Finding a Trail
illustration by Brieanne Hauger
I didn't want to come to Pittsburgh. I wanted to study writing badly enough to put up with a city that housed a graduate writing program, but I was not a city girl. I was a worrywart. The One Way signs had me petrified of drivingthe whole city had me petrified of driving. My parents and I drove down in a caravan the weekend I moved in, Dad leading the way in a giant yellow moving van. My first experience with Pittsburgh roads was the tunnel I lost them in, and then the highway lane they turned off of as I headed straight into downtown. Stuck in a traffic jam in a city I knew nothing about, I cursed my father, whose idea of directions was to follow the giant yellow moving van, and jammed up an entire block when a light turned red with me stuck in the middle of the intersection.
And I worried about more than driving. This was all new, and I don't do new. I like what I know. I like peanut butter sandwiches and spaghetti; while other kids experimented with God-knows-what freshman year, I tried both salsa and Pringles. This, of course, was much bigger. I grew up in a small town bordered by grape vineyards, and had just spent four college years in the middle of an Ohio cornfield. Later that first night in Pittsburgh, I would lie awake listening to cars and voices and mercy-flight helicopters overhead until finally climbing out of bed, reaching for the first available heavy object, and sleeping all night with my three-hole punch on the bedside table.
Then there was the issue of surroundings: city-dwellers, no doubt, would be cold, and city landscapes void of beauty. A runner for ten years, I was used to the wild and stark loveliness of snow-laced fields stretching out away from rolling highway, to the sun rising red and brilliant and lonely and just for me. The prospect of running on dirty sidewalks past dirty buildings seemed intolerably grim by comparison.
And, like a child on the first day of school, I worried about loneliness. College offered built-in safety features, roommates and dorm mates and get-to-know-you activities. Here I felt perched and net-less: I was shy, and I didn't know a soul in this place.
The day after I moved in, Dad and I went exploring. We found our way to campus and back, retracing the route so I'd make it to my first class. We found our way to the grocery store and back, so I wouldn't starve. At every turn, we checked and rechecked for the One Way streets that seemed to snake the city like barbed wire. And all day, a refrain had been working its way up from my insides: They're gonna leave me here. Which was silly, of course; I was twenty-two years old, but there it was. Oh my God, they're gonna leave me here.
And then, as we rounded a curve just blocks from my apartment, the refrain fell away for a moment.
“Oh my God, Dad, I've been here! I ran here!”
And sure enough, on our right was Schenley Park, and the last leg of the Duquesne cross country trail, where I had run the year before as a college senior in my first cross country season ever. The first meet when I didn't straggle in behind all of my teammates, when I dropped a minute and a half to a time I'd never dreamed of, a personal record that formed its own refrain, one I would whisper to myself on the van ride home.
In the car, I twisted in my seatbelt for a better view. I looked for the up-curve of grassy hill, the trees and the paved walkway where our cleats suddenly clack-clack-clacked, clumsy, sweaty tap-dancer steps on an entirely inappropriate stage. The scene disappeared fast behind us, but I found myself looking forward to something here, at last, with excitement untouched by dread.
I headed out to Schenley Park the next morning, my first morning alone in Pittsburgh. I found my bearings quickly, and marveled at what I remembered: the mile markers spray-painted white onto the trees; the two quick up-hills; the stone bridge overhead, where Coach called out our splits.
Even as I noticed these things, I couldn't help but worry about my safety. It was the city. The new container of pepper spray in my pocket bounced against my leg as I watched the edge of the trail, where it dissolved into woods. Soon, though, it became clear that the trail was a popular one, that I was rarely really alone. Of course, that presented a new problem: I was used to greeting fellow runners, a friendly hi or at least a meaningful nod. Surely, though, that was a country-mouse habit; here, I should keep my eyes down.
I don't remember whether I forgot once, or someone else broke through my imposed unfriendliness. I remember, though, that I came back one day with a new understanding. Some of these city runners, it turned out, did avert their eyes as I neared. Others, though, smiled and even said hi. With what little breath they had, they offered up a friendliness that surprised and pleased me.
