Near and Far

I sit in the quiet of the desert, music playing softly from my phone as a breakfast pudding bubbles away on the stove. It’s a scrappy meal, as I’ve neglected going to the grocery store for a few days. A hodge-podge of milk, water, chia, flax, overripe bananas, and Hershey’s chocolate syrup: it’s nothing fancy, but goes down just fine.

I sit and think. Sometimes it feels hard to find words with which to fill this space. I start down one trail, then back track a bit and explore another. Eventually my thoughts drift to headlamps. I’m not sure why. Maybe because it feels like I’ve been needing them more and more as of late. With the start of fall only five days away, it is no secret that the long days of summer are no more. Sure, we aren’t in the trenches of winter yet, but I have been grabbing a light for the final miles of those evening runs.

Zach Miller Finding Words Bus

Zach Miller contemplating his next run from his bus. All photos by Zach Miller unless otherwise noted.

Fortunately, running by the beam of a headlamp is something I really enjoy. Last weekend I took a dip in a lake with a mile to go and clicked on my light to take me home. A few days prior I went for an evening ride on some singletrack and used my light nearly the entire time. The return trip on that ride was incredibly fun. Nearly all downhill, I relied heavily on the light as I sped my way through the twists and turns of that high desert trail.

Run or ride, up or down, one of the things I most enjoy about headlamps is the tunnel vision. The second you turn one on, you enter a world of intense focus. All you can see is what lies within the beam of your light. Blind to all else, your task seems so simple. You focus on whatever your headlamp can reach, and forget about everything else. You get just enough information to navigate the space you are in, but not enough to anticipate and worry about what lies ahead.

Zach Miller Finding Words Nighttime

Heading out for a night run. Photo: Jess Schueler

Zach Miller Finding Words Headlamp

Another use for a headlamp — working on the bus.

When running or riding, this sort of laser focus feels great. It may even help you to conquer things you would normally shy away from. Technical bits of trail pop up so abruptly that you scale them before you have time to overanalyze and chicken out. It can be terrifying and confidence building all at the same time. It’s like that big brother who sneaks up from behind and pushes you off the high dive before you can psyche yourself out and bail.

Yet, as much as I love a good headlamp run, I’d be lying if I said it was always the best. A few weeks ago I caught a flight out of Oregon around midnight for a quick trip home to Pennsylvania. Three flights, two train rides, and one short car ride later I found myself in Lancaster. I arrived at my parent’s place in need of a workout, but immediately found myself sitting on a lawn mower instead. Family was coming over for dinner and we were in a bit of a mad dash to get the yard spruced up and everything sorted for the meal. Sprucing segued into eating and by the time things wound down nighttime was upon us. Hence, I laced up my running shores, clicked on my headlamp, and headed out for a night run.

Zach Miller Finding Words Sunset

Dusk over a mountain range prior to a night run.

The first few miles were a mix of road and trail, and I kept my light on. But about three miles in, on a quiet country road, I reached up and turned it off. I ran for several miles like that. Just me, the darkness, and the roads of my youth. I felt so free.

Night running without a headlamp is certainly similar to running with one, but I’d be remiss to say the experiences are the same. Both occur in the dark and can feel invigorating, but the scope of vision is entirely different. While the headlamp creates a tunnel of intense detail and focus, the lack of a headlamp allows for a broader scope of view. Sure, things aren’t as bright or detailed, but the eyes aren’t confined to the limited reach of the headlamp. Instead of seeing just a few things really well, you see the big picture.

Rolling farmland, tree silhouettes, and distant ridgelines stretch out before your eyes. You can look ahead, navigate, and anticipate what is to come, all things which could be difficult to do with the limited scope a light.

It can seem counterintuitive to run around in the dark without a headlamp. As humans we often want to have a clear view of what we are dealing with. But sometimes our desire to focus so closely on what’s right in front of us blinds us to what is more distant. This is dangerous because sometimes what seems like the best decision in the moment may actually be detrimental to what lies in the future.

Zach Miller Finding Words Mountains

A clear day high in the mountains.

When I worked as a caretaker at Barr Camp in Colorado, I used to have hikers tell me how they accidentally hiked the top half of the Manitou Incline on their way to Barr Camp instead of following the Barr Trail all the way. To me, this always seemed a bit, well, let’s just say, “remarkable,” as the Manitou Incline’s stairs and steepness are unlike any trail out there. It would be accurate to call it unmistakable — or nearly so.

In talking to hikers over the years, what I came to realize was that often this mistake was made in the dark. Once I realized this things made a lot more sense. There is one switchback on the Barr Trail that gets very, very close to the Manitou Incline. In fact, there is even a small section of trail that shoots off this switchback and connects to the Incline. What I imagine is that people hike with their headlamps on, and when they get to this turn their headlamp illuminates the small connector shooting off of the switchback, so people just continue straight, never realizing that the Barr Trail turns left. They then find the Incline and follow it upward, likely very curious as to why the Barr Trail has become so much more steep all of a sudden.

Had they been hiking without a headlamp, less focused on what was directly in front of them and more focused on the big picture, they might have seen the turn and saved themselves a quad-crushing push up the 45% average grade that is the Manitou Incline. Herein lies the danger of a headlamp. Sometimes we stare too closely at our feet and miss the turn. At the same time the opposite can also be true. We can get so caught up in scanning the horizon that we trip on the rock right before us.

In the end, I guess life and running are a mix. There is a place somewhere in a deep, dark wood or in the midst of a crisis where it pays to click on the headlamp and focus on the immediate needs. At the same time, sometimes there is a quiet stretch of country road or a life-changing event that is navigated best with a big-picture view. So, as fall moves in with crisp air and shorter days here in the Northern Hemisphere, have the headlamp at the ready, but not always on, because life is a matter of both near and far, details and big picture.

Call for Comments

  • Do you ever run without a headlamp at night?
  • What are some wrong turns you’ve made in running (or life) that have helped you learn about yourself?
Zach Miller Finding Words Red Mountains

Zach contemplating the big picture. Photo: Hilary Matheson

Zach Miller

is a mountain runner and full time caretaker at Barr Camp in Colorado. As caretaker, he lives year round in an off-the-grid cabin halfway up Pikes Peak. He competes for The North Face and Team Colorado. Additional sponsors/supporters include Clean-N-Jerky, GU Energy Labs, and Nathan Sports. Follow him on Instagram.