Dark Sky 50 Miler: Layers of Trail Beauty

2228EEBC-590E-45DF-ACF8-04E16C7C7C5B.jpegDark Sky 50 miler for May the Fourth, 2019, in Pickett State Park and Big South Fork Forests.
Layers and textures of forest: My words want to tumble forward, pressing out and growing in green and lush drippings of fern fronds and pink bulbous lady slipper flowers hanging on tiny stems, my thoughts want to surge out with a force of stone scarred and scratched, etched and oozing with thousands, millions, of years of changing. My heart still beats wildly with memories of the yellow trillium, the monkshood and hundreds of tiny unnameable flowers and fungi, the rocks with colored ooze, and stones home to universes of moss and sandwort and all manner of wort. All hues of green and brown swayed together so they turn kaleidoscopic as we plunged into the forest and rose up out again and again.

First, up before the dawn, the whippoorwill sang. I haven’t heard one since my grandmother sold the family farm, where the whippoorwills’ home was at the fork in the road and it sang daily. I lost myself in listening to the whippoorwill, my memories, and preparing for the race, mixing the sports drink for my pack; before I realized, it was almost 6 am, the start of the race. I threw my Stormtrooper shirt on and the backpack. A quick run downhill and I was at the lodge. B4FC7F25-089B-458D-AE81-003D86241078
I couldn’t find my friend, my running partner from my last race in December. I thought it would be easy with only 108 registered runners. He thought it would be easy. We would just meet at the race start. But, I was skimming into the race start that morning, checking in, making sure I had what I needed, and taking a bathroom break.

Suddenly, the race was on, and we were all moving in a herd and I hadn’t found B anywhere. My playlist started with Jimi (a lot of Jimi for this one), “Let Me Move You” was the first to move me.
D8AC11B3-9350-40F7-B39E-8B1DAF3D4F9F.jpegBecause we were so far out in the forest, I didn’t have cell service since the day before when we exited the interstate, which was about an hour away from the park entrance. B, my running partner who I met at my last race, was staying at Charit Creek Lodge (camp) in Big South Fork, and my husband and I stayed at Pickett State Park, where the race started and ended. The parks are on the line of the time zones, so part of the time my phone said CST and part of the time, it said EST, but it wouldn’t communicate via text or phone to anyone. This became a mental challenge as I couldn’t keep track of my time properly, not to mention I was mesmerized by the beauty of the forest. First realization, I should have worn a regular old watch. Next time. And, I reached out to the trees, traced fingertips across bark as I passed by.
A985584C-78A6-41E1-A7B4-4CE9AAD0F9B7.jpegTerry, my husband, was my one-man crew, so even though I didn’t see B, I knew that Terry would be at some of the aid stations, and that would help bolster me along. This was my first 50 mile race, and while I felt prepared as I could be, I just didn’t know if my body would agree to push past 31.069 miles (50km), my farthest distance until the 50 miler.

The race began with a quick jaunt through the trails around the lodge/rec center at Pickett State Park, and someone said it best in front of me, “Great, it’s the obligatory first walk of the trail run.” Yes, once you run a few trail runs, you soon realize that if you don’t angle yourself to get toward the front of the pack (regardless of if you are a fast finisher or not—remember, the finish is far far away, so it’s not about that), then you will be stuck on a single track in a long line of trail runners who are forced to walk due to the middle group. The middle group does the run/walk early. The front runners keep running for a while to create distance and walk later, much later, and some probably don’t walk much at all. I do walk in the middle and at the end, but in the beginning, I just want to get going. If you get stuck at the beginning, you walk, and if you are like me, this creates a lot of anxiety because I am stuck in a pack like a road run, and that’s why I don’t do road races; I don’t want to be in a crowd of any sort. I like to join with one or two runners, but if that can’t happen, I prefer flying solo. I know how I like to run and when I am forced into a condition, then the anxiety rises up. I choose runs with less people so that the crowd isn’t a factor. I get such bad anxiety in big road races that I have vomited for miles and once the anxiety gets started, it’s difficult for me to turn it off. This is both unhealthy and embarrassing. So, I will never set my sights on a Boston Marathon. I love the forest and running in it beyond anything, and it doesn’t cause me to vomit even after 50 miles. I can’t imagine hitting the pavement anymore than we had to in this Dark Sky 50 miler just to get from the trails at Pickett State Park over to Big South Fork trails. We ran about three miles, at the most, of pavement.