Not everyone on the trail remained a stranger. Early that fall, I learned of a running group that met at one opening of the trail. I arrived nervously one morning, and then almost bolted during pre-run stretching, when conversation centered on marathon training, and I eyed the calves of several of the runners: hard little half-hearts, like the valentines children cut on folded construction paper. I stayed, though, and was in heaven. Here were people who could talk for ten minutes about running shoes, or the twinge on the outside of someone's right knee. The two women I ran with most often filled me in on Pittsburgh lingo too: on yinz, which meant you, and stove a toe, which meant to stub it. I would make other Pittsburgh friends as time went on, friends from classes and work, but I suppose the beginning of any move to an unknown place is lonely. I relished those Saturday mornings: the fall air, late, finally breathing white breaths of frost across the grass on the edge of the trail, as I triumphed in human contact.
And as summer turned cool and then cold, Schenley dressed herself up to meet the occasion. Here where I feared a lack of beauty stood old stone walls, waist high, along the edges of the trail where the earth dropped off steeply; they gave the woods an ancient, European feel. Here were October trees of fiery orange which guarded the entrance to the trail, and on the trail itself, a layer of gold arched overhead like a mother's arms, like the high lacy canopy of an ancient monarch's bed. Then winter fell, and snow crunched beneath my feet. The waterfalls that before had run down the steep forest floors froze solid and unbelievably thick, a milky grayish-white.
The trail's main vein was shaped rather like a W, with more wide curves than points, and small arteries that shot off the path. Even after a year new directions presented themselves. I tried to follow. Sometimes, my explorations left the woods altogether. The trails opened up to roads in several places, and it wasn't long before I began to veer from their courses, and took the roads connecting sections of the city: Squirrel Hill and Greenfield, Oakland and the Carnegie Mellon Campus. Some ventures led down busy streets, others covered secluded roads shielded by trees, and lined with the same old-world stone walls: roads snaked their unexpected ways through the heart of the city.
Through these trips off the trail, I discovered two short-cuts to work and a pizza place, not to mention countless corners and bridges that I'd recognize later, at some crucial point in an adventure to the Home Depot or the DMV. This was an entirely new side to the sport. I had been running in my village at home for ten years, and at college for four. I knew my routes, knew their distances down to the tenth of a mile and the times they should be run in. I remembered creating them: tracing my finger over the small-scale map in the phone book thinking this ought to work. On these Pittsburgh roads, I set out with no clear route in mind, something I'd never let myself do before. I headed down the street and chose between right and left, and then took it from there. Slowly, this new place began to make sense. I felt safer on my feet, where I could cause less damage. Before long, I even gained confidence driving through the city, viewing each trip out as an adventure: Ok, I'm going to get lost, but eventually I'll find the way. It was, I suppose, a sort of couragehardly the edge of the world, but something new. Running in the city, I found the joy of discovery, of exploration, of heading down a road for the pure pleasure of seeing where it goes.
Schenley had a pond, one I'd seen often spreading out below the bridge connecting the two sections of the park. I'd wondered how exactly to get down there. The morning that I found it, though, I just headed out for a run. I took an offshoot of the main trail for the first time that day largely because it went downhill, and the main route was beginning a climb I just wasn't up for that day. The path curved down and the trees gave way, and then I found myself in an open place, the dark water before me.
Normally, I would have been ecstatic at my discovery, but it was a cold, miserable run: my legs were heavy and my knees ached, and each time the wind picked up and tore at my bare skin, I cursed myself for having worn shorts. When the pond appeared before me, it barely registered: I took a look, and then lowered my head and began to trudge my way along the dirt and concrete path that circled the water.
My eyes stayed trained on my feet and the uneven path until I'd made it half-way around. I don't even know why I looked up. I must have, though, because suddenly the bridge from which I had first viewed the path and the pond rose out before me like a new mountain, like the newest part of earth thrust suddenly from some deep, hidden spot of turbulence. The brown beams that rose and arched above me were pure strength, but of a quiet sort, as though so confident they felt no need for boasting.
And down below the bridge, the pond. The quiet, floating shades of green just barely turning orange and brownthe remnants, despite the morning's frost, of an unusually long summer. Above the pond, the trees that cast the reflected colors arched high against the cold blue sky and the lower beams of the bridge. One little tree in particular at the water's edge drooped over itself like a weeping willow. The focal point for the whole maginificent scene, the little tree seemed out of place among its tall neighbors, and, at the same time, somehow exactly where it should have been.
I had stopped running, and stood breathing hard at the far end of the pond. I took in the entire scene: the bridge, the trees, the sky. The water smeared with color. Good Lord, I thought. Good Lord. Who knew?