Her goal was to reach the two-mile mark. There, she would get the best view on the entire trail: a steep cliff standing high and firm over the Missouri river. You could see the empty fields on the other side, already harvested for the season, but beautiful in their vastness. From river to horizon, all you could see from that spot two miles into the five mile hiking trail was a gently flowing river, a thick line of colorful fall trees in deep shades of violet, red, orange, and yellow, and acres and acres of golden, Midwestern farmland.
She was still at the beginning. The trail began flat with few inclines, but the surface was bumpy and uneven–not ideal for running, but walking took too much time. She had only an hour before she was due back to the office. Back to a desk and phone calls, a computer screen and a chair that always wanted to swivel to the left. Back to thinking about money and stress and how there would be no one waiting for her when she got home. So she ran as fast as her New Balance sneakers could handle the terrain.
After half a mile, she was into a densely wooded area, surrounded by trees that were dropping leaves and leaving their mess all over the trail. It was a colorful path to follow, and she couldn’t help but think of Dorothy skipping along the Yellow Brick Road. Another typical Midwest young woman looking for an escape. Where chores and bills were replaced with sparkling red heels and dreams come true. She picked up the pace.
At the first mile marker, she stopped to stretch. She hadn’t passed a single person in the nine minutes she had been on the trail, which was unusual, but she was glad. Her solitude and the leaf-covered trail made it seem as if she had taken off running into a forest. Uncharted. Unknown. Uninhibited.
She started running again. She loved the noises along the trail. The cush-cush, cush-cush of the damp leaves beneath her feet, the birds flying and calling to each other in migrating flocks above her, and the occasional scurrying of small animals in the underbrush beside her. Tree trunks went by in a blur. She pushed herself up the now steady incline of the trail, sometimes using her hands against the cool, wet ground when the trail was especially steep. Her calves and thighs were burning, but her lungs felt good. There was a strong wind blowing, but it was mostly blocked by the trees, reaching her only now and then and causing her to pump her arms harder against the force.
Finally, just on the other side of the sharp bend ahead, she could see the thick grey rock that meant she had reached the two-mile mark. She stopped. She climbed onto the rocky cliff and walked slowly toward the small opening in the trees. As she neared the edge, she could first see the fields that stretched out in the distance, followed by the trees, and finally, the dark, murky water of the river below her. When she looked far to the left, she could see the highway: the one connection back to the world as she knew it. But to the right, the river flowed freely, undisturbed.
The wind was strongest here. So strong and harsh that it wanted to keep her back, and she had to fight to stay close to the edge. She looked down and saw rocks and trees going all the way down to the ground far below. Carefully, she stepped closer to the overhang, the place where rock turned abruptly into air. She lined her sneakers up to the edge. She opened her arms straight and wide at her sides and closed her eyes. She felt the wind against her chest. Strong. She leaned forward an inch, two inches, three, four, five. At six inches forward, her head was well past the overhang, and she stayed there, leaning against the wind, trusting this force of nature more than she had ever trusted herself.
She pushed all of her weight down into her toes, and she stumbled backward onto the rock. She took quick, deep breaths, trying to steady her heart rate. Coming down. She laughed out loud. For those ten seconds out there on the overhang, she had no need to run. She flew.