That morning, when we finally got to that first little stretch of pavement, I was happy because the herd could break apart and spread out. I was actually a little panicked at that point because I needed some trail and some good space. I didn’t see B anywhere. I was trying to get toward the front a little more just to see if he was up there. At the Bell Ringer 50km which we partially ran together, he was in front of me for a long time in the beginning of the race, so I reasoned that he must be in front of me again. Still, as we neared the trail head, I hadn’t seen him.
BAF184F3-77F4-4760-B4B3-F5CC88EC4D78.jpeg “If 6 Was 9” played about this time and I was ready for the forest. When we exited the pavement and hit the trails into Big South Fork, it was beautiful. I eased into my stride, so happy to run at a peaceful pace. The views around the rock formations and small caves kept me going and longing for more.

About the time I was listening to “Mojo Man” and fighting with my earbuds to fit correctly in my ears, I realized that I had been traveling behind two guys for a while. I would get closer to them and then back off again, giving them space. They asked if I wanted to pass.
“No way,” I said. “I appreciate you letting me cruise behind you guys.”

I knew that riding their wave was great, and I didn’t want to move. J started the introductions, and he was our trail leader. He was adept, and I felt confident being on their path. J was experienced with some impressive runs on his resume, but he didn’t tell me that. P told me. P is training for a 100-miler, and he has some 50s under his belt. He said that he had met J and kept running farther and farther. I was so relieved, and knew I was with the right guys, especially when J gave the trail a good cussing when his hat fell down a ravine into a waterfall as we rounded and rounded and rounded.

“Little Wing” was there and I felt as if I was walking through the clouds, in a fairytale, but I was in the forest. I felt like a kid with my cousins slashing our way through the saw briars and following cow paths into a “holler” on our grandparents’ farm, not that far away (maybe one hour west) from where we were running as the crow flies. Trombone Shorty was playing by this time. A little “Buckjump” and a little “Hurricane Season” went great with all the hopping.

J and P were the best trail leaders. I knew that they would get me to B if he was up there. We crossed many streams, creeks, and I swear one of them was a river, gushing, and we used the rope because they told us “Don’t be rockstars. It’s slippery.” It was indeed slippery. We clawed up banks. I was hearing Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings by then, and was “Settling In” as she reminded me to “Be Easy” Baby. We hopped trees, straddled trees (I bear hugged because I am short), slid off stones, navigated jagged points of rock, slid down leafy trails, turned, and bounced around giant rock formations, creeks and streams, tiny waterfalls, slick bridges, and slanted bridges, slatted bridges, ladders, and rock paths, rock ledges.

And we were at 13.something. A bunch of crew and volunteers suddenly cheered. There was a giant pickle asking me questions. Huh?
“Do you need anything?”
No, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. That’s all I felt, gratitude for everyone there. Nashville Running Company presented the race and the volunteers were all wonderful.

Terry was there. “You’re doing great! You have good time. Do you feel okay?”

“Yeah, it’s beautiful in there,” I said, even though we were still in the forest; we were just crossing a dirt road at that point, but I meant the trails; it felt like being enfolded into the trails.

“You have us way the fuck out here in the sticks!” he said. “Whoa, these Jeep roads. I almost got the little car stuck.” He was so nervous that he couldn’t refill my pack at first, and he was fumbling with it while talking to me. We finally got it in and I ditched the storm trooper shirt. I was already soaking wet. The humidity started to rise. My fingers swelled as I left the aid station, telling Terry that I love him.

My playlist had reached The Rolling Stones, Dance Pt. 1, who said to “Get up, get out, get into something new. It’s got me moving, ya’ll.” I headed down the trail to find a good spot for a bathroom pit stop. I noted that I had already drank a 2liter of Vitargo. My fingers swelled and I realized that I forgot to get the handheld bottle with plain water. I was happy to have a fresh 2 liter in my hydration pack, but I really wanted plain water more and more and was irritated with myself for forgetting it.

I lost J and P somewhere in all that, too. The beauty kept coming but so did the challenges. I had to follow the white flags on my own, as my own leader, and sometimes I got a little panicked when I couldn’t find a flag, but eventually, I grooved with it and found the rhythm.

