Before the Light Dims
Final Night in Badlands National Park
by Chad W. Lutz
Before the light dims, before I lose the nerve or I tire or some meteor falls out of the sky and crushes me whole—whatever—I want to put down a few thoughts about tonight’s run. It wasn’t really different from any other run I’ve been on in the last five years, save for the location, but deep down, below the surface, in the place where our dreams meet our veins and conceal all of our desires, a change took place as I ran to the next town and back under the setting desert sun in South Dakota.
I’m in the Badlands, where the heat index held steady around a hundred degrees today. The sun, relentless, hovered in the sky completely unobstructed by clouds. But the sun is gone now, given way to twilight and a breathtaking display of oranges, blues, and purples across the horizon so vivid you could use them to paint if you could reach out and grab them.
Earlier, when I set out for my run around 7:00 p.m. Mountain Time, the sun was still hot and high in the sky. I’ve been running the same stretch of road that leads south, out of the park, and into the neighboring town of Interior, where a green city corporation sign informs travelers there’s a population of sixty-seven. The road between the park and the town is a single long, sprawling straight shot. Seated at the picnic table at my camp site I can clearly see the town from here, two and a half miles away. The dark black asphalt of the road radiates heat back in your face two-fold, like a convection oven. At certain points the road passes over cow-grating to keep local herds from getting a little too adventurous and wandering into the National Park. I’ve had to make like a track and field star and long jump over the three-foot section twice each run to avoid breaking ankles, as the grates are spaced just wide enough to swallow a human foot. Having run my fifth and final time along the scorched stretch of road (tonight is my last night in Badlands National Park), and having made ten passes, it is with great pleasure that I have no broken bones or torn groin muscles to report.
What I do have to report is a week hardly anyone would believe if they didn’t know me personally. It’s hard for me to believe I’m twelve hundred miles from home with only a tent and a sleeping bag for shelter and comfort and with still another week and a half left of this crazy adventure. Never mind the sixty-seven-million-year-old sea shelf rising ominously out of the landscape in the background or the Strawberry Moon over my left shoulder. I still can’t get over the fact everything I know and love is back home in Ohio, and I’m currently sitting in western South Dakota on trampled prairie grass with the sweet smell of wild sage wafting across open fields. Tomorrow I’ll be heading further west to Mount Rushmore, and then Devil’s Tower after that.
But, as the great Beatnik poets Ginsberg and Kerouac once felt, I was compelled to venture out here alone. I’ve felt the clock ticking on my own existence too long now. I’m almost thirty now. And while that’s still incredibly young, the clock never works backwards. If the twelve hundred seemingly endless miles I passed during my eighteen-hour journey from home tell me anything, it’s that I’m missing a lot if I don’t fly the coop every once in a while.
But, back to my run.
As one mile turned into two and two into three, I thought about conversations I’ve had with my girlfriend over the last year we’ve been dating, discussions about the clock, about death, and my instinct to live in relation to it. Since I was seventeen or eighteen, I’ve treated each day as if I’m going to die tomorrow, or even within the next hour or minutes; kind of a Marla Singer ethos, if you will. Because of this, I don’t like sitting around. I like to push the envelope; I like to make things happen. I like to know when my head hits the pillow at night that I’ve drained every ounce of energy from my body that I could have and made absolutely no exceptions. I take the long ways, the new ways, the old ways, the short ways, and all of the ways in between to add color, character, and countenance to my life. Living isn’t just some sort of experience, it’s a challenge.
When I’m out on trips like the current one, those philosophies become annoyingly apparent. I’m like a little kid screaming, “I want out! I want out!” I want to explore. Sitting around watching television only gives me glimpses of what other people have seen and done and offers me an artificial third-party account of what’s really happening outside of doors and windows. Sure, you can learn the same things by watching television or YouTube videos you do when you walk outside and experience things first hand, but the memories you create run deeper, richer, and leave you feeling like the air you were breathing was meant for more than just oxygenating your blood. I’ve had an insatiable urge to explore I haven’t been able to quiet since I was nine or ten.
Running fits right in with those feelings. All I have to do is put on some shorts, grab a t-shirt, pull on some shoes and socks, and whammo! Instant-adventure. And every day is different and holds something new. One run one day will be completely different from the next. The weather will be different, the sunlight will be different, the cars and people you pass will be different, even the wear of the road will be more or less exaggerated. Sometimes when I’m running and the light and the breeze is accommodating, even if I am running on unforgiving concrete, I feel like I could reach up in the sky, grab hold of the sun, and shove it between my thighs and ride its fusion reactors like a horse to the other side of the universe. That’s the kind of feeling I’m looking for.
However, as far as the conversations with my girlfriend are concerned, she worries that with my Bipolar Disorder, living in relation to something as obviously depressing as death is risky business. Not just in the sense that it might send me crashing to insane lows, but also the flipside, where I’m fighting the blues by indulging in unreasonable and uncontrollable highs. My psychologists (I’ve had many) have and would probably agree with her. Living out each day with the idea that your next step is your last creates the potential for serious anxiety and manic behavior. “Do this now because you won’t be alive long enough to do it tomorrow!” You can probably pinpoint the fallacy in that mindset without me going into too much detail, but it breeds impulse. I’m constantly agitated into action. Move, move, move. Go, go, go. Thinking on it now, there’s a good chance this mentality grew naturally out of my manic behavior, much like how a child will assume its name is what everyone keeps calling it. I don’t necessarily disagree with my girlfriend, my psychologists, or anyone else who makes that suggestion. After all, I have been clinically diagnosed with mental illness. There have been countless times I’ve rebuffed my own intuition and wondered what good it actually does to think so morbidly about existence, and on purpose, no less; to believe without actual certainty or evidence that in the very next second the ground might open up or a comet might fall out of the sky (re: the intro sentence) or a car careen or an animal attack and then BAM! your ticket has been punched. Thanks for stopping by. Sorry, there are no parting gifts.
