Running in the Dark

Training for a longer race that started in the dark, I wanted to practice running in the woods with a headlamp. Mist streamed across the bobbing cone of light as I entered the forest. It was just after five am, a clammy overcast morning in early October.

We had watched an episode of Stranger Things the night before. I tried to block out thoughts of levitating children as I descended the hill down to King Slough. Of course, blocking thought doesn’t really work, and as my shoes crunched along the gravel road I shifted to asking myself what a reasonable response to a ghost would be.

From the forest gate to the Slough is about half a mile. Past that are a couple rises, then a threeway split. The middle route is a grown over logging road that turns to trail after another half mile or so. It is called the Cougar Trail, and I have seen bear and elk along it.

I began saying “morning bear” while still wondering how I would handle paranormal activity. I reasoned seeing a ghost would be a gift of perspective, that my metaphysical understanding of life would be radically altered, and that as such I would in a way be reborn. By intellectualizing the ghost in the forest I wrestled fear into a manageable mental space.

Something in the tunnel of spruce boughs above me caught my eye. I looked up, my beam landing on a glowing orb. I had run or walked here almost daily throughout the year and not seen the huge paper wasp nest. How long had it been there? What else had I not noticed?

Reinvigorated with the energy of an unfolding mystery, I ran deeper into the forest, greeting monsters aloud and in my head in what I hoped were acts of supplication.

The brushiest part of the route is where the road ends and a single track trail that jags east begins. This section tunnels through alder branches, a lovely thread of dirt that climbs towards the ridge my wife and I call Bear Ridge for the black bears we’ve seen resting in the tall grass bordering its sides. There is also Big Tree, an enormous spruce whose lower boughs, hefty trunks themselves, are festooned with ferns growing in thick carpets of moss and whose bald top, I was told, was blasted away in the crushing winds of the Columbus Day storm of 1962.

Past Big Tree I was approaching my furthest point from home. The phrase “you’re not out of the woods yet” took on fresh meaning. I heard a single bird chirp, listened for another and knew morning was still a long ways off.

I had the option of running down a mountain bike trail called Third World, a steep mossy hillside with four foot ferns and a lacework of half-exposed roots, or staying on the gravel road. I opted for the latter.

As I climbed the road back out of King Slough I heard something large moving in the forest. A day earlier Anna and I had seen a pair of elk, while a couple weeks back I saw a teenaged bear cross a nearby decommissioned logging road. Over on the Corvallis to Sea Trail just the week before I watched a bobcat saunter off into the brush in second growth timber. It was good to know animals were reclaiming lands they’d been chased off, roaming among the gigantic stumps of once-soaring old growth, the true ghosts of the forest.

I stopped to listen. The animal stopped, too. Spruce sap sparkled in the light of my headlamp. Vine maple leaves nodded at the ends of thin stems in the gentle breeze. I turned the light off, felt the soft mist brush my cheek, steadied my breath.

I let my eyes adjust to the dark. Vague shapes began forming around me. I took a couple steps, waited, but nothing stirred. Whatever it was was staying put, and unlike animals I live on a clock-bound schedule and needed to get moving.

Soon I was literally and metaphorically out of the woods. But that sparkly spruce sap, the clouds of mist streaming by, the glowing wasp nest: for a moment I glimpsed life with nocturnal eyes, or some version of them. That’s not to say my next run in the dark won’t be a little spooky, just that I might anticipate the joys of awareness heightened by a shift in perspective.