turning eastward, I took in a long line of high, thin, mackerel-flecked clouds that stretched like an ocean, breaking like silver-gray surf just above the Presidential Range of New Hampshire's White Mountains.

For a while I watched in awe as four falcons, streamlined for motion in a way that I never would be, circled in a warm updraft current that rose, an invisible spiral, from the ridgeline below. The fast flight of the falcons made me restless, made me want to run again. So I found the trail down into the col between the two mountains. There, with blue sky high above me, I leaped from rock to rock in the shadowed, wet and mossy woods.

Then my breath caught for an instant when something dark passed behind and above me. In my imagination I saw clearly the crook of a giant black wing. It was huge beyond comprehension, some kind of spirit, I thought, darker even than these dark woods. The crisp air around me seemed to grow suddenly cold. I shivered, feeling something between fear and awe as a mysterious breeze passed over my sweating skin.

Minutes later, I came out into the open, warm and sunny ledges of White Rock, then followed the rocky, steep and rooted trail down.

It was a few days later that I came across the story, told by the Abenaki natives of Vermont — and retold wonderfully by the writer Joseph Bruchac — of the Wind Eagle in the high mountains. In this story, the primal being who was the Transformer, the Changer — known to some as Gluskabi, to others as Odzihozo — was tired of the way the winds had so often ruined his canoe voyages and impeded his travel.

He decided to leave his lakeside home and climb to the highest peak, the abode of the massive, fierce bird that created and controlled the winds. Through trickery, he got this creature — the Wind Eagle — wedged into a rock-cleft. Trapped there, the dark and massive raptor could no longer make the winds blow.

Satisfied with his work, the Transformer descended. It was only later, when the lakeside land grew still and breezeless and unbearably hot, that the Transformer realized his mistake. He knew now that he'd have to return to the mountain and free the Wind Eagle. He did so, and the cooling breezes returned at last, along, of course, with the fiercer winds.

It might have been a bird, or a cloud, even a plane, that made the dark shadow I felt pass across the sky and forest that morning. Or it might have been a figment of my imagination, an anomaly of heartbeat and respiration.

It really doesn't matter, though, because now I know about the Wind Eagle. And I know that when I run in the mountains — when I move my lungs, my muscles, my legs — something else moves too. It is something big and powerful and beyond my control and intention, yet somehow transformed by my own perception and attention.

It is transformed by my willingness, through motion and surrender, to set something like spirit free.