Alicia Keys sang what my heart thought, “I keep on fallin in and out of love with you,” to the trail. I climbed rock stairs, wooden stairs, tiny wooden stairs with a leg span for men 6 feet tall. I am 5 feet tall, but I leaned into them and bounded down, hooked around the switchbacks. “The Weight” by The Band played and I felt it lift me up a little lighter, a little easier.

Yoga came in handy. I felt as if I was playing trail “Chutes and Ladders” at times. I stretched, lunged, walk skip or jump your feet up from plank, yep, got that covered on the Sheltowee Trail. Left an eka pada rajakapotasana back by the creek, malasana under a medium sized waterfall, hanumanasana! between two trees to the limit! “Message to Love” from Jimi played and that’s what I felt. Great love and respect for the forest. Gulping it in. Slip on down and breathe, breathe.

I would catch sight of runners ahead and behind me sometimes. No B. J and P were long gone. I was following footsteps of other runners sometimes. We passed each other sometimes and everyone was encouraging, everyone cheered each other on, everyone was kind. “Goin’ Up the Country” by Canned Heat reminded that “the water tastes like wine” and that we could “jump in the water, stay drunk all the time.” I definitely felt groovy without any need for alcohol. The John Muir trail dipped into dark forest winding, and I was thinking of all the footfalls that had traversed the trails, thinking of timelessness, and sometimes the dream state held me. 240EC778-657D-4484-A8F1-C67E96D0D02D.jpegI was looking into the valley from the top of a rock perch with a bee hive buzzing all around me and then I was down in the ravine with big boulders, crows cawing out warnings, and then it started to rain, to pour down, and a full on gulley-washer waylaid me, as I was headed for the aid station at mile 20-something.

I got little paper cups of water and drank a lot of it. The rain poured down. I was so happy. Again, I was incredibly thankful for the volunteers who hiked out there with water and sat in the rain for us. My fingers went back to normal, and I settled into a run and then a walk and a run and then a walk.

I didn’t see Terry at the aid station, and I worried about him trying to hike in to it and missing me. He broke his foot a little over a year ago, a bad break, and these wild, single-track obstacle-ridden trails could be treacherous for someone like him. Still, I had to go on. I had no way to contact him. My phone didn’t have service. I stopped taking pictures because everything was wet.

I zipped the phone up and didn’t listen to music either. Trumpet flower blooms littered the trails which were lined with foam flowers. Some rhododendrons bloomed their pink tongues out toward the rain. The trail turned to slush, and mud holes that got deeper and deeper as we ran alongside the river. I stepped in mud up to my knees and I plunged forward trying to navigate through slippery mud dirt, sloshing mud like thin concrete with holes that threatened to swallow me. The creeks and streams poured through the trail toward the river that sang beside me. Slushy, sloshing between rocks, the trail became a creek and a stream. I thought that I was running up the river at one point.

I sat in a waterfall and felt my skin sting and burn from chaffing. The cold water soothed it. I counted to twenty seconds and ran again. I ran and ran, saw the sliding footprints of other runners as they had tried to navigate the trail. I sat in another stream and counted to twenty. “Cold, cold water.” And, I ran again. Moving onward, the trail finally pulled up and up, still holding mud holes and dirt slicks and running streams, but moving up nonetheless, until finally I reached the split to Charit Creek.

Terry was there! Hallelujahs! And they were playing Jimi. I was “Home” for a few minutes.
“Have you seen B?” I asked.
“No, I haven’t seen him anywhere,” he said.

I took out my earbuds and moved around my phone, discovering a peppermint stick I had put in that morning. I couldn’t eat anything, but I left it in the pack and gave the pack to Terry to refill. I took the handheld water bottle, thanked the volunteers and headed out on the small loop at Charit Creek toward the Twin Arches. I was so happy to be relieved of my pack for a short loop. And, I was waiting for this part. I wanted to see this more than anything else on the run.

My hands smelled like peppermint and a song started to play in my head, “a peppermint stick for old Saint Nick. Hang it on the Christmas tree. A holiday season. Loopdeloop. He’ll be coming down the chimney down.” All mixed up and playing in my head. “Peppermint stick. Loopdeloop…down the chimney down…” I realized after I had already traversed the wooden plank horizontal stilt bridges over the swampy area and was climbing into rock formation territory that I had forgotten my phone to change the music in my head and to take pictures. It was still in my pack. That deflated me. I was down, “he’ll be coming down the chimney down” my legs were sad, and I almost cried as I passed gorgeous rock formation after rock formation.

