You Gotta Keep the Devil Way Down In the Hole


Mike Baker,


My real life happens on dirt, the narrow slip of time I spend haunting trails in the morning half-light is all that counts for me. All the rest is what is required. All the rest is a dream I stumble through on my way to the next trail.

The trail has started creeping into the dream. It won’t go its own way. It has begun following me around. I have a drawer I throw wet running clothes and shoes into when I get to my office. You can see bits of grass and a few stones in its corners.

The office chair I have for guests should always be swept off before guests arrive to sit and talk. I found dirt in my gym bag and a few times in my bed the morning after I came home from a late night run and forgot to shower, just climbing into the sheets.

I change clothes for work in toilet stalls and bathing is generally done with sports wipes and spray on deodorant. I apologize for the indelicacy but I am almost unfamiliar these days with doing my business indoors.

It seems an extravagance, too high toned for my liking, to even use the port-a-let when a port-a-let is made available to me. If you and I are out for coffee and I seem quiet, you might ask if everything is alright. “I’m fine”, I’ll say. I’m likely tired and or more likely, already running down the next day’s trail in my mind.

And it is not an obsession. I know it looks like that to you. You, who watch three or four hours of TV a night. You, who follow a football team, buying shirts and hats, tail gate and get angry at missed calls by referees.

It isn’t an obsession. It’s a calling. It’s a discipline. I would say that its like prayer but the truth is, it is more like the thing I have understood prayer to be than any prayer ever was in my life before running. Running is how I feel God’s joy, the expression of that joy of his creation. It flows through me.

It is selfish. It is profoundly egotistical but I look at all the foolishness humankind considers right in the world. I look at wars and religious hatred of other religions. I look at the depravity of human civilization, the sickness of western culture building on and then consuming the Earth like a plague.

Running is the one moment I forget I am human. I forget the sick gambit of working, of progress, of family and faith. Running a lean quiet trail through the dark and as the sun rises, cleans away all the catastrophe of the previous days “work” and the coming apocalypses’ that is my life.

I have all that I need and some of what I want. I have a good life. I just don’t believe it to be a right life. There is something missing in a world where everything is made and done for us. We are not accountable for our survival. We are accountable to spreadsheets and management.

We are accountable to a dress code and a conduct manual as if we needed to be told how to be in the world, as if our gut was screaming bloody murder at us to just stop. I am not meant to wear a tie. These hard leather shoes are ridiculous. My cubicle is a coffin. I am going to die in this office, slowly, one meeting at a time.

They will push my ergonomically designed chair to the back door, tip me out and onto the parking lot and give my chair to the next poor bastard that takes my place. We have made a cheery slogan of our alienation from one another, “It’s not personal, it’s business.”

This culture of making things out of nothing, money, regulations governing money, breeds fear and horror. It breaks the human mind. We were never meant for this. Ours is the same lot as all the other animals. We are afforded more comfort but too much comfort has made us frail and weak.

Running saves me a little bit from that. It reminds me life is hard all round. It makes me strain and suffer in a real physical way. It breaks down my body so I can remember all the mental junk is just junk, an illusion that drives weak human wanting.

I struggle more than most against this wanting. I crave rich food. I want things. I put the tie on my own neck. I pulled the lever all by myself. I run to set the balance against all the other things I have bought into, all things I have come to see as normal.

I am speaking now to all the runners who might claim running. This is definitely an “us versus them” thing. They need us to buy in to air conditioning and cable, fast food, fast anything. They need us so they won’t feel so alone.

Look, I believe in compassion. I am just more likely to have compassion for dogs and birds before I ever have it for a citizens. I was running down on the Phipps side and I saw this raccoon. It was just sitting next to a bush, staring at us. We actually stopped to look at him.

He tried running away and staggered a bit, his body dropping under him and then, picking himself up, kept off to the woods and out of sight. He was likely not long for the world. Either something bigger would get him or he would just pass.

It’s how my dog Jesse died a few years back. It’s been tearing me up ever since I saw that raccoon. I miss Jesse. He was my close friend for ten years and he died too young. My life is a little more empty without him in it and there is nothing I can do about it. It is just grief.

My Aunt is dying of cancer. I feel like I need to visit her in the next week or so because I have a relationship with her children that would be harmed if I didn’t show my face. That’s sick. I get that. Its just her passing means very little to me.

Running gave me that scar. It’s not a bad thing. Scars are good. We get torn up and scars are our body fixing the damage. Jesse was loyal heart with a wild heart. He squared off against all comers. Jesse showed me like running showed me that we are, for better or worse, only what we do.

I look at most people and all I see is the weakness in my own heart, a deep sickening weakness that makes me frail for no reason and puny at the sight of my own mortality. All I see in my aunt is the petty stupid woman that lorded over my mother.

All I see is the needy sick thing, sick before cancer, sick at birth when someone told her she was unique and mattered before she ever even walked on her own. I am losing my compassion and yet I am full of that puny wanting, desperate for recognition that I matter.

If human history is just the last invisible line at the end of the ruler, drill down to you and understand, you are infinitely less than that. Likes like Galway Kinnell said, “We are all the tiniest flea on the tiniest flea on a body that never even knew we existed.”

And that is just fine by me. It means that right now is all the world there is have. It means, to me, quit looking up. Look at what your hands are doing, look at where your feet fall, check the roots in front of you. Don’t step into a hole when you can’t see the bottom.

It is the meaning in this seemingly meaningless world. We are here to live as deeply as we possibly can, abide as fully. I get that for some people that means their family. They wake up with the bullish imperative to fight tooth and nail for their children, their homes, their god.

This morning the stars exploded across the dark deep blue morning sky, the heavens spread beyond my vision’s reach. We had a few miles back to the cars and work. The trees rustled, gravel tearing underfoot as we raced each other back to the car.

The first going by easily, the second twice as hard, downhill jumping moguls, sudden drops and then the hill up and up until neither of us could breathe. Then ‘round the hill and down a quarter mile of open field and loose dirt.

Charles strained. I could hear his breathing pulling hard into his chest. I felt my own heartbeat, dizzy and pained in my own chest. My feet pounded into my knees, a howling pain. Charles lurched ahead and I, over-striding, pulled next to him as we fought to be first through narrow gate entrance.

There was no time left as Charles pulled just ahead and through trailhead gate, our feet were tumbling under us as we tried to slow down and then stopped, hands on knees breathing deeply the cold morning air.

Running helps me remember what matters. Running, if we care to listen, whispers to us as we run. It says, “Now is the moment you are alive. Do not forget you are alive. You must breathe now.”