Running and a Sense of Place

When searching for a sense of place, sometimes it’s worth going back to where it all started.

By on March 29, 2024 | Comments

AJW's TaproomBack in the mid-1990s while I was completing my master’s degree thesis on wilderness and the American character, I came across Wallace Stegner’s seminal essay “A Sense of Place.” In that essay, Stegner presents a view of the transitory restlessness that has long been a part of American culture. Stegner notes that there are places in America where people have become more rooted, and he defines those places this way:

“A place is not a place until people have been born in it, have grown up in it, lived in it, known it, died in it … Some are born in their place, some find it, some realize after long searching that the place they left is the one they have been searching for. But whatever their relation to it, it is made a place only by slow accrual, like a coral reef.”

In recent months, I have come to realize that I am not one of those who was born in their place and stayed, or one who found their place. Rather, I am one of those who have realized, after long searching, that the place I left is the place I’ve been searching for.

Saguaros in Sonoran desert

For AJW, the Sonoran Desert of Arizona provides a deep sense of place. All photos courtesy of Andy Jones-Wilkins.

In 1996, after my wife Shelly and I completed two years of travel, we settled into a small, cozy house in Phoenix, Arizona, and started our family. After a wonderful five years, however, lives and jobs impelled us to move on, and over the next 23 years, we found ourselves searching for our sense of place in California, Idaho, Virginia, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania. Finally, a year and a half ago, we returned to Phoenix and found our place again.

I came of age as a runner when we lived here years ago. The quiet neighborhood streets in the predawn darkness were my companions as I ran with my son Carson in his baby jogger. On the weekends, I found my way out to the trails of the Phoenix Mountains Preserve, South Mountain Park, and McDowell Mountain Regional Park. Running in the desert became my happy place. I fell in love with the sights, the smells, and yes, even the heat of the Sonoran Desert. I didn’t know it in the busyness of youth, but I had found my sense of place.

AJW in the desert

It’s a dry heat in the Sonoran Desert outside of Phoenix, Arizona.

Since moving back here in the summer of 2022, I have enjoyed finding home “by slow accrual, like a coral reef.” Not coincidentally, I have also found joy as a runner again after several years of fits and starts. While the place has changed immensely in the last 24 years, at its core, the beauty and wonder of my Sonoran Desert home remains unchanged and brings me peace.

Many of us who run long distances become intimately connected to place. By moving through time and space under our own power, we establish a relationship with our surroundings that those driving through simply do not. As that relationship with the desert has deepened for me, I have become convinced more than ever of the truth of Stegner’s eternal words, “In order to truly know who you are, you must know where you are.”

Bottoms up!

AJW running in desert

Finding a sense of place sometimes requires going back to where you came from.

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Huss Brewing logoThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Huss Brewing Company in Phoenix, Arizona. Juicy Juicy IPA is a delightfully fruity IPA with a hoppy aroma and a slightly sweet finish. One of the more complex IPAs I have had recently, Juicy Juicy may surprise even the most hardened beer snob.

Call for Comments

  • Do you have a sense of place with a particular location? Were you born there or did you find it?
  • How do you connect with landscapes through running?
Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.