Even terrible photographers take good photos sometimes, as I proved last week while running in central Colorado’s Sawatch mountains. I took one of those classic sweeping vistas of high tundra and snow patches and distant mountains. My favorite part is that the photo couldn’t even come close to taking in the whole range, and one mountain to the left of the photo had its summit completely cut out. All you can see is a steep slope leading to the edge of the photo and disappearing upward. Cutting out that peak was a total accident, but I really like what it suggests. A rocky slope continuing upward and out of sight implies a wonderful possibility. Where does it go? How far could I take it?
Two days later I set out for a run in a small town in South Dakota, over 1,000 miles away from the Sawatch. A friend and I had driven there for our other friend’s wedding, and after being in the car for 13 hours I needed some exercise. I soon found myself on a dirt road heading out of town, and decided to follow it until I got tired. The landscape in South Dakota is vastly different from that in the Colorado Rockies, and my road undulated gently into the far distance, with hardly a landmark to set my sights on. Only the occasional farmhouse or stand of cottonwood trees stood above the ocean of corn and soybeans. The road extended like a ribbon through the fields, and I followed.
Except for one outcropping of low mountains, South Dakota is entirely flat. Many of the states in the middle of America are. These are the Great Plains, an expanse of land with almost no geological morphology to speak of. An ocean of land that rolls gently for thousands of miles from the Mississippi River to the mountains, and from Texas all the way up into northern Canada. It’s an extraordinarily large stretch of land with few landmarks, and as such the area receives very little attention in the world of trail running. I guess that makes sense, since trail running is a way to indulge in the visual spectacle of the outdoors, and ‘plains’ don’t generally offer much of a spectacle. People take running trips to Chamonix, France and Colorado and other grand mountain landscapes, but rarely to, say, Nebraska or South Dakota.
Nevertheless, while I ran along that dirt road that bisected the huge farms, I realized that I really liked the way I felt. For one thing, having spent the last week at 9,000-plus feet, the lower altitude made me feel like a hero. But that wasn’t what was making my heart swell. There was something I liked about the vast openness that surrounded me, something about the sense of overwhelming distance that made me feel excited. I knew that if I reached the horizon and looked beyond, there would only be more fields of corn and soybeans. So it wasn’t a sense of potential change that got me going. I tried comparing this landscape to others that I knew, but failed because all the landscapes I ever focus on are almost pornographically gorgeous. So it wasn’t a familiar sense of belonging either. But there was a connection to the mountains that took me a long time to figure out.
I ran and ran, sometimes climbing up a gentle incline past a farmhouse, other times descending into gentle depressions. All of it between the fields, under a sun that swam through humid air. At each rise a new vista of squared-off fields appeared, extending like a mosaic into the unblemished horizon. The distance was incomprehensible. I couldn’t wrap my head around it… and that realization is what made it all click. I suddenly understood that I liked this landscape for the same reasons I liked that photo of the mountain without a summit: because of the possibility that their size implies. The plains extend far beyond any reasonable, human understanding of space. Even an airplane at 30,000 feet cannot see their whole extent, and those of us on the ground are simply engulfed by their immensity. Though almost completely flat, the plains seemed to swallow me far more than mountains ever have.
They’re beautiful because they can’t be conceptualized. They’re wonderful because they cannot be put into a box and held. Sometimes I feel real existential pain in beautiful places because the magnificence and the emotions are overwhelmingly strong. I love the way I feel at those times and am heartbroken to think that I can’t put those emotions into a box and carry that box around with me for the rest of my life. Those feelings will become memories, and memories fade. But I’ve come to realize that the potential loss of those feelings is exactly what makes them so special. Because no moments are special if every moment is special. And the plains are just like that, on every level. They’re beautiful to look at, and they represent a space that is too big to be anything more than an abstraction. They give possibility to those they engulf–the possibility of loss and the possibility of space.
I ran along that dirt road and others like it for more than 17 miles. Every mile or so I would reach an intersection with some other deserted dirt lane, and often there would be a group of tall cottonwood trees shading the crossroads. Along that whole run I was only passed by three cars, all of whom carried inhabitants who looked at me as if I were grievously lost and potentially insane. So I could tell that if I wanted to rest, I could comfortably lie beneath the trees at any crossroads and doze or read or just look at the clouds for hours with hardly any disturbances besides the wind and the flies. For me, these trees seemed to anchor the hugeness of the landscape and make it manageable. Without them, I might be swept away with nothing to hold onto. But they were there swaying in the breeze and offering their shade, and once or twice I did sit down to look around me. When you sit down in the plains, you can’t see very far. That’s helpful.
Incidentally, there are many landmarks in the plains that are worth visiting, or at least worth setting as destinations so that you have an excuse to go to the plains. The Black Hills in western South Dakota are the most obvious, because that’s where Mount Rushmore is. But there are many other less-striking features that are still very special. Check out the Sand Hills in Nebraska, or the American Prairie Reserve in eastern Montana, or the Badlands in South Dakota, or the Arikaree Breaks in northwest Kansas, or any of the hundreds of other worthwhile places I’ve failed to mention. None of these places are like the mountains and deserts that most runners go to, but that’s exactly the point: exploring is all about going places that most other people don’t. And if nothing else is convincing, let me remind you that Kaci Licktieg, the super-mega badass who just won Western States, lives in Omaha, Nebraska. Therefore, Omaha, Nebraska is the best possible place to train for Western States. Q.E.D.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Are there places in the world–some more so than others–that present that vast sense of openness and possibility to which Dakota refers? For you, what are those places?
- And, in contrast, are there places in the world that make you feel closed in and claustrophobic? What kinds of places are those?