“Loopdeloop. Leave a peppermint stick.” I thought about dropping out and getting my phone and coming back around, taking pictures of this loop, and then just walking out with Terry. I was tired anyway. I had already ran farther than ever before in my life. I had felt love and gratitude all morning. I was immersed in the beauty of the earth and the human spirit. “Peppermint stick for ole Saint Nick. Hang it on the Christmas tree. Holiday season!Whoopdedoop on this loopdeloop. Coming down the chimney down…merry bells keep ringing. Whoopdedoop on this loopdeloop…”

Ugh, I laughed and tried to shake off the loopdeloop happening in my brain. I looked up to the majestic stones, the rocks towering, sheltering, snuggling together. Then, I came to the Twin Arches and met C. He was standing underneath it. I had been following him for a little while at some distance back. He said, “wow, it’s incredible!” Or something like that. I was so taken aback by the beauty of it, that scene, that it didn’t matter how he phrased it, I felt the same sense of wonder.

We headed back down the trail and C led the way. He introduced himself and told me that it was his second year to run the race. I told him that it was my first 50-miler and he said, “you’re doing great, much better than I did last year.” He explained that it was hot the previous year and he dehydrated, barely finishing the race. This year, the rain made it challenging, and as far as I was at that point, he said that I should definitely keep going. Walk, see how far you can get, that was his advice. We made it back to the Charit Creek aid station again. I took a bathroom break, picked up my pack from Terry, telling him I’d see him at the end, and headed up to Gobbler’s Knob, the big hill many had warned me about.

Mush! Climb! Push! I kept going and met up with C again around one of the bends. We reached Gobbler’s Knob together. My time was all messed up at that point. They said to keep going, so after some water, I headed off down a double track Jeep-like trail. C stayed behind at Gobbler’s Knob for a rest in a chair for a moment. If I sat down, I wouldn’t get up, so I kept moving.

This was one of my least favorite parts of the course. Miles of Jeep road. Gravel. I didn’t enjoy the views as much, but I knew that it was a way to get from trail to trail at times. I turned the music on again and it was Jimi’s “Wild Thing” which definitely helped me along. Finally, after another aid station, I plunged back onto a single track into the forest to Led Zeppelin’s “Over the Hills and Far Away”. It met up with a trail we had been on that morning. I put away the music again and crossed the creek(river) that I had crossed with J and P. I held the rope and swayed into the water as it poured through the banks from the earlier rain.

I made it to the second creek(river) crossing and the bank was a slick mud slide down. A woman was scooting down on her butt. A couple of other runners were headed up the other side. Three volunteers were waiting for everyone to cross. They were clearing the trails, checking to be sure that everyone was going to be on time because it was getting late at this point. Once it got dark, it would be difficult to see in the deep forest even with a headlamp. I held some trees and started to descend the bank toward the creek(river) crossing. “I’m sorry that I’m in your way,” the woman said. She was almost in the water by then.
“Oh, you’re not at all. I’m fine to wait here,” I said.
The volunteers told me about the rope about the same time that I saw it in the mud. I grabbed it and started down the bank. The woman had reached the water. I took about three steps when the rope came undone and I slid until my ankle slammed into a rock. I was worried. It popped hard against the rock. This was about the fifth or twenty-fifth time I’d fallen depending on how you count them. I sat there for a few minutes. The volunteers came to help.
“Put it in the cold water,” one suggested.
“Just sit as long as you need to,” another said. “You’re almost there.”
“Yes, yes,” I said. Another helped me slide the rest of the way into the water.
“I can bear weight,” I said. “It’s okay. Just popped the shit out of it.” I held the rope and started across the creek(river) surge. The current knocked my legs out and I slid on the rocks. The rope swayed out with me. “Just hold on and sit there for a minute,” one of them said. “You can just take a bath,” one of them said.
“Okay, I’m up,” I said. And then the current knocked me down again and the rope swayed. My legs were simply tired, and I couldn’t get my footing. I held on and sat with the water again. “I think I will sit here for a while,” I said. Finally, I made it across.
“Just walk the rest of the way if you need to,” one of them yelled after me.
“I will,” I said.

