Beau Miles

Forty hours of transit bore lightbulbs into my night. When dawn arrives, the view from my kitchen bench reveals a red-stemmed maple sporting new buds. One particular branch touches a window pane, announcing spring- and itself, like a Jehovah witness knocking neatly and cautiously on the glass. I’ve been home for a few hours, unable to sleep, mothing around a single lamp and the silent glow of this computer. An owl I’ve never seen signals I leave the house by no longer hooting, telling me it’s dawn. I think about running. Slow running at first to let my eyes adjust to the cracked edge of the road in smudged light. Then I’d groove into a steady, jetlagged jog to think about the shocking and sheer amount of world I just flipped over, running off shiny little packets of butter, and the help-yourself snack bar full of constipating cheese. Breathing air that isn’t fumigated by 500 other lungs is high on my list. It’ll be bloody nice, I tell myself. Moments later, turning my back on my runners with alarming ease, I talk myself out of it. Two things prompt a return to writing, and not running. First are the contents of an aeroplane sick bag, and second, I hear drizzle, followed by rain. Both have me thinking about the fickle nature of inspiration. The ripped-open sick bag has me back on Air Canada flight 92.

Noon, Pacific Eastern Standard Time (U.S), July (20 hours ago). I’m stimulated at 40,000 feet (no, not that kind, which by the way would be the 7.57 mile club- but Helen was watching Toy Story 8, or something). The Airbus A320-200 cuts a neat diagonal across America. Great speed and unworldly height mixes with tomato juice and turbulence to stir up a screwy sense of ego. Feeling a little Godly, I press the button and ask for bubbles. I pour a piccolo of Californian sparking into my used plastic coffee cup. The first mouthful is skimmed with a hint of coffee and milk, which is interesting, and has me instantly in South Dakota, below, back where I belong with working-class America. I press my nose to the glass, merging my DNA with a snotty nosed kid. The fisheye bent world provides an alarming sense of scale as landscape and space slide by with ease. Straining beneath my boyish curiosity of seeing so much world at once I catch myself in awe and in one swift moment I’ve corralled the leading definitions of inspiration into the confines of 14F:

1) ‘being mentally stimulated to do or feel something’, whilst

2) ‘breathing’, I’m

3) ‘struck with a brilliant or timely idea’.

I act on the moment by scratching illegible notes on the waxy insides of the sick bag. The pen starts and stops in fits over the shitty choice of paper. The world outside my window, I’d realised, is the grounds of The Revenant.

My imagination stirs with the dramatic heartbeat of the film, being deep conflict between humans and nature that manifest into human against human. From where I sit, I take it on as man-above vs man-below. A tract of forest garners my interest. I see it as a left-over, perhaps wasteland, amongst boxes of agriculture. I start to imagine what secrets lay within it.  What lives there? Who is hunted, and who are the hunters? Is it full of gamey tracks and trails that go everywhere but straight? Do coyotes sit on rocks and howl? Does the local dope smoker, using those game trails (putting the cops off the scent), have a secret patch of hooch? What does it smell like at noon- now, in the baking heat of summer? If I was left for dead in a shallow grave, facing the sky and seeing it divided up in lines left by planes- much like the lineal divisions I see now, how long would I last? Who and what, in pecking order, would eat me?

Mobile again, I picture myself with a rifle, working steadily up what appears to be a shallow creek. I’m khaki and my feet are wet. The water is frozen in parts, as all of a sudden, it’s winter. Shrilling bird sounds dissect mooted treescape. Running water seems to flow from everywhere, blending with the sound of wind through leaves, making the scene feel swirly and unpredictable. Fark, it’s cold. Even thinking feels cold, and odd, flip-flopping from blistering heat moments ago. My thinking and seeing is a divided state; winter-summer, dead-alive, cold-hot. Laying underwater in a dusty grave turning to jerky is imaginative view of south Dakota- lands of The Revenant. I take it to mean that 14F, like many seats with a Godly with a view, reveals some disturbing business.

The bell dings and the buttery words of the Captain fill my ear buds. He thanks us for flying, or sitting, or something. I wonder if he has a white moustache and exceptional pleats. Geeze, I love flying. There’s so much to like about being so high, so vulnerable and transient across the skin-air of the world. The tea and coffee cart is my favourite part of the show, especially that lovely brake and release sound the attendants make by stomping, then releasing, the pedal. They work through the demands of a cultural melting pot. We all take our beverages differently, based on how our mothers and fathers drank, the hangovers we do or don’t have, or if we believe in Jesus- who is said to have been a tea man- black, no sugar. The Americans just like coffee, also black, in cups the size of a human head. To my far right a mother and baby get in sync and in front of me a giant businessman uprights his chair in preparation for a square meal. All is fine.

Techno dimwit, and frugal, I’ve forgone the new-fangled availability of on-board Wifi. I’ve long thought of air travel as vacuumed, removed from the berserk online world below. Forced downtime perhaps, where I get to save on movie tickets for the next few years, ruin the crossword for the next 14effer and flip through the duty-free brochure, telling myself that I will never, in my life, buy from it. I flirt with Helen sitting next to me, then the attendants when stretching in the galley. I nod, never refusing a drink, snack, or arrival card. Without fail, I leave the aircraft with a clearer mind than when I entered. It’s also a creative space, where I write, especially from the window seat on a cloudless day with the world spread beneath me like a beautiful, naked woman (I simply can’t look away). Eyes fixed, my pen scrawls away unchecked in a bid to keep up with my internal monologue.

