Testify The Wilderness: A Fourth Option

An essay on finding connections to space, place, and people through trail running.

By on April 29, 2014 | Comments

It’s January 4th and I’m up on Crabbe Mountain with family at a friend’s place skiing and running and snowshoeing. It’s been below minus 30 Celsius for almost a week–unseasonably cold even for here with a wind chill that freezes faces in a breath–and we’re taking full advantage to test what we’re made of and just exactly how much fun we can have, how good food can taste, how nourishing coffee and companionship can be.

Looking for my running shoes under a pile of tights and coats and socks, I think to myself: a ski-chalet bedroom is a disaster. Period. Full stop.

It finds its disaster in the detritus of sunrises spent running mountains in freezing temperatures that turn into post-breakfast cross-country skis through alder and spruce so heavily laden with winter that they could be a painting. Or the sharpest slice of reality you could ask the gods for. It is a disaster that tells you a frozen landscape is cause to get moving.

In the midst of it I hear myself keeping time with the squeak of my poles digging into deeply frozen snow in prayer to the day’s gods: I seem to be asking them to see me through to a life that leads away from desks and to a life lead by dreams, to a dream made reality. The voice of practicality, the one that noticed this conversation in the first place and called me silly, is, incidentally, also the one that gave me such a hard time when I broke my wrist trail running, and tore a strip off of me when I got lost in a swamp and only made it back to the classroom to teach stinking of mud and moss and soaked, and the one that has berated me so many times for what all the other voices call ‘adventure’ or, when I’m being really honest, ‘real life.’ The voice of practicality, however, is telling me I have to pay the bills.

This is a conundrum we all face, as much as any 50 miler tests our endurance: how do we live the life we believe to be the only one that’s worthwhile–the one that keeps us sane, healthy, and seems to answer the existential question ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ with a quality of action that no philosophy has the guts for. How do we live that life AND maintain our hearth and family? It’s a hard question and as with all questions that wrench you from the inside is entirely worth asking.

* * *

In my first year at university as a graduate student, I was in a poetry workshop with Jan Zwicky, a woman whose voice, heart, mind, and presence made her a sentient eruption of the prairies themselves, canola and wind and sun and skyskysky made flesh. She had long hair which was always tied back and a gaze that searched forever toward the horizon and seasons. She spoke most often in questions that dismantled the world and had hands composed of the grammar of cooking meals as a child for fields full of workers. We had our class in a one room-building called the Ice House which had a hot-water heater along the wall that clanged so loudly on freezing Maritime days that we’d have to stop class while it warmed up. We sat around a big wooden table and pounded our poetry into it as Vikings would have laid stories and knives into theirs. A brass plaque was bolted into the middle, commanding that those who sat around it were there to ‘testify the wilderness.’

Early on in the year, Jan went around the table and asked each one of us what we thought we were doing here–here in this workshop, here in this room, here at university, here. One said she was here to be an artist. “An artist?” Jan said, the collar on her flannel shirt seemed to cock up on its own. “Artists of any kind have three choices, whether they are poets, painters, musicians, dancers, or athletes. One, they can starve, not recommended but sometimes pursued, less often with great success. Two, they can find a useful trade, most commonly perhaps as a teacher. Three, most desirably and least likely, you can find someone who’s loaded who loves you.” These days I don’t write poetry as much, but I certainly still consider myself an artist, and I’m starting to think there might be a fourth option.

* * *

It’s January 4th and my friend Pat died today. In addition to having cancer, he was a delightful man of infinite humour and the gardener at our Shambala Buddhist Centre. Like most gardeners, he was also immensely wise. The last time I saw him was in the local wooded park where I like to run. I stopped to say hi and ask him how he was feeling. “Well, I just tried to do a chin up in an effing tree and couldn’t,” he impishly smiled at me. “But we never know when we’ll go so it’s worth a try! Besides, I did just get out of the hospital from the last round of stem-cell replacement, so…” Just out of the hospital! How long ago? “Oh,” looking at his watch, “forty-five minutes or so.” Pat was just like that–we’ll all be telling excellent stories just like that for some time to come I’d think.

It’s January 4th and tomorrow it’ll be two years and seven months since I quit everything and started living again, since I snapped out of it. It’s a long and boring story of how I got here, but today I’m out in the middle of the forest and the sun is going down on a day where human-powered locomotion has taken me probably 35k’s up and down this mountain through this perfect winter. I’m stopped and looking at the sunset and thinking about Pat and all the great stories and my thoughts drift to my inevitable obituary which right now just seems to be read, “He was a good father and husband and liked to be outside.” Damnit. There is definitely more, another option.

* * *

Joseph Campbell, mythologist and half-decent track athlete in his own right, once said that, “We are not so much looking for the meaning of life as much as for the experience of being alive.” I recall the day when I realized that I had become a runner because I had come to contentment in knowing, in deep honesty, that I wasn’t running away from anything or toward anything, but was instead running WITH something. That day I felt from the soles of my feet straight through that I wasn’t running through the forest; I was that part of the forest that was running. Just like that, today, I also see that I do not run to find meaning to life, but that instead the meaning of life runs through me.

Life is a disaster and then… full stop. Period. Before that a life finds its disaster in detritus of sunrises spent running mountains and forests in freezing temperatures that turn into sharp slices of reality where you call to the gods aloud, ignoring all voices that call you down, and ask them to give you some signs. That day maybe a grand friend dies and while you were wondering about the meaning of life, you spent from sun up to sun down in the finest of company, with your heart pounding, breathing the freshest of air. The disaster seems sensible, all of a sudden, in direct proportion to how much bliss you put into making it. The fourth option, if you want to be an artist in this life, is to live it, well aware, testifying the wilderness. We should all be so lucky to grow to a day where that becomes most obvious.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you sometimes feel the dichotomous pull of practicality and your dreamscapes? If so, how do you work through those tugs in sometimes-different directions?
  • Have you found a fourth option, a creative space that allows you to be inexorably one with place, space, and people but tied similarly to the more tangible aspects of daily life? Have you found that beautiful disaster to which Andrew refers?
  • If trail running is the space you’ve found this peace, do you, as Andrew says, testify the wilderness?
Andrew Titus
Andrew Titus used to run far; however, like some ol' wise guy once said, "the job of the athlete is simple: to keep moving." So, that's what he does, whether in his hiking boots, on cross-country skis, or astride a bike. A writer, teacher, father, and husband, you are sure to see him cruising the forests of his St. John River Valley home in New Brunswick, Canada, still happy as can be–even without the running.