After a little walking, I ran again and turned on the music for a final round. Big Mama Thornton wailed “I’m Feelin’ Alright” and then “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright, Baby, because I feel it in my bones.” All along the creek and up through the forest. It was the same way we entered that morning. I ran my hands along the flower petals and moss. I was past 40 miles at that point.

I took some pictures because I knew the Jeep road and then the pavement would be at the end, not many more great views, just getting home. I turned off the music after Rusted Root played “Drum Trip” and I was nearing a runner who I wanted to ask about the end of the course. She told me that we were at the final 5.4 miles to the finish. She had ran some previous 50s and maybe longer, I can’t recall exactly what she said because I was tired at that point. She told me that I had definitely earned this first 50 miles of mine, as the pouring rain had made the course really tough. Many people had dropped at the aid stations due to injuries, she said. I hadn’t noticed, but I wondered if B was one of them. I was hoping to see him at the finish, already having completed the race. About the time I was going to ask her name, she took off for a bathroom break. “So don’t forget to hang up your socks cause just exactly at twelve o’clock, he’ll be coming down the chimney down.” I realized that the “loopdeloop” and “coming down the chimney, down!” were spinning in my head again.

The Jeep road and pavement were uneventful. How I loathed them both but I had to admit that I was happy to be out of the mud. My clothes were drying out a little. I had plenty to drink. I kept moving forward. The woman passed me again once we reached the pavement and I followed her from the group camp and ranger residence out the road. As we climbed up the final hill toward the Pickett State Park turn into the lodge/rec center, two boys about eleven years old cheered from a trail where they had laid their bikes down.
“We got up when the race started and we’ve been waiting for everyone to come in all day,” one of them said to the woman up ahead of me.
I couldn’t hear what she said, but it was kind, and they talked some more to her. I told them thank you as I passed by them. Behind me, they debated together on which way to go.

Finally, we crested the hill and were in the home stretch. The boys passed me on their bikes, cheering, telling me that I was almost there and doing great! I could hear the cheers as the woman in front of me crossed the finish. Then, I could hear the cheers for me. I saw Terry. I was both calm and overwhelmed as I crossed the finish line and received my Finisher’s Medal. P was there, congratulating me. He said that he and J were looking for me to finish anytime. I thanked him for running with me for a while that morning. Terry and I talked for a moment and he took pictures.

I saw J, who had went to change clothes, and we congratulated one another, too. Terry didn’t see B anywhere. The next day, when I finally had cell service, I found out that B was behind me a little ways, and he didn’t make the Gobbler’s Knob cut off.

It poured down rain about thirty minutes after I finished. I put my stinky black running clothes out in the rain and joked that a skunk would show up to mate with them since they were speaking skunk language. It poured and poured rain for much of the night. Terry and I stayed in a rustic cabin built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, young men who were out of work in the 1930s. The park contains a small museum that tells the story of how the men of the CCC constructed cabins, the lodge, and miles and miles of road and trails and more.

It was all possible because of their work. Terry and I talked about them, how we each had thought about those men throughout the day, how we could understand why they loved it there and wanted to build something beautiful. I would stay and build something beautiful there, be in that forest. Terry built a fire and we ate pizzas that he made. I drank vegetable broth, coffee, and tea, and iced my legs.

The rain stopped by the next morning and the whippoorwills sang again. Terry and I went out on the trail before leaving the next day. We took a very short hike to a waterfall and sat among the rocks beside the glowing green sandwort. We reached our hands out into the water falling from the forest above us.

Partial Playlist:
“Let Me Move You” Jimi Hendrix
“Mojo Man” Jimi Hendrix
“If 6 Was 9” Jimi Hendrix
“Little Wing” Jimi Hendrix
“Buckjump” Trombone Shorty
“Hurricane Season” Trombone Shorty
“Settling In” Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings
“Be Easy” Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings
“Rock Me, Baby” (Live) The Rolling Stones
“Dance, Pt. 1” The Rolling Stones
“Fallin’” Alicia Keys
“The Weight” The Band
“Message to Love” Jimi Hendrix
“Strawberry Swing” Coldplay
“Goin’ Up to the Country” Canned Heat
“We Gotta Live Together” (Home) Jimi Hendrix
“Happy Holidays” Andy Williams
“Wild Thing” Jimi Hendrix
“Over the Hills and Far Away” Led Zeppelin
“I’m Feelin’ Alright” Big Mama Thornton
“Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” Big Mama Thornton
“Drum Trip” Rusted Root

