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Slant Six Mind - Neil Cook
Neil Cook

I'm running along a path that hugs the western shore of the Hudson River, just north of the George Washington Bridge.  Every once in awhile, I glance across the river and see the upper reaches of Manhattan Island and my mind wanders back to runs through Inwood Park, Fort Tryon Park and the eastern shore of the Hudson.  Even though that was over twenty years ago I can remember them as well as I remember yesterdays run.

The sea gulls are circling over head, I must be getting close to the marina.  Shortly I pop out of the trees over hanging the trail and continue on the road through the marina.  The marina is deserted now, no boats and no people.  But, during the summer this place is crowded and it's to be avoided.  Better to head up the hill in the summer and pick up the trail just past the marina.  But today I can continue through the north parking lot without seeing a single person.  Alone with my thoughts, the breeze of the river and the gulls.  The ravens and other birds stay up by the road and closer to the Palisades.

I'm making my way over the rocks and boulders along the one section of this trail that is unrunable.  I remember days when I would fly over this section, both on the way out when I was fresh and on the return trip when my legs were screaming with lactic acid and my eyes were full of the sweat of a late summer evening's run.  Today I run carefully, slowly.  The pace is half due to lack of fitness and half due to age.  I should say wisdom.  The wisdom I've gained from running for over twenty years.  And yes it's due to greed.  As I've gotten older I've gotten greedier.  I want to do this marathon in April.  I don't want to be injured.  So, I go slowly and carefully over the rocky section.

Just up ahead is an old building, it's stone walls are all that remain standing.  The roof is long gone.  Between the building and the river is a wide grass lawn.  Every time I pass this spot I dream of the late 1800's and imagine what this beach house was like in it's prime.  There used to be mansions along the Palisades.  I wonder what life was like back then.  A slower life style and ultramarathons were all the rage.  Now I'm heading into the least used area of this trail.  No one seems to go this far north along the river.  Signs of humans are non-existent.  The trail along the top of the Palisades is used all the way to the New York State line.  But here along the river I'm alone, alone with the river and my thoughts.

The trail gets more over grown the further north I head.  And there's more room between the river and the Palisades.  So the trail wanders away from the river at times.  I'm surrounded by trees, the river is almost gone now.  Even though the leaves are gone it gets dark as the trail moves away from the river.  A feeling of aloneness over comes me.  Or is it loneliness?  I feel small, barely larger than the stones along the way.  And I feel anonymous like the stones.  I stop and pick one up and look at it carefully.  From a distance it looks just like all the others on the trail, but in my hand it's distinct, unique, unlike any other.  Is it my distance that also makes me feel invisible?

A little further along the trail is the runoff of a waterfall.  Up on the road, this waterfall has force and sound.  Down here by the river it's little more than a trickle, and if I stand very quietly I can hear it ever so slightly bubbling.  Then it merges with the river and is gone.  Often I think about order and chaos.  And frequently I think it should be reversed.  Order is when things are all in their place.  The water from the Palisades is separate from the water of the river.  The Palisades water is fresh, the river water is salty here.  When they merge there is chaos, the water from the Palisades is lost in the salt water of the river.  In my life it seems that when I blend in with all around me my life is considered orderly and when I stand alone, feel alone, as I do now there is chaos.  When we're a couple there is order, things are as they should be, so I've been taught.  When I'm alone I feel chaos.  And yet, in the past there was so much of myself that was unknown to me, hidden away, merged with others.

I'm alone, alone in my life and on this trail.  It seems that that is the choice I've made.  I could have run along the roads in the city or in Central Park.  I would have been running with other runners.  I would have been part of a group.  But, I chose to run alone this time.  When I started I worried that choosing to be alone would make me feel alone.  But, the opposite is happening.  I feel connected, connected to the things that are important.  To the trail, and to my running.  Most importantly, I feel connected to myself.

I've been sitting by the waterfall looking out at the river.  As I get up my legs are stiff and I wonder how long the return trip will take.  It really doesn't matter, I've no choice, I've got to get home and the only way home is to run.  I start off slowly, easing into a gentle run.  Letting my body warm up and thinking only of moving forward.  I try not to think of the distance I have to travel, just the few yards in front of me.  One of the advantages of running on a trail is that you must concentrate on the trail.  You can't think about the next mile or the next hill, just the few yards in front of you.  Concentrate and keep moving.  As I warm up my mind is set free to wander again.

I love running trails.  As I'm heading home I admit to myself that I run trails too infrequently.  I miss them when I'm away from them and I've been away from them too long now.  This run is good for me, for my fitness, for my legs and mostly for my head.  The light is reflecting off the river and off my soul
It always happens this way, as I start my return feeling tired and down, things always pickup.  The pace quickens, the tiredness retreats and  my soul begins to rise again.  Today it's happening, but my soul isn't soaring.  Be patient, be patient. 

I'm lost in my soul as I return home.  The trail has disappeared and the river doesn't even exist any longer.  All that I'm aware of is my breathing, my eyes burning and the ache I feel in my soul.  It's an old feeling, one I thought was gone.  But, here it is again, just as strong it seems as ever.  It isn't as frightening as it used to be, but it isn't comfortable either.  And it sure isn't a welcome feeling.  One word keeps returning to my mind when I feel this way, damage.  There is no repair from this damage, just survival.

My pace is increasing.  Not because I'm trying to run faster, not because I want to get home sooner, not even because I'm getting cold.  It's increasing on its own accord.  I've run this trail much faster, skimming over the rocks and boulders, around the trees.  Today the pace is increasing to get away, get away, get away.  But, I'm heading home, heading home, heading home.  Order and chaos.  Chaos and order.  There is no meaning, just damage.  Still my pace quickens.

As I pass the old beach house I remember the cemetery that is just above the road here.  I head up to the road and walk into the cemetery.  All is silent here.  A small stone wall surrounds the grave stones.  Some of the graves date back to the 1700s.  There are as many children's graves here as adults.  This place always helps.  Is it strange that being in an old and unknown cemetery centers me, returns me to a balance I need?

I get back on the trail and head towards the marina.  Through the parking lot and past the gate house, finally back on the trail.  It's only a couple of miles from here to my car.  My pace has settled down to a comfortable run.  I begin to notice the river, Manhattan and the bridge.  As I run under the bridge I think of being in my home, having a beer and listening to music.  I can't name the titles I'll play, but I know exactly what they'll be.  They are as much a part of me as the damage, as the trail, as the run, as the river and that stone, that very unique and beautiful stone I have in my pocket.

I wrote the linked article a few years ago, and for the most part it is still accurate.