The trail across the caldera is a wide, rolling dirt track, so for the first time all day I don't have to watch my feet. Instead, I lift my eyes and look around. It's nothing but grass, waving in the wind. I can see twelve miles across to the scallop of trees on the far side, tugging me forward like an invisible cord. I'm running faster and with less effort than I have all morning.
This must be what it feels like to hallucinate, a lightness in my body, my senses absorbing every detail: the skeleton bones and swirling earth. Far in front of me, a shimmery pond glints like a dime-size mirage. As I get closer, I see that it's real and I'm overcome by the urge to jump into the water. Toy trucks waver like vehicles in a model town. It's a faraway aid station.
The caldera was once a scene of cataclysmic change, but time has turned it into a place of stillness and silence. Half a mile ahead of me, a black spot lopes along the contours of the rough road. Another runner. He's slowly, almost imperceptibly, getting bigger. I'm gaining on him, if only by inches. Beneath this massive sky, I'm outrageously lonely, but as the runner grows closer I realize that I don't want to talk to him, or anyone. Solitude is my fuel.
People think long-distance running is about speed, about getting from point A to B as fast as possible, but really it's about slowing down. In the quiet of prolonged effort, time stretches, elongates. I look around at the hot blue sky, summer settling down on northern New Mexico, and feel my legs moving automatically and do what comes naturally. I run.
Twelve miles disappear beneath my feet. The back side of Pajarito Mountain rears up, the off-kilter doubletrack road disappearing into tall grass. I stop at the aid station and the race volunteers press watermelon slices into my palms and send me on my way. Past the pond, the course goes up, up, up the slope, trees stacked upon trees stacked upon trees: ponderosa pines, Douglas firs, blue spruce, aspens greening with the first heat of spring. This is the climb Jacob warned me about. It's so steep I can't see the top.
I've run all day to get out of the caldera, but now that I'm almost there, I have the strangest sensation that I will miss it. I will miss the scale and solitude, the simplicity of the task before me. Running reduces life to its bare essentials: sky, ground, skin, breath, flesh, bones, muscle.
Then, as if on cue, the orange flags marking the course vanish. There's no trail, just knee-high bunchgrass atop tussocky earth. The footing is uneven, and the course could be anywhere on the side of the mountain. I slow to a walk, scouring the meadow for the neon stick flags. Nothing.
In every long run, there comes a moment when you ask yourself, What the hell were you thinking? This is it. I stare at the ground, the steep slope rising above me, and think about my father and my daughters, and how I ended up alone and lost on a mountain in New Mexico. A million steps along a crooked path have led me here. And only I can find my way out.
I would like to beg you...to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as though they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
The journey has taken all day. We got up before dawn and we're still not there. The road before us winds and swerves, up hills and down. It is very narrow, and you can't see around the curves, so you have to stay to the edge and hope that no one's coming in fast from the other direction. My older sister, Meg, is driving, like she always did. My three-month-old daughter, Maisy, is in the back, asleep in her car seat.
There are fences and walls on either side of the road and, beyond them, green fields and horse pastures unfurling to dense woods. I'd forgotten that trees get so tall, taller than the second story of a house. I'd forgotten that there are second stories of houses. I'd forgotten about grass. I've been away so long.