Nashville Running Company’s Dark Sky 50 miler

On Textures, Trails, & Timing

The river trails lured me when I first looked out the window yesterday morning. Everything was covered in dew drops and shimmered as we moved toward the rays of the sun. The dewy blanket revealed the textures of each flower gone to seed, the velvety puffs and cushions of wildflowers, the spiky anchors of grasses, the spinning parachutes of weeds…

The sun rose over the hillside and illumined the spider webs that now looked vacant after a busy night under the full moon. The webs covered the grasses, flowers, weeds, and almost everything in the field, as if the spiders had cast nets to catch the frost.

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I’m a slow runner. I plod along for a half marathon; Monday’s average pace was 12:45 a mile. Of course, that included bathroom breaks, videos of deer, photos of deer a few times, tying my shoes, and trudging up some big hills over and over and over again (total elevation gain of just over 6,000ft). Still, I’m slow at running, and I know it. I take my time and enjoy the space. I notice a million tiny things that I want to stoop and admire, photograph from different angles, try to capture the textures and shifting light. I have to lure myself forward with the promise of even more tiny delights coming out of the earth. The fossils paint stories and each footfall finds another one, images to gobble into my imagination, so I trudge still onward, quite content with the pace and space…

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The trails on the hills offer different sights and sensations than the river trails. Beside the river, I am sometimes 3 min. a mile faster on my average running time. That’s quite a difference, and the terrain and climate create an alternative momentum. The fields meet the forest by the river in a low circular formation. Sounds reverberate off the limestone bluffs and muddy edges that create the river bank. Mossy trails offer soft cushions for my feet, and squishy mud through the small forest is equally inviting for quick progress.

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Landscapes and their textures remind me of human bodies. Or, vice versa. Form and texture create layers for both movement and the imprint of previous motion. Taking time to pause and express a form with my own body, my motion suspends for a moment—the running stalls, breath softens, body lengthens, bends, relaxes. My favorite mat has always been the earth, and my yoga mat is so dirty from practicing outside that taking it into a studio seems hilarious when placed next to the pristine and often expensive yoga mats of other practitioners. The leafy or mossy ground is a great cushion for arm balances. The drishti of tree branches, leaves, and flowers forever blooms into new gazes, new focus, and the change of nature is the meditation, staying there patterns the breath, loosens the love, even as I move again.
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Pausing to practice, to center in meditation again as I stretch, I catch glimpses of the red-shouldered hawks, a great blue heron, a cardinal, the wren making a fuss about my presence, the singing of crickets in a loud chorus that I hadn’t previously noticed, the splash of a big fish in the river, a turtle sliding into the water’s edge and the cloudy silt fluttering up to the surface for the moment and settling again.

Mobile Risks: Unplugging Part Two

How often are you too plugged in to notice the life we are accepting around us and the dangers of that acquiescence? Counting twenty people who were looking at their phones and/or texting and/or scrolling while driving in a two mile stretch. They were not stopped. Their cars were moving, in motion, in front of a school on a busy five-lane highway, past businesses, parking lots, bus stops, etc. Those were only the people who were holding up their phones so that I could see them. I even saw someone looking at a laptop computer. I don’t know if I am more astounded by the people doing it, or that they have so little space in their lives that they feel a need to drive and actually look at a screen/use the screen. The people drove all types of vehicles. I have no idea how many vehicles I passed going both directions and moving in, out, and through the various parking lots along the route. There were hundreds of vehicles in that stretch.

Yet, there weren’t any bicycles. I’ve been thinking about transportation more lately. I used to consider it frequently when I was in my twenties. Visiting Europe and later, very briefly living there, I discovered public transportation and felt a freedom to explore that I had never experienced in middle Tennessee in that way. My ability to get around in TN has mostly consisted of cars, though once out-and-about, the wide-open spaces in nature offer an exploration I have always loved. When I was growing up, we visited relatives with plenty of land, forests and fields, creeks and rivers, to roam. Traveling in an urban environment felt confining by comparison, since there are dilemmas with traffic and parking.

