A great memory played through my mind quite a bit the last week, one of those things that I've been meaning to write down as one of those "greatest moments of life" that I thought it would be interesting to create a collection of. I thought I'd already written about it, but I can't find it in the journal, and so it needs to be recorded. I'm a bit more clear-headed at the moment, and so I think I'll take a stab at it. I apologize for what are sure to be its excesses. It's probably a bit (or more than a bit!) over-written here, sure, but I wanted to try to capture everything in my head. I can come back later to try to fleece it down and to make it a more artistic piece of writing, if need be. Anyone bored enough to read this has been warned!
It's a summer scene and I'm running in the back country of the Lutheran Outdoor Ministries Center south of my hometown of Oregon, Illinois. I think it was either the summer of 1988 or 1989. I'm leaning toward the latter. I would have been running with Rob Guy or Ann Stahl in much of these scenes in '88. In '89, Rob was now in the Marines, and Ann and I hadn't been seeing one another for several months and so I worked out by myself all that summer.
It's twilight in the gentle hills of this country, and the trails I'm following are part beaten earth and part mowed meadow grass, hugging the borders of the woods as they open onto the northern meadows of the property. I'm on my two-hour break after dinner, the only time when I can squeeze in a run during my work as an S.G.L. ("Small Group Leader," aka "camp counselor"), and it's a warm night, probably in mid-July. I'm still in peak shape, months before I would give up running and racing regularly in order to spend more time with my non-running college friends. So I'm running fast, but not race-fast, pushing something like 6-minute mile pace. It's the kind of pace where I know I'm running at a good clip, where I can feel myself breathing hard and working up a bit of a sweat, but where I'm not pushing myself too hard. It's a workout pace, but more a workout-for-pleasure than for real athletic strain or conditioning. I'm enjoying the solitude, and the contrast to the constant company of campers and staff. I love what I'm doing: in fact, the summer of 1989 is the best summer of my life, but some time alone is always needed for a sense of balance. There's a meditative quality to this running that, six or eight years later, I'll come to associate with time in a monastery. At this point in my life, I'm not aware of how much of a gift these moments are. Like youth itself, I'm so showered with these kinds of riches, I cannot help but take them for granted.
It's approaching twilight, as I said, but not too far into it yet: the sky is still more "sky blue" than "midnight blue," the grass is still green, though the shadows are deepening under the trees. It's a clear sky, a warm night coming with the thick humidity of an Illinois summer. I pass the Freedom Tree on my right, heading away from the main part of the grounds, and I take the branch of the trail that goes to the left, hugging the woods on my left. There's a bit of a rise here, and I push a little extra-hard to keep my pace as I go uphill, especially as my feet smack dully into the sandy soil at this point along the trail. This rise is a bit of ridge between two hills topped by outcroppings of the St. Peter Sandstone that makes this part of the Rock River Valley so picturesque. The grey-white powder is broken up by weeds at this point on the trail, but doesn't cover enough ground here that I get bogged down in it. I crest the rise and absolutely glory in the sense of speed I have in that moment of lift I experience as the ground falls away from me on the downward slope. The moment of impact somehow stands out to me: of my foot hitting the ground and the muscles of my quadriceps slamming down around my knee, and than pushing up and off the joint. It happens over and over again, yet that particular feeling of strength in movement stands out as a part of the rush of pleasure that running gives me.
I don't remember what, if anything, I was thinking about this particular evening as I headed into the deeper northern meadows of the property. Angie, probably, that summer. But I know I was aware of just the pleasure of speed: distance running was the one sport I had stood out in, and it was one I enjoyed immensely in itself. And as I took the downward slope over that rise, and began to curve left as the trail bent to outline one of the farther meadows, back toward Levi's Cave, I leaned into the curve as I came around that bend, habitually working with my own momentum.
There was a sudden crashing on my left and a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye. With a kind of calm curiosity, I turned my head without breaking stride, to see what was happening. I had startled a deer. It was common at this time of the evening for the deer to come down out of the wooded hills and into the open spaces of these fields. Not many people came back into this corner of the property anyway – one of the attractions for me – and so I could frequently run from the main buildings out to the northwest corner of the property at Turtle Hill without seeing anyone else. So to see numbers of deer in this area was not unusual. In my case, I had surprised a deer that had come out of the woods but not quite as far as the trail: a matter of only some five or ten feet, probably.
My sudden appearance had alarmed the deer and it had taken off running. But the brush was thick along the edge of the woods in this area, and the deer, trying to run away from me, could only easily flee in the direction away from where I had appeared, but not to go away from the trail itself: the deer bolted and began running parallel to the trail I was on, almost close enough to touch. Because of the moderately thick brush in front of it as well, it moved more slowly than it could have in open ground. And so the deer and I ran, seemingly stride-for-stride, at the same pace, next to one another. With one another.
It was one of those time-full moments: lasting seconds but burned into memory in the way such experiences are – perhaps why we can take slow-motion scenes in movies seriously. For some reason, I didn't seem surprised myself, nor so distracted by the unusual situation that I slowed or stumbled. In that instant, it all seemed perfectly natural – or perhaps just perfect. I didn't even turn my head to watch it, beyond what seems in retrospect little more than a glance. I continued to run with the same speed and freedom I had felt moments earlier, by myself, but now I was running next to the very incarnation of speed and running itself. A deer running can be the very image of graced speed, and this deer and I continued to run together down the trail, and for this moment all movement was elemental, as though I shared with the deer some perfect expression of what motion was all about. Every sense of speed, freedom or motion I had had earlier was now magnified, actualized in the form next to me, and made clear to me in the conversation of our movement together. I was as fast as it; it was as fast as me.
And then the deer found an opening to the left, broke away and dashed deeper into the woods, and in seconds was lost from sight. The moment was gone, time was normal again, and my mind's running commentary on life exploded back into consciousness with the kind of unnecessary exclamations of "Wow! That's never happened before!" I was aware that I had seen something beautiful, and been part of something beautiful, and that was enough. If it had lasted ten seconds, that was as long as it could have been. But all running since then was something less than those ten seconds: a shadow compared to which those moments were something closer to the reality. The deer had been a sacrament of freedom, but to this day, I am still not sure in what way that sacrament has been or will be efficacious. I have, however, learned to believe that it will and must be. But the thing itself, the moment itself, still draws me in every time I remember it: I would give almost all that I have to be in that moment again, to know running like that again. It remains one of the greatest moments of my life, a "moment that justifies my existence," that when I find myself looking back at my life, tells me that I have indeed lived.