Having moved a hundred odd miles since the coffee cart moved through, I return to the window. A huge river, The river has my attention. My head swivels between looking outside and the seat-screen maps in front of me. Switching from a large U.S ‘world’ map, to a state sized version, I conjoin the two visions, poking my finger to make sense by drawing a line between the screen and the window. I no doubt look simple. Forts, in particular, fascinate me. I picture the once fur trading outposts as corrupt road-river terminals; muddy shitholes of the new world. Passing through these outbreak-towns were bloody pelts, by the thousand, plundered from the arteries and tributaries of the landscape on behalf of the growing consumer world.

Nebraska, splayed as mile-by-mile quadrants, is a checked picnic rug as neat as a military bed.  The Missouri, shedding North and South Dakota, swash buckles towards the Gulf. It is massive, and Godly from above, offering scale and immensity that the riverside human will never fully grasp. It completely shifts your sense of a complex world, an unfathomable sum of connecting parts. You can make out the flood line from above, smearing into unfenced land either side of the river for miles. Anabranches look like a tangle of vines running down the trunk of a giant tree. Birdseye, I feel as if I’m living within a topographical map. In 6 months time the scene beneath me will resemble the frigid setting of The Revenant. But I catch myself. What I see is a very different world to the 19th century mid-west. Diced with roads and fences and fat barns full of fat machinery, the landscape is a story of ancient creases and bumps, but it’s a bikini clad version of its former self, anything but the woodlands and plains of the Arikara and Blackfeet, or Leo vs Tom. Lording from above, a viewing place reserved for only God back then, is a vision staggeringly different to that time, not so long ago. The Missouri, named after the Missouri tribe, meaning ‘people with wooden canoes’, and who actually called the river Pekilanoui, travelled nomadically over the great plains for 12,000 years. Their world, I imagine, would have looked similar from the air 200 years before 1823, the year fur trapper Hugh Glass made a name for himself. I presume the 1823 view wouldn’t of been all that different to 1673 either, when the first white folks in the form of French explorers came upon the flooded river ‘as fat as a small sea’. Of course, atrocities and misunderstandings took place from that minute, but I doubt my current view would have seen it.  From ground level, it was blood and guts mashed with mud and sand and snow. My mind paints an emotive impression of wild landscape that is so different from what my window looks over now.

Canada, not far beyond the furthest reach of the window-seat view, reveals nothing but a boxy world, hatched and beaten into submission.  I’m lost in the scene for shocking reasons, knowing that I’m part of that quilt. Not unlike my own home fields, pastured and rolling and mostly bare, my creativity feels unable to imagine the Dakota landscape in pre-industrialized regalia; unboxed and endless and wild and so staggeringly normal before a different kind of human came along. But I try.

After watching, and then reading The Revenant earlier this year, I was completely swept up in the cold sun captured in director Alejandro Iñárritu’s vision. Cruelty and beauty splash across the screen from one moment to the next. Pressed mud gurgles under their moccasins. It’s so bloody real you feel like you’re under each footfall, forcing the sounds and smells and reality of the scene to the back of your throat. Leo and Tom, for the fainthearted, were exceptional. As was the rest of the cast who seem to gang up on each other, then the landscape and finally the Indians, as if life depended on a dawn to dusk skirmish, which it did. After watching the film, I felt compelled to fill in the gaps via text. To compare the immersive experience of two hours in a theatre with 20 hours in a tent, early to bed, burying my head in Michael Punke’s narrative. I focused on the words, and yes, I’m tainted. I’m filled with Iñárritu’s afternoon-only shoots in Argentina, Canada and the U.S. As a combination, the conjoined experience was an explosion of huge scenery and unforgiving humanity. I’ve since looked up what ‘Revenant’ means, thinking at first it meant revenge, where in fact it means ‘to return, as if from the dead’.

As with any runner who has ever run the earth, the inspiring nature of transiting wild landscape is perhaps what burns most for the trail runner. Pokey game trails padded out by the footfalls of other mammals provide unlimited feedback for mindful engagement. An hour feels like 10 minutes, and I actually learn things. It’s easy to imagine someone on your tail, breathing. And I do. You feel and taste the world as your former, mongrel self, whipped and cut and bleeding as you run for your life. I can’t help but to think of a wilder world and how much I’d like to have lived amongst it, dying young, running hard and lean until I dropped. While rare now-a-days, out-and back runs along roads are where I occasionally yearn for a spear-wielding, hunting, hunted reality, enthralled at the idea of being so alive you could be dead at any moment. Such daydreaming is fictitious, of course, and overly poetic about a hard, short life, swept up by deficits from within. Worse though is knowing that these places of human-nature thresholds still exist, but we rarely go there, and when we do, we nearly always return (I’m thinking immediately of Christopher McCandless in Into The Wild).

Overlooking my bare paddock, then writing these words, I’m still uninspired to run. Energy has been used on writing, drawing long links between The Revenant, from above, 200 years after a half-true event. A part of me wishes I was a spectacularly hard bastard like Hugh Glass who dragged himself, mostly dead, across North Dakota in winter. Reigniting my scribbled words written on a sick bag means I’m sitting instead of running, burning through images in my head instead of through rods in my eyes. I’m a little pissed off actually, tired of the world and myself.

I want to run, I tell myself, in places where The Revenant takes place, but know that I cannot, at least not always. So, mindful of the power of perception, having to now trust in my own backwaters and second-generation bushland, and poked by Iñárritu’s wild visions of one mans stalwart resolve to work with a landscape instead of succumbing to it, I corral the motivation to lace up. Just like the first and second definitions of inspiration, a mindful spark can only take place when my body- the lungs, conspire. Oxygen feeds the simplest of impulses- to stand and head to the door/to lace up and start. Leave the house. And that’s it, in a few moments, with one thought and automatic breathing, and I’m out the door.

This feature article first appeared as Trail Muse: Return of the Burn Trail Run Mag Australia (Edition 22). Artwork by Jordan Pote.

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