I always begin in fear. Always.
At Mount Dandenong on the 31st of July, after nearly three months away, it was no different. I’d been playing games with myself for days, wondering whether it was the right time for me to re-visit my mountain playground. I’d been back from my New York trip for a week. I was feeling distinctly unsettled. Each night, deep in the middle of the darkness, I’d wake up and not know where I was. I’d look at the outlines of pictures on the bedroom wall, and wonder why my wedding picture was above the bed in the hotel room. Why the small picture of the Dandenongs was where it was. I would panic, not knowing where I was, or even which country I was in.
My foot was mostly healed, and I’d built up to 9k on the gentler trails of home, the treadmill, and Central Park, New York. But I still wasn’t sure I was up to the bigger hills at Mount Dandenong.
Then I got the news that my Aunt had died. This Aunt who was the last survivor of my parents’ generation. She who had bought me a tiny bottle of Chanel #5 when I was 14, telling me without telling me, that I had become a woman. When hurricanes hit our low-lying beach suburb, we used to flee to her high-rise apartment in New York City. She would cook Yorkshire Pudding and Brussel Sprouts for Christmas dinner, serving while drinking vodka on the rocks that she would mix with her little finger. On my bookshelf is an entire collection of Charles Dickens she bought for me one book at a time. She was elegant; an actress in New York doing one-woman shows, living on her own in her apartment for the forty years of my awareness. And now, she was gone.
I was full of jet-lagged exhaustion, contemplation about where home was, worry about my foot being hurt, and profound sorrow at the loss of my Aunt.
I go to the woods when I need soothing, when I need to meditate and reflect on things.
So early on Friday, I went. It is an hour’s drive from home, plenty of time to let my nerves get jangly. The parking area at The Basin Theatre was more populated than usual. This played on me too. I like it deserted. It feels safer somehow.
I trotted off into the woods in quest of a 9k run. The thin, technical trail from the car park helped me to focus my mind on the physical. I slid down a steep incline at its end, to cross a road and join Edgars Track. This is my least favorite section. It’s so close to the road that I almost expect bad guys to jump out from the trees. I have to coach myself to run and not look behind me, to be in the moment.
A short while later, I turn right onto Golf Course Track, slanting uphill, working harder. This leads me back to the hard-packed dirt road, which I follow uphill to the Stables car park. Here’s where my heart settles. The track is rocky and slants downhill. It’s studded with rocks and littered with gum-tree bark in long strips. It smells of earth and trees and life. I fly down, leaving fear behind, galloping in joy.
At the end, a steep uphill makes me walk, and links me to Bill’s Track, which reminds me every time of an old New York friend who died (his name was Bill), and I think of him, miss him, then shimmy-shammy my way down the trail, trying not to face-plant, and find myself back on Edgars Trail again at the bottom. I know the steepest hill is coming and I plan to walk it, but don’t plan for how unfit I feel after months away. It is surprising and joyous because I know I’m on the comeback now.
At the top, I turn right onto Camelia Track, which is my favorite part of this run. It is so lovely, it’s unbelievable no one else is here. White birds of Freedom (some call them Sulfur-Crested Cockatoos) heckle me from the side of the trail, but wait for me until I’m right up close before flying up into the trees. I say hello because they are friends of a sort, and I’ve missed them. They belt out their raucous cry, the one I love, full of abandon and noise and so lacking in self-consciousness it makes me wish I could be them.
The trail takes me gently downhill, not too technical, and I soak up the colors and smells and think of nothing but the next footfall.
At the end of Camelia Track are a few small trails I’ve not yet explored. I bookmark them in my mind to explore another day when I have more km’s available in my healing legs.
At the end of the trail, I exit through a gate, and turn back onto the hard-packed dirt road that will take me back to my car. The ground feels hard after the gentle trail and I’m aware that my foot is not fully healed so I go slowly until I’m back at my car.
The nine kilometers has given me the perspective I needed on the big events I’ve been facing. It is a simple but priceless thing, a run in the woods. Time and again, the trail takes me out of myself and then delivers me back home.