Trail Stories

I’ve always been a wanderer.

When I am in a new place, be it in a bustling urban area or out in the wild, I leave my hotel room/tent/cabin and explore by foot the city, town, forest—whatever that place may be. I often go about this alone, while my travel companions are still asleep (maybe sleeping off last night’s copious glasses of wine).

Once, in Spain, after an evening sitting and people watching in the Puerta del Sol, I got up at 4 a.m. to explore the quiet of the Parque del Gran Retiro in Madrid —I ran the hills to see whatever other crazy soul was up and about and to get a visceral sense of the heart of the city and, frankly, to indulge in those first smells of that famous crusty Spanish bread baking while the streets were still deserted.

This early morning jaunt is my ritual. It connects me to the geography of a place—my feet will always remember the hard concrete, the softer dirt paths, the grass expanses, all of the textures of the ground beneath me.

During my semester abroad in Spain I got restless on the weekends and, since I didn’t have money for weekend excursions, I went on long walks through the narrow, serpentine streets of the Judería, and along the newer, expansive boulevards in different barrios of the cities I happened to be in.

Occasionally that bored me, so I headed for the hills. I would hop on random buses to the outskirts of Cordoba, and start walking. It was usually uphill. I explored small towns connected by windy roads. I peered through fences surrounding vineyards—from which you could smell the rich, hypnotic scent of fermented grapes almost ready to be poured into Vino de Jerez bottles.

I wandered into expansive olive groves, with row after row of ancient, wise trees that seemed to observe me silently as I moved through them.  Once I encountered a lone olive tree with a chain of chorizo hanging from its lowest branch.  This is Spain, I thought. I wrote a poem about it.

It was here that I discovered I could move across great distances with my own two feet. I could have uniquely wonderful, soulful experiences, carrying my own body to new heights.

In Italy I did the same thing. Only this time it was the small, hilly city of Spoleto, whose people power-hiked the steep inclines easily, often laden with heavy bags of the day’s groceries. I decided I wanted to emulate their fierceness, so I got up early to catch the sun rising over the aqueduct and the trails on the other side of the dried-out river. Every morning I was there, I ran through the just-awakening piazzi, greeting widows donned in black and other folks as they engaged in their morning rituals.

Buon giorno! I smiled and greeted everyone, even those who eyed me curiously.

When I reached the bridge I treated myself to a few indulgent sun salutations, some malasanas, tree poses, and windmills to wake up my back, my legs, my mind—greeting the sun as it peeked over the foothills of the Apennine Mountains. I ran across the aqueduct bridge peering over what once would have been a rushing river, but today it is arid and silent.  

I continued across the bridge greeting more curious folks. What is she doing there? I bet they wondered. Why is she running? I stepped off the bridge and headed left on the trail. It ascended steeply in several switchbacks and leveled off. From this vantage point, I could see the grandiose fortress on the other side along with spires of several churches that rose into sharp points into the crisp blue sky.

A few kilometers in on the trail and I lost the view of the small city and plunged myself into the deep green of the trail that encircled this particular mountain. There were small off-shoot trails connected to this larger one, presumably to cool lookout points. There were stations for strength-training, where folks (usually older) did sit-ups, chin-ups, push-ups, and pullups before moving on a few hundred meters down the trail for more.  What beauty it was to see these folks in action—taking full advantage of the nature that surrounded them, moving their bodies freely and intentionally in it. I felt joy and connection.

I belonged.

I finished my five kilometers or so, refreshed after a night of fitful and jet-lagged sleep, and emerged ready for my long day of traveling to Assisi or Montepulciano. My legs were primed for hours of walking, espresso drinking, pasta sampling, and evening wine sipping.

When I moved to Georgia, one of the first things I did (after getting over the shock of discovering that nearly every morning was foggy in the mountains) was search for nearby trails and run them, savoring every step in my new home.

Oh, is this what southern trails look and feel like? Will my feet be perpetually wet? Are those the kinds of birds I’ll hear in the mornings?  Will there be more signs about black bears, bobcats, and coyotes?  Will the trail always be so choked by rhododendron and mountain laurel that I forget that it is in fact, early morning?

The spirit of discovery, of newness, of connectedness—the sensation of moving my strong body through this greenery, into that urban setting, over these rounded black rocks formed by lava, out of this rhodo tunnel and into the gleaming sunlight at the top of this peak or that knob—this is what it means to live, to be human—forging my own path of discovery, connected to the ground under my feet and to the sky above in a most visceral way, curating my own life.

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