I’m following a fox. A crafty little creature that seems to like single track just as much as me. Such dainty marks. Then I’m not, all alone again on the trail. Whippy oak branches crack me across the chest and an unseen fur branch, clogged in snow, fills my ear from the side. Zen engulfs me as I pinball my way through this new space. Tourist comes to mind, as if my running style is reading a map, jittery at each trail junction. I’m a little unsure of things, lost in landscape. My earful sounds like ‘COLD’. I’m reminded of the scene in Dumb and Dumber where Jeff Daniels character pegs a snowball at his lady friend point blank, the whacky bastard. I smirk as I blunt my way further in.
I have no idea where I am, not exactly. My position in the world is central Germany, flanking the university town of Marburg, but my compass bearings, bankable in the southern hemisphere have gone somewhere up my arse. The sun, if it stayed out for more than a moment, may as well be the moon. I’ve been going left now for 30 minutes and the bright glow of sky hasn’t changed position. Maybe it’s a large German lamppost in the middle of town that beams down a medicated amount of UV for the citizens? That’d be it, operating off an old Volkswagen battery charged by pudgy British students in the gym working off beer on ergo bikes (whilst the whip-thin, meat-eating Germans run in the forest that rims town- forest that lurks in the cul-de-sacs and dead ends as if trying to reach further into town).
I come across a castle. Yep, I came across a castle. In Australia a surprise in the forest is seeing a rusty old car body- probably set alight by a bloke named Kevin after 15 beers and a sausage in bread. Here you bump into a medieval building that smells like the inside of a restaurants coolroom, a million smells all vaguely edible. The castle had long ago stopped firing arrows and now serves espresso and pastry. I felt like an idiot that I’d actually bought food with me, rattling around in my pocket, giving me the shits. The wafty smell of fresh bread emanates from the mortar cracks. I wondered if the castle was for sale, the old ‘bake a loaf of bread’ trick used by real estate agents. But no, it’s just German.
It has taken me a week to find this trail, the one my fox friend uses to commute into town for cheap eats. We have some things in common, the fox and I; both dashing red heads, both a little secretive about our business, both perhaps a little hasty. I’m tempted to think we both go to Aldi; one red head out the back, rustling through the bins, and the other cleaning up after me.
I’d been fixin’ for a run all morning, writing blabber about this and that. Half truths, prose and well minced ideas. My last line went something like “…..” shit, I can’t remember. Thank Christ too. Not another strange PhD about an obscure mollusk or a feeling I once had. I’m with you…that’s why I’m out running.
The nose burning air, greasy tree roots and sock-deep mud hidden under chocolate ice holds me now in a completely different space. I could say, cliché as runners can be (painted in tights, huddled around a start line talking about trail epiphanies nibbling goji berries), that running in snow, in the footprints of a fantastic fox is like running on a cloud, a fresh and velvety layer of white. But it’s not. Instead slippery as hell, cold as the proverbial, and every shade of brown seems to be eating at me from below and taking over my field of vision ahead. I’m wearing my lightweight Soloman jacket, Ferrari red. The rest of me clings to gray-green wool. Kiwi wool from head to toe sweating a beautiful layer of dewy condensation. Lucky too. If for some reason I was booting along in only black pants, black top, black gloves, and charcoal beanie, whilst mud caked runners turned beneath me, I’d have been shot by now. A hunter surely mistaking me for a wobbly piece of landscape, or a deer.
The spongable air is thick with moss and snowflakes and the smell of castle. I feel out of contact, visually, with the actual smells. Spores themselves are no doubt behind me, but my nose hairs had done a fine job of delaying the sensorial experience from a few turns back. Mixed with hibernating funk from a close-by cave and the hum of industry beyond the hill, the forest air is a heady mix. As if an old Italian man, the deli kind that knows just how much, has emerged from his cellar after making salami for a week. His apron is smeared in layers of fatty glaze and his shoes are bloody. That’s the perfume. Decayed, yet organic, and in some way salacious. Like I heard once, perfume is made 5% rotten to make the smell interesting, and to many, attractive.
Needless to say, I’m awake, and following a weird passage of thought. And here’s the thing, the point to the fox, an ear full of snow, mud, running tights (on a bloke), browness and muskness, it’s all bloody marvelous. Honk your flamin’ horn marvelous! A runner with no other business than his own in a carnival of senses and oddball narrative.
In Australia, a few weeks ago, I had trotted out one last run before heading to the airport. Capering through bush at dawn, kicking up ancient dust, every shade of yellow and the last of the greens flicked around me. Summer brightness and lightness in full regard. Here, amongst zee German forest, planted after a clear-felling apocalypse 200 years ago, seemed opposite in every conceivable way. A sense of sopping and rotting and hunkering down. A sense of one season staying exactly where it is. The ‘mud months’ they call it in the States, code for brown. There is snow in parts; the lee side of a hill, gullies and groves, but elsewhere it’s the interior of a lair. Australia’s famous browness is multiple shades different to this, contrasted ever more with an equally vast swipe of blue above it. I shuffle on, thinking almost exclusively about the colour brown.
I come across another fox trail. I presume it’s a different fox as the stride is slighter. Maybe a new mum on the hunt? I’m kindred again with a fellow trail runner. Following the footfalls of the smallest path, wayfaring you could say, we share the same line. Our marks add to the path, a groove of multiple footfalls grown around fallen trees and rocks, zeds up and down switchbacks and sweeps wide of a bog. Trail narrates the landscape, full and storied and arbitrary. An unmade bed as opposed to hospital corners- a window into what has taken place here. I emerge into fringe lands of the village. Smoky, high pitch roofs of edible houses leak orange light. Beer drinking and dishwashing can be seen as I blur past. The fox goes left; I merge with town, dressed like a wanker, zipping up an alley to get home.
I’m glad I run.