Voilà! European cities–trains, subways, trams, buses, and bicycles. I suddenly had many choices for getting to and from the cities and enjoying them. Traveling by public transport offered an amenity that anyone values who has experienced public transportation regularly–hands-free time when someone else could do the driving and I could relax, read a book, peruse any shopping I had done, chat with friends, and more. Riding a bike brought me down to the sidewalks and streets, the bike lanes, and corners, through neighborhoods and enchanting spaces. Many European cities make travel easy in this way, but the Dutch have the best system I’ve ever experienced with all of these alternatives.

By comparison, here in my home city of Clarksville (similar to many U.S. cities), the last train for commuting left decades ago and all the commuter rail possibilities went with it. I am constantly frustrated and riddled with anxiety as I watch pedestrians strive to cross a five-lane highway without a crosswalk or a stoplight from the shopping center to the bus stop. It is along the two-mile stretch I mentioned earlier. In fact, there are a few of these places where bus stops are across the five-lane highway from the businesses where people work. Pedestrians cross without a walkway or traffic light. AND, the bus stop is nothing, NOTHING, more than a sign that says BUS STOP beside the road. There are no sidewalks, no benches, no covered awnings, nothing–not even a bus schedule. All day, people risk their lives to run across the highway from their jobs to the bus stop, and there are dump trucks, semis, delivery trucks, big trucks with heavy machinery in trailers, and all manner of vehicles speeding down the highway. Some of the people I watch are disabled and/or elderly trying to get across the street. They seem scared, but they don’t have options since we have no other methods of public transportation–no trains, subways, trams, etc. I have definitely witnessed some close calls.

The majority of bike lanes in our city consist of the image of a rudimentary bike with a couple of arrows painted onto the far right side of the street/highway without any extra space. This bike lane painting within the regular traffic lane is on a major industrial highway. I see maybe two people a month risk their lives to ride a bike to and from work in this city. The people who ride those leisurely tourist bikes downtown don’t go very far and so don’t experience these problems–they stick with the sidewalks in a tiny quarter-mile radius of Public Hall and the Downtown Commons. As soon as you move out into New Providence or St. Bethlehem, even down Madison Street proper, you cannot find adequate sidewalks, crosswalks, bus stops, or bike lanes. Pedestrians are in danger in most of this city.

I was a pedestrian when my husband and I first moved back here about fifteen years ago. We chose to live close to the university so that I didn’t have far to walk to class. He worked in Nashville, and we only owned one car after coming back from Europe. Often, here in Clarksville, I was afraid as a pedestrian that I would be struck by a vehicle. The sidewalks didn’t exist in certain sections; they just ended at a ditch. Tennessee is full of hills, rolling along, so oftentimes, it’s difficult to have a clear line of sight for very far. In fifteen years, plenty of businesses and shopping centers have opened, but not much has changed regarding pedestrian-friendly incentives and modes of public transport. Shouldn’t these businesses contribute to the overall lifestyle of this city? Shouldn’t they link up to a sidewalk, bike lane, crosswalk system, and maintain their own sidewalks/bike lanes/etc?

Daily, I watch those pedestrians playing “Frogger” with their lives, and my heart beats faster, I shiver, and sometimes, I hold my breath…a few times, I’ve had the opportunity to hold the line for them, braking in my car and holding back the traffic to allow them to cross one side of the road in peace while the other vehicles wait behind me. Most of the time, the other drivers don’t care anyway–they use it as an opportunity to check their phones and send texts. Then, they get annoyed and beep at me if I let too many pedestrians get out of the middle of the road at once. Usually, the on-coming traffic won’t stop at all.
This question!: How often are you too plugged in to notice the life we are accepting around us and the dangers of that acquiescence?

How Dare You Unplug… Most Everything

“You can’t just turn off the phone. You’re paying $800, or actually more, for it,” this logical friend said. “You can ‘unplug’ without being so extreme.” I knew the air quotation marks were used, or the insinuation of them was there.

“You think it’s extreme either way?” I ask.

Pause. “A little,” Pausing. He continued, “This is the way of social interaction to some extent. You need it to communicate with people.”

Questions tumble through my head, pushing one another forward and out. Does anyone truly unplug anymore, or do most people just say that when they don’t want to answer a text? What does it mean to unplug to most people anyway? Are there levels of disengagement? And if so, how forgiving are those who function with the plug in at all times? I often have many questions about the simple act of choosing not to use technology in various ways for a period of time.

