trail running

Travel Starts in Our Backyard

If this had been a normal, sunny day in late April, I would be hitting the White Mountains, seeking some snow-free routes for long trail runs. I’m training for a mountain race in Scotland and a trail marathon in the Southwest. I needed more miles and I was anxious to find them. But a pandemic meant that even the White Mountain National Forest had shut down. The trailheads were closed. The overlooks were closed. We couldn’t exactly get on a plane or even strike off for a national park by car. The claustrophobia was kicking in. 

The stonewalls reveal how this forest was once pasture.

I tapped the AllTrails app to research lesser-known trails closer to home; trail after trail scrolled by. Even though I was just looking for a grueling workout, what I got was a revelation about my love for global travel.

Parking the car at the trailhead, I rested my head against the backrest and sighed. My “big outing” would be traversing the very same forest that I had run when I was on the cross-country team in high school. I strapped on the water bottles and turned on my watch.

Many more trails wound through the forest than had been there before. The trail I chose dug deeper and deeper and more westerly into the deciduous forest. 

Fern covered boulder and trail blaze.

Then, a silver boulder hunched here. Tufted moss clung there. Chocolate brown bog water promised jellied blobs of frog eggs. Without leaves, the beech trees cast little shadow.

My sneakers rooted to the trail. I paused my watch and held my breath. My heartbeat quieted and I turned slowly in a circle, almost a dance. These were all my childhood companions. As the crow would fly, I was not far from my childhood home. This forest. This bog habitat. They were as I remembered them; and they took me back.

Forest vernal pool

I used to explore the forest floor behind my home. For two centuries, the families who lived there had dumped their trash on a hill out back. It drew me to explore it, over and over. Only the bottles remained in the black earth. I dug up turquoise ones. Purple ones. Pale blue ones. Their thick glass sides were stamped with the names of miracle cure balms and ointments. I gently washed them and lined them up on my bedroom window sill. They conjured a ghostly world that I loved to imagine, a place in the past where I loved to travel.

Turquoise medical bottle, like the ones I dug up.

Sometimes, my father took me even further into the forest with him– “up to the ridge” or “back to the bog.” He showed me the scrapes of antlers on tree bark and where the cranberries would grow. He would bend down to rotting logs and point out pixie cup lichen and antler moss with his crooked fingers. He noted the tripe clinging to the silver face of clammy boulders. He nudged beech nuts out of the leaf litter and explained how the deer ate them. I imagined that we were trespassing in the backyards of fairies and always felt that I should whisper.

An entire world was hidden in plain sight. You just needed to know how to look for it.

When it came time for college, I didn’t even consider staying in Maine. When I pursued grad school, I went as far away as possible: California. I braided my education with field research in Italy, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico. I researched the culture and history of indigenous peoples by living with them in Oaxaca, Mexico and the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state. I chased down genealogy in Ireland and Sweden. I traveled to run in the Alps. I could go on.

I always thought that my hunger for travel was just a country girl’s desire to “escape.” A kind of running away. No doubt there’s some truth in that. 

But the travel restrictions of a global pandemic taught me something about myself. My voracious appetite for travel wasn’t just about leaving or escaping. It was, first and foremost, about discovery–discovering new worlds. And that spirit of discovery started locally, in my backyard.

Rock Tripe Lichen

4 replies »

  1. Thank you. During this time of isolation, it is so easy to feel trapped and isolated— and angry! In that darkness, there’s a chance for revelation, for circling inward, for flipping the switch and finding true inspiration. Thank you for capturing this process so precisely. I’m going to bookmark this essay and return to it each time I’m feeling low. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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