It’s just a little further
One morning, after a twenty-four hour shift, I strapped sneakers on and set out for the year’s first half-marathon. I’d plotted a course that started right near the back of Fire Station number Two in Palmetto, FL and wound through Emerson Point along the Gulf of Mexico.
The first mile was a shaded concrete footpath.
A ditch, barely alive with the trickle of non-recent rainfall was on my left. Chain link fence edged the wooded track on my right. Brief swaths of land would occasionally interrupt the running chain link, those were strategically marked with outdoor exercise equipment.
A wooden lean-to, designated for sit-ups, a push-up bar, a pull-up station.
The apparatus served as a nice warm-up; one final procrastination for the coming three-hour crawl.
As the obstacles came to an end over one last culvert, I pushed on between two white poles preventing vehicles mistaking the concrete trail for a left hand turn. A definite possibility, as it met the pavement right in the middle of a fifty-five and up community.
Now, there were mobile homes with clean, sandy-colored vinyl siding. Miniature American flags flew on the mailboxes and full-sod yards were trimmed like perfect Chia pets.
Sometimes a purposefully crooked sign tacked by a front door would read “Life’s a beach”, or “A Dolphin’s Paradise”. Golf carts parked under every other carport. One yard sign read,
“Solicitors: Be sure you can cross the yard in two seconds. The dog can do it in three.”
My escape from the trailer park was marked by granite pillars which stood as bookends to a stone wall. From above you’d see I was about to be coasting along the only dry gateway to Snead Island.
I hooked a right and cut my way through the empty parking lot of a combination farmer’s market and butcher. Heel and toeing it at a steady pace now as I started the next mile along a bleach white sidewalk.
A couple of apartment complexes rose up on the right and I leapt off of a bus bench to dodge a biker coming down the way. My shadow stretched out before me. A silhouette; two arms pumping. My brain trying to synchronize the footfall and swing of each side.
It’s funny how it always feels like I’m not quite symmetrical.
Maybe, if I slightly turn my right foot inward, or slow a limb in its arc, I’ll be a perfect runner.
I’ve opted for no music this time, so the only sounds are the occasional vehicle passing along the two lane road. Right foot turn. Left arm swing. It’s hard trying to keep up the concentration and before long I fall back into my semi-conscious pace.
When the half-a-million-dollar boats, dry-docked at Cut’s marina, peek over the hedge, I busy myself by taking in every detail. Across the street, and down in a hollow is the Yacht club.
Once I’ve crossed over the inlet, I make a block’s jog south and connect with the final half-mile to the park. Here it gets shadier when I catch a good wind. I widen my stride, knowing that once I get to the park’s nature trails I will slow up and enjoy the cool forest.
A quarter mile from the park I’m breathing steady and a biker struggles to overtake me.
“Good pace!” he shouts, offering an inspiring thumbs up.
My legs are carrying me at roughly ten miles per hour when chirping crickets emanate from around a moss-covered bog.
On the other side, an acre of pristine cut grass captures my eye. The fresh lines in the turf lead up to a million-dollar Spanish-style home. It’s hiding behind a gate and the drooping limbs of a weeping willow.
Then, woods on both sides.
In the distance I can make out the wood and concrete sign of the park entrance welcoming me to Emerson point. It stands at the split in the road where it becomes one lane in both directions. But I won’t go that far.
A timber-wood fence had only recently replaced the steel banister on the right when a break in the wood marked the start of a sandy footpath. I made the abrupt turn into the forest and my real journey began.
Though I had nearly polished off four miles of concrete footwork already, I was renewed with life at the abundance of lush scenery that welcomed me. The shade brought a bit of coolness to my sweat and I slowed my pace down to a nice even crawl.
The first sign I approached was of no help to my whereabouts. It had a color-coded map painted on the surface but despite the blue and orange tangle of lines, it was lacking a YOU ARE HERE.
I opted to bear right at the split, and realized I was in for a Choose your own adventure story.
The gorgeous trail arched around beneath shifting shadows of pine and oak. Orange and white butterflies made their bobbing strides alongside me, falling in line as I neared the junction where I had originally veered off right.
I turned up the other trail, looking much like a kite. A multicolored tail flying behind me; butterflies chasing the honeysuckle that I had brushed against a quarter mile back.
Two more junctions, the last of which I risked the choice of a very narrow path into thicker brush that turned out to eventually open onto a more well-worn path. Occasionally, I would have to leap a fallen tree or duck beneath a low hanging limb. The obstacles served as pleasant interruptions to my ceaseless strides. Then, when the trails came back together I spied a sign, complete with a YOU ARE HERE emblazoned across the paint.
The map indicated I had somehow wound myself up to the northernmost section of the park, after only being lost in the maze for just over two miles. To my south was pictured a lookout tower. It piqued my interest. As it seemed the only near section of trail that was sure to be unexplored, I set off in that direction.