Unplugging is something I fully enjoy. I roll around in all of that space that’s created by turning off my social media. I listen deeply to myself and turn everything way down when the time arises in my life. Often, I don’t have a set time for how long I’ll remain unplugged. That time has grown longer and longer over the years.

“Shhhh, I’m watching this,” is not a phrase that my children often hear from me. I don’t shush them so that I can stare at a screen or communicate via a virtual world. I want to be present for them, especially since I first made the decision to unplug at random times in my life because I was a person who woke up and grabbed my phone, checked my social media, told my family to wait while I…, but that look of hurt bothered me, and it especially felt bad when I directed them to a screen to buy myself more screen time. Don’t get me wrong, we all need to work at times, and often that involves technology for me and many others, but we have become readily available with little timers that even tell everyone else how quickly we are likely to respond. Response times?! What about the ones in the present, in our immediate physical surroundings? I watch as people sit in their cars on their phones and stall traffic. They are delayed in response times in the actual moment.

I stopped watching television in grad school and have rarely watched anything in twelve years. At first, I still watched some children’s shows and a cooking show or two with my daughters, but now, I have no frame of reference when people discuss popular t.v. programs or current events that are media-related. I really don’t know. Many people have claimed to me that they don’t watch t.v. either, but actually they do. They have favorite programs that they record and watch. They “catch” the news, etc. When I say that I don’t watch it, I mean that I don’t watch it. The radio is even disconnected in my car (which was a malfunction at first, but I don’t want it fixed) so unless I play music through a portable speaker using my phone’s Bluetooth, my drives are silent or filled with conversation if someone is with me.

My unplug conditions might be considered extreme by many people. Sometimes, unplugging includes changing the settings of my social media profiles before I unplug. I change the public accounts to private, restrict the notifications completely, and switch the privacy settings to “Only Me” on everything possible. This allows me to remain focused and autonomous.

“What do you do?” People have asked me.

Everything except plug up when I am unplugged. I play, listen, dance, write, read, talk, trail run, hike, draw, write letters, cook, yoga, meditate, and so much more. All of this doesn’t mean that I don’t use my phone, my computer, the radio, etc. I do, just not all of the time. I still enjoy the “old ways” of being surprised about where I’m going and not looking up everything about the place on the internet, of choosing places to go spontaneously without reading online reviews, and of being in the moment with only my experiences as the influence.

One of the greatest benefits of this style of unplugging for me is the distance from celebrity culture that I have gained. I’m so far distanced from celebrity world that I don’t even know who they are most of the time when someone mentions a celebrity from the past decade. I might recognize a name because people talk about celebrities more than the politics that shape our lives, and often more than their own personal lives, but I don’t know celebrity faces and stories.

Another great benefit from unplugging is that I am not agitated by styles, having it all, being a “baller” or pretending that I am, ignoring accumulated debt by the focus on social status, media hype, and more. I am actually free to develop my own conclusions. One of those is what I have witnessed from others. In all of the plugging in, I actually witness a disconnect from the reality of truth with many people. I notice that people get anxiety when they don’t have their phones, if they can’t log in to something, and if they aren’t in close proximity to a screen. Most people have screens in every room of their home, even the bathrooms sometimes. I have two screens in my home–the computer and the living room t.v. I don’t even have cable t.v. or a version of it (satellite, etc).

My reasoning behind the unplugging and the limitations of technology and media influence are because I was once too influenced and controlled by it—-I have been the person who stalls traffic because I was on the phone, the person who sent simple text answers while driving, attached to t.v. programs and ballgames while forsaking activities with people in my life, constantly refreshing the status online, posting to social media and noticing the patterns of other people on social media, etc etc.

My analysis truly began after a social media bullying incident by a former friend to me. It grew to involve more than the two of us, and it devastated me. People who didn’t even know me beyond acquaintances messaged me to ask why this friend no longer “liked” my posts on social media. It takes some effort to notice who likes what on someone else’s feed, but people actually use their time to find out.

I was also one of these people who took the time to notice who liked someone else’s posts (but not because I ever used what I noticed). When it happened to me and people I don’t really even know began to smack-talk about it, I could see (as I was already feeling) the possibilities of toxicity from social media in our psyches and emotional life. It has taken me years to process what happened to me regarding online bullying and cruelty.

So, the best gain of all for me has been freedom. I don’t have the attachment to all of that confining me into a specific way of life. I find much more time to be and do…
(I have so much more to say about this, and I will continue…)