A thick layer of dust covers the path. With each footfall a small cloud explodes around my shoe. The last rain fell a week ago. Dry is an understatement. Years ago, I passed a couple with their toddler on this trail. The child sat in the dust, scraping together a mound, placing pebbles around the top like some sort of castle armament. Mom and Dad looked on with pride. “Hey, you know that dust is just dried out horse poop, right?” That’s what I didn’t say as I ran by. What’s the sense in upsetting them?
We call these the horse trails. That’s a point of contention with me. Groups run horseback riding tours daily. Those horse-people think they own the trails. I’ve sparred with them countless times over the past seventeen years. Once after running up behind the horse group, I stopped running and began to walk past them. “Don’t walk past us, that’s dangerous to the riders.”
“Well, you don’t stop so I can pass, what do you want me to do?”
“You can walk behind us until the next road crossing.”
I used to seek out these confrontations, now I work hard to avoid them.
Susan: “When are you going running today?”
Me: “I thought I’d run late, just before dinner, after the horse-people leave.”
So I ran before dinner, dry, dusty… and hot—my first run in the eighties this year. Two miles in, my tongue already dragged on the ground. Earlier in the day, Eli kicked my butt.
~ ~ ~
“Hey, I’m going out to Devil’s Den to play my guitar. “You wanna come and see my favorite rock?” Lots to dissect there. Both my kids have a favorite rock. We live on the edge of the Gettysburg Battlefield, giant rocks litter the landscape. Wikipedia tells me that the rocks came from periglacial frost wedging of the igneous landform formed 200 million years ago when a diabase sill intruded through the Triassic Gettysburg plain. I don’t know what that means, but rocks, lots and lots of rocks. Devil’s Den is a jumble of boulders strewn on the side of a steep hill and along a stream. Families with young kids take a break from a weekend of nonstop history and play on the rocks.
Since he was a little kid, Eli focused on the streambed as his preferred place to rock scramble. Most people climb the rocks on the hill. I hate the hill. Kids walk straight out on a big flat rock and instantly find themselves looking down a forty-foot drop. I spent every minute with my children at those cliffs worried that one of them would fall off. Every summer, a couple of people get helicoptered off to a hospital due to inattentiveness or just a misplaced step. The streambed, on the other hand, is just a long, tricky scramble over impossible terrain. There’s risk, sure, the rocks are big, but you’d need to try pretty hard to get killed.
Susan, Eli and I arrived at Devil’s Den. “Do you want to go to my rock the fast way or the fun way?” Let me tell you about the fun way. We traveled a hundred yards climbing over, squeezing through, jumping between and even crawling under four to eight-foot boulders. Many of our routes took careful planning, assessing foot and handholds, gutsy leaps, and scurrying up steep walls like a lounge of lizards.
I felt unsteady. The last time I did any rock scrambling, somewhat before the pandemic, I confidently climbed. I took chances knowing my body wouldn’t let me down. At that point I trail-ran a couple of times a week. Trail running uses more muscles than road running. All those stabilizing muscles that keep you balanced are constantly in play. But for the past two years, I ran my miles on the road—less planning, no travel time to the trailhead, no horse-people. And not as good a workout. My scrambling was shaky.
After my disappointing rock scramble, I decided I better get back on the trail. And this is where we began: two miles into my run, hot and dusty, sucking wind. I guess that rock scrambling really used me up, because holy heck, I felt like crap. At the two-mile mark, my sensible side said, Hey Jeff, maybe you should just turn around and run back to the car now. Instead, I stuck with my planned loop and regretted it for the rest of the run.
I like the stability I gain from trail running. I’d like to recapture that. I think a weekly rock scramble at Devil’s Den might be a great shortcut towards getting it back. I’ll need to join Eli throughout the summer when he visits his rock.
By the way, Eli’s rock towered thirty feet high with sheer faces all around. We got to the top by side-shuffling up a crack. Certainly no safer than the cliffs at the top of the hill, I was pretty terrified the whole time. When I go back with Eli, I think I’ll skip that part.