Weather is Wilderness

The wind started in earnest around dawn yesterday and hasn’t let up for a minute. In the beginning it was warm, but it was icy by nightfall. It brought us snow squalls and rolled full garbage bags across streets. It sent sheets of  plywood wheeling through the air like playing cards flicked from a magician’s hand.

We live close to the East River, where the wind is especially vicious, and from inside our apartment it feels like something attacking our building, laying siege, hoping we’ll open a window or door so that it can pour in and take our rooms, too.

When the weather’s like this, I find the idea of being outside unappealing, even intimidating. My usual running route follows the river closely from the north-west tip of Brooklyn down the waterfront to Red Hook. It’s almost entirely exposed to the wind, and the few buildings that line the riverside don’t so much block the wind as cause it to ricochet, bounce in strange directions. You can find yourself in a headwind and a tailwind in the space of a single block. But I have a training plan to stick to, and there’s no escaping the fact that I’ve got to step out into it. And I know, from having done this many times, that the weather is almost never as bad once you’re out in it as it is when you’re sitting inside just thinking about it.

Besides, running has given me a new appreciation of weather, even when the weather sucks. At some point I stopped thinking of weather as a set of conditions more or less favorable to other things I wanted to do, and I started thinking of it as a form of wilderness. Indeed in this country, weather is the last form of true wilderness that we regularly experience. Our official “wilderness areas” are a human design, cordoned off by park boundaries, set about by rules and fantasies. They reflect all sorts of ideas about what our relationship to nature should be or could be.  They’re set up to act like counterpoints to, or compensations for, the shabbiness of civilization. We accept the city and its degradations because we know that a few hours up the river there is a vast acreage of wooded mountainside. We can take a bus to it straight from REI or Paragon Sports, and we can hop on a trail and follow signs and blazes to a ridge or peak and come home at the end of the day feeling we’ve refreshed our lives by exposing ourselves to the natural world, and so we can withstand a few more weeks shuttling among the city’s blank towers.

I love those wildernesses and parklands. But I want to love where I live, too—not just its restaurants and galleries and playgrounds, but the wilderness the weather makes of it. And I love it not by hiking or sleeping in it, but by running.

Of course you experience the weather whether you run in it or not. But running—forcing myself to run in whatever weather—makes me spend time in it, lets me get comfortable in it. I learn how my body can get along with it, even when it appears menacing. And I get to know it better than I would if I encountered it only on my way to work or the subway. When I run, I practically wallow in it. I get know where those weird city winds are likely to turn against me, where they’re likely to carry the scent of sewage or the clean smell of new leaves. I get to feel on my skin the temperature change as a front moves in. I see the ice as it forms and breaks up on the river’s edge. I see the first sidewalk flowers bloom in the spring and die a week later, shriveled by a late frost. I feel the slight break from the heat that a row of trees provides as I run below them. I learn how quiet the city is in a snowstorm, how the snow in the air dampens sound. I see the light change from the clear black of pre-dawn to the metallic blue that glazes the sky just before the sun rises; I get to see the sun set spread across the harbor, making the calm water look jellied.

You could do all this walking, of course, but running improves your odds.

And to be honest–for a kid raised on National Geographic specials about explorers, a kid who loved books like Never Cry Wolf, a kid who used to imagine that his bowl of ice cream was a miniature arctic landscape and he a tiny explorer traversing its ridges and crevasses—there’s something especially appealing about the experience of coming home from a run with icicles dancing against my temples. Open yourself up to running in any weather and you can make any place can feel like an uncharted adventure.

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