What had been illustrated as a solitary path still offered two different mysterious forks in the track. I dared venture up one which was flanked with giant Yuccas and marked with the sure image of a lookout tower.
Atop a plateau was an enclosed staircase that wound up three stories to gaze over the woodland.
From there you could imagine that you were lost to all civilization. Besides what stood beneath, not a single man made structure intruded on all of Mother Nature’s work.
As far as the eye could see there had been tree tops and swamp. No hints had been offered as to what direction civilization might be in, so I opted to stay the original course South.
Joyfully, the trail became a boardwalk and crossed over a still inlet pocked with the fingers of cypress roots jutting skyward. Spider crabs crossed the wooden planks at the sound of my footfalls like legions of giant insects. They made for a surprise game of hop scotch.
Then, much to my surprise the trail opened onto a roadway which had been hidden by the canopy from above. A margin along the edge of the cement was left for bikers and runners, and this I followed toward a promising opening in the trees far off.
Half a mile brought a transition in the jungle-like underbrush along the road. From the deep green of palmettos, pine, and oak, the foliage transformed into mangroves.
As the giant spade-shaped leaves took over, the pavement spread out into parking spaces. Only after crossing the empty lot did the ocean greet me. The tip of the island was skirted by a white sandy crescent that defined the park’s quite fitting name, Emerson Point.
As I stood briefly staring out at the bay, my Apple watch dinged the seven mile mark. The sea breeze was salty but refreshing. I turned on my heels and started my way back East into the reserve searching for an offshoot on the south side of the road; it was the only part of the park I had not yet ventured into.
Before long my hopes were quaffed.
I turned into the forest once again and picked up my pace along the ridges that zigged and zagged. The air grew damp like I had entered a tropical rain forest, and I once found myself jogging closely along a sparkling jungle shoreline, where egrets poked at shiny starfish sunbathing in the rocky shallows.
I could hear now only my breath, like the smokestack of a train.
Whoo, hoo, haa, haa… Whoo, hoo, haa, haa…
And my soles gently contacting the moist jungle floor up and down the peaks and valleys of the tropical dark wood.
I had finally reached my runner’s high. Exhausted all of my thoughts. No longer was I debating at every fork in the road, of which there were many. I simply tread onward, steady as a tugboat piping its steam in monotonous drumbeats.
Fog gathered in the canopy. There came the caw of a tropical bird. Now, in the deepest, most lost part of the wood, when my euphoria was at its peak, I could hear even the drip of moisture from the huge waxen leaves of an ancient fig.
Then, as if I were in another world entirely, the trail opened to a clearing where it dead ended into a most majestic sight. Towering up into the furthest reaches of the jungle stood a golden-speckled ancient giant.
Tiny rivulets gleamed down along its yellowed skin. This is what the whole journey had been for! Out on a tiny cape in Florida, who could have known that such an elder existed?
Most times I jog in Bradenton, I have a similar experience along my longest routes. I’ve never been left devoid of awe when I go far enough to break through my quitter’s will.
For a moment I simply stood, and let the experience soak into my pores. Seven men could have stood around it and held hands to make up for its circumference…
Then, I turned and headed back up along the dead-end trail where I would bare right at the last fork.
Before my feet met the pavement, that would bring me the four miles back to the fire station, I would pass by a glimmering pond, a few tourists resting on a stony bench, and a bee hotel, but nothing would match my discovery of the majestic tree.
Two miles from the finish my left calf developed a cramp. By then I was on the sidewalk with the sun beating down on me from above. Despite my greatest efforts to stretch or pound it out, it prevailed.
It was a hobbling and humbling finish.
Since my experience at Emerson, I have returned five times to run. The whole park is so beautiful!
I had only come across the giant tree at the peak of my runner’s high, and only twice had it appeared as I navigated the twisting and abundant trails of the preserve. I started to think that the tree was but a dream.
Then, one day I took my family for a day in the park along the trails. We spent hours walking and enjoying the sights, following the trusty paper map that my daughter had plucked from a plywood signboard at the entrance arch.
After a thoroughly exhausting and extensive hike we failed to come across the mysterious Goliath.
Were Dad’s stories really true?
A few days later, my daughter accompanied me on a light jog to explore the few inches of map we didn’t double back to see, and alas there it was!
Standing just as I had remembered.
It only took a little more running to bring it out.
Jay Horne is an author and publisher out of Bradenton, Florida who has shared a genuine interest in philosophy and writing since early childhood. He is a husband and father of four. Jay enjoys writing fiction, humor, horror, and teen & young adult.
View all of his professional and philosophical works of literature on his Amazon author page where you will find blogs, videos, and free excerpts:
Jay M Horne