Although I live in the woods, my awareness of nature has been expanded by a trail four miles distant that follows the path of an old rail bed.
I remember hearing trains rumble in the distance from my basement bedroom as a boy. However, the last train probably ran twenty-five years ago.
The change of the rail bed into a trail for ATVs, snowmobiles, skiers and middle-aged people like me who run from the doctor has allowed something good to come of the loss of trains.
Yes, as I run on the trail I imagine I am running from the doctor. I imagine him chasing me with his colon probe, his stethoscope, his bottle of statins and his insulin shots.
If he catches me, it's rubber glove time. So, I run faster.
The trail is grand in part because it is utterly abandoned. So far this spring, the only signs of use by other humans have been buggy ruts from the Amish who use the car-less path to get to town. Last fall, a parade of ATVs passed me as I ran. On another occasion, a family of chokecherry pickers greeted me. But for the most part, the rail bed is mine alone.
As I run, I indulge my twin passions for history and nature. Can you imagine the thousands of trains that passed over that ground over those first 100 years of our history? The conversations in the cars? The boys going off to World War I?
Can you imagine the mail hauled on those trains? The heartbroken letters from parents back in Norway? The love letters from the Italian front?
How about the goods: The cattle going to market, the crates of oranges coming in for Christmas, the unassembled Sears-Roebuck houses coming up from Chicago?
A lot of history rode over that ground.
Whoever mapped out the railroad curved it gently to the right a quarter-of-a-mile before a 45 degree turn to the left towards the trestle and town. The turn reminds me of how some old-timers anticipate a right turn with a little swoop to the left to get a straighter shot at the new road.
The only logical reason for such a maneuver is if you're pulling a hay wagon, which I think many old-timers still imagine they're doing with their Buick.
With the trail's reminders of the past come many pleasures of the present.
The first oriole crossed the path this past week. Earlier, it was bluejays. Last fall, some woodpeckers flitted ahead of me from tree to tree for over a mile.
Sandhill cranes hide in the reeds along the old track. Their ascent into flight only feet away is breathtaking. You can hear the crisp feathers of their massive wings whir against the air. Then you hear their rubbery croak from up to a half-mile away.
Grouse pop up out of the brush with loud, thumping wing-beats. Mallards hide in the ravines along the old rail bed's edge until they can't bear my intrusion and beat their way into the air, quacking in protest.
Deer graze silently across the trail in the far distance, blurred by heat waves.
A massive whitetail buck bolted across the trail thirty feet in front of me a week before hunting season last fall. I wonder if he's still in circulation.
A pile of bear scat makes you wonder if you should be there by yourself that far away from your vehicle.
The beaver have, for some reason, decided to spend the better part of the last year dragging reeds and sticks from the swamp on one side of the rail track, up and over to the swamp on the opposite side of the track.
In addition to the animal life, the trail pierces several thick groves of slender poplar which drench one with their intoxicating yellow and lime green colors, sappy smell and rustling sound three seasons per year.
Alder leaves turns fire-coal orange in the fall. Prairie flowers bloom in summer. Willows leave branches on the trail after thunderstorms.
Not all is idyllic. A dead swan's feathers littered the trail last fall. This spring, if my nose is accurate at all, a carcass of something large is rotting to the east of the trail. A severed deer hoof lies nearby.
The more I run on the trail, the more motivation I find to run even more. Some days I savor nature. Others, I imagine history.
When those fail, I run from the rubber glove.