But what I refuse to believe is mania and anxiety is all that mentality affords me. There’s something beautiful and commanding in reminding yourself you’re a finite being living in a universe that is, as far as the longevity of humans is concerned, infinite. In an age where people are inundated with choices and more stimuli than we can probably handle, when I have to work every day and find car insurance and make dinner and socialize so my friends don’t think I hate them or take them for granted or call my parents and then make dinner, brush my teeth, and pack tomorrow’s lunch in between the average 4.5 hours of television I watch daily as an American and the countless other hours I spend surfing the web; in an age like this, living life like I may die the next second helps me prioritize. It cuts out the bullshit. It allows for a real conversation with myself about the things I really want. What’s really important to you? Are you doing it? You haven’t got much time, and the fact that you’ve made it this far means you only have less…
I set out for my run this evening as I usually would. I didn’t have a pace in mind, per se, I just wanted to hold steady and at a decent clip. That clip turned out to be around 7:20 per mile, or roughly 8 mph. I began with drills, focusing on each movement consciously and purposely. Then, I slowly worked into my training cadence, around 190 strides per minute. A good runner should hold a pace between 180 and 200 strides per minute. Anything below that is dragging feet, no matter how fast you are going. You’re the most efficient in that range; any higher or lower and you risk under- or over-striding. I’ve been working on keeping my cadence in that range, and a little more lately, due to a lag in my right leg caused by a foot injury. Earlier in the day I spent six hours hiking every single trail in the park, and with the way my legs are feeling right now, now that I’ve already run, I can’t wait to throw on my Strasburg sock and hit the hay.
Hiking and running through the park the last week has opened my eyes to the corners people cut and the false perceptions we all have about how hard we’re leading our lives. I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong way to live; the old saying, “There’s always a bigger fish,” comes to mind. I fully understand how someone who embraces joys of experience can derive as much or even more love from life as I do centering on death, and most would argue what my girlfriend and psychologists would: that such a philosophy holds the potential for serious depression. But in as much relation as I live to death, I’m also a student of it. No matter what any of us does, we all bite the big one in the end. Run one hundred miles, watch one hundred movies; it’s all the same. But I think most would agree there’s something to be said for the quality you wring out of life, not just the quantity. Ask a man who has been in a bad car accident and survives what the air outside of his apartment smelled like the morning he returned home from the hospital, and I’ll bet he knows the smell, direction, and wind speed, and may even lie about the barometric pressure.
I made my way into Interior and turned around just past the gas station, roughly 2.5 miles from my campsite. I knew it was going to be the last time I lay eyes on those particular surroundings; the last time I see the mostly vacant Inn halfway through the run; the campground just outside of town with a bright-colored metal playground; the bullhorns adorning the entrance to the red-painted wooden station that sits atop a dirt canvas instead of concrete or asphalt with pumps so old you have to go in to pay by credit card and the chrome pump handles reflect back the orange sunset. But those images weren’t met with sadness or sorrow. I steadied my stride as I made the u-turn, gimping a little from the bum foot, and karaoked a bit to engage the hips more, crossed the intersection, and resumed my gallop without missing a beat, The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” rattling through my headphones. My mouth lip-synced the words through a massive, steely grin. If you know me and have seen me run or race, you know the look. Cars passed, honking, and their passengers leaned out their windows yelling, “Go, man, go!” “Keep it up!” I could see them smiling back at me through their windshields. All because, though I could have taken the night off after hiking around on foot all day, I decided to give it one last go faced with possibly never being able to again; because there is no guarantee for tomorrow, and, in my opinion, there’s never anything entertaining enough on television.
In life, we all run risks. We take chances just by leaving our beds every single day. Some pan out, others flop, but we take them (or, perhaps, they take us). Life happens and then we die. Some people live happily, while others appear to live in constant mental anguish and/or physical pain. I’m one of those people who probably falls closer to the tortured end of the spectrum. Like everyone else, I, for the most part, understand the risks I run in life. At least, I feel like I do. I know where ignoring my heart and abandoning my passions and acting on my hate will lead me; if I flip off my boss because I don’t like something he said or did, I’ll probably lose my job; if I forget to fill up my gas tank, my car will eventually shut off; if I eat too much, I’ll get sick or gain weight; if I don’t exercise, the same. There are no secrets if you examine life closely enough.
My girlfriend will probably never be convinced I’m not playing with fire. She has a different approach, and it works for her. And although I’ve experienced a lot of strife and adversity in my life, the fact remains I’ve overcome it all and can still tell you what clothes I wore to run my first marathon, the outfits I’ve worn as a reporter on the beat for the online magazine I manage, and the number of miles down to the hundredth of a mile I ran this evening without having to second-glance my watch. We all know we’re going to die, I just happen to think about it every day and use it as fodder to keep me moving forward. And right now the air smells like bug spray.
Chad W. Lutz was born in Akron, Ohio, in 1986 and raised in the neighboring suburb of Stow. A 2008 graduate of Kent State University’s English program, his writing has been featured in Diverse Voices Quarterly, Kind of a Hurricane Press, Haunted Waters Press, and Sheepshead Review. Chad still balls hard in his hometown of Stow and currently works in North Canton writing content for an online job resource site. He also manages an online magazine called AltOhio.com. Chad runs competitively and won the Lake Wobegon Marathon in May 2015, setting the course record by nearly three minutes in a time of 2:33:59. He aspires to qualify for the Olympic Trials.