A VIEW FROM THE TOP
THE ROAD NOT TAKEN
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.*
Perhaps I should have taken the more direct route and run with friends on the flat asphalt of the St. Mark’s Trail to Posey’s, as some of us in the local track club are want to do each year on Christmas Eve Day. A good way to spend some holiday time with friends and family, not to mention the recovery meal of a few cold ones along with the traditional smoked mullet or oysters at the Riverside Cafe in St. Marks, now that God and nature have seen fit to sweep away Posey’s in a hurricane that made landfall more than a hundred miles away. But with the confluence of the tides and the timing of the storm tide and the onshore winds, well, the ancient seafood house is no more. I cannot seem to warm up to any other place.
So, I found myself alone, peering down the trailhead to the Greenways on Christmas Eve Day. Deserted as usual up here. Quiet, the sun has yet to poke its face above the eastern horizon, but it is coming, the few fiery streaks of orange and red lighting up the scrub oak and slash pine canopy is enough to convince me. No company this morning. That is fine and just the way I want it. The forest sounds are muffled this early as well. A chirp here and there, likely a cardinal waking, and the ruffled feathery noise of a chickadee flitting here and there through the scrub and fallen pine straw. There are several ways to go here through the forest until one breaks out onto the grassy trails and open fields, and lots of roots and places for the unwary traveler to sprain an ankle or take a face plant or two. I am in no hurry, I have even left the watch/GPS home for a change. I never know which trail I will take until I take one, there are at least three main ones with associated spurs, and some connect up while others will drop you unceremoniously in a dead end of Smilax and other impenetrable thorny vines. This time I bear left and downhill, past the old Hickory Hill Cemetery with its ancient appearing gravestones and other markers, on what used to be Welaunee Plantation land. A few squirrels scold me for waking them this early, they like to sleep in I am told. But off to the north and east a dozen turkey vultures are out already, catching the first thermals of the morning, wheeling and rising, higher and higher into the soon to be blue blue sky.
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.*
You finally break out into the open after a serpentine mile or more through the forest. It is one of my favorite places because if you hit it at the right time in the fall or the spring, there is early morning ground fog above the flat grassy fields for as far as you can see. Then, I always imagine that I am above the mountain tops right there, looking down on the fog, running through the Blue Ridge Mountains on most any morning. Not this morning of course, there is no fog to speak of and the Blue Ridge, beckoning me as it does most mornings, remains 400 miles north of here. In fact, it is nearly downright depressing, here it is December 24 and 70 F, and I am running shirtless. There is something obscene about running shirtless at Christmas.
The trail is single here, worn down by runners and hikers and cyclists, I run on the grass off to one side or the other. Another half mile or so and the trail splits again. The traditional and well worn one goes straight downhill to a parking area, the other, a more subtle trail worn down in the grass and followed by fewer, heads slightly north and circles away from the parking area and showers and the small weather station set up in the parking lot. I always choose the path less taken. As always, the grass has not been mowed in months and is knee deep but if you watch where you are going then the footing is good enough. The little pond to the left and fenced off from the field, is dry. It has been another La Nina year here and that means drought normally, and drought it has been this year. If you don’t take this trail though, and went the other, then you would never know of this pond. You would miss the wood ducks and geese who prefer to nest here, and the beaver who frequent it in wetter times. You would miss the hoot owls that call out to you sometimes from the darker woods bordering the field, or the buzzing of the dragon flies during the hot summer. Or the drumming of the pileated woodpeckers who like these woods and the ancient patriarch live oak that grow here, and who avoid the open fields, abandoning them to the blue birds and field sparrows.
You miss a lot if you don’t take this trail. “It was grassy and wanted wear.” I guess that it had the better claim.
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.*
Now the woods close up again and there are more parallel trails here. On the way out I always take the one that more closely traces the fence line separating the Greenways from the old Welaunee Planatation. The trails dips and rises, it goes left and right, you cannot see but a few feet ahead anywhere because of the underbrush, but it is easy running for sure. Just don’t bump the field fence to your left and the sharp barbed wire that some unfriendly soul has tacked down on top of the fence over here, only God knows why.The parallel road, which I will take on the way back, used to be the same but was out in the open, a solid bike and running double track. But now it has been “improved” and is about four cars wide and covered with obnoxious little pieces of gravel and crushed stone. And some Mensa operative constructed moguls about every ten yards for about a half mile. Even old Buster wouldn’t run on it after that, dogs hate the gravel and stone that gets caught up between their paw pads. I always found that I could trust Buster to take the “better” trail, he instinctively knew somehow, someway, if there was a choice to be had. I can still imagine him striding strongly by my side, he kept to the left and always had the canine equivalent of a silly grin on his face when he was running.
Soon enough though, this trail breaks out of the woods into a huge field. The field is uphill and downhill, and one side of it runs close to the Interstate. You can hear the cars and other traffic long before you get there and then after you traverse the field (I like to run the trail on its periphery as opposed to simply cutting across it), you pass under the Interstate and listen as the traffic noises fade away, overcome by the silence of the forest, again. Thankfully.
The forest trails go on for miles now, roughly paralleling the Miccosukee Road, crossing it and then back from time to time until the Greenways deadends in a field with a few parked cars (if any) and a lonely port o let, on Crump Road, the eastern extent of this run, and about 8 miles from the trailhead. The run there is a pleasurable one, on shaded trails that twist this way and that, across fields, some planted, some lying fallow for the season. The sun is out, I cannot believe how green it is here and how that contrasts with the red clay, if you can see it through the forest litter covering the trails. You’ll hear a shrieking hawk from time to time but rarely see them, the forest is thick. Deer too, but mostly all you will see is their white rumps as they bound away, hearing you long before you sense their presence.
The run back to the trailhead is usually less fun. I shamelessly like to have these trails to myself when possible. The late risers will have finally come out with their unleashed dogs. Or else they are hiking the trails with kids on bikes (that’s fine), talking to nameless, faceless persons somewhere else on their cellphones (that’s not fine). I wave at other runners and they wave to me as we pass on the trails. Sometimes a friend I have not seen in a long time. It is worth the bother to stop and talk to each other, to catch up on injuries, triumphs and tragedies. The rooty downhills at the start have become rooty uphills now.
I will take another trail to the top, looking for the huge blue water tower that signals to all runners that you are almost finished. Hoping that it will not be there as usual, or maybe that I have miscalculated and instead really still have a few more miles to go.